Manuscript Monday: Fragments of medicine, music, and time

Medieval and early modern manuscript acquisitions: A bumper crop for 2017
by Nicholas Herman, Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS

Penn Libraries and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies are delighted to announce the acquisition of several fascinating medieval and early modern manuscripts over the past year, including an important late-fifteenth-century compendium of astronomical treatises illustrated with numerous diagrams, rotating volvelles, and tables. These new arrivals complement our existing holdings, and provide new and exciting opportunities for original research by students, curators, faculty, and visiting scholars alike. The material encompasses a wide array of subjects, and is especially topical as the new undergraduate minor in Global Medieval Studies launches this academic year. We also look forward to showcasing these and other treasures to a broad audience as Penn prepares to host the Medieval Academy of America annual conference in March of 2019.

What follows is the fourth in a series of four blog posts
announcing these new acquisitions to the world.

Fragments of medicine, music, and time
Fragment of Canon medicinae, 1300s-1400s?
UPenn Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 44, recto.

While our acquisitions policy favors the purchase of complete manuscripts and documents, certain items are instructive by their very status as piecemeal survivals. One fragment that certainly does not come straight from its parent codex is the lower portion of a leaf from a 14th-century copy of Avicenna’s 11th-century medical compendium (Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 44), as translated into Latin by the same Gerard of Cremona whose work we encountered in the newly acquired Astronomical treatise (see blog post no. 1). This new fragment was probably written in Italy or Southern France; the Schoenberg Collection contains a more extensive fragment of the same work written in England (LJS 359; facsimile and video orientation), which speaks to its diffusion in the British Isles, and our library also holds numerous codices of Avicenna’s work on medicine both in the original Arabic (LJS 322, LJS 355, LJS 417, LJS 426, LJS 427, LJS 446), and in early Hebrew translations (Ms. Codex 1649, LJS 299, LJS 311, and LJS 469). The new half-page fragment, though damaged, allows us to demonstrate an additional regional adaptation of the Persian polymath’s signal work. Judging from its current condition, we can ascertain that our fragment was used as a pastedown or wrapper for a much later book, which itself must have suffered considerable damage.

The fate of a second recently acquired fragment (Oversize Ms. Codex 1871), originally part of a handsome 12th-century noted breviary written in elegant Caroline minuscule, does not need to be the subject of such guesswork: it has been re-used as the wrapper for an agenda-format paper notebook belonging to the late-16th-century shipmaster, Sebastian Schindlers of Lucerne, Switzerland. The half-filled notebook lists the expenses occasioned by Schindlers in 1585–1586, and thus allows us to assume that the recycled liturgical manuscript was judged obsolete either in the wake of the Protestant Reformation or, equally likely, as a result of the process of liturgical reforms instigated by the Catholic Church following the Council of Trent. In any event, the localization of Schindler’s activity in central Switzerland (he must have been a lake captain!) allows for the tantalizing possibility that the re-employed 12th-century manuscript leaf might hail from the great monastic library of Einsiedeln, or another institution close by.Accounts of Sebastian Schindlers, shipmaster, listing expenses incurred for 1585-1586. UPenn Oversize Ms. Codex 1871, upper cover (left) and lower cover (right), consisting of a fragment of a 12th-century noted breviary.

The recycled wrapper itself contains the opening texts from Vespers for Holy Saturday, including the antiphon “Vespere autem Sabbati que lucescit,” Psalm incipits, and lessons from Mark 16:1-3 and Gregory the Great’s Homily XXI for Easter Day. The neumes added above the chanted portions of the text, which are among the oldest examples of western musical notation in Penn’s collections, are of particular interest. Mary Channen Caldwell, Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Penn, specifies that they are “not just staffless neumes, but also unheightened or nondiastematic neumes (also known more poetically as neumes in campo aperto). So not only is the pitch vague, even the melodic contour is impossible to determine (i.e no pitch relationships are conveyed by the positioning of the neumes).” As can be seen from the significantly smaller scale of the chanted text and its generous interlinear spacing, the neumes were not appended as an afterthought, but rather integrated into the very layout of the breviary from the outset: such a procedure was a novelty in the 12th century. As Professor Channen Caldwell further notes, the fragment bears witness to an “important moment in the history of the (music) book when layouts (and consequently pricking patterns and ruling) were rapidly evolving to adapt to new kinds of liturgical books and, importantly, notated liturgical books.”
Accounts of Sebastian Schindlers, shipmaster, listing expenses incurred for 1585-1586. UPenn Oversize Ms. Codex 1871, fols. 9v–10r

Indictio cu[r]rens, 1490. UPenn Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 43, recto

An intriguing single leaf, perhaps representing not a fragment of a manuscript but rather a miraculously surviving stand-alone practical tool, designed to be pinned to a surface for easy reference, consists of a simple diagram illustrating a calendar in numbered 15-year cycles beginning in 1490 (Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 43). Such a method of dating, known as the indiction system, has its roots in Roman Egypt and was first used as a means of assessing periodic land and agricultural taxes in late antiquity. It became popular in the early Byzantine world and was revived in the West due to its mention by Bede. Its use later declined, but it remained popular amongst notaries in the Mediterranean world, especially Italy, from where this item no doubt originates. In addition to providing valuable evidence of the continuity of a fundamentally secular system of timekeeping, this item and the aforementioned shipmaster’s notebook, as well as the astronomical treatise discussed at the outset of this post, all happen to be written on paper. They are thus of special significance to SIMS director Will Noel, whose recently developed the Needham paper size calculator can be used to deduce the original format and size of paper used in the early modern period.

Looking back on this remarkable series of items added to Penn’s collections in 2017, we would like to thank our colleagues at the Kislak Center, and at Penn Libraries more broadly for their help in making these acquisitions a reality. It has also been extremely rewarding to work with Penn’s diverse community of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, whose passion for studying the medieval world, in all its facets, brings life to these centuries-old objects. Their abiding interest and enthusiasm motivates us to continually expand the collection in new and exciting ways.

You can view the full cataloging entries for the Fragment of Canon medicinae,  (Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 44), the Accounts of Sebastian Schindlers (Oversize Ms. Codex 1871), and the Indictio cu[r]rens, (Ms. Coll. 591, Folder 43), in Penn’s Franklin Catalog, and full facsimiles will soon be available in Penn in Hand and OPenn.

Nicholas Herman
Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS
(with the assistance of Amey Hutchins, Mitch Fraas, and Will Noel)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s