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21.08.15 Williman/Corsano, The World Chronicle of Guillaume de Nangis

21.08.15 Williman/Corsano, The World Chronicle of Guillaume de Nangis


Scholars who study medieval manuscripts all know the feeling of opening up a codex and realizing that it results from several dissimilar works having been bound together. The effect can be jarring, but also thought-provoking. Diving into Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano's new book produces something of that same sensation. The two "parts" of the book are notably different in their aims, and even within each part the approach is far from uniform. At times the whipsaw effect can be disorienting. At its best, however, this is a study that offers something for bibliophiles of all sorts, as it traces both the travels of an important text and the meandering of a unique manuscript.

Part I veers between a technical tone and a raconteur's cadence. As chapter one explains, Guillaume de Nangis was the most important historian writing at the abbey of Saint-Denis in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. His masterpiece was his Latin World (or Universal) Chronicle, which he worked on until his death in 1300. Fellow monks continued the history up through early 1303, and a "first edition" of the work was established at Saint-Denis around 1304. Four manuscripts of this first edition survive, most importantly Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensis lat. 544. Shortly thereafter, a "second edition" of the work was created at Saint-Denis, known in eighteen manuscripts, of which the "ur-manuscript" (18) is Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. lat. 4918. Several manuscripts of the second edition also include a continuation of the chronicle up to 1308, called by the authors (following Lucia Gualdo Rosa) the Continuatio minor.[1]. Others include a continuation up to 1368, called by the authors Compendiose. Building on the pioneering work of Léopold Delisle, [2] in a detailed second chapter our authors "take on the genial drudgery" (15) of establishing a full stemma codicum, providing descriptions of all twenty-two manuscripts of both editions, and quickly summarizing printed editions. This chapter will be of great interest to specialists undertaking future work on this text and these manuscripts. An abrupt shift in approach produces a third chapter that offers eleven vignettes, in greater or lesser length, that relate anecdotes about the history of some of these manuscripts. These tales are often intriguing: For instance, Verona, Biblioteca Capitolare, ms. CCVII, a fourteenth-century Parisian copy of the Chronicle, was sold to the scholar Valerio Palermo by the tailor Domenico Siler in 1579. Who (as the authors quite aptly ask) had been forced to settle their tailor's bill with such a volume? But finally, at the close of Part I, the book's real protagonist, the manuscript that is now London, British Library Royal 13 E IV, at last comes to the fore. Chapter four is in essence a catalogue description of this manuscript and an explanation of the data-type known as the dictio probatoria or secundo folio (a record of the first words of the second folio in a given manuscript). Why such interest in this particular manuscript of the second edition? Using Daniel Williman's vast database of dictio probatoria, in 2005 the authors discovered that the "livre des Croniques de France" listed in an inventory of Jean duc de Berry's library in 1415 was none other than Royal 13 E IV. And so they set out to solve the mystery of how this codex ended up in England, and more generally to write its "biography" (68). This is the intriguing task to which Part II turns.

The authors identify the copyist as Guillaume Lescot, a professional book scribe of Paris. He worked under abbot Gilles de Pontoise in the "historical studio" (71) of Saint-Denis, using BnF lat. 4918 as his exemplar and collaborating with other lay artists of the group who had produced the wonderfully illustrated Vita et Miracula Sancti Dyonisii there. The 445 folios (in forty quires) of Royal 13 E IV were completed by about 1320, and kept at Saint-Denis as "a solemn, copious, objective monument, instructing the monks and their pious and curious visitors" (80). It may have been this copy of the Chronicle that was presented as evidence in a dispute of December 1406, when the Council of Paris debated whether to withdraw obedience from the Avignon pope. It was certainly this very manuscript that lay behind arguments made at the Parlement of Paris in 1410 as part of the famous showdown between Saint-Denis and Notre-Dame de Paris as to which institution possessed the legitimate skull relic of St. Denis. Jean duc de Berry had been a participant in these debates, and so must have been familiar with the manuscript's probative value. By 1414 (in the midst of the Armagnac/Burgundian civil war) he had managed to borrow it, in preparation for an upcoming rendezvous with Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of the Romans. Before his death in 1416, the duc de Berry entrusted the volume to Sigismund, probably believing he would return it to Saint-Denis. But in spite of the fact that Sigismund did stop at Saint-Denis for five days in April 1416, the future emperor kept the manuscript with him when he crossed the channel to England, where he was Henry V's guest from May to August. When Sigismund was inducted into the Order of the Garter on 24 May 1416, he gave the manuscript to the College of St. George at Windsor, or at least this is the authors' plausible argument. There it remained until 1525, when it was bestowed upon Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (his ex libris is still found on fol. i verso, and his signature on 445 verso). Norfolk in turn gave it to Henry VIII in early 1530, setting the stage for the most dramatic moment in the manuscript's life. Henry was, of course, desperately searching for historical evidence to buttress his claims to supremacy over the English Church, in order to facilitate the annulment of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. In order to serve this purpose, Royal 13 E IV was carefully prepared by removing all earlier marginal notes, from those made by the monks of Saint-Denis to those more recently added by Norfolk. In 1532 none other than Thomas Cromwell then added 113 marginal marks to draw the king's attention to relevant points, and his clerk Stephen Vaughn added wavy lines to bracket off the indicated passages. Separate parchment page-markers were even tipped in to make it easier for the king to flip to crucial folios (thirteen of these, plus a fragment, remain, with text transcribed by the authors at p. 158). Henry himself eventually added fourteen marginal notes, in places where the pre-marked text caught his particular attention. The rest of the manuscript's career is somewhat more mundane. After Henry's death in 1547, it entered the Upper Library at Westminster, with the shelf number 1000. It moved to St. James Palace with most of the royal books in the early seventeenth century, and must have followed the wanderings of this collection to Cotton House, Essex House, and to the home of the Earl of Ashburnham, where it acquired its modern shelf mark of bookcase 13, shelf E, place IV. It survived the fire of 1731, moved to Montague House in 1757 following the British Museum Act, was rebound about 1900, and since 1998 has been located in the modern home of the British Library, next to St. Pancras Station.

The authors evidently sought to make this a lively work, with many anecdotes and a certain number of side stories. The culminating section, where meticulous detective work (building on scholarship by James Carley) explicates Henry VIII's exact interactions with the volume, succeeds admirably in this regard, offering all the intrigue of a Hilary Mantel novel. In other places, long contextual explanations about the motivations of various political actors are less successful in maintaining the same relevance or ready flow; for instance, lengthy sections explaining the debate over subtracting obedience from the Avignon popes, or the emperor-to-be Sigismund's political goals, do not always clearly advance the study's core objectives. Moreover, the intended readership for the book is not entirely evident; the kind of casual bibliophile who might welcome such context would probably not also be interested in the more technical descriptions that make up chapters two and four; conversely specialists who will benefit from those chapters might not require a detailed explanation of how scholars use the secundo folio to identify the origins of surviving medieval codices.

But if this study is somewhat uneven, it is certainly fascinating. One point that is proven over and over again is that medieval and early modern readers were at least as interested in the section of the Chronicle that covers the history of the world before the twelfth century—the section of the work that has never been edited, under the largely mistaken belief that it is entirely derivative—as they were in the modern section that covered 1113 to 1300 A.D. Surely it is time for a full critical edition of Guillaume de Nangis's Latin World Chronicle. More generally, even if the literary touch exhibited here is not quite so sure as that found in a work such Christopher de Hamel's Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016), this study similarly reminds us that meticulous manuscript study can be wildly good fun. For that reminder, and for taking us on this journey, Daniel Williman and Karen Corsano deserve heartfelt thanks.

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Notes:

1. It is unfortunate that the authors do not seem to have been aware of Elizabeth A. R. Brown's work on this continuation in "Marguerite Porete, John Baconthorpe, and the Chroniclers of Saint-Denis," Mediaeval Studies 75 (2013): 307-44; but also unfortunate that while Dr. Brown and I (Sean L. Field, Courting Sanctity: Holy Women and the Capetians [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019], ch. 5) each knew of two manuscripts containing this continuation, long-ago identified by Léopold Delisle (BAV lat. 4598 and Bern, Burgerbibliothek ms. 70), neither of us knew that a third manuscript (Naples, BN MS VII.A.45) had been located by Lucia Gualdo Rosa, "Un prezioso testimone della Grande Cronaca di Guillaume de Nangis nella collezione del Parrasio: Da Giovanni Conversini a Gasparino Barzizza," in Gasparino da Barzizza e la rinascita degli studi classici fra continuità e rinnovamento, Atti del Seminario di studi, Napoli – Palazzo Sforza, 11 aprile 1997, ed. Lucia Gualdo Rosa (Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 1999), 247-74. Gualdo Rosa, for her part, seems to have been unaware of the copy found in Bern, Burgerbibliothek ms. 70. Evidently further work on this continuation, which has yet to be published in full, is to be desired.

2. Most importantly, Léopold Delisle, "Mémoire sur les ouvrages de Guillaume de Nangis,"Mémoires de l'Institut national de France 27 (1873): 287-372.