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Western Medieval Manuscripts : Historical compilation

Western Medieval Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'>During the medieval period, history did not officially form part of the curriculum taught at universities. However, it fulfilled an important ancillary role to theology, one of the higher faculties of study. According to the writings of Hugh of St Victor (c. 1096-1141), a canon of the abbey of St Victor in Paris, there were three approaches to reading the Scriptures: historical, allegorical and tropological. Hugh reasoned that history - in the sense of the correct sequence of past events, but also the literal sense of any narrative, and both with specific reference to the Bible - was the foundation upon which must rest any subsequent figurative interpretation of the Bible as a source of moral guidance. To this end, Hugh advocated the training of one's memory and the use of mnemonic techniques. These were complemented by simultaneous changes in the presentation of texts in manuscripts: specifically, the creation of paratextual apparatus and visual cues to facilitate the accessing and comprehension of the text they accompanied, or another to which it referred, by their readers.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The individual contents of this manuscript, their selection for compilation within a single volume, and the manner in which they were presented illustrate the development and dissemination of these new intellectual and bibliographical trends. It comprises three texts, the first two of which were composed to aid the understanding of biblical history: the <i>Historia scholastica</i> of Peter Comestor (d. 1187) and the <i>Genealogia historiarum</i> (or <i>Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi</i>) of Peter of Poitiers (c. 1130-c. 1205). The third text, the <i>Allegoriae in uetus testamentum</i>, was written by Richard of St Victor (d. 1173), a pupil of Hugh's, and exemplifies the figurative modes of reading the Bible by describing the allegorical meanings to be found in the names of people, places or events related in the Old Testament.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The <i>Historia scholastica</i> occupies the bulk of this manuscript, and the text represents an attempt to put Hugh of St Victor's ideas into practice. Comestor organised his narrative according to the order of the books of the Bible, with each of its constituent histories corresponding to a biblical book or collection of books, and thus providing the reader with a historical foundation for the study of the scriptures. In many places, the <i>Historia</i> was presented using parallel columns, which enabled Comestor to accommodate his incidental observations without interrupting the framework of the events narrated in the Bible. In this manuscript, these take the form of improvised sub-columns, their text demarcated from the rest by rubricated lines that appear to have been drawn freehand and after the text had been copied (see f. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(43);return false;'>16r</a> for extensive examples in both columns, and note how the rubricated line frequently runs over parts of letters).</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Similar experimentation with layout is found in the first text in this manuscript, the <i>Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi</i> of Peter of Poitiers. The two authors were close contemporaries - Comestor served as Chancellor of Notre Dame and Dean of the cathedral school, before being succeeded by Peter of Poitiers in 1169 - and their two texts commonly accompanied one another in manuscripts. Although in this manuscript the <i>Compendium</i> is apparently of separate production - on a separate quire of six leaves (constrasting with the quires of eight found in the rest of the book), its text copied by a different hand, and decorated with a different set of pigments that have in places corroded the parchment (such damage not being found elsewhere) - there is no reason to suppose that they were not produced around the same time and with the intention from the outset or at an early stage that they should be bound together in a single volume. Poitiers' work is essentially a family tree: it condenses Old Testament history in order to illustrate Jesus's descent from Adam. In this manuscript, the names of individuals are enclosed in roundels, the most important being picked out in gold, and their relationship to one another is shown by interconnecting coloured lines. Interspersed among the parts of the genealogy are multiple columns of text, providing the reader with additional information concerning specific people, places or historical events. There are also schematic diagrams: first of Noah's ark (one derived from description in the Book of Genesis; and one from the 1st-century Jewish historian Josephus's <i>Antiquitates iudaicae</i>), then the three mansions in the desert and the Tabernacle, and finally the habitation of the king and priests of Israel. In keeping with Hugh of St Victor's precepts, these illustrations - and the genealogical diagrams as a whole - were intended as aids to memory, providing visual points of reference for the mental arrangement of historical information transmitted to the reader in the text.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The close association of these two texts appears to have led at an early stage to the expansion of the <i>Compendium</i> with material from the <i>Historia scholastica</i> as well as other sources (the range of illustrations also varied in later, expanded versions). This manuscript is notable as perhaps the earliest extant copy of the 'interpolated' version of the <i>Compendium</i> made in England. Dating to the late 12th century, it furthermore illustrates the rapid dissemination of these new intellectual currents from the University of Paris to centres of scholarship elsewhere in Europe.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr James Freeman<br /> Medieval Manuscripts Specialist<br /> Cambridge University Library</p>

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