skip to content

Western Medieval Manuscripts : The 'False Decretals' of Pseudo-Isidore; Nicholas Trivet, Commentary on 'De consolatione philosophiae' of Boethius

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Although the two parts of this manuscript are unrelated - in terms of their origin and their textual contents - they have shared a history together since at the least the middle decades of the sixteenth century. The pagination of the manuscript in an orange-red crayon, running continuously from its beginning to its end and across the two parts without interruption, immediately marks the book out as formerly belonging to Matthew Parker (1504-1575): one-time Master of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Elizabeth I, and donor of books and manuscripts both to his former college and to the University Library.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The pagination also continues without interruption from MS Dd.1.10, the partner volume of this manuscript, which contains the first portion of the so-called 'False Decretals' of pseudo-Isidore. The two portions of this text may originally have been bound together; there is no obvious codicological evidence to suggest otherwise, with the opening leaves of the text of MS Dd.1.11 being clean and well-preserved. Certainly by the time of the manuscripts' donation to the University Library in 1574 they were bound in two volumes: they are recorded separately in <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>the list of Parker's gifts</a>, and a binding label preserved from that time and now affixed to <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(13);return false;'>one of the endleaves</a> at the front of the volume describes it as '2 pars'. It is not known whether the other text contained in MS Dd.1.11 - Nicholas Trevet's commentary on Boethius's Philosophia consolatio - had been bound with the False Decretals prior to Parker's possession of the volumes; neither part of MS Dd.1.11 contains any evidence of provenance prior to that relating to Matthew Parker (and nor does MS Dd.1.10). It may be that Parker brought the two parts together simply for the sake of convenience, their leaves being of similar size with wide enough margins for them to be bound together and trimmed at the edges without any loss of text.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>According to Paul Hinschius's 1863 edition, however, the text of the False Decretals found in MSS Dd.1.10-11 had been copied from a twelfth-century manuscript from Christ Church Cathedral Priory in Canterbury (now <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>British Library, Cotton MS Claudius E.v</a>, which itself ultimately derived from a now lost or unidentified manuscript at Bec in northern France, but supplemented with papal letters held at Canterbury, including forgeries produced during the episcopacy of Lanfranc). No doubt this led M.R. James to speculate in an unpublished description of the manuscript that the copy in MSS Dd.1.10-11 "will have been written perhaps for an Archbishop of Canterbury...possibly for [William] Warham" (see Source for further details). Numerous of Parker's manuscripts did indeed come from libraries in Canterbury (though not always directly), however in this case definitive proof of the book's production remains elusive.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The False Decretals was one of a series of compilations of canons and ordinances (legal decrees that determined how the church should operate), not all of which were genuine either: these earlier collections are known as the 'Collectio Hispana' and the 'False Capitularies'. It begins with a preface authored supposedly by 'Isidore Mercator', an imaginary persona whose name derives from the combination of two genuine early Church authors, Isidore of Seville and Marius Mercator. The principal invention of the False Decretals was a body of nearly a hundred pseudonymous papal letters (known as 'decretals'), ranging from the papacy of Clement I to that of Gregory the Great, and assembled by extracting and reconstituting the text of other, genuine sources. As Cotton MS Claudius E.v illustrates, the False Decretals were also subject subsequently to further expansion with church law documents that had particular local relevance or in order to serve specific political purposes.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The precise date and place of origin for the False Decretals remains open to debate among canon law scholars, however. It has long been agreed that these texts emerged from the western region of the Frankish empire, with further confirmation being given by the discovery that the originators of some of the forgeries annotated and used three ninth-century manuscripts, two of which were from the monastic library at Corbie. They were first cited definitively at the Council of Quierzy in 857, and given very wide circulation thereafter (more than a hundred manuscript copies are still extant), forming the basis of the Church law across Europe until the sixteenth century. It was only in 1628 that the fictional nature of much of their content was proven by the scholar David Blondel. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The second part of this manuscript stands in stark contrast to the first. Here, the authorship of the text is certain, and much is known not only of the author's life but also of the circumstances in which he came to write this text. Nicholas Trevet was born at some point between 1257 and 1265, and began his career in the Dominican order in his young adulthood, first at the London convent and then, in the late 1280s, at Oxford. There he first established his reputation as a scholar and, at an early stage (possibly before 1300), began spending time overseas, most likely at other Dominican studia.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The earliest datable work to emerge from these travels was the commentary on Boethius's <i>De consolatione philosophiae</i>. The text must date from before 1304, since Trevet quoted parts of it in his quodlibet of that year, perhaps before he incepted as regent master at Oxford in 1303, and maybe as early as the turn of the century. A prefatory dedication (not commonly found in the surviving manuscripts) reveals that it was written for a fellow member of the Dominican order, a teacher and subsequently close friend of Trevet's, apparently an Italian named Paul who lived in Pisa. Although Trevet had been urged to undertake the work by his mentor, it was only once he was in Florence that he did so. At first struggling to find a copy of the <i>De consolatione</i>, Trevet eventually had to make one himself, using another lent to him by an unnamed third party, presumably a resident of Florence. Both received presentation copies from the author in thanks.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>According to Edmund Silk, in his unpublished edition of the text, 'Trevet's purpose [in the commentary] is to help students grasp the plan of the <i>Consolatio</i> as a whole, and the relation of the parts to the whole'. He drew widely on previous authors and commentators, in particular William of Conches, in order (as Lodi Nauta has put it) to 'extract the <i>sententia</i>, the deep meaning...[which] could be co-ordinated with the <i> sententiae</i> of other authorities'. The citation by Trevet of his commentary in his second quodlibet in 1304 indicates that his work on Boethius and involvement in university were interconnected: the commentary was not simply an exposition of the text, 'but could also function as a vehicle for expounding views which found their way into his university disputations' (Nauta).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Characteristics that Trevet's commentary shares with the False Decretals are its wide dissemination and lasting impact. More than a hundred copies of the text survive, although there appears not to be a published list (though Silk mentioned that one was being compiled by Ruth Dean). It was used by a number of translators of Boethius, most notably by Geoffrey Chaucer (a copy of whose translation has been part of the University Library's collections since at least c. 1424, and is now <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''> MS Ii.3.21</a>), but also Robert Henryson and John Walton. Its influence also continued beyond the manuscript era, informing and influencing the earliest printed commentaries of Pseudo-Aquinas and Badius Ascensius.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr James Freeman<br /> Medieval Manuscripts Specialist<br /> Cambridge University Library</p><p style='text-align: justify;'><i>Bibliography:</i><br /> Eric Knibbs, 'Ebo of Rheims, Pseudo-Isidore and the date of the False Decretals', <i> Speculum</i>, 92 (2017), 144-183 []<br /> Eric Knibbs, 'Who was Pseudo-Isidore? A brief introduction to an ancient problem', <i>Pseudo-Isidore: an edition-in-progress of the False Decretals</i> []<br /> Ruth Dean, 'The dedication of Nicholas Trevet's Commentary on Boethius', <i>Studies in Philology</i>, 63 (1966), 593-603 []<br /> Lodi Nauta, 'The scholastic context of the Boethius commentary by Nicholas Trevet', in <i> Boethius in the Middle Ages: Latin and vernacular traditions of the 'Consolatio philosophiae'</i>, ed. by M.J.F.M. Hoenen and L. Nauta (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 41-67. </p>

Want to know more?

Under the 'More' menu you can find , and information about sharing this image.

No Contents List Available
No Metadata Available


If you want to share this page with others you can send them a link to this individual page:
Alternatively please share this page on social media

You can also embed the viewer into your own website or blog using the code below: