Hungary's Week in Rome

This was a special week for Renaissance studies in Hungary. An extraordinary book of art, the Hungarian Angevin Legendary, Vat. lat. 8541, arrived on the web, as I pointed out in an earlier post. With it were two important illuminated missals associated with the lost Bibliotheca Corviniana, the library of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). One, Urb. lat. 110, was made for the king in 1488 and is known as the Missal of Matthias Corvinus. The other, Ross. 1164, was pointed out by and is known as the Franciscan Missal. Below is an image from Urb. lat. 110 of a silver-skinned Christ at the resurrection.
has written a blog post introducing the two missals and I am grateful to him for the information about this group.

Two fine French Renaissance manuscripts were also brought online, both of them French translations of Latin works. One is Reg. lat. 538, a translation of the Speculum Historiale, a medieval history of the world, by Vincent of Beauvais, and there is a wonderful image in it where the artist imagines Vincent calmly writing while research assistants or socciii struggle to keep up with his demands for more books. There's a bit more about it here. There is a similar codex at the British Library.
Also newly digitised is Reg. lat. 719, a translation by Pierre Bersuire from the Latin of Livy's History of Rome. The Bersuire book has a wonderful imaginary landscape of ancient Rome (below) as a medieval artist might imagine it with a river through a paradise of green that looks most un-Roman. Both these codices are principally of interest for their illuminations rather than their text.
Finally, I took note of a couple of more modern documents from Italy. A book of caricatures by Pier Leone Ghezzi (1674-1755), Ott. lat. 3113, marks out Ghezzi's extraordinary talent as a cartoonist. Look at the fleshy marchese at left in this image and you see his whole life of over-indulgence.
Also in my pick is a curious compilation, Reg. lat. 1468, of Italian family coats of arms (a thing which happens, by the way, to be called a "stemma" in Italian, which is not very logical, but that is the way it is). Here is an escutcheon which has three men's heads looking left on a mustard field. The different chin shapes are doubtless just a fancy of the artist.
In all, 64 new codices were digitized and published online on Digita Vaticana this week. Something else I sighted in this rush was a pair of large sheets from Vat. lat. 9848. It is no more than a wild guess, but these folios seems to be either sketches or tracings of monumental art, possibly from a Rome church. All that's online are these two sheets, recto and verso. Also new, but merely noted, is Ott. lat. 2919, a book of hours.

Portolan Charts of Pietro Vesconte

Among the finest things to be made available online this week from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) digitization programme in Rome is a codex, Vat. lat. 2972, which contains portolan charts which though unsigned can be reliably attributed to the remarkable mapmaker Pietro Vesconte and dated to about 1320.

Portolan charts are, for all intents and purposes, the first true western maps. Everything that precedes them, ought, in my view, to be classed as geographical diagrams.

A portolan chart was something novel and unprecedented, showing the world deskewed and to scale. Geographical diagrams like the BL's Psalter Map of 1265 (see this flash version) showed the human world as mentally represented. By contrast, portolan charts, with compass lines superimposed, show the physical world as one navigates it, with the entire coastline of a sea fully labelled without regard for the social standing of the places on the coast. When a vessel is trapped by a landward wind, any of the places here offers a potential haven on a lee shore. The Vat. lat. 2972 codex contains an atlas of five sheets and is part of Marino Sanudo's Liber secretorum, a book devoted to a mad plot to destroy the Muslim world. Here is the atlas version of the English Channel (folio 110v):
In the middle you see Dumqerqo (Dunkirk), Gravallinga (Gravelines), Calles (Calais) and Bellogna (Boulogne), and at right Parissius (Paris) and Cam (Caen).

Tony Campbell, former map librarian of the British Library, wrote a fine descriptive summary about portolan charts earlier in February on the Pelagios blog while presenting the portolan component of the Pelagios project. He tells us at least one portolan chart from the very end of the 13th century survives. The BAV's, from just two decades later in 1320, will likely become a prime reference on the internet. Yale has a later chart from 1403 online.

Curiously, Genoa-born Vesconte also did mappaemundi similar to that in the Psalter Map. He was on the cusp of the transition from old to new. Here are the British Isles in his Vat. lat. 2972 mappamundi. Since this map (112v) has east at its top, Ireland (Ybernia) is at the bottom of this grouping:


I have tried to tag all the places on the continental coast in the portolan chart above, but some defeat me. Here is what I have resolved, after consulting Campbell's general toponymic listing:
? (Cavo Sta Catalina identified as Pointe de Zand by Campbell. Not clear what St Catherine's; the source document would have been Portuguese.)
? (vapa identified by Campbell as Port St. Quentin or Eu.)
? (no port marked; Campbell proposes Chef de Caux)
? (no port marked, so "loira" may be an inland place)
#Harfleur (on wrong side of Seine!)

Some of these ports no longer exist, the rivers having later silted up and become unnavigable, leaving coastal areas that today are mainly a zone of holiday beaches.

Tony Campbell published a major new article on March 2, 2015 on the Carte Pisane, which is traditionally regarded as the oldest portolan chart, but is now the focus of controversy. He sets out arguments as to why it should be dated to the very end of the 13th century.


Bumper book of medieval adventure in 549 full-colour frames

One of the treasures that popped out among the 64 items digitized so far this week by the BAV, the historic research library at the Vatican in Rome, is the Hungarian Angevin Legendary. It's an astonishing, comic-book style compilation of lives of saints full of gold and silver and technicolor gore. According to fellow blogger Zsombor Jékely, there are 549 known frames.

Here's my namesake John the Baptist being frogmarched by Herod's goons into the palace to have his head chopped off. Each of these pictures rewards many minutes of rapt attention. The Legendary was full of compelling visual storytelling techniques. Add a few speech bubbles and you would have a modern graphic novel. With some Ken Burns effects, many of the pages could easily be turned into some very impressive video.

The old story goes that this amazing book was commissioned to delight a spoiled 3-year-old Hungarian prince in about 1340, but that is probably a misconception. In all likelihood this was a strictly adult book, probably commissioned by or for the daddy king himself.

Like too many of the best codices, this one has been criminally dismembered. The BAV has the bulk of it, in the form of Vat. Lat. 8541, which you can now admire online (click the link at left). Quite a bit more is at the Morgan Library in New York (click the link and check out 22r which shows a headless body being dumped down a well). Jékely says there are also bits at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, MS 1994.516 (1 leaf),  Berkeley's Bancroft Library, BANC MS UCB 130:f1300:37 (1 leaf) and further leaves at the Hermitage and at the Louvre.

This is just one of the many good things to explore on the BAV website. Here is my tally of what is new: Arch. Cap. S. Pietro: 19; Barb. gr.: 2; Borgh.: 10; Chig.: 1; Ott. lat.: 2; Reg. lat.: 3; Sire.: 1; Urb. lat.: 1; Vat. ebr.: 10, Vat. estr. or.: 10; Vat. gr. 1; Vat. lat.: 3; Vat. turc.: 1. The total of manuscripts digitized now stands at 1,690.


Is this the world's oldest bound book?

This was the week when the Vatican's library, the BAV, made available online digital images of what is perhaps the world's oldest intact, large, bound book, the Codex Vaticanus. It contains a handwritten text on 759 vellum leaves and is generally estimated to have been made in the second quarter of the fourth century (325–350 CE).

That it survives is amazing. That no one noticed what the Vatican was doing is almost more amazing. But more about that later.

During the 19th century, the BAV customarily only allowed visitors to touch this treasure under guard, so great was the fear that it would be stolen or damaged by a religious fanatic. Scholars grumbled at this, but the librarian's suspicions were not ill-founded. That anybody with web access can now read it without a couple of muscular young clergymen staring at the back of their neck as if they were a terrorist is a wonderful transformation.

The codex contains the Christian Old and New Testament in Greek and is comparable in age and significance with the Codex Sinaiticus, which got its own lush online presentation five years ago.

One can toss up as to whether the Vaticanus or the Sinaiticus is the oldest substantial bound book in existence, but the Vaticanus is the one in better shape, since it is still in one binding. The Sinaiticus got dismembered in the 19th century by the sort of scholar that the Vatican wisely never trusted (see above) and is now divided between four countries.

Neither book has a production date on it, so their ages can only be guessed from palaeographic evidence. Wikipedia's substantial description argues Vaticanus contains more antiquated features and is the older of the two, although one scholar, T.C. Skeat, propounded a theory that the two codices are contemporary and both come from the Late Antique scriptorium of Eusebius of Caesarea.

At the start of this post, I said the codex may be the oldest bound book. The qualification is important since books as we now know can come in three forms: scroll, codex and e-book.

I would have seen my first e-book at the Frankfurt Book Fair about 30 years ago and thought it a strange new thing, and the first owner of the Codex Vaticanus might have seen his first codex used for a scholarly purpose and thought it was a strange thing 30 years before he commissioned this very special codex for himself.

It is generally suggested that codices -- that is, books made of flat pages between two boards, bound at a spine -- began to outnumber the earlier technology, the scroll, in about 300 CE.

So "books" older than the Codex Vaticanus do survive: in scroll form, or as isolated pages torn from codices, among them the Chester Beatty papyri. But if you were to ask me where to find the world's oldest book -- meaning a thing between two covers, which is what most of us would mean -- I would point you to Rome, BAV, Vat. gr. 1209. Look at it and marvel.

On February 16, 2015, the BAV added 31 new items to its stock of online digitizations, raising the total volumes so far to 1,626. The collections added to were Arch. Cap. S. Pietro (10), Borgh. (5), Ott. lat. (1), Sbath. (1), Vat. ebr. (6), Vat. gr. (1, the Codex Vaticanus), Vat. lat. (4) and Vat. turc. (3).

Items in the enormous Vat. lat. series which are newly available are Vat. lat. 83, which is a fine collation of hymns and psalms from the 11th century. It has a wonderful illumination in it of David with harp and the other supposed writers of the psalms, among them Ethan in a sailor suit (right), each with quill and ink-horn and a nifty little mobile desk of the sort that court writers must have used in the 11th century.

Tracking down the psalm authors had always been a matter of interest to Jewish and Christian scholars as we know from my edition of the fifth-century Liber Genealogus.

Also online for the first time are a book catalogue (Vat. lat. 3970) by Cardinal Sirleto (1514-85), a biography of Saint Gerard (Vat. lat. 7660), and a wonderful scrapbook of fragments (Vat. lat. 13501) presumably extracted from old bindings where we see a great variety of writing styles, a palimpsest or two, bits of sheet music and everything else that would have been hurled out in library spring cleanings and landed in this or that medieval book binder's recycling bin.

Sadly, the Vatican Library does not have the time or resources to promote this amazing release. To get in the news nowadays, you need a mass murder, a scandal or PR hype. The sole publicity for the release of the Codex Vaticanus was one modest tweet. Yes, a twiddling, tiny tweet. I suppose that all of the digital project's funds must go into actually scanning the books and getting the files into the servers.

I will keep a continuing watch on what they are digitizing in such honorable secrecy and present an occasional summary on this blog or on my Twitter feed. If you know of anyone else tracking the BAV digitization project, I would be happy to contact them.  Follow this blog, or follow me on Twitter @JBPiggin and I will keep you up to date.


After this was posted, Cillian O'Hogan, who is the curator of classical and Byzantine studies at the British Library, kindly tweeted some comments making out a case that papyrus books older than the Codex Vaticanus do exist, and met the objection from Roger Pearse, who is an eminent citizen-science blogger, that only a bundle with more than one quire to it counts as a "book". He then wrote:

All those Ps refer to papyrus finds, along with numbers given to them by Christian scholars seeking the earliest texts of the New Testament. Some of these things are not online at all, but acceptable images of the 75 leaves of P66 are at EarlyBible.com. This is the one that is probably contemporary with the Codex Vaticanus. As for the item dated to 200 CE, it seems to be in a bad state: There is an image of P4 at EarlyBible.com, but I could find nothing online of P64 and P67.

In addition, I pointed out myself that the 102 battered pages at the BAV in Rome of Hanna Papyrus 1, also known as P75, are supposed to date from approximately the same period. It has not been digitized yet, but there are a couple of leaves visible at VatLib. For low-res images, see P75 at CSNTM.

Finally, it was pointed out that there is a very old leaf of a secular work, Homer's Odyssey, dated to the period 200-400 CE. Click on the link below to see it:
In addition, Cillian O'Hogan pointed to a very fine Medieval Fragments blog post by Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel), a medieval book historian at Leiden University, in December 2013 with a different tack on the topic, What is the Oldest Book in the World?

So where do we stand? A case could be made that one or all of these four papyrus items are books older than the Codex Vaticanus, but would they, in their incomplete and damaged state, be accepted by the average teenager as "books" in the common garden sense of that word? They have no covers and have been torn apart.

The Codex Vaticanus may not be in its original binding, and indeed it has leaves inserted in it to replace its lost pages, but it exists as a bound codex that people (see above) have continued to handle and open and shut without using tweezers right up to the present day. I would compare this to the difference between a shipwreck and a ship. Every wreck was a ship, but is a ship no longer, unless it can be refloated and patched up and made to sail again. No one would dream of messing with the papyrii or "repairing" the indignities done to them by illegal diggers and dealers in Egypt, so I think that we would have to consider them, for now at least, to be the remains of former books.


Vatican Libary Making Progress

There are signs at last that the Vatican Library's manuscript digitization program is making good progress: there are now 1,549 manuscripts of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana available online (up from 1,503 on January 1, a gain of 3 per cent in just 3 weeks).

The index page, which previously, listed every single digitization, has got so unwieldy that it has now been reduced to a compact, top-level, springboard page listing the collections the project has touched so far.

There's no sign yet of Vat. lat. 5729, the colorfully and richly illuminated Bible of Ripoll, which I want to see. So far only 78 of more than 15,000 medieval and modern items from that collection have been digitized. But the progress makes me optimistic.

UPDATE: After a couple more jumps (30 new items on February 4 alone), the total is 1,595. (And how do I know? Because I checked yesterday and today.)


Persistence of Games

A curious example of the persistence of board games is mentioned by Irving Finkel of the British Museum in an entertaining New York lecture in 2012 which I watched a couple of years ago.

An article published in 1925 in Sudan Notes and Queries describes a "sedentary" game played on marks in the sand by Arabic speakers in Sudan. Finkel points out (from minute 35 of the video) that the game seems to be mehen, the "game of the snake," the spiral boards for which are found in tombs of Egypt's pharaonic period from around 2800 BCE.

"It seems to me that it is compelling to link the one to the other," says Finkel, overruling objections that a game could not have remained in continuous play for nearly 5,000 years.

The article's description of the game terms it Li'b El Merafib and indicates it was principally played by men during Ramadan. The author provides the schematic drawing at right. A transcript can be found at the Waterloo Games Museum, while a digitization of the magazine is offered by AlFahl.net in a large PDF. The author, R. Davies, had no idea that the game was Egyptian. The game involves a chase from Y to X and back, with "hyena" pieces pursuing on the return leg, which makes the last phase of the game very exciting.

I was curious as to the identity of the author, who patronizingly says Li'b El Merafib is more exciting than games played by English children, which makes him appear rather blinkered, although to be fair, he did consult the scholarly literature available to him
A little research establishes that the author must have been Reginald Davies (1887-1971), who left a box of his manuscript papers to Edinburgh University Library (see Archives Hub with biographical details). A printed bibliographical reference to the same papers by Sharkey appears to be entirely unreliable.

Davies became the first British Resident in Darfur in 1922 and his policy of building up a local sultan may bear some responsibility for the appalling civil wars that have rent Darfur in recent decades. Finkel terms him a "British Army officer", which he most certainly was not: He was a civilian and university man, a group who were in fact intensely jealous of army officers who snatched their salaried jobs. For all the trouble Davies created as a colonialist, one must acknowledge that he faithfully recorded one of the remarkable clues we have to one of humanity's most intriguing practices: the board game.

Davies, Reginald. “Some Arab Games and Puzzles.” Sudan Notes and Records, no. 8 (1925): 137–52.

Finkel, Irving. Like Spilt Milk: How Ancient Board Games Were Disseminated, 2012. YouTube.


Enemies of Hugh Capet

One of the difficulties of publishing a scholarly book is doubtless the fact that the time-span between research and hitting the market can be several years. This struck me when reading a couple of works from 20 years ago on the Stemma of Cunigunde. I mentioned this remarkable diagram some while back in a blog post.
A plot of it on my website allows you to see more detail. This diagram is the oldest visualization in existence of a genealogy that can be independently documented. The only older genealogical visualization is the Great Stemma, where many of the persons, ranging from David and Solomon to Jesus, are historical figures, but are documented by a single source only, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and the diagram is not contemporaneous but based on that single source.

The great modern authority on medieval tree diagrams is Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, who published her study, L’Ombre des Ancêtres, in 2000. She rightly gave considerable attention to the Stemma of Cunigunde and its medieval evolution into various new formats.

What I now notice is that her investigation must have been conducted a good decade before her book's publication, because she does not cite the two key studies dating from 1992 and 1994, by Nora Gädeke and Karl Schmid, which advance our knowledge of the Stemma of Cunigunde.

Schmid's study of the Stemma was especially interesting. He instantly recognized that its subject and focus is Cunigunde (at the bottom left), not Charlemagne or any of the figures high up the diagram.

He proposed that the Munich manuscript is a copy, perhaps made decades later, of a document probably drawn up in Metz, where Cunigunde's villainous brother Dietrich II was bishop and no doubt had clerks and a library capable of drawing such a work. Schmid does not opt for a date, though tendentially he suggests this would have been after Cunigunde's coronation as empress in Rome in 1013.

The purpose of his article is to argue that the stemma's core content must go back to a 991 visualization that would have been drawn up by "Carolingian legitimists" in support of Karl, a child, as pretender to the kingship of West Francia in opposition to Hugh Capet (elected 987). Hugh won out and is now regarded as the first king of France, the legitimists lost, and little Karl (the last Carolus in the diagram) simply falls off the face of history. Whether he was killed or lived out a full life as a pitiable might-have-been is unknown. Instead he gains his place in history as the original inspiration for a very remarkable diagram.

The eye-catching festoons at the left and right of the drawing above would have been created to make room to add Cunigunde and the Ottonians to the anti-Capet diagram.

Schmid (Wikipedia entry) bases this ingenious lost-diagram hypothesis on an analysis of errors and non-sequiturs in the graphic arrangement that survives. His article is a most impressive feat of graphic reconstruction, and I think his point of view is convincing. As far as I know, this was the last scholarly thing he wrote. It was published following his 1993 death in a volume that contains his obituary.

From Forum Eeerste Wereldoorlog.nl
He even reaches back a little further, tentatively suggesting that the enemies of Hugh Capet may have found their model in a hypothetical document dating from the 978-984 war between Lothair of West Francia and the Ottonians. Schmid thinks that because the stemma often suppresses the title of "emperor" and because the final central roundel in the drawing above is empty, omitting the name of Louis le Fainéant which should obviously fill it, that ur-ur-diagram might have existed. He conjectures that this could have been a piece of proto-French political propaganda circulated during that conflict to ridicule the proto-Germans' pretensions to be upholding a (First) Reich. That is a sobering millennial thought in this year, when we often have in mind the sombre centenary of a war where elaborate French propaganda, like L'Impérial Semeur at right, so often mocked the Second Reich.

Gädeke, Nora. Zeugnisse bildlicher Darstellung der Nachkommenschaft Heinrichs I. Arbeiten zur Fruhmittelalterforschung 22. De Gruyter, 1992.
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. L’Ombre des Ancêtres. Paris: Fayard, 2000.
Schmid, Karl. “Ein verlorenes Stemma Regum Franciae. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Entstehung und Funktion karolingischer (Bild-)Genealogien in salisch-staufischer Zeit.” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 28 (1994): 196–225. doi:10.1515/9783110242263.196.