The Medieval Review 17.12.24

Thomson, R. M. A Descriptive Catalogue of the Medieval Manuscripts in the Library of Peterhouse, Cambridge. Woodbridge: D.S.Brewer, 2016. pp. 230.

Reviewed by:

Kristin Uscinski
SUNY Purchase College

In this impressively produced volume, Rodney Thomson provides both the relevant context of the Peterhouse medieval manuscript collection and comprehensive descriptions of its almost 300 manuscripts. Thomson, who has also written catalogues for Lincoln Cathedral (1989), Hereford Cathedral (1993), Worcester Cathedral (2001), Merton College, Oxford (2009), and Corpus Christi College, Oxford (2011), continues his careful cataloging tradition with the exceptional collection of Peterhouse. In his introduction, Thomson equips his audience with a framework in which to situate the manuscripts that follow. Peterhouse, founded in 1284 by the bishop of Ely, is the oldest of Cambridge's colleges and boasts of 277 complete manuscripts and 300 manuscript fragments, almost all of which are medieval. Unlike many medieval texts, the ownership of many of these texts is well documented (xvii). Thomson takes the reader through the manuscript owners--who were primarily fellows of the College--and explains the relationships between text and owner, when possible. Aside from brief references to earlier books or loans of books, most of the information pertaining to the library's collection and the library room dates to the fifteenth century (xx). Thomson's description of the early fifteenth-century library room--it probably faced Trumpington Street, building materials included tile, Baltic pine, and lead, there was a brazier on the floor and venting in the ceiling, windows, desks and partitions in the main space, and room above where students resided (xxi-xxiii)--is particularly welcome and sets the physical scene for the cerebral contents of the collection. There are references to chained volumes and blank space left in the library's inventory, which offer a sense of a living, medieval library. This medieval library's life, however, was interrupted by the Reformation and by many books disappearing during circulation to the fellowship. Throughout the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, numerous manuscripts were damaged and vandalized (xxxviii-xxxix).

Many of Peterhouse's manuscripts are legal, theological, and philosophical texts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas are particularly well represented. Peterhouse also boasts of three Latin Vulgates (MS 44, 45, and 46) and two copies of Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (MS 131 and 132). Medical historians will be pleased to note several inclusions of medical manuscripts, produced in Italy, France, and England and ranging from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. The majority of these manuscripts are treatises by well-known authors (such as Hippocrates, Galen, and Bernard of Gordon), but a few (MS 87, 222, and 247) contain anonymous recipes in Latin. Peterhouse's collection is almost entirely in Latin--the exceptions being the Middle English Equatorie of the Planetis (MS 75) and Brut with Continuations (MS 190)--and most date from the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The manuscripts are largely identified as Italian or English. The surviving manuscript fragments attest to many more volumes that fit this same general profile but which no longer exist in their entirety. The same legal and scholastic types of works are represented, most of which are also in Latin. Those manuscripts no longer in the main collection include several medical and scientific volumes, which are now to be found at in other Cambridge college libraries, as well as the British Library, the Bodleian, and the Royal College of Physicians.

Thomson provides the reader with a good sense of both the physical manuscript and its contents. Each of the 290 manuscript entries contains a thorough physical description of the manuscript (date, geographic region, numbers of folios, measurements, script, possible damage, and identifying signatures), its contents, and whether it has evidence of chaining. Thomson includes such details as staining, ruling, and writing materials like crayon and pencil; even when rodents have nibbled at the folios. Each entry is accompanied by an entry for the history of the text which relates when the manuscript first appeared in the Peterhouse collection. A final entry on "Bibliography," instructs the reader as to where he or she can find the manuscript in the earlier catalogue by M. R. James or indeed any other text that cites it. Appendix A provides all such information for the manuscript fragments in Peterhouse's Printed Books, where possible; and Appendix B does the same for those medieval manuscripts no longer in the library's collection. Also included are an "Index of Manuscripts and Printed Books" and a "General Index," for easy reference. Finally, Thomson includes 109 color plates of the manuscripts and their bindings as well as five plates that show what remains of the medieval library structure.

This catalogue is the more careful and inclusive heir of the 1899 catalogue by M. R. James. Thomson's entries are much more descriptive and incorporate each manuscript's internal divisions, based on manuscript incipits and scribal hands. With this catalogue in hand, scholars will have little trouble determining what items will be of most use to them, and they will be able to fully appreciate Peterhouse's medieval library.

Copyright (c) 2018 Kristin Uscinski

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