12.03.13, Binski, Western Illuminated Manuscripts

Main Article Content

Alison Stones

The Medieval Review 12.03.13

Binski, Paul and Patrick Zutshi. Western Illuminated Manuscripts: A Catalogue of the Collection in Cambridge University Library. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 506. ISBN: 978-0-521-84892-3.

Reviewed by:
Alison Stones
University of Pittsburgh

This handsome book marks something of an end-point in the publication of the illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge libraries. Following the pioneering catalogues of college libraries by M.R. James from the 1890s, with his detailed descriptions of the illuminations, publication of notable Cambridge manuscripts has been sporadic. James's own catalogue of the University Library was never brought to publication and the second half of the 20th century saw only two major efforts, The Fitzwilliam Museum catalogue by F. Wormald and P. Giles, published in 1966, and the Dated and Datable Manuscripts Catalogue by P.B. Robinson of 1988. The first decade of the 21st century has marked a resurgence, with the fine exhibition and catalogue of selected illuminated books from the Colleges and the University Library in 2005, accompanied by the Conference Papers in 2007, and the continuing series of publications on the major illuminated books in Cambridge libraries, both college and university, edited by Nigel Morgan and Stella Panayotova et al., whose first part was published in 2009 and of which more parts are in progress.

The present book describes no fewer than 472 manuscripts from the University Library, and is illustrated with one or more quarter-page or third of a page black and white figures per manuscript reproduced adjacent to the catalogue description and 200 full-page colour plates clustered in groups of 32 corresponding to the major categories in the catalogue. The entries are organized chronologically within geographical limits: not surprisingly the largest component is British manuscripts, with 287 entries, more than half the total. France comes next with 73, Italy 57, Flanders 29, Germany and Austria 13, Northern Netherlands 11, and a single manuscript from Spain. The chronology ranges from the 9th c. Books of Cerne and Deer among the British entries and the fragment of Eucherius of Lyon, Instructiones ad Salonium among the French, up to the early 16th c. The bulk of the manuscripts are from the 12th-15th c. They represent only a fraction of the total manuscript holdings of the University Library and were selected on the basic of their decoration and illustration.

The range of material is heavily geared to bibles and components of the bible, homiliaries and exegesis, followed by histories and chronicles, grammar, laws and customs. Literature is sparse, with classical literature mainly represented among the Italian manuscripts; Chaucer, Gower, and Langland are among the English manuscripts, L'Estoire del saint Graal and Merlin with Suite (recte Huth Merlin) among the French (or probably English, see R. Middleton, "The Manuscripts," in The Arthur of the French, ed. G.S. Burgess and K. Pratt, Cardiff, 2006, 55-56). Le Roman de la Rose, Le Roman de Mlusine, two copies of the Roman de Ponthus and the splendidly illustrated and beautifully reproduced Douze Dames de Rhtorique are highlights, as are the Musica and Partbook at the end of the British selection. The three Bestiaries are also of note. Otherwise the artistically interesting manuscripts tend to be the liturgical and devotional books and these occupy the bulk of the colour plates along side the many author portraits.

Most of the famous manuscripts described and illustrated here are known from other sources. What is new is the copious attention given to the decoration of less distinguished books, many of them limited in their illustration to minor initials or diagrams, but often of superb quality and well reproduced as a corpus in the colour plates (the black and white illustrations are less well reproduced as their scale is a little too small for the detail of this decoration to be really clear). A few notable bindings are included as well (pl. CLXIV, CLXXIV, fig. 405). Few of these books were actually made in Cambridge so the material represents pointers to many other production centres throughout Europe.

The holdings of the University Library were acquired from a variety of ecclesiastical and lay sources and were first catalogued in the 15th c. The introduction to the volume outlines the history of the collection and its major benefactors and later donors. The varied history of the library's holdings makes for captivating reading. Some of the original owners are known from portraits, heraldry, or inscriptions, in their manuscripts (Mary of Saint-Pol, foundress of Pembroke College, though I think her arms including the heraldry on her portrait are additions to the book; Antonio Erizzo, Roberto di San Severino, Pope Pius II, Henry VII). The history of Nicolas of Lyra's Postilla (no. 240) is particularly notable, written by a Carthusian, Stephen Dodesham and presented to St Albans Abbey by a lay woman, Eleanor Hull, and a priest, Roger Huswyff in 1457, and retained for Roger's use during his lifetime. It had reached the University Library by 1600. Its illustrations, based on the extensive earlier Lyra tradition, includes two splendid depictions in full colour of Ezekiel's Vision of the Four Beasts, one of which is reproduced here. Most manuscripts were donated to the library by later owners, among whom John Moore, Bishop of Norwich then Ely (in whose diocese Cambridge is located), forms the largest corpus. His collection arrived in 1715 as the donation of George I.

It may seem churlish to end on a note of criticism, but I find it surprising in this age when major libraries are or have moved from print to the web, that Cambridge has published this catalogue in book form only, at a high price, which essentially precludes anyone without access to a major library being able to consult it. One may cite for instance The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York whose on-line catalogue Corsair presents not only very high quality colour reproductions but also up-to-date-descriptions and files of earlier notes in pdf form; or the Beinecke Library of Yale University, or University of Pennsylvania or the many smaller libraries whose holdings are displayed through Digital Scriptorium. These and European sites vary in what they offer, but they are significant resources: the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Gallica, Mandragore, Banque d'images), French provincial libraries (Enluminures, Initiale), the Bibliothèques Mazarine and Sainte-Geneviève (Liber Floridus), e- codices of Switzerland, Manuscripta Mediaevalia of Germany, not to mention collaborative projects like Europeana Regia. Elsewhere in Britain the University of Aberdeen, the University of Lampeter, The John Rylands University Library of Manchester, the University of Nottingham, the National Library of Scotland, the Bodleian Library Oxford and The British Library among others, are moving into the digital age. Nothing is said about digitizing in this volume, nor indeed in the other Cambridge volumes mentioned above (and the Parker Library site at Corpus Christi College, splendid as it is, is accessible only by subscription). It is worth noting that the excellent site on La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei, MS Ee.3.59, one of the first and best sites for an individual manuscript, by Paul Binski, is given not a mention in its entry here (no. 110) but may be consulted on http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/manuscripts/Ee.3.59/ (verified 24 January 2012). While one applauds this book as an important resource one cannot but hope that it paves the way towards a more generally accessible research tool.

Article Details

Author Biography

Alison Stones

University of Pittsburgh