Avignon manuscripts – bottega versus scriptorium- 1309 to 1377.

Datini’s link to our manuscript may be tenuous, or indeed non-existent, but our manuscript does appear to refer to Avignon – possibly as it looked before the early fourteenth century though the scale of the diagram means that the image would be reduced to a single distinctive item.

The last of the seven Avignon popes to be recognised by the whole of the western church returned with his court to Rome in 1377, bringing to completion the intent of his predecessor, under whom the massive task had begun of duplicating a large number of the Avignon documents and manuscripts.  We are fortunate that the task’s organisation and practicalities were recorded in great detail at the time.

I’ve referred before to Dom Albareda’s account, but now to  illustrate the technical details of production, and how urgency obliged a shift from production in the older style of the scriptorium to an ‘assembly-line’ method closer to that of the workshops, I’ll quote more directly from Albareda’s landmark paper.  [1]

He begins by noting that,

The collections of books and pontifical documents have, quite properly, been divided into three periods, depending upon the places where they were gathered and preserved; these are known as: the Lateran Library, the Avignon Library, and the Vatican Library. When the last two Avignon Popes returned to take up residence in Rome, they chose to live, not in the palace of the Lateran, but in the Vatican, and it was there that they gathered the manuscripts that had been brought from Avignon, many of which, even down to our own times, are preserved in the Vatican Library. There is no doubt that they were the founders of the Vatican Library.“[2]

In the Palace of the Popes at Avignon there had been collected some two thousand literary manuscripts, and about a thousand volumes of the Papal Chancery.. the books of the Popes, all of which comprised the Thesaurus Ecclesiae (the treasure of the Church).  The Chancery documents were not.. archives, but living books, in which entries were made from day to day.

Their loss in transit would have been catastrophic, so..

Pope Urban V … ordered that every one of these hundreds of manuscripts should be carefully copied and the copies sent to Rome. The originals, meantime, were to remain well guarded in the Palace or, rather [as it now was] the Fortress of the Popes in Avignon.

Ioannes Rosset  is  named the appointed “Commissioner for the copying of the books to be transported to Rome”. 

His first preoccupation was the problem of getting the enormous quantity of parchment that would be be needed for the project. For this he turned to the Jewish merchants Mayometo, Isaac Marvay, Joseph Dalegum, Iuffeto, and especially to Silvetus de Stella, who was especially honoured.. and named “Administrator pergamenarum pro Domino nostro Papa [3]

Once the parchment was acquired, specific instructions were given as to the number of pieces and their shape: maior forma, media forma, mediocris formis (large, medium and small). 

Note – I find the simplicity of these classes very interesting, lack of more detail implying  – as many historians have long held – that sizes for manuscript membrane were pretty well standardised, even at that time.  More recent technical research from the Institut d’histoire du livre is offered online. Their page ‘The shape of paper’ includes (after a chart of standard paper sizes, according to the Bologna Stone), the important observation that an animal’s hide usually gave a sheet close to what the paper-makers called the “royal” size, its shorter side measuring between 445 mm – 450mm,  the longer between 608 mm and 615mm. In terms of the Voynich manuscript’s bifolia, one such sheet of vellum would fold down to a single quire of eight sides (= four folios) with dimensions which do not coincide exactly with those of the VMS folios, but allow us to say that the Vms’ bifolia are within the general range of membrane prepared in Europe. The VMS’ dimensions (225 x 160 mm) are, nonetheless, unusual among our extant Latin medieval manuscripts.  It would be interesting to consult the list of Avignon volumes from this time, for its bifolia were made and trimmed to size before being inscribed or bound.

… and it was specified that the sheets should be smooth, evenly trimmed, and folded together so as to form even and perfect signatures.

Note – Here, I think, Dom Albareda means “.. perfect quires”. See e.g. ‘Working with Folia and Signatures‘, Polonsky Digitization Project, (webpage) Bodleian Library, Oxford.[4]  A ‘quire signature’ was the inscription which told the binder the order in which to stack the separate quires for binding.

and here again, the work was assigned de Stella,

.. This obviously required facilities for binding and we know the names of those who were engaged for that stage of the work: Peter Savere, and Silvetus de Stella.

From this is appears quite clear that the Jews were at that time in Avignon the most experienced provisioners of materials for manuscript production, and masters of book-binding. The sheer quantity of membrane required for the task is difficult to imagine, and sourcing it must surely have required a very extensive existing network. In a way, this is not so surprising if one thinks about it; Europe’s Jewish population was still substantial at the time and most were denied access to the education and libraries available to Latins.  Enough remains to us to show that book-production among the Jews at this time was not only of formal religious works, but home-made ‘viliores’ made by women as well as by men. To purchase ready-made quires would be the simplest and easiest course for individuals and families copying books for their own, or for communal use.

The scribes employed in Avignon for the work of copying these documents and manuscripts appear, on the other hand, to be either Latin clerical scribes, or from a class ‘accredited’ to copy religious texts. Albareda calls them  ‘calligraphers’ and their surnames show the range from which they came.  Even the few specified below will give the reader an idea of this. The names are those of France, Italy, northern Italy and one from as far as Constance.

The formal organisation of the work of transcription was very carefully arranged and the notary Rosset engaged the services of a large number of clerici scriptores, all expert calligraphers and very well paid. .. the names of some ..: William of Constance [near St.Gall], Peter Valerius, Bernard of Molina [in Piedmont], Raymond Pancherii [probably from near Trentino on the high pass from Verona towards Innsbruck],[5] Martin Massuelli, Vincent Ferrandi [France or Italy] [6], Nicholas Nastia [?], and ever so many others.

It is easy to see why one must be very slow to deduce too much from the style in which the Voynich quire numbers were written. Thomas Sauvaget looked for similar numbers in digitised manuscripts from St.Gall, and found some, offering this in support of Rene Zandbergen’s “Lake Constance” theory.  Later, in response to a query from Nick Pelling, the manuscript cataloguer at the Library of St. Gall replied that “this kind of quire numbering”  is not as extraordinary as  Pelling  thought – make of that what one may.   But in any case, it is clear that whether or not this style of writing was taught in the region of Lake Constance during the fifteenth century, a scribe educated in any region might travel and work in another.  It is a pity that as yet no-one has had the time to conduct a wider search of the same sort.  As yet I have not found any manuscript from St.Gall with vellum as rough as ours, or one of the same dimensions – which is certainly not to assert there is none to be found.

Now we find an initial division of the labour according to the type of document:

Rosset distributed the work among groups of these scribes, divided according to the different kinds of documents to be transcribed. It is interesting that he reserved for himself the most troublesome task, that of doing the indexes of the papal documents and the copying of the oldest manuscripts.

and then finally, when Rosset realised that he must further increase the speed of the work and hire more copyists,  what one must describe as the ‘manufactory’ style – perhaps from the model of the pecia – was employed.

[and so, now] .. he separated from the rest the most urgently needed volumes. The binding of these were very carefully removed, the quaternions (a gathering, or quire, consisting of 8 leaves, 16 sides) were separated and individual signatures given, each to a scribe for simultaneous transcription in the interests of speed.

Now, I don’t know what my readers might think, but that last sentence sounds very like the sort of atmosphere from which – as many think – our present MS Beinecke 408 took its present form, though of course it was made considerably later. I am sure that somewhere online there will be a list of the quires forming MS Beinecke 408, and the hand or hands identified as proper to each, even if those are only described as  ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B”.

When a volume had thus been finished, the original signatures, as well as the new copies, were carefully collated and rebound and prepared for shipping. This whole procedure, so similar to the technique of the pecia, invented (sic) by the university booksellers, is completely described in the invoice submitted by Rosset and de Stellla, dated September 22nd., 1367. [7]. Finally, the time came for transporting the manuscripts and it was decided they should go by sea.  Ships were engaged wherever available and many of the sailors were Catalans from Portovendres.[8]

Their names, and even the name of each ship, was again recorded. After a difficult journey, all arrived in Rome and the manuscripts were deposited together in the Vatican. Thus, according to Albareda,

The Vatican Library.. was born of the desire and the urgent need to preserve these hundreds of volumes from the danger of dispersal and destruction.”

He adds that Urban V ordered entrances to the papal Library of Avignon, with its precious originals, to be walled up “de lapidus cum cemento” – with stone and cement.

(Perhaps that is what gave Datini the idea of walling up his own documents.)

Modern historians see somewhat differently the process by which the Avignon library was built, added to, and later dispersed.  That will be for the next post.

After the return of the seventh pope to Rome, Avignon did not cease to be the home of those who considered themselves properly elected heads of the western Church. Under these so-called “anti-popes” the library continued to grow, and among those who came to the Avignon court were artisans from Flanders, England and Italy. Some remained longer in Avignon, and others for a shorter time, but those who returned to their native town took with them not only the money they earned, but new ideas and forms for their personal repertoire.

Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that those who first considered our manuscript, and who were least influenced by Wilfrid Voynich’s romantic tale of imperium, magic and ciphers, held the opinion that our manuscript shows no sign of mainland Europe’s Latin renaissance ( or: medieval and renaissance culture).  Most supposed the manuscript to be of English or of Spanish provenance, and dated it to about the thirteenth or fourteenth century.  The “central European” theory remains, still, very poorly supported by the manuscript itself, relying chiefly on the adherents’ ability to persuade an audience of the idea’s  “plausibility”,  a process assisted not least by resolute refusal to recognise any contrary indications, and by actively opposing reference to comparative imagery  beyone the single medium and region to the manuscript is held to belong. “Only fifteenth century manuscripts are relevant” has – believe it or not – become the current catchcry in relation to this still-unprovenanced manuscript, written in an unknown script and whose corpus and style of imagery finds no parallel in any medieval Latin European work.

In fairness it must be said that some adopting this belief genuinely do not understand the importance of other media, or of stylistic differences as indications of provenance. Many seem genuinely unable to recognise those distinctions, let alone to understand their implications, or contextualise them.   As any reader will see, by considering comments published online in support of the “central European” idea,  the constant assumption made is that an  image is no more than  a “picture of” some item, rather than being (as pictures were), a “picture about” the shared vision of the maker and his expected audience.  Using stylistic differences to provenance any image, therefore, though routine in art history and analysis, is a practice of which the majority of ‘Voynicheros’ appear genuinely oblivious. Understanding this may help explain that reflexive hostility expressed towards broader comparative study, close consideration of the manuscript’s media, and detailed analysis of the imagery.   It is hostility of a type and degree which certainly astonishes those accustomed to more reasoned, balanced and objective approach in which evidence and argument are the focus of debate.

Datini Invoice

Invoice – Datini archive


1. Dom Anselm M. Albareda, “The Preservation and Reproduction of the Manuscripts of the Vatican Library through the Centuries”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 104, No. 4, Dedication of Library Hall of the American Philosophical Society, Autumn General Meeting, November, 1959 (Aug. 15, 1960), pp. 413-418.

2. Online sources from the Vatican Library today are silent on the matter of these copies, the current introduction to the BAV  saying that,  “In Avignon, John XXII (1316-1334) began to gather a new library, parts of which made their way into the collection of the Borghese family in the seventeenth century and from there back to the Holy See in 1891.” I cannot explain the discrepancy, but see no reason to dispute Albareda’s account, or the authenticity of the sources on which he relied. Nor do I think it likely that he would have confused the Borghese acquisitions with earlier ones. Albareda came to the Vatican Library only forty years after the Borghese acquisition and his paper was written when he had been in post for twenty years.  It is difficult to imagine that anyone in that post, with his experience and obvious interest in research, could confuse works that had been in the Vatican Library for five centuries for those accessioned  late in the nineteenth.  Albareda’s name does not appear among the official list of the Vatican Library’s Librarians,  (see e.g. the wiki article’s  List of Librarians).  Giovanni Mercati is namedas ‘Bibliothecarius’ for most of the time Albareda served at Prefect (i.e  1936-1957;  and was followed by Eugène Tisserant.

3. Anselm translates this as, “the Commissioner of Parchment for this Holiness, the Pope” though ‘pergamenum’ means any form of membrane intended for writing upon, and the description of the Pope is literally “our Lord, the Pope”.

  • according to Rene Zandbergen (pers.comm) the bifolia of the Voynich manuscript have not been trimmed as often occurred in a binding process, and thus retain their original dimensions.

4.   “[incunabula..] Like manuscripts .. weren’t paginated or foliated at the time of creation, but many include printed or handwritten signatures. These are assigned to the first half of the leaves in each gathering, usually at the bottom of each recto; in an octavo volume, this would mean that there would be four signed leaves, then four unsigned leaves, in each gathering. Standard signatures usually use letters as well as numbers, with a letter or symbol assigned to each gathering and a number assigned to each leaf within that gathering. ” op.cit. The Brit.Library’s Glossary of Illuminated MSs gives more detail under QUIRE: “Quires are the ‘gatherings’ or ‘booklets’ of which a book is formed. Quire numeration, which began in the late antique period, consists of numbers written on a quire (usually on its final verso) to facilitate arrangement during binding. Quire signatures (or leaf signatures) are numbers and/or letters written in a quire to facilitate the arrangement of its internal components. These were at first ad hoc, but beginning around 1400 they might follow a system: for example, ai-aiv could be written on the first four leaves of the first quire; bi-biv on the first four leaves of the second quire, and so on. Such annotations only became widespread from the late thirteenth century on.

5. “The Pancheri families have a long history in Trentino, especially in the area of a cluster of tiny villages known as Bresimo (e.g. Samoclevo, Baselga).  I have been told that the earliest local record documenting the Pancheri name dates to 1412.  These villages were home to generations of the Pancheri’s, especially after the abandonment of Castel Altaguardia.   Many of the male Pancheris were notaries (“notaio“) during the 15th-17th centuries.  Unlike the notary in the US, a “notaio” was similar to a lawyer, and oversaw all wills, land transfers, and governmental procedures.  Although not actually of the noble class, they were addressed as if they were of that class.”  from ‘Pancheri family and castle Altaguardia‘ web page.

6. Ferrandi.. is very common in Italy, especially in the north. However, it does suggest Gallic origins and as was frequent in ancient times, Ferrandy/Ferrandi slowly became Frandi [in Italian] to fit in with other simplified Italian spellings which often end in ‘I’. ..  native Italians.. pronounce Frandi as Ferrrrrandi anyway, rolling their rrrs. Conversely, Ferrandi is a very common name in France!

7. note that the document doesn’t appear to have been dated by reference to the liturgical calendar in the usual way; that is, by naming the saint of the day. My last illustration shows an invoice from the Datini archive – note the custom of adding sketches of the items as reminder to the buyer.

8. “Portovendres” or Port Vendres: one of the few deep-water ports on the eastern coast of France. It lies 180 kilometers south from Avigon, with Peñiscola 450 kilometers, near enough, further south. At the time of the Avignon Papacy, Portovendres was a city whose recent expansion was due  to the Kingdom of Majorca, for whom it provided an important link between the Balearic islands  and the mainland.  The period of the earlier Avignon Popes (1305-1344) is remembered as the golden age for Majorca (Mallorca). Under King Jaume II, from 1276-1344, its agriculture, industry and navigation flourished, promoted and actively expanded after the centuries of invasion, plague and Barbary piracy.  A building programme also saw the construction of Bellver Castle; the Almudaina was re-made into a great palace in the new international Gothic fashion, and a convent of St. Francis begun for the Franciscan friars.  It was also now that Ramon Llull lived. At the time, the kingdom of Majorca included Montpellier and Perpignan, and other territory in what is now southern France. In 1344, however, the island was again invaded by the Spanish and incorporated into the kingdom of Aragon, its flourishing community of Arabic and Jewish cartographers surviving for another thirty years under the practical protection of the French and Papal courts. (Abraham Cresques’ great ‘Atlas’ was prepared for the king of France, but by the time it was completed, Pedro had the island and presented it himself.  It should rightly be known, not as the ‘Catalan’ Atlas, but as the Cresques’ Atlas, or at least the Majorcan Atlas).  Rivalry between Enrique and Pedro, surnamed ‘the Cruel’, soon saw the Jewish and Arabic-speaking communities persecuted in Majorca as they were in Catalonia. On Majorca (Mallorca) see David Abulafia, A Mediterranean Emporium: The Catalan Kingdom of Majorca, C.U.P., 2002. ( I recommend Appendix I: ‘Mallorca and Sardinia, 1267-1343‘). Portovendres (Port Vendres) It is now a French possession, France having gained it in 1659 by the Treaty of the Pyranees. Portovendres is another with an ancient history and ships from the Roman period have been recovered there, on which last point see: Verònica Martínez Ferreras et.al.,  ‘The Port-Vendres 4 Shipwreck Cargo: evidence of the Roman wine trade in the western Mediterranean’, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Vol 44, Issue 2 (September 2015) pp. 277–299. available online through Wiley International.

map Portovendres to Peniscola

courtesy and copyright – Google maps.