Starting from Scratch #4 A gathering of gatherings. Introduction

So far, the manuscript’s dimensions have suggested manufacture of its membrane in the early fifteenth century, somewhere along the routes linking England to northern Italy and, perhaps, more exactly the region near Venice. By contrast, the page-layout and absence of ruling out turns us towards the south and towards books produced on paper or on membrane outside the mainstream Latin culture. Our manuscript is of the type known as books for the commoner, or ‘vulgar’ works, more recently termed “viliores”.[1]

Robert Steele‘s comment may be cited here, expressive of the difficulties which provenancers faced in the first part of the twentieth century, and of the plain fact that this manuscript does not present as part of mainstream Latin culture:

“The usual methods of dating a MS. fail us: the writing cannot be placed, the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible, the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased; it is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences”.

Abstract to Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928)

Given the aptness of Beit-Arie’s description of Jewish works copied privately from originals on paper, we must now rank high the possibility that the content (if not necessarily the current object) had been transcribed in one or more southern Jewish manuscripts, and further to expect that as a work of that kind it is more likely to have been set down on blank quires from a commercial source than on membrane created individually ‘in-house’. The opposite might be expected of a manuscript from an older monastic centre or a large institution.

Speaking of the particular genre of works about the Kabbalah, Marla Segol has said:

Unlike other kinds of Jewish books… or other sorts of illuminated manuscripts, kabbalistic books were not sent out to workshops for illustration….. In almost every case the diagram is drawn in the same ink and in the same hand as the text it accompanies. They are rarely colored and rarely graphically elaborate or impressive. And medieval and early modern kabbalistic manuscripts are seldom deliberately aesthetically pleasing. They are in some ways the ugly ducklings of medieval manuscripts. This shows that they were reproduced as home operation, for use by those who copied them or by their colleagues and students.

Marla Segol, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah, (p.7)

folio 77r detail

The same is true of Jewish works other than those about Kabbalah  – but never mind. Such form and format was not characteristic of works from the fifteenth-century Latin environment,[2] and if nothing else Segol’s comment helps us understand why Panofsky associated the manuscript with Kabbalism ~which was not a ‘magical’ system for the Jews so much as a spiritual philosophy, one sometimes likened to Neoplatonism.

But,  in short,  our manuscript’s dimensions indicate the source for their membrane, but not necessarily the time or place from which we have the matter contained. The question now is whether the quires we have were gained directly by extraction from earlier works, or by the more laborious method of re-copying.

“One or more” sources is indicated by the damage visible to the quires, the range of styles in the imagery, and the variation of evident reference – but while codicological disturbance might indicate compilation by the easier method of direct extraction, it might also result from careless re-binding, especially in manuscripts delivered to a printer.  It would help to know whether there is any objective evidence that the material in some quires or sections varies in age markedly from others. After that, we might consider differences in style.

So now we turn to the radiocarbon tests, which are not particularly suitable for determining information so detailed, but which for the purpose of our hypothetical exercise, will be worth looking at …



1. The description ‘viliores’ is employed by Francis Newton, ‘One Scriptorium, Two Scripts: Beneventan, Caroline, and the Problem of Marston MS 112′, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 66, Supplement to Volume 66: BEINECKE STUDIES IN EARLY MANUSCRIPTS (1991), pp. 118-133. (JSTOR). In this context (if you like this  sort of thing) you might like to see Eric Kwakkel, ‘Common but not Ordinary’, Medieval Fragments (blog), wordpress, The Skinny on Bad Parchment’.(October 24th., 2014.)

Kwakkel is so often relayed and reblogged that finding his own listing is sometimes difficult; it is pushed down the G/gle list by other reposts through P’rest and T’bler. Bookmarking might save you time.

2. Later in the series, I consider whether our manuscript might not have been copied from works made before the eleventh century, whether within or without the Latin context.


4 thoughts on “Starting from Scratch #4 A gathering of gatherings. Introduction

  1. ‘viliores’, really? Given the manuscript’s curious lack of external references – as Steele was probably not even the first to point out in 1928 – I would have thought that a vulgar or common audience was surely entirely excludable from the list. It’s a hard document for anyone to place, so how can it possibly be aimed at vulgar or common audiences?


    • I think the term ‘vulgar’ – which Panofsky also used, was meant in a technical sense, rather as ‘vulgar’ speech meant the vernacular in contradistinction to the cultured Latin. I rather think it is because the term is so often mis-taken that we have the recent coinage. Part of the description of a manuscript as vulgar – i.e. for the common people, as distinct from the minority who were formally cultured and educated – is intended to refer to the technical side of how the manuscript was produced.


      • Diane: if that’s the (fairly tricky) distinction you’re trying to make, then you’re not really using words to help you get your point across. “vulgar” as in “Tuscan rather than Latin ” I can understand as a traditional linguistic term, but also using “vulgar” as a way of denoting a non-formally-produced manuscript seems to be asking a bit much of your readers.


      • Nick, that’s how the term has been used until very recently. I certainly didn’t coin it. You see it in Panofsky’s opinion, and in others, and if you look through the literature (including Jewish discussions of Jewish manuscripts – not just European and Latin ones), that’s the term which was used. I can see the value in preferring the newly-applied “viliores”; it doesn’t convey any prejudicial sense to the lay reader.

        But that has been the technical term.It’s not “my” distinction in any sense.


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