Scrolling down in humility

Not much has changed in the world of lobbying and patronage.
This illustration found in a 12th-century manuscript from Corbie (Paris, BnF, Paris, Bnf, Latin 12033) is a beautiful self-referential mise en abyme of the medieval practice of book dedications.
An unnamed monk (monacus) representing the manuscript’s scribe offers to Saints Peter and Andrew a scroll containing the text: ‘This proffered gift demonstrates (my) love for you both’. The scroll represents, by metonymy, the manuscript’s absent colophon, which is the place for medieval scribes to offer a personal or dedicatory statement for the reader. The most common colophons look like this: ‘I [name] wrote this. Praise be to God’, but there is a profusion of eccentric colophons going into all kinds of detail about the scribe’s feelings, fears, expectations, as well as the context of writing.
In this illumination, the scroll stands for the whole manuscript, represented by its colophon. The text accompanying the figure of the monk reads: ‘Grant me the ability of lying at your feet’. And that is exactly where the monk is located.
The illustration is itself a colophon writ large. By casting the monk in an inferior position – lying at the saint’s feet and painted at as smaller-scale than the two authoritaties -, it exemplifies a common practice among medieval scribes: that of promoting the concept of humility: I am not worthy, I ask for the favour and honour of lying at your feet, master – because that is what’s expected of monks, whatever they do. But it also commends the book to the saints, which was a typical way to frame a colophon. The book is doubly worthy: it was written by a humble scribe, and it’s in the service of the Church, under its protection. Therefore, let it be read.

Our father who art in the glass

The medieval period was an age of faith alright, but this does not mean that it was devoid of humour. In fact, from the 12th century onwards, satire and mockery became an ever more present feature of literary production. Bawdy, salacious, blasphemous texts proliferated in Western Europe to an extent that may leave believers in medieval purism and orthodoxy today baffled. As Latin was the language of the Church, most of the indecorous narratives and poems were written in the vernacular. The famous 13th-century fabliau ‘Du chevalier qui fist les cons parler’ (the knight who made cunts speak) circulated in at least two dialects of Old French. To stick with the famous, some poems of the Carmina Burana compilation, though not as biting as the Chevalier, were written in Middle High German and even Old Arpitan, a type of Franco-Provençal. But many still were written in Latin.

The medieval taste for satire was given huge scope for expression. As I was focussing yesterday on a group of manuscripts from the British Library’s Harley collection, I came across a brilliant parody of the medieval Latin Mass. The entire order of the liturgy was rewritten for a congregation of drunkards and a celebration of Bacchic intoxication. Titled ‘Missa de potatoribus’ (The mass of the drunkards), this script of the medieval Sunday Service was adjusted using humorous puns and witty double entendre to glorify, parodically, wine, food, sleep and carelessness. In the manuscript, the text even has the headings in red ink that one would expect to mark the various sections of the Mass.

The entire text is too long to be included here, so I’d just like to give the Pater Noster prayer (Our Father) with a twist (and a straw). The blasphemous potential of this rendering cannot be overstated for medieval sensibilities, but as Huizinga noted long ago, blasphemy needs strong faith and religiosity to exist. That we have both should not be a surprise.

The order of the service begins with an invocation to Bacchus, the god of wine, and an invitation to raise to glass to full inebriation. The customary exchange ‘The Lord be with you – And with thy spirit – Let us pray’ (Dominus vobiscum – Et cum spiritu tuo – Oremus’ becomes ‘The fraud be with you – And with thy groaning- Let us drink’ (Dolus vobiscum – Et cum gemitu tuo – Potemus), and after a series of prayers and a reading from a fake Gospel according to Bacchus, the Lord’s prayer begins (the Latin parody is followed by my own rudimentary translation):

Pater noster qui es in ciphis, sanctificetur vinum istud. Adveniat Bachi potus, fiat tempestas tua sicut in vino et in taberna, panem nostrum ad devorandum da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis pocula magna sicut et nos dimittimus potatoribus nostris, et ne nos induces in vini temptationem, sed libera nos a vestimento.

Our father who art in the glass, hallowed be this wine, may Bacchus’ tipple come, thy vintage be done, in wine as it is in the pub. Give us this day our ravaged bread, and forgive us our high pints as we forgive those who booze with us; and lead us not in the grape’s temptation, but deliver us from clothing.

British Library, Harley MS 913, f. 14v – the parodied Pater Noster begins at line three with a faded P in red ink.

The Mass ends with the words ‘Ite bursa vacua. Reo gratias’ (Go, the purse is empty, Thanks be to the culprit), which is a pun on ‘Ite missa est. Deo Gratia’ (Go, the mass is over, thanks be to God). There is no evidence that the drunkards mass has ever been staged. Perhaps an idea for your next visit to the local pub or bar.

Chronicling the Italian wine vintage of 1185

According to Giovanni Codagnello, the author of the medieval Chronicle of Piacenza, 1185 was a spectacular year for Piacentino wine. Wine made in and around Piacenza (in Emilia-Romagna) would correspond roughly today to the Colli Piacentini DOC, a wine region south of Piacenza, famous more in antiquity than in our time. We know that Cicero publicly berated Julius Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso for indulging in too much Piacentino wine. Today, the leading regional DOC variety is the Gutturnio, a red blend of Barbera and Croatina varieties, named after a type of Roman round jug known as gutturnium.

Piso would have loved the 1185 vintage, either from a gutturnium or with a straw straight from the amphora. The yield was so high that year, explains the chronicler, that a cask (it is unclear how much volume a ‘vezola’ contained) of wine sold for as little as 12 pennies, which was, in all probability, a historical low for regional wine.

The annal for 1185 in a 14th-century manuscript of Codagnello’s chronicle, in British Library Harley MS 5132, f. 4v. Transcription and translation below.

Eodem anno [1185] fuit maxima habundantia vini, ita quod dabatur vezolla de Fuxusta pro denariis XVIII et pro XVI et etiam pro denariis XII et in Rizolo pro solidis iii et in sancto Damiano et in Torano pro solidis iv et [cereal prices following].

In that same year, there was a great abundance of wine, so that a cask of wine of Piacenza [the name Fuxusta is a medieval form of Fons Augusta, one of the Roman names of the city of Piacenza] sold for 18, 16 or even for 12 pence, and in Rizzolo [a town 15km south of Piacenza] for 3 shillings, while in San Damiano [next to Rizzolo] and Torano [2km southwest of San Damiano] for 4 shillings.

What Codagnello offers us is a map of wine prices for one of the best vineyards in late 12th-century Italy. Interestingly, the sub-regions of Rizzolo, San Damiano and Torano are located within the Colli Piacentino AOC wine region, while Piacenza (presumably the wine made very close to the city gates) is not. The prices themselves may be a good reflection of relative wine quality. Medieval coinage was pre-decimal, expressed in pounds (librae, plural of libra, hence £), shillings (solidi, plural for solidus) and pence (denarii, plural of denarius). There were 12 denarii in a solidus and 20 solidi, or 240 denarii, in a libra.

The cheapest wine was that from the city of Piacenza. At 12 denarii, it was 3 times cheaper than that of Rizzolo (3 solidi = 36 denarii). Wines from San Damiano and Torano were probably the best the region could offer, if relative price is a good indicator of quality.

Five ‘business’ lessons to learn from the first printed editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy

As a medievalist, I rarely think of the printed history of Dante’s (Divine) Comedy. Last week, I went to see Barrie Tullett’s exhibition on Dante at Southbank in London, and his opening talk (and performance!) stirred me out of my manuscript-centred complacency and into a reflection of the printed heritage of Dante’s work. The exhibition is called ‘The Typographic Dante’ and represents Barrie’s engagement as an artist with the Comedy’s intellectual and imaginative load. It is a fascinating exhibit of prints based on each of the 100 cantos and I encourage everyone to see it while it’s still on (ending 30 June 2019).

Image credit Barrie Tullett

Barrie’s talk and artworks made me think of the first printed editions of the Comedy and what they can tell us about the challenges of introducing new technologies and new models. The invention of the printing press in the West and its diffusion are regularly described as one of the most important paradigm shifts in world history. So what can the first printed editions of Dante’s Comedy teach us?

Image result for dante foligno stampa
  1. New technology is often imported. Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press in Mainz in the 1430s. One of his pupils, Johann Neumeister, moved to Foligno in Italy and set up a press in or near Palazzo Orfini. With the help of Evangelista Angelini, he printed Dante’s Comedy on 5-6 April 1472 for the first time. Thus, the first Italian book was printed in Italy by a German immigrant using imported technology. In the 1460s and 70s, a large number of German typographers set up printing presses in Italy, France and elsewhere. The new technology swept through Europe like a tornado. By 1473, the Englishman William Caxton was skilled enough to print the first book in English. This was done in Flanders, in either Bruges or Ghent. Printing was an international development from the start.
  2. It’s always better to tap into an existing market. The first printed books were also the most popular titles at the time. The Bible came first, obviously, but then typographers printed those books which had been most popular and in high demand. By the 1470s, Dante was extremely popular (though not for long) and his Comedy was widely read (down to the popular classes). That Dante’s Comedy and not Petrarch’s Canzoniere or Boccaccio’s Decameron was Neumeister’s first choice reflects the authors’ unequal readership. Dante’s Comedy survives in more than 600 manuscripts, far more than Petrarch and Boccaccio’s works. Petrarch’s Canzoniere, for instance, was printed for the first time in 1501.
  3. Aim high but proceed cautiously, low-risk. It made financial sense for the first typographers to go low-risk with this novel technology. For their first printed editions, they chose only the most popular texts. Then, they didn’t go wild with the number of printed copies. It is believed that Neumeister printed only 200 copies of the Comedy. This was early days, and although printing a text was far less expensive than copying it by hand, it was still a costly enterprise.
  4. It’s not all about the text. The 1472 printed edition of the Comedy was not illustrated. The book reproduced the common layout of manuscript copies of the text, complete with rubrics and large initials. By the 1480s, however, Sandro Botticelli produced two sets of drawings to illustrate the cantos of the Comedy. One set was commissioned by Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de’ Medici in Florence and survives now in two manuscripts in Berlin and in Rome. The other set was designed for print but was left unfinished. The drawings were printed by Baccio Baldini. Only 19 engravings were produced and printed, and there are few surviving copies of Baldini’s edition which contain all of them. Baldini’s iconographic project was not radical, but he was the first to apply it to an edition of Dante’s Comedy. He understood the importance of the image in securing the success of an edition. In a certain way, the history of printed books is also the history of using images to sell text. If we only look at how modern publishers compete with each other using various cover designs and imagery, we see how Botticelli’s stunning prints would have boosted the sale of Baldini’s edition.
  5. Innovate, innovate, innovate. While in many respects early printing was conservative in that typographers relied on pre-existing models inherited from the manuscript culture (script, layout, rubrication, etc), sometimes printers did not fear to go so far as to tamper with current practices and tradition. We owe the title ‘The Divine Comedy’ not to Dante but to the Venetian edition of 1555 printed by Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, and edited by humanist Lodovico Dolce. Although Dante used the phrase ‘divine poem’ in the Comedy, the poem was known, until 1555, as ‘Dante’s Comedy’. De’Ferrari’s venture paid dividends in the long-run as we still have the ‘Divine Comedy’ with us, often as though Dante had intended it this way. In 1502, the first pocket-size edition of the Comedy was produced by the famous Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, under the title ‘Le terze rime di Dante (Dante’s rhyming verses). The Aldine (named after Aldus) edition was more successful in setting a standard in size and layout than in retitling the Comedy.

When Homer spoke French

The 1160s represent an important watershed in Homer’s western medieval literary afterlife. It is the point when Homeric myths, in particular the Trojan War, ceased to develop new forms under ancient, Latin models, and instead morphed into vernacular, medieval forms. In other words, Homer ceased to tell his stories in Greek (or actually Latin, since late antiquity), and learned to speak French. Old French, that is. Oïl!

The Greeks attacking Troy from the Sea, with the Greek and Trojan soldiers equipped as medieval chivalric knights from the ‘Histoire Ancienne jusqu’à César’, France (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century, Stowe MS 54, ff. 82v-83r

The first vernacular development in the Troy cycle was the Roman de Troie (Romance of Troy) of Benoît de Sainte Maure. Written between 1155 and 1160, the Roman, so called because it was written in ronmanz, meaning for ‘vernacular’, is a 40,000 epic poem in Old French about the Trojan war and its aftermath. It is the first medieval poem to accuse Homer of lying for having written about events he hadn’t been a witness to. Benoît based his narrative on the two most famous Latin medieval sources for the Trojan War, the pseudonymous works of Dictys of Crete and Dares Phrygius, both purporting to give an eyewitness account of the war: Dictys from the Greek point of view, Dares from that of the Trojans, although Dares’ influence was far more central to Benoît’s narrative. Although the authors behind Dares and Dictys ultimately took their material from Homer (the Greek intermediary text on which the surviving Latin translation being lost), they are responsible for the anti-Homeric tradition which Benoît inherited.

The Roman opens with a prologue which tackles Homer head-on:

‘Homer, who was a wonderful cleric, wise and learned, related the destruction, the great siege and the reason why Troy was deserted…. but his book does not tell the truth, for we know for certain and without doubt that he was not born until a hundred years after the great expedition was assembled. No wonder he failed, for he was never present there and never witnessed anything that happened. When he had written his book and made it known in Athens, he met with strong opposition.’ (trans. by Glyn S. Burgess and Douglas Kelly, (Cambridge, 2017), pp. 41-2).

Benoît was wrong, of course, but his point about what we may today call source criticism is valid, and takes its place in the long history of western historical and philological scholarship. A trouvère rather than a scholar, Benoît trusts Dares, who, though heavily indebted to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, claims his account is truer because he lived during the Trojan War. In the Iliad, Dares was a Trojan priest of Hephaestus, and the account associated with his name is given from his point of view. Obviously, Benoît did not have the scholarly means to disentangle this point in the reception of the Homeric stories. He takes Dares for granted, but in doing so, he unwittingly brings Homer into the 12th-century world. Through Dares, he is the first to give Homer a French tongue.

Benoît was immensely popular in the Middle Ages and provided the material for a rich, enduring cycle of stories about Troy in vernacular languages, of which the most famous was that of Troilus and Briseida, later picked up by Boccaccio and Chaucer. A large number of manuscripts of Benoît’s Roman survive. Of these, one is particularly interesting.

Benoît de Sainte Maure’s Roman de Troie in British Library, Add MS 30863. The verses are octosyllabic, flat-rhymed (AA BB). Sections open with beautiful painted initials.

This manuscript is preserved in the British Library and dates from the 13th century (Add MS 30863). It contains an imperfect copy of the Roman de Troie, missing 4,300 lines out of some 30,300. However, this copy of the text is remarkable in that it marks the Greek and Trojan personal names, both male and female, with a small sign in green ink in the outer margin. This is either an abbreviated ‘G’ for Greek (Grecus/Greca), or ‘T’ for Trojan (Troianus/Troiana). With so many characters in the epic (23 battles +aftermath!), the writer (the reference signs appear to have been added by the person who painted the red and green initials, either the scribe or an illustrator) provided a humble yet efficient reading aid for keeping close to the narrative as well as for memorizing the text. The Greek heroes Agamemnon, Menelaus (Menelax in Old French), Nestor and Ajax are each marked with a small ‘g’ in the margin in the image below. King Priam’s bastard sons Cassibilant, Dinas of Aron and Doroscalu, as well as the Trojan warrior Rodomorus are marked with a ‘t’ in the subsequent image.

The G signs in the margin correspond to the names of Greek warriors on the two lines. There are two names on each of the marked lines (Agamemnon and Menelax / Nestor and Ajax)

The names are marked with a small G and a T in the margin. This makes it easier to keep track of who’s fighting against whom.

Imag(in)ing Dante: an illustrated manuscript of the Divine Comedy (with complete set of drawings)

Of the several hundreds of manuscripts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, about a hundred have some illumination or decoration, drawn or painted. Of these, London British Library Harley MS 3460 is a remarkable specimen. The manuscript contains illustrations of the scenes covering cantos 1-20 of Inferno, drawn in plummet in the lower part of the page. The manuscript was copied, and possibly illustrated, by Martin de Bonsegnoribus in Milan in 1469. We know this from the colophon where Martin gives us his name and the year he completed the manuscript.

What is, I think, unique about these drawings is that the artist depicts most of the souls in Hell as sexless human beings without hair, closely resembling little children. The nondescript quality of these wretched multitudes is, of course, in line with Dante’s theological insight, that the self in Hell is diminished in its being, a bodily shadow of its former self. A kind of eternity in peius is therefore brought out through this simple drawing technique.

Harley MS 3460 hasn’t been digitized. A detailed description of its content and characteristics is now being being prepared at the British Library through a project in which I take part. As the manuscript won’t see the digital light of day any time soon, I thought it might be a good idea to include the complete set of drawings in this blogpost. The figurative scenes extend from the moment Beatrice sends Virgil to guide Dante through Hell in canto 1 of Inferno down to the sorcerers and astrologers in the 8th circle, canto 20:

As I inclined my head still more, I saw
that each, amazingly, appeared contorted
between the chin and where the chest begins;

they had their faces twisted toward their haunches
and found it necessary to walk backward,
because they could not see ahead of them.

Please scroll down for 26 images.

Radiant Beatrice entrusts Dante to Virgil to guide him through the Underworld

The two poets enter Hell through the famous door

Virgil arranges for Charon to ferry the two pilgrims across the river Acheron, the boundary separating the cowardly neutrals from the souls in the circles of Hell proper.

The pilgrims arrive in Limbo

They arrive before Minos the infernal judge

Sexless Paolo and Francesca detach from the ‘hellish hurricane’Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti

Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the circle of gluttony. Dante’s friend Ciacco takes the stage

The avaricious and prodigal are pointlessly pushing heavy boulders

The wrathful and the sullen are showing every act of aggression

The pilgrims try to enter the City of Dis, Hell’s inner fortress

The pilgrims are unable to enter Dis

Despite the opposition of the Furies, the poets enter Dis with the help of a heavenly messenger

The heretics lie in flaming tombs, while Farinata gets his 5 minutes of fame

Another damned soul, Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, engages with the pilgrims

Pope Anastasius lies here

The two travellers enter the seventh circle, that of the violent, and meet the Minataur and the centaurs

The blasphemers in the river of blood

Dante’s old master, Brunetto Latini, is a resident

The sodomites walking across a burning desert


Monster Geryon, the epitome of fraud, is lured into helping the pilgrims cross from one circle to another

The panderers and flatterers looking not so flattering

Immersed in a river of excrement representing their words, the panderers and flatterers are lashed by demons

Jason stands out among the flatterers

In the ring of the simoniacs of Malebolge, Pope Nicholas III is upside down in a large baptismal font

The diviners, astrologers and magicians have their heads twisted backwards and are forced to walk backwards