Megan Cook, an Assistant Professor of English at Colby College, spent a week in July at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies as one of the students in The Medieval Manuscript in the Twenty-First Century, a course under the auspices of Rare Book School, headquartered at the University of Virginia. Here she shares her experience of that week, working with Penn Ms. Codex 1070.
Although it might be considered cheating, given the theme of the course, during my week as a student in Will Noel and Dot Porter’s Rare Book School class, the Medieval Manuscript in the Twenty-first Century, I spent most of my time working on a sixteenth-century heraldic manuscript. While Penn Ms. Codex 1070, isn’t medieval, my experiences with it show how open access to digital images of early books can facilitate new answers to old questions.
Penn MS Codex 1070 is a small manuscript on paper, bound in vellum, written in the 1570s. Its front leaf summarizes its contents:
The Genelogies of the Erles of Lecestre & Chester wherein is briefly shewed som part of their deedes and actes with the tyme of their raignes in their Erldoms, and in what order the saide Erldoms did rightfully descend to the crowne, and in the same is also conteyned a lineall descent shewing how the right honorable Robert Erle Lecestre and Baron of Denbigh knight of [th]e Garter and Chamberlen of Chester is trewly descended of Margaret second sister and one of the heires of Robert fitz Pernell the first Erle of Lecestre and of Maude and Agnes the first and third doughters to hugh keuelock the fifte Erle of Chester, sisters and coheirs to Randolf Blondeuile the sixt Erle of Chester. Note that the lynes and descent[es] come from those rondells in the margent which be stayed by two leaues, and the other rondells that are stayed but by one leafe are the colaterall children.
This passage tells us that the book describes the ancestry of Robert Dudley (1532-1588), the first Earl of Leicester. It was created in 1571 or 1572, perhaps in honor of Dudley’s appointment to the Order of the Garter in that year. Dudley was a favorite of Elizabeth’s and, although he was no longer a contender for Elizabeth’s hand by the 1570s, he remained an important political figure until the end of his life. While the book is a fine production, it contains several factual errors, and Robert Dudley himself does not appear in the genealogy alongside his siblings—a strange error that was noted by one later reader.
Deluxe heraldic manuscripts like this were a way for families and individuals to both assert and display their pedigree by documenting the complex maneuvers by which titles (and the land and wealth associated them) were transferred over the generations through inheritance and marriage. Genealogy was just one way of using heraldry (the collection and display of coats of arms): the 2014 Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit Symbols of Honor explores the range of contexts and uses for heraldic display in early modern England.
After looking through Penn MS Codex 1070 and admiring its elegant design and naturalistic depiction of the eleventh century earls (complete with period-appropriate armor), I wondered: who created this book?
A production like MS Codex 1070 would require a combination of artistic skill and access to the historical sources necessary to trace five centuries of Leicester ancestors. There were only so many people living in England in the 1570s with the requisite background; many would have been professional heralds associated with the College of Arms who, in addition to researching and adjudicating official grants of titles, undertook deluxe manuscript productions for wealthy patrons.
Penn Codex 1070 tells us nothing about who made it, or to whom it was originally presented, but it is clearly is a professional production, not the work of an amateur. Flipping through its pages (see for yourself here), it is easy to appreciate how much careful planning the manuscript would have required: whoever created the manuscript had to arrange his pages so that there was sufficient room for both the text and the accompanying roundels. The roundels needed to be appropriately sized for the text they contain, but also leave room for the carefully detailed shields and the branches that link them. At certain points, branches merge with, or diverge from, one another, and getting this right would have required special attention when the pages were laid out.
Codex 1070 is unusual in that the branches extend all the way into the upper and lower margins, creating them impression of vertical continuity from page to page. By doing so, I think whoever created the manuscript meant to take a well-established format for displaying genealogical information—the armorial roll, or scroll (see, for example, Penn MS 1066)—and adapt it to the codex format, which would have allowed for easier reading, storage, and transportation.
The image below shows how the maker of this book worked in stages, assembling each page in layers: First, he ruled the page using plumb line; then he wrote the text. Next, he added illustrative details, including the naturalistic branches and leaves, and the more formalized depictions of coats of arms. Finally, he added decorative red lining around the margins.
The completed manuscript tells the story of Leicester’s ancestors in a number of distinct and reinforcing ways: there is the explanatory text itself; the abbreviated version of that text found in the roundels; the visual connections created by the branches and leaves (which, as the opening note tells us, reflect the status of the branch of the family being depicted); and finally the more standardized and stylized coats of arms which, as they are impaled and quartered over many generations, become increasingly complex. Much of what is described verbally in the text could be extrapolated from the last, largest and most intricate coat of arms displayed in the manuscript:
In my quest to learn more about this manuscript, I needed to go beyond what the book alone could tell me, so I turned to its provenance. Before the manuscript came to Penn, it was owned by Madeline Pelner Cosman, who was a medievalist, medical lawyer, and anti-immigration activist, as well as book and gun collector. The last lines of her 2006 New York Times obituary state, “Ms. Cosman also leaves behind a vast library of illuminated manuscripts and a large collection of handguns.”
While the manuscript was in her possession, Barbara McGeogh, a graduate student at CUNY, wrote a masters thesis about the manuscript in 1974. McGeogh suggests three candidates for authorship:
- Robert Cooke, Chester herald and later the Clarenceax King of Arms
- John Cocke, a Dudley family servant
- Edmund Knight, who succeeded Cooke as Chester herald
I wanted to see if I could test McGeogh’s hypotheses by looking for manuscripts created by Cooke, Cocke, and Knight and determining whether they looked anything like the Penn manuscript. I began by looking at digital images from archives that I knew held heraldic manuscripts, including the Folger Shakespeare Library and the British Library. Neither contained any materials associated with John Cocke or Edmund Knight.
At the Folger Shakespeare Library, I found Folger MS V.b.76. This is a copy of a text written by Robert Cooke, but the hand doesn’t match the one in the Penn manuscript. It is not an autograph manuscript.
At the British Library, however, I found several images from MS King’s 396, a genealogy of Queen Elizabeth I on vellum, created around 1567.
Like the book at Penn, this manuscript doesn’t explicitly say anything about the people involved in its production. But a comparison of some key features across the books leads me to conclude that both were made and illustrated by the same person or persons.
We can see this when it comes to:
Now, as the British Library catalogue of Western manuscripts notes, there is no evidence of authorship in this manuscript either, but the New Year’s Gift Roll for 1567 (London, British Library, Additional MS 9772) includes a description of a manuscript that matches King’s 396. (On this point I am grateful to Sonja Drimmer for sharing her recent and fascinating essay, “Questionable Contexts: A Pedigree Book and Queen Elizabeth’s Teeth,” in Scholars and Poets Talk About Queens, ed. Carole Levin and Christine Stewart-Nuñez [New York: Palgrave, 2015], 203-24.)
Since they are housed in archives on opposite sides of the Atlantic, it is unlikely that I will ever get to Penn MS Codex 1070 and British Library MS King’s 396 side-by-side. Nonetheless, thanks to the British Library’s recent decision to make thousands images of their holdings freely available online, I was able to perform research from my desk in Philadelphia that affirms the hypothesis offered up by Barbara McGeogh more than forty years ago. An even larger archive of heraldic images, including the ones mentioned in the British Library catalogue and held at the Bodleian, might have allowed for an even more concrete answer.
This exercise shows that quite a lot might be learned from even a simple comparison that might never have been possible without digital images. The power of visual comparison on a larger scale is demonstrated in projects like Late Medieval English Scribes, which allows users to compare samples of all scribal hands that appear in the manuscripts of major Middle English authors and, in so doing, to produce new knowledge about the circulation of vernacular texts in late medieval England. A larger database of images from heraldic manuscripts might, similarly, offer new insight into the development, usage, and propagation of a highly codified system of genealogy and heraldry in the sixteenth century and beyond.