Imagine a fifteenth-century parchment roll approximately two feet wide and fifty-eight feet long. It is written on one side with columns of text that swell from one to three to two to four to five columns and then back to one. These columns wend their way around sixty-five illuminated roundels often connected within a visual armature that also includes a web of red inscribed roundels that flow through columns and around margins or inter-collumnar spaces. This striking object (Leeds, University Library, Brotherton MS 100) is one of the twenty-eight surviving copies of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle produced between 1410 and 1536 that Lisa Fagin Davis studies in her magisterial book La Chronique Anonyme Universelle: Reading and Writing History in Fifteenth-Century France.
Davis's book examines manuscripts of the universal history that began with Adam and Eve and traced biblical, Jewish, Roman, imperial, English and French history and the history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem through time. The history culminates, in its longest version, with a continuation to the reign of King Louis XI of France, who became king in 1461. Davis begins her book with an introduction to the text and commentary on it and on cycles of illustration. This is followed by a series of appendices that provide descriptions of all the manuscripts and a listing of the popes who appear in unilluminated roundels in the roll history. She then provides an edition and translation into English of one of the earliest first recension texts (Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS Fr. 99, ca. 1460), chosen because it contains some unique readings. It is collated with sixteen other rolls. As a complement, the book includes a CD--a digital resource reproducing and analyzing the full scroll made circa 1461-1467 and now in a private collection in Connecticut, which offers the most complete, fully illustrated example of a second recension text.
The commentary introduces the diverse structures used to present this complex world history. The author of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle drew from popular roll formats and chronological structuring principals to organize his text. These include the visual forms of genealogical and heraldic rolls and of Peter of Poitiers's Compendium in genealogia Christi and textual chronological structures adapting Orosius's chronology of world history, the six Ages of Augustine (of which four are specifically noted), and the sequence of nine Jewish, pagan, and Christian worthies (of which four of the eight illustrated in the roll are specifically identified in rubrics as worthies). The textual sources used for the diverse historical threads that the universal history weave together include some cited by name and others used without citation. Davis identifies, among other sources: the Bible; the Bible abrégée, which mentions Orosius and Josephus as sources and draws on texts, translations and commentaries; Peter Comester; Vincent of Beauvais; the Bible historiale by Guyart des Moulins; Pierre Bersuire's translations of Livy's Decades; Gilbert of Rome's Chronicon pontificum et imperatorum;Les quinzes signes (used in a few manuscripts); the French prose Brut; the Livre d'Eracle, a translation of William of Tyre; A tous nobles; an abridged Grandes chroniques de France; and Gilles le Bouvier's Chroniques de Charles VII. In the rolls that are continued, universal history culminates in a resolutely French history that, like the biblical beginning of the roll, fills the full surface of a single text column. Davis constructs useful stemma for the two recensions of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle that establishes the textual filiations between the surviving manuscripts. Their consideration raises interesting questions about the origins and authorship of the visual cycle.
One of Davis's exciting discoveries was that the early, unillustrated roll in Saint Petersburg (National Library of Russia, MS Fr F.v.I.9 and MS Fr F.v.IV.14, ca. 1410) seems to have offered a template for the placement of illuminations that established the visual canon for the subsequent generations of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle. The roll in Saint Petersburg contains two sets of medallions: there are both small medallions containing women's names written in red and men's in black, and larger medallions containing names or narrative rubrics. With few exceptions, these larger medallions gave rise to the visual cycle preserved in all later fifteenth-century illuminated rolls. Her analytical table (84-89) summarizes her findings about the relationships between the medallion's text in the exemplar in Saint Petersburg and the placement of illuminations in rolls containing the first and second recension's textual families. It also provides an intriguing indication of a potential line of research that Davis begins to explore in her brief analysis of the visual cycles that can be attributed to artists.
François Avril identified six of the manuscripts (London, British Library, MS Add. 27539; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 1495; Princeton University Art Museum, MS 5; Leeds, University Library, Brotherton MS 100; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr. 1493; and a roll split between Orléans, Centre Jeanne d'Arc, MS 35 and Dartmouth College, Rauner Library, MS 461940) as having been illuminated in the style of the Parisian artist Maître François. What I found particularly interesting about this discovery is that Davis observes that these six rolls contain different recensions of the text; three are from the first textual family and three from the second. Through textual analysis, Davis was able to suggest that their production may be datable to two different moments--one in the 1460s and another after 1473. It seems that an artistic group was asked at two moments to illustrate a text by one or more libraires (booksellers/producers) who, when commissioned to make a roll with the Chronique Anonyme Universelle, selected a textual exemplar from whichever recension came easily to hand and hired artists who drew on common models to illustrate it. She also attributes three other rolls (Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, MS IV 1003; Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 176; and a lost manuscript sold Semenzato Venice in 2003, lot. 148) containing the second text recension to a second artistic workshop. These textual/iconographical groups offer potential case studies for exploring the production of copies of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle within the bookselling communities of Paris and other areas in France. Who might have been in charge of production of these books for largely French audiences? Might extending Davis's rich analysis of textual families, stylistic identification, and iconographic grouping to include analysis of paleography and of such secondary decoration as flourished initials in the rolls possibly localize and clarify the production of these manuscripts more precisely within the framework of the late fifteenth-century French booktrade? Was there a team of artists, scribes, and secondary decorators working for a libraire or libraires who produced and popularized the Chronique Anonyme Universelle for a clientele in late fifteenth-century France?
It is a tribute to Lisa Fagin Davis and to her stimulating book that I want to know still more about these rolls as objects and about their production and consumption.