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Magdalene College : A 'Sortes' manuscript including the Experimentarius attributed to Bernardus Silvestris

Magdalene College

<p style='text-align: justify;'>Cambridge, Magdalene College, MS Pepys 911 (hereafter Pepys 911) is a beautifully illustrated example of a type of medieval book known as a '<i>sortes</i>' manuscript, essentially a genre of medieval book concerned with various aspects of what we now describe as divination, prognostication, and fortune-telling. <i>Sortes</i> manuscripts seem to have been quite a popular genre of medieval book, and among those that were made in medieval north-western Europe the majority of the surviving <i>sortes</i> manuscripts contain various combinations of a core group of texts attributed (spuriously) to illustrious Classical figures such as Pythagoras and Cicero.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The various <i>sortes</i> texts popular in medieval north-western Europe follow a similar pattern for use. They typically begin with a list of questions, for example: Should the reader get married? Will a pregnant woman give birth to a boy or a girl? Or will a missing item be found? The reader is then guided into choosing a random number (typically between 1-10) by throwing dice or turning a wheel or another specified method. That number directs the reader to a numbered table or list of answers. Some <i>sortes</i> texts require readers to chain questions together or to add up several randomly chosen numbers, but the question -> random number -> answer format is consistent across the majority of the surviving <i>sortes</i> texts. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'> The <i>sortes</i> genre of texts seems to have been known in western Europe since late Antiquity, but it experienced a renewed popularity north-western Europe in the 13th century through newly available Latin translations of Hebrew and Arabic <i>sortes</i> texts (Iafrate, 2015). The 13th-century revival of interest in <i>sortes</i> texts in north-western Europe is typically discussed in relation to the oldest surviving example of the genre, a manuscript now at the Bodleian Library: <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 304</a> (hereafter Ashmole 304). Ashmole 304 was copied by the writer, scribe and illustrator Matthew Paris (d. 1259) a monk belonging to the Benedictine Abbey of St Albans in England. Neil Ker seems to have been the first scholar to notice that Pepys 911 is closely related to Ashmole 304, since both contain copies of some of the same <i>sortes</i> texts and they have very similar programmes of illustration. Pepys 911 was copied in England in the second half of the 13th century, and such is the similarity of the text and illustrations between the two manuscripts that Charles Burnett in his study of the manuscripts containing the 'Experimentarius' attributed to Bernardus Silvestris suggested that this manuscript (Burnett's MS 'B') and Ashmole 304 (Burnett's MS 'A') are 'sister' manuscripts copied from the same (lost) exemplar, and placed them in a 'St Albans group'. There is no suggestion that Matthew Paris was either the scribe or the artist of Pepys 911, and although both manuscripts contain a shared core of texts, they each preserve <i>sortes</i> texts not found in the other; nevertheless the shared texts (and the shared organisation of those texts) and the similarity of their illustrations (compare e.g., the Pythagoras portraits and the portraits of the 12 sons of Jacob in both volumes) demonstrates a close relationship between the two books. </p><p style='text-align: justify;'> There are six substantial <i>sortes</i> texts in MS Pepys 911: <ul><li>- The 'Experimentarius' attributed to Bernardus Silvestris and extensively discussed by C. Burnett (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(13);return false;'>2r-18v</a>)</li><li>- A <i>sortes</i> text attributed to Pythagoras called the 'Prenostica pitagorice' in some manuscripts (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(47);return false;'>19r-29v</a>) - in this manuscript the text is accompanied by an author-portrait of Pythagoras ('Pitagoras' in the MS), and the questions and answers in the textare accompanied by illustrations of various birds, most with names that probably derive from an original source in Hebrew.</li><li>- A <i>sortes</i> text attributed to the wisdom of the 12 sons of Jacob, the founders of the Twelve Tribes of Israel - in this manuscript the text is accompanied by a half-page miniature of Jacob's 12 sons (<a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(69);return false;'>30r-33v</a>)</li><li>- A metrical <i>sortes</i> text sometimes attributed to Pythagoras in other copies of the text (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(77);return false;'>34r-44v</a>)</li><li>- A <i>sortes</i> text arranged around dialogues between birds and celestial figures, accompanied by diagrams describing the relationships of the two groups (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(103);return false;'>47r-58v</a> )</li><li>- A <i>sortes</i> text supposedly based on the wisdom of Socrates accompanied in this manuscript by several 'wheel of fortune' diagrams presenting the answers to various questions and topics (ff. <a href='' onclick='store.loadPage(127);return false;'>59r-68r</a>)</li></ul></p><p style='text-align: justify;'><b>References </b><div style='list-style-type: disc;'><div style='display: list-item; margin-left: 20px;'>C. Burnett, 'What is the "Experimentarius" of Bernardus Silvestris? A Preliminary Survey of the Material', <i>Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age</i> 44 (1977), pp. 79-125, esp. n. 42 and pp. 101-102</div><div style='display: list-item; margin-left: 20px;'>M. Heiles, 'Sortes' in M. Heiduk, K. Herbers, H.-C. Lehner (eds.), <i>Prognostication in the Medieval World</i> (Berlin and Boston, 2021), pp. 960-964</div><div style='display: list-item; margin-left: 20px;'>A. Iafrate, 'The Workshop of Fortune: St Albans and the <i>sortes</i> manuscripts', <i>Scriptorium</i> 66.1 (2012), pp. 55-87</div><div style='display: list-item; margin-left: 20px;'>A. Iafrate (ed.), <i>Matthieu Paris, Le moine et le hazard: Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 304</i>, Textes littéraires du Moyen Âge, 39 / Divinatoria, 5 (Paris, 2015)</div><div style='display: list-item; margin-left: 20px;'>N. Ker, <i>Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries</i>, 5 vols (1977), vol. II, pp. 233-234</div></div><br /></p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Dr Sarah Gilbert<br /> Project Cataloguer for Curious Cures in Cambridge Libraries<br /> Cambridge University Library</p>

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