03.01.14, Thomson, Catalogue of the MSS in Wocester Cathedral Library

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Richard W. Pfaff

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.014


Thomson, R. M., with Michael Gullick, eds.. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in Worcester Cathedral Library. Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 2001. Pp. xlviii, 310. ISBN: 0-85991-618-9.

Reviewed by:
Richard W. Pfaff
Univ. of North Carolina

This is the third of the catalogues of medieval manuscripts in English cathedral libraries that Rodney Thomson has produced, in identical large formats and under the aegis of Boydell & Brewer (whatever the particular imprint) over the course of the last thirteen years: Lincoln in 1989, Hereford in 1993 (incorporating a considerable legacy of work done by Roger Mynors before his death four years earlier), and now Worcester. This trio is, all of Thomson's other publications during the period aside, a staggering achievement. Scholars who have had to rely for basic information about those three important collections on the catalogues of R.M. Woolley for Lincoln (1927), A.T. Bannister for Hereford (also 1927), and J.K. Floyer and S.G. Hamilton for Worcester (1906), now have access to uniform, detailed, and current descriptions of the hundreds of manuscripts contained in them.

In the case of Worcester the number of manuscripts treated is 277; 177 in the F(olio) numeration, the remainder in the Q(uarto). That there are not a few more is the subject of one of only two major quibbles I have with the present work. This is that seven MSS (Q.101-105 and 107-108), along with a considerable number of fragments, were catalogued by Neil Ker and Alan Piper in volume IV of Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (Oxford 1992), pp. 669-89; these were accessions to the collection after 1906, and so fell within Ker's terms of reference as being MSS not previously catalogued (i.e., by Floyer and Hamilton). It may have been practically impossible to reprint the Ker-Piper descriptions -- which, to be sure, work somewhat differently from those by Thomson -- but it is nonetheless a cause for irritation that for just seven of the total of 285 medieval manuscripts at Worcester one has to consult a separate resource.

To say that Ker (whose style was followed by Piper in the MMBL volume) described MSS somewhat differently from the way Thomson does is not to suggest a preference, or that there should be a fixed standard to which all wise and just cataloguers should adhere. Thomson's method is tight, economical, efficient; a great deal of information is fitted onto the two columns of each folio-size page. Ker's, though scarcely discursive (for that, and for sheer fun of reading, one still has to turn to M.R. James) lays the material out in single-column, quarto-size format, physically somewhat easier to plow through.

Both approaches begin descriptions with summary headings in Latin (at least for manuscripts primarily in that language): which occasions the second of my quibbles. In the work under review these headings are occasionally so succinct as to be either unhelpful or, in a few cases, positively misleading. Certainly there is a feeling of coded language about such laconic headings as "Aquinas super Ethicorum" or "Bromwych super Sententias" (F.138, 139), a sense that one had better be a real pro to delve into a catalogue as learned as this. Which is unfair, both to Thomson's sense of responsibility in communicating his very great learning to wide audiences and to the accessibility of the catalogue as a whole. Still, headings like "Sophismata" (F.118), "Summa Abel" (F. 130; why not "Peter the Chanter," whose work this is, as the description explains?), and "Guido Ebroicensis" (Q.12) offer scant encouragement to any save the most determined.

The summary headings aside, each description begins with a simple statement of rough date and where possible of the "secundo folio" word. The sections that follow all come in the same order: structure, contents, hands, decoration, history, and bibliography. By far the longest of these is, of course, the enumeration of contents, and this is one of the most accomplished aspects of the catalogue. Any number of examples could be cited, almost at random. One would be the description of F.60, an early fifteenth-century English codex headed "Gesta Romanorum & c.' Ten items are listed, with pointers to editions for six. Of the other three, a "Metaphora Creaturarum" (ff. 69-72v) is "apparently the unique copy," characterized as "unpr[inted]", along with a "Compilatio Exemplorum Anglicorum" (ff. 121-36), a "Tabula in Thomas Ryngstede super Proverbia (ff. 138-209v), and a "Distinctiones theologicae" (ff. 209v-326) by Ranulph Higden, a reasonably well-known monastic chronicler. Graduate students looking for a text to edit must salivate at the presentation of such riches.

The distinction of the catalogue can perhaps be best suggested by looking at how far the description of one manuscript takes the reader, while provoking a delicious amount of unsatisfied curiosity: for this purpose, Q.10, a fifteenth-century Sarum breviary (and like most such books difficult to wade through without a detailed description) will do nicely. The 1906 Floyer and Hamilton catalogue had provided a collation (previously established by W.H. Frere) in the old-fashioned alphabetical form: a-v8, x6, y6, z8, A-G8, H12, J12, K12, aa-ss8. This, though succinct, takes no account of missing leaves, which are instead mentioned in the brief description of the section in which they occur. Thomson's fuller collation, using numbers rather than letters for the quires and incorporating information about missing leaves integrally, takes seven lines to print, and his description of the binding seven more. The contents are related to the "standard" Procter and Wordsworth edition of the Sarum breviary, and what is known of the book's three(?) previous owners is given in detail (there is little to say about the decoration, all but five of the major initials having been excised).

But one can't have everything, and the unsatisfied curiosity arises from the fact that Thomson's collation does not relate quires to the five principal sections of contents, as the 1906 work had done. It is not clear, therefore, from the new catalogue that the calendar comprises a quire to itself (a fact stated by the earlier one). This is a matter of some importance, because the calendar includes Osburga and Withburga (as well as a marginal addition of "Passio Henrici regis et martyris"-as Floyer and Hamilton point out, "anticipating a canonization which never took place"). It is presumably the presence of Osburga -- supposedly an early eleventh-century abbess of Coventry but virtually unheard of until 1410 -- that causes Thomson to characterize the book as "Professionally made, for a church in the west midlands." But, because he does not state whether she appears in the sanctorale, we are left to wonder whether that very large section (ff. 245-374v) was also purpose-written for its destination, or only the calendar. (The same consideration applies to Withburga of Dereham and, later, Ely, whose appearance in the calendar is the more puzzling in that the book seems to have belonged to a Worcestershire gentry family in the early seventeenth century -- another reason for its putative assignment to the west midlands.)

This is scarcely a complaint; descriptions have to stop somewhere, and the vast majority of catalogues of medieval manuscripts are of necessity, whether so titled or not, summary catalogues. Even for summary descriptions, some manuscripts requires a great deal of print. This is the case with the next codex (Q.11): a collection of 198 Latin sermons, mostly short, originally in twenty quires with four now missing (ff. 133). Thomson dates it to the third quarter of the twelfth century and proposes that it was "probably made at Worcester." Something over forty of the sermons are by William de Montibus (c. 1140-1213), chancellor of Lincoln, and as such are listed by J.W. Goering in his 1992 monograph on William (which is unaccountably absent from the table of abbreviations, though referred to simply as "Goering" in the text), as in Cambridge, Univ. Lib. MS Ii.1.24; this must push the date to quite late in that quarter-century. Others are identified as being by Bernard of Clairvaux (seven) or as found in one manuscript each in the British Library, Bodleian, or Munich Staatsbibliothek-and one, no. 184, for which the totality of information given is "Innsbruck UB 386, no. 9" (something must have gone astray here). For those not by William the thema and first significant words are given, thus opening to students a vast trove of homilies "mostly anonymous and apparently unique to this MS." The patient listing, and, where possible, sourcing of all these items -- and this is not the largest sermon collection at Worcester -- is in itself a work of diligence of the most admirable order.

This review has plunged into the middle of the catalogue because that is the way most users approach such a work, brought to it by a reference enountered to one or more manuscripts in a collection. Here, however, we are offered a good deal more than the aggregate of the 277 descriptions. Thomson's introduction (xvii-xxxviii) is a masterpiece of compression, reminiscent of the vast amount of information often packed into a few pages in some of Ker's work, perhaps most notably in his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (1957). In the present case, the history of the collection is interwoven with facts about groups of manuscripts to provide what is to my knowledge the most succinct and informative account that we have of a major monastic library (see for example the discussion of what the twenty-four lecterns apparently in the library room in c. 1450 must have looked like, in relation to the number of books that could be stored in each, p. xxxiv). And there are some wider implications: for example, the astonishing vigor of the book-purchasing activities of the priory in the 1520s, documented on p. xxxvi, must now be taken into account in the current debates as to the vitality of the "old religion" in the decades immediately before the English Reformation.

Not as a bonus, but as the logical completion of a catalogue of this particular collection, is the "Contribution on the Bindings" by Michael Gullick at the end of the introduction (xxxviii-xlvii). The magnitude of this dimension is made plain in his two opening sentences: "This catalogue describes 274 bindings. About 125 are medieval, forty-five more or less untouched by later binders and restorers." To say that Gullick's analysis of the old bindings is masterful would be understatement; it is -- always with respect to the collection as a whole, so that the bindings are never regarded as an self-contained subject -- close to unique in the amount of knowledge it transmits, again in a very small compass (aided in part by six diagrams and by the wise decision to devote nine of the extremely clear plates to bindings).

If the overall assessment of the catalogue must be so laudatory that it risks sounding like puffery (though the two complaints expressed at the beginning of this review are not meant lightly), so be it. This work, coming as it does as the third in the series, is indeed to be regarded as one of the high points in the study of medieval manuscripts in the Anglophone world.

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Richard W. Pfaff

Univ. of North Carolina