14.11.20, Skemer, Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts

Main Article Content

Elizabeth Hunt

The Medieval Review 14.11.20

Skemer, Don C.. Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Princeton University Library, vols. 1-2. Princeton: Princeton University Press: Department of Art and Archeology and Princeton University Library, 2013. Pp. xxv, 1224, 393 color illus. ISBN: 9780691157504 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Hunt
University of Wyoming

When one of the Princeton University Library's major donors, Robert Garrett, began his collection of manuscripts from all countries and periods, his aim was "to illustrate five millennia of recorded history with representative examples of every known script and language" (xiv). Not only does his collection boast a range of languages and types of texts that were produced in at least thirty-five scripts across the globe, but also his robust collection of Western manuscripts in the Manuscripts and Rare Books Divisions stands buttressed by other quality collections, built by curators and donated by alumni, including Robert H. Taylor, Greenville Kane, Elmer Adler, David Aiken Reed, and Lloyd E. Cotsen. The largest of Princeton's European manuscript collections remains the open-ended series of Princeton Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, which contains numerous acquisitions and donations since its first gifts in 1876. Don C. Skemer, the Curator of Manuscripts, and a formidable force of Princeton faculty and manuscript scholars, including Adelaide Bennett, Jean F. Preston, William P. Stoneman, and the staff of the Index of Christian Art, have lent their years of expertise to describing Princeton's medieval and Renaissance treasures with accuracy and authority in the formal catalogue for the collections. Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the catalogue's completion elevates Princeton University Library's place among the best houses for European manuscripts in America and opens its doors to future active scholarship on the treasures found therein.

In two handsomely published volumes, descriptions of over six hundred manuscript codices and leaves provide the critical apparati for researchers and students to mine original texts, illustrations, and bindings held in the Firestone Library. Volume I contains the introduction, entries for 168 manuscripts in the Garrett and Taylor Collections, and a list of dated and datable manuscripts in both volumes. Volume II contains the entries for 246 manuscripts in the Kane Collection and Princeton series up to 2012, followed by eight manuscripts in the Cotsen Children's Library, three manuscripts bound with incunabula in the Rare Books Division, and an appendix with brief descriptions of six collections containing over 5,000 documents, including Mediterranean papyri and British seals. The Princeton series also holds three documentary collections with their own shelf numbers (Princeton MSS 132, 137, and 138), accounting for over 175 leaves. Each volume has its own table of contents, general index, list of manuscripts cited, and plates of illustrations.

The catalogue covers Western European manuscripts dating from the eighth to the end of the sixteenth centuries. Around five dozen manuscripts date before or during the twelfth century, a small percentage compared to around 280 manuscripts dating to the fifteenth century alone. Latin texts predominate, and a good range of texts in French, Italian, Spanish, Anglo-Norman, Middle English, German, Dutch, Flemish and Hebrew characterizes the breadth of Princeton's collections. Over a third of the collections contain manuscripts from Italy; less than a quarter originated in France; and Germany and England total another third. Handfuls of examples from the Low Countries, Austria, and Spain, along with interesting singles from as far as Dalmatia and Iceland, round out the extremities. The introduction highlights some of the collections' strengths: illuminated manuscripts feature in forty percent of the Garrett Collection as a result of the donor's avid peregrinations; in the Princeton series the paleographical interests of the University Librarian Ernest Cushing Richardson account for the weight of manuscripts from Italy; the Kane Collection's largest footprint includes Italian Renaissance manuscripts of classical authors and manuscripts bound in incunable editions; and, while the Taylor Collection clearly reflects its donor's passion for English literature, his documentary collection (Princeton MS 132) contains an equal number of examples from Italy, France, and Germany, and his notable donation of a fifteenth-century manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Princeton MS 100) forms part of the Princeton series. Excluded from the catalogue are: the Greek, Armenian, and Byzantine manuscripts, which are already published in separate catalogues; the manuscripts in the Princeton University Art Museum and the Theological Seminary Library, which need their own catalogues; and the manuscripts in the Scheide Library, a private library on deposit in the Princeton University Library. Also excluded are the binding waste and annotations in incunabula and printed books before 1601, as well as pre-1601 Mesoamerican documents, a short list of which is provided in the introduction. The notes to the introduction supply information for finding excluded manuscripts whose shelf numbers appear otherwise as gaps in the sequence of each collection.

Neatly laid out in two columns with generous margins and full-width section breaks, the entries are arranged in order of shelf number, and each heading includes the title, book type, date, and origin. The preferred armature for descriptions structures each entry, including the contents of the texts, the physical description (material and layout, collation, script, decoration, style, and binding), known provenance, and the most relevant bibliography. The standards used for the sub-sections and transcription conventions follow the exemplars set by the catalogues for the Beinecke Library at Yale University and the Huntington Library in San Marino. Frequently cited sources are abbreviated by author and short title and are expanded in the list of abbreviations used in both volumes. Before the present catalogue, summary listings of the collections' contents were available in Seymour de Ricci and W. J. Wilson, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (1935-1940 and 1962), and in an exhibition supplement by Adelaide Bennett, Jean F. Preston, and William P. Stoneman (1991). [1] Each entry's bibliography contains the corresponding entries in de Ricci, but rather than risk repetition, the numerous Princeton University Library publications surveying the collections are summarized in note 8 of the introduction.

Examples of Bibles, liturgical manuscripts and devotional books abound among the 150 or so illuminated manuscripts in the Princeton collections. The collections also contain a range of other kinds of texts that were visualized through illumination, including illustrated romances, scientific treatises, and penitential manuals. These, as well as several portfolios of drawings, deserve further perusal, and most are available online, as noted below. In the catalogue volumes, selections from 81 manuscripts are reproduced on 128 color plates. The plates together boast almost 400 reproductions; most show details of miniatures and decorated or historiated initials, while a full-page folio is also shown for well over half of the manuscripts. References to the plates are noted in the margin of the entry near the physical description, and the captions include the subject depicted and abbreviated shelf numbers to navigate the user easily back to the entry. Not all the miniatures in any one manuscript could be reproduced, of course, but some choices seem overlooked. For instance, the only excluded initial in a twelfth-century Seneca (Garrett MS 114) features a "Wheel of Fortune" that compares with another illustrated in a Roman de la Rose (Garrett MS 126, plate 59), while an eighteenth-century faux-treasure binding, as unique as it is, is reproduced for Garrett MS 26, a fifteenth-century Hebrew Miscellany (plate 79). Fortunately, the illustrations in most manuscripts are available online in the Index of Christian Art and Artstor, alongside images of the whole page, bindings, additional folios, more details, and extended descriptions. The Index's site delivers lower-quality images and requires a pop-up agreement for each one, while the higher-quality versions in Artstor magnify details with greater clarity. Access to these databases is restricted to subscribers, but the Manuscripts Department has made a useful checklist available with links to the Index's images, as well as the Scheide Library holdings, at: http://blogs.princeton.edu/manuscripts/.

The full-color images are a great advantage to the volumes, but a catalogue of this caliber intended for the library stacks inevitably engages the digital-analog debate. For stylistic analysis, it is critical and convenient to have examples at one's fingertips rather than waiting on a database's transfer lag or magnifying pixelated images. While the reproduction of some full folios provides an idea of the margins and the mis-en-page, which were tangibly important to the books' producers and users, most reproductions are cropped to the edges of the frames. In a time when the physical book is competing with internet access, it seems a shame not to reproduce more folios to scale or to note the scale on the plates. Elsewhere, references to online resources are handled with brevity but already risk dating the hardback publication. For instance, researchers are directed to inventories for the documentary collections available online, but these must be accessed through the Library's finding aids rather than on the Department's website, for which only the link to the Scheide Collection seems to work at present. Meanwhile, four of the manuscripts are published on the Department's website as downloadable facsimiles but not on Artstor, including a Benedictional from Lorsch Abbey (Garrett MS 43), a Chr├Ętien de Troyes (Garrett MS 125), Giovanni Marcanova's Collectio antiquitatum (Garrett MS 158) and a Portolan Atlas from Spain (Kane MS 57). [2] While the trending reproduction of whole manuscripts online is well underway, one hopes that the scholarly underpinning of the cataloguers' descriptions will accompany the digital iterations, as they have in the Index and Artstor. It is this kind of groundwork--found in the authoritative tome of the housing institution--that remains indispensible to the study of the original texts and images.

Certain advantages of the catalogue format are appreciated here. The introduction outlines the genesis of the collections and major donations, albeit with less commentary on the personalities and interests of the collectors than one might expect. Rather, the collection entries together draw the contours of the collectors' identities, an aspect that becomes less apparent in the databases, which are searched best by shelf number alone. The Table of Contents includes the same information as the entry headings, thus facilitating quick access. The indices are thorough and useful. The Index of Manuscripts Cited functions to cross-reference similar or related manuscripts in international collections. The General Index covers formal names cited in the contents as well as iconographic subjects based on Iconclass, a descriptive system used for the Index of Christian Art at Princeton. From Christ and the Virgin Mary to dogs, flies, and frogs, the inclusion of iconographic themes boosts this particular catalogue's utility for art historical reference.

Garrett's goal ensured that there would be something for everyone engaged in studying the histories and cultures of the past. Among the premiere collections for medieval and Renaissance manuscripts outside of Europe, Princeton University Library is enviably poised for continued growth with sound acquisitions, although admittedly many accessions since the 1940s date to the latter centuries. Original manuscripts are among the most valuable assets to any university in fulfilling their teaching and research missions in the humanities. Manuscript scholarship in the last century has deepened through the descriptive cataloguing system, while the few years ahead promise unprecedented access to manuscript texts in ways that we are only beginning to hypertext. Princeton's overall cataloguing and photographic efforts are exemplary and set the bar for the academic infrastructure needed by scholars to illuminate the information technologies of the past. In the present tomes, Skemer and his team of contributors have pored over Princeton's gifts and acquisitions with meticulous diligence and have laid a solid foundation for future primary research on the Middle Ages and Renaissance.



1. Seymour de Ricci and W. J. Wilson, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York: American Council of Learned Societies, 1935-1940, along with a 1962 Supplement), and Adelaide Bennett, Jean F. Preston, and William P. Stoneman, A Summary Guide to Western Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Princeton University (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Library, 1991).

2. See http://www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/department/manuscripts/medieval.html.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Hunt

University of Wyoming