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Ms. Codex 909, [Le livre des Eneydes]: A Fine Example of Lettre Bâtarde

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My interest in Ms. Codex 909 began last summer while I was taking a non-credit course, Introduction to Paleography, offered by the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and taught by Penn manuscript cataloger Amey Hutchins and Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts project researcher and English doctoral candidate Alex Devine.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in paleography, whether you’re a graduate student, librarian, or independent scholar.  Each student was asked to give a final presentation on the script used in a manuscript of his or her choosing.  While there were many intriguing manuscripts to choose from, I landed on [Le livre des Eneydes], the first French translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  It is, in fact, one of four extant manuscripts known to contain Octovien Saint-Gelais’s translation.  Of the other three manuscripts, two are located at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, while the remaining codex can be found at The Hague.

While I transcribed the first two folios for the project, I did not attempt a reading of the entire manuscript due to time constraints; however, an article written in 1990 by Thomas Brückner goes into some detail about Saint-Gelais’s groundbreaking translation.  According to Brückner, the translation is a loyal reproduction of the narrative, but the Virgilian style of the epic poem is not painstakingly interpreted, as later Renaissance translators would attempt under the influence of the ancient poetic concept of imitatio.  Saint-Gelais often omits words, usually descriptive words that were used by Virgil for the sake of embellishment, but rarely an entire verse.  He injects numerous Latinisms into his text, taking a Latin word and giving it a French ending.  Brückner also notes that he draws words from the gloss of Servius at times, and not from the original Latin.  In a way, Saint-Gelais edits Virgil’s text too.  He inserts explanations that do not appear in the original epic for the sake of the reader, due to the fact that he is translating from hexameter into decasyllabic couplets and details may get lost from one line to another.[1]

The manuscript begins with a beautiful sloping ductus written in lettre bâtarde, sometimes called lettre bourguignonne.  Its namesakes are the Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, who were patrons of the arts in the 15th century and who commissioned many deluxe manuscripts in the French vernacular.  Penn’s manuscript itself may have been meant for a noble audience, as the large blank spaces left for illumination may indicate.  The script’s other name, lettre bâtarde, refers to the hybridity of the script that displays characteristics of Gothic Textura but incorporates calligraphic features as well.  The Gothic influence can be seen in the single compartment a, the minims that are hard to tell apart, quadrangles that are sometimes formed at the bottom of the minims, and the inclusion of spiky details like horns.  The scribe uses calligraphic technique to create the looping ascenders of the b, h and l.  The letter f and the straight s slope from right to left across the page and are a tell-tale sign of lettre bâtarde.  They are created using a quill with a flexible nib, which can create great differences in the width of strokes.  The f and straight s are thin at the top, with a broad thick stroke in the middle that thins again to a pointed descender with a thin hairline stroke.  The calligraphic technique also includes many flourishes to the letters.


The minims are reminiscent of Gothic Textura


The sloping straight s is typical of lettre batarde

As I was flipping through the manuscript for the first time, I noticed what appeared to be two changes in the scribal hand.  I decided to focus my presentation on a comparison of the three hands to determine if my initial thought was correct.  For the sake of ease, I’ll call the hands the first hand, the second hand and the third hand based on where the change occurs in the book.  The change from first to second occurs around f. 50v and the switch from the second hand to the third hand occurs at f. 63r.

The reason that I estimate where the second change occurs is because it is much harder to tell where the first switch in hand happens.  It isn’t until f. 50v that I feel most certain it’s another hand.  There are a number of differences that become apparent as you move closer to f. 50v, but the change seems to happen gradually.  The script becomes smaller and the o, a, and d become rounder.  The minims are more reminiscent of Gothic script and the loops on the ascenders are smaller.  The l, f and straight s become shorter.  The first hand is more angular and the f and s are more slanted, more like archetypal lettre bâtarde.  The first hand has more cursive thin hairline strokes and the highest level of execution of the lettre bâtarde of all three hands.  The gradual change in the appearance of the script could mean a few things, and begs the question of whether it is truly two distinct hands.  It could mean that there was only one scribe, but they are slowly modifying their hand until it comes to look quite different by the time you reach f. 50v.  On the other hand, no pun intended, a second scribe may have been trying to imitate some of the features of the first scribe but slowly reverted to their own stylistic idiosyncrasies.  I would be interested to hear the opinions of more learned scholars than myself who might want to take a look at Codex 909.


First hand


Second hand


Third hand

The change from the second hand to the third hand is much more noticeable and I have more confidence that it is another scribe altogether.  Only after f. 63r do the ascenders of each top line of every page double in size, taking up the height of almost an entire line (see f.62v-63r below).  The hand looks a bit sloppier, as if it was written more hastily, and in fact there are some erasures and added lines that suggest this may have been the case.  The writing also takes up more space on the page and the lines often run past the ruled lines.  The strokes are thicker and there is more embellishment to the letters, especially compared to the second hand, which is the most spare of the three.  Of all the letters, the easiest ones to look at to identify differences were the d and the straight s in this codex.

62v1_16 63r1_16

I really enjoyed my time looking closely at this manuscript, which is a fine example of lettre bâtarde.  As Albert Derolez reminds us, “the impact of the individual scribes on the appearance of [lettre bâtarde] was quite strong, and, whilst the main characteristics remain the same, the visual impression produced by different pages of Bastarda script can be very varied.”[2]  This is certainly the case with Codex 909 and it was what made it such an interesting manuscript for my final project.  I hope this post piques your interest in my findings.  I invite you to take a look at the Le livre des Eneydes on Penn in Hand or come see it in person in the Kislak Center reading room.

[1] Brückner, Thomas.  Un traducteur de Virgile inconnu du XVIe siècle : Jean d’Ivry.  Les lettres Romanes, XLIV, n.3, August 1990, pp. 171-180.

[2] Derolez, Albert.  The Paleography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, p.160.

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