Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tales from the Library

I recently spent some time working in the Reading Room of the Morgan Library and Museum, examining M. 751, the Abrégé des histoires divines, a universal chronicle until about 1220.

It is always a pleasure to work at the Morgan. The staff is helpful and professional, the facilities are superb, and there's a lovely cafe on the main floor for a lunch break (not cheap, though). But the real treat was getting to spend the day with a 700 year-old manuscript. I can't provide pictures, alas, but it's a fairly small ms, on vellum, with about 125 folios. It was written in about 1300, in a northern French dialect in a casual bookhand that is mercifully easy to read.

The text is a mash-up of the Bible, ancient history, political history, and ecclesiastical history. I'd just finished reading Gabrielle Spiegel's Romancing the Past, which is about northern French and Flemish vernacular histories in the thirteenth century, and the way that the patrons of those histories used them to legitimate their claims to authority. I've seen universal chronicles before, but it this time it all came together for me. The chronicle starts with Genesis, covers the Old and New Testaments, Troy and the founding of Rome, the Caesars and Roman emperors, the popes and the patriarchs, the Merovingians and Carolingians, the kings of England and the rulers of Northumberland, and the dukes of Normandy--all interspersed with one another in rough chronological order. So, after several pages on the patriarchs of Jerusalem, there's a switch with the thirteenth-century equivalent of "meanwhile, back at the ranch" ("Ore revient lestoire des ss papes").

The best is that there's a miniature on virtually every folio. Most of them have gold leaf backgrounds and accents, and the facial expressions are hilarious and precise. If you only looked at the miniatures as you turned the leaves you'd get a very particular view of medieval historiography: one violent act after another. Kings and holy men are poisoned, impaled, beheaded, dismembered, eaten by beasts, and smothered. Warriors clash on horseback and on foot, wielding swords, maces, and clubs. Evil kings betray their kin and counselors, demonstrating their perfidy with their crossed legs. The images that aren't violent are that much more arresting for their scarcity: Augustine teaches his students, some of whom look realistically bored or skeptical. The Virgin looks happy and tired with her newborn baby, as a curious ox and ass peer over the partition from their stall.

Next time...a sorcerer-pope who finds treasure and divines the future!

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