Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Manuscript of the Month: A Fifteenth-Century Compendium of Illustrious Men

May 26th, 2020

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings. 

Kenneth Spencer Research Library MS D13 is a fifteenth-century manuscript that includes two works, both of which contain short biographies of classical historical figures. The first work is attributed to the fourth-century grammarian Aemilius Probus with the following rubric:“ Probi Emilii liber de excellentissimis ducib[us] exterarum gentium felicer incipit” (“Aemilius Probus’s book, ‘On the Most Eminent Generals of Foreign Peoples,’ happily begins”). The second one, on the other hand, is assigned to the first-century natural scientist Pliny the Elder with the following rubric: “Plinii Veronensis de viris illustrib(us) liber incipit feliciter in no(m)i(n)e d(omi)ni” (“Pliny of Verona’s book, ‘On the Illustrious Men,’ happily begins in the name of the Lord”). Both of these attributions, to Aemilius Probus and Pliny the Elder respectively, are in fact incorrect.

Even though the first work is attributed to Aemilius Probus in many of the surviving manuscripts, including MS D13, it is believed that the work known with the title De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium (“On the Eminent Generals of Foreign Peoples”) is part of a larger work by Cornelius Nepos, an author of the late first century BCE who himself was from Verona. This larger work, titled De viris illustribus (“On Illustrious Men”), is thought to have comprised at least sixteen books but not much has survived intact other than the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium. The second work, attributed to “Pliny of Verona” in a number of medieval manuscripts, including MS D13, is usually titled the De viris illustribus urbis Romae (“On Illustrious Men of the City of Rome”). It once was thought to have been written by the fourth-century author Sextus Aurelius Victor, but is now believed to have been composed by an anonymous author of the fourth century referred to as pseudo-Sextus Aurelius Victor.

Image of the Beginning of the De excellentissimis ducibus exterarum gentium, with decorative blue and red initial (fol. 2r) Italy, fifteenth century.
Beginning of the De excellentissimis ducibus exterarum gentium. Italy, fifteenth century. Call # MS D13. Click image to enlarge. See additional images from this manuscript in the Digital Scriptorium.
Image of Beginning of the De viris illustribus, with illuminated initial (folio 66 recto). Italy, fifteenth century. Call# MS D13.
Beginning of the De viris illustribus. Italy, fifteenth century. Call # MS D13. Click image to enlarge. See additional images from this manuscript in the Digital Scriptorium.

In MS D13, the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium opens with a preface and includes twenty-three biographies ranging from that of Miltiades (around 555–489 BCE), the Athenian general who defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, to that of Hannibal (247–183/181 BCE), the Carthaginian general who commanded the army of Carthage against Rome during the Second Punic War. The De viris illustribus urbis Romae follows the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium with no preface, and includes seventy-seven somewhat shorter biographies beginning with that of Procas, the great grandfather of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, and ending with Pompey the Great, a leading Roman general of the first century BCE. Ordinarily, this work has eighty-six biographies.

Even though the decorated initials that open each work in MS D13 are in starkly different styles, the manuscript was probably written by a single scribe. It was also very well planned, consisting of nine quires of ten leaves each (the final leaf, which was probably blank is missing). There is no indication that there were other texts before or after either of the two works. Therefore, it may be argued that the scribe had carefully planned to copy both of these works one after the other and intended to create this larger book of biographies by juxtaposing these two works.

John C. Rolfe, the translator of the Loeb edition to the text states that “Nepos arranged his biographies in groups of two books each. The first book of every group included the distinguished men of foreign nations, for the most part Greeks; the second, those of Rome. From references of Nepos himself and others the categories of generals, historians, kings and poets have been determined” (“Introduction,” ix). The argument that the book on the generals of foreign peoples was supposed to be followed by a book on the Roman generals is also supported by the closing words of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium:

Sed nos tempus est huius libri facere finem et Romanorum explicare imperatores, quo facilius, collatis utrorumque factis, qui viri praeferendi sint possit iudicari.

But it is time for us to put an end to this book and give an account of the Roman generals, to make it easier, with the deeds of both gathered together, to judge which men ought to be given the higher rank.

Thus, the fact that in MS D13 the book on the generals of foreign peoples by Nepos, which has survived, is followed by a series of illustrious individuals from Roman history, somewhat restores the work back to its original form, to the way it was intended to be read.

Unfortunately, P. K. Marshall, who wrote the most detailed study of the manuscript tradition of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium, did not comment on MS D13, even though he indicated that he had examined the manuscript. In his 1977 study, Marshall lists 86 witnesses to the text including MS D13, two of which had already been lost. He does not, however, comment on what other texts are contained in the manuscripts that include the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium. In addition, to my knowledge there is no detailed study of the manuscript transmission of the anonymous De viris illustribus urbis Romae other than the brief discussion included in the Teubner edition. Thus, we do not know how common it was to cut the text short and not include all the eighty-six biographies. Similarly, we do not know which other works the De viris illustribus urbis Romae was associated with in the manuscripts. It would be interesting to see whether the two works found in MS D13 are arranged in the same way in other surviving manuscripts or whether this was the idea of the compiler of this particular manuscript.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library purchased the manuscript from William Salloch in 1956, and it is available for consultation at the Library’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room when the library is open.

  • See the edition and translation of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium: Cornelius Nepos. On Great Generals, On Historians. Trans. John C. Rolfe. LCL 467. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. ISBN: 978-0-674-995-514-7.
  • See the edition of the De viris illustribus: Sexti Aurelii Victoris Liber de Caesaribus; praecedunt Origo gentis romanae et Liber de viris illustribus urbis Romae, subsequitur Epitome de Caesaribus. Ed. Franz Pichlmayr. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1911. Public domain.
  • Read about the manuscripts of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium: P. K. Marshall. Institute of Classical Studies Bulletin Supplement No: 37: The Manuscript Tradition of Cornelius Nepos. February 1977.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

Follow the account “Manuscripts &c.” on Twitter and Instagram for postings about manuscripts from the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.

Manuscript of the Month: A Previously Unknown Witness to a Medieval Dictionary and the Origins of Librarians

April 29th, 2020

In memory of Richard Sharpe (1954-2020)

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings.

MS 9/2:16 is one of dozens of fragmentary medieval manuscripts that are part of the holdings of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Originally part of a larger manuscript, this single parchment leaf was cut to size to be used as the cover of another book. Since the fragment was folded to fit this new host and the folds left quite an impression on the parchment, it can be estimated that the dimensions of the book our fragment was covering were about 156 x 96 x 43 mm. We do not, however, know what this book was.

Image of a manuscript fragment (recto) possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century? The fragment had been repurposed as the cover of a codex.
Recto of a manuscript fragment containing a list of terms, which was used as the cover of another book. Call #: MS 9/2:16. Click image to enlarge.
Image of a manuscript fragment (verso) possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century? The fragment had been repurposed as the cover of a codex.
Verso of the manuscript leaf, which served as the inner side of the cover of the book. Call #: MS 9/2:16. Click image to enlarge.

As it stands, 27 lines of text in three columns on both sides of the leaf remain. The three-column layout with ample margins on either side suggests that this fragment was part of a manuscript of substantial size. The widest part of the width of the fragment measures approximately 290 mm. We can therefore estimate that the original manuscript leaf perhaps measured something like 450 x 300 mm. That is to say, this parchment leaf is now perhaps half the size it used to be. A reading of the text immediately reveals that this is some kind of glossary, dictionary or encyclopedia, as it contains an alphabetical list of terms with explanations. The part we have includes terms that begin with the letter L, and that is why there are repeated decorated initial Ls on both sides of the leaf, two of which are pen flourished in red and the other two in plain blue. We can see that not all the terms begin with a decorated initial but only the ones that have relatively lengthier explanations.

Ordinarily, a glossary would be at the end of a book or accompany a text and include terms particular to that work. It is, however, difficult to see what the terms in this fragment might have in common as they vary not only in the length of their descriptions but also in their subject matters. For example, the words included on the recto page range from “liber” (book) to “liberalis” (of or belonging to freedom), “libia” (Libya, a country in North Africa) and “libidinosus” (passionate).

As it is seen in the images of the manuscript above, the fragment has sustained significant water damage which caused some of the ink to bleed and smear on the page, especially on the recto side. In order to uncover the text on the parchment that was lost due to the water damage, I applied some digital manipulation techniques to the images before I began transcribing the text. Different contemporary image processing techniques can be applied to images of manuscripts to recover ink that is not visible to the naked eye. And, sometimes even only recalibrating the sharpness and the contrast of images will yield results, depending on the extent of the damage and the erasure. The images of this particular fragment required a little bit of more work than that but the results were really promising.

Image of a manuscript fragment possibly from Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning]. France? Netherlands? 13th century?, digitally processed to enhance the legibility of water-damaged text.
Recto of MS 9/2:16 after image processing with ImageJ/Fiji. Click image to enlarge.

As I was transcribing, at first I thought this was a copy of part of the Etymologiae [Etymologies] by Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636). Also known as the Origines, Isidore’s work is an etymological encyclopedia. Due to its comprehensiveness and the overall encyclopedic mindset of medieval scribes, authors and compilers, the Etymologiae was one of the most copied and consulted books throughout the Middle Ages. The entirety of the Etymologiae consists of twenty books but it is common to see selected books, chapters or even individual passages copied in medieval manuscripts. If you have read my last blogpost on MS C189, you may remember that I mentioned that another work by Isidore of Seville, the Sententiae (Sentences), also was fairly popular during the Middle Ages, and selected parts of this work were found in manuscripts as part of larger compilations.

When I compared the text of MS 9/2:16 with Isidore’s Etymologiae, I noticed that the fragment did not follow the order of books and chapters of the work, although individual passages certainly were directly taken from the Etymologiae. For example, on the recto side of the fragment, the text moves from the fourteenth chapter to the twelfth chapter of the sixth book of the Etymologiae in the first column with no apparent break and then on to the fifth chapter of the ninth book in the second column before going to the fifth chapter of the fourteenth book in the third.

These kinds of textual rearrangements are no surprise when it comes to medieval manuscripts. Many texts were not simply copied but reorganized and rewritten in the Middle Ages to better suit the particular needs of individual scribes or authors at given times. Moreover, in MS 9/2:16, I found out that there were sentences, albeit only a handful, that did not originate from Isidore’s Etymologiae. This phenomenon of additions to existing texts is also not uncommon in medieval manuscripts and could have been done by the scribe of this manuscript. Yet, in this case, I think the scribe of MS 9/2:16 was just following an existing exemplar and not necessarily making new additions. I now believe Spencer’s fragment is not directly from Isidore’s Etymologiae, but from a copy of Papias the Lombard’s Elementarium doctrinae rudimentum [Elementary Introduction to Learning].

Described by Richard Sharpe as the “first fully recognizable dictionary,” the Elementarium was composed sometime before 1053, probably over several years in the 1040s. One of the sources for Papias’s Elementarium was the Etymologiae, and that is why we find passages that go back directly to the Isidore’s seventh-century encyclopedia in this fragment. A notable feature of Papias’s Elementarium is that it is organized in alphabetical order based on the first three letters of each word. We can easily confirm this by looking at MS 9/2:16, in which each entry starts not only with the letter L but also with the letters LIB before moving on to LIC and then to LID. Among other features of the work, this alphabetical organization in itself has been considered very innovative for its time.

It is very serendipitous that MS 9/2:16 as we have it begins in the middle of a chapter entitled “De librariis et eorum instrumentis” in Isidore’s Etymologiae (VI.xiv). We would be justified in reading the title of this chapter as “on librarians and their instruments” since the adjective “librarius” (“librariis” in dative) means a person concerned with or employed about books when it is used as a noun, and that is what librarians do! In the Middle Ages, though, “librarius” usually referred to a copyist, scribe, secretary or bookseller. Yet, the Latin word “librarius” is indeed the origin of the word “librarian” in English and all the way into the eighteenth century the word “librarian” still (also) carried all these meanings in English.

According to A Census of Medieval Latin Grammatical Manuscripts by G. L. Bursill-Hall, over a hundred manuscripts of Papias’s Elementarium survive. There are also at least four print editions dated before the fifteenth century, the first of which was published in Milan in 1476. (Three of these incunabula dated to 1485, 1491 and 1496 respectively are digitized by the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Germany.) Perhaps the high number of the witnesses in addition to the complexity of the work are the reasons why a full edition of the Elementarium has not been undertaken in modern times. Since there is no modern edition of the text with which our fragment can be compared, I soon will make available an annotated transcription of MS 9/2:16.

For an introduction to medieval dictionaries, read Richard Sharpe, “Vocabulary, Word Formation, Lexicography.” In Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Ed. by F. A. C. Mantello and A. G. Rigg (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996). 93–105.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

Manuscript of the Month: A Manuscript, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

April 1st, 2020

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings.

A small quarto manuscript, MS C189, previously belonged to Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965), a graduate of the University of Kansas. Born in Rockwell City, IA, her family moved to Lawrence, KS, after she finished high school. She completed her first degree over a century ago, in 1901, at the University of Kansas and went on to receive an MA in 1903, also from KU. She then attended the University of Chicago, where she later worked at the John Crerar Library until 1918. Following a brief post teaching French at the University of Kansas ROTC, between 1919 and 1926 she taught French at Baker University in Baldwin City, KS, where she became Head of the French Department. In 1929, she completed her PhD at Johns Hopkins University and became Professor of Modern Languages in West Virginia at Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston). She taught French, Spanish and German there until her retirement in 1947. Subsequently, she returned to Lawrence, where she resided until her death. Owens also was the previous owner of another manuscript currently in the holdings of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, MS J1:2, a fragmentary Torah scroll. Paul Mirecki from KU Religious Studies has been working on the history of this manuscript, the details of which were outlined in an article last year in the KU Alumni Magazine.

Portrait of Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965) when she was part of the faculty at Morris Harvey College in 1933. Source: The Harveyan, 1933.
Portrait of Alpha Loretta Owens (1877–1965) when she was part of the faculty at Morris Harvey College in 1933. Source: The Harveyan, 1933, courtesy of the Internet Archive. Click image to enlarge.

MS C189 is one of three manuscripts that were listed under “The Library of Miss Alpha Loretta Owens, Barboursville, West Virginia” in the famous Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada prepared by Seymour de Ricci with the assistance of W. J. Wilson and published between 1935 and 1940. According to the Census, all three manuscripts were examined by Wilson in 1935, when Owens was working at Morris Harvey College and living in Barboursville, WV, where the University of Charleston was originally founded and based. This is all we know about the history of MS C189; that the manuscript was purchased by Owens sometime before 1935. It is not known when, where and from whom she acquired the manuscript. Nor do we know any other previous owners or the origin of the manuscript.

A sample opening from MS C189, displaying the end of Porphyry’s Isagoge on folio 18v and the beginning of Aristotle’s Perihermenias on folio 19r.
A sample opening from MS C189, displaying the end of Porphyry’s Isagoge on folio 18v and the beginning of Aristotle’s Perihermenias on folio 19r. For more detailed information on the texts and for additional images of the manuscript, please see the record for MS C189 in the Digital Scriptorium. Click image to enlarge.

MS C189 is a remarkable object beyond the texts it contain. The textblock of the manuscript is homogeneous; that is, MS C189 is composed of a single codicological unit which was produced in one process and most openings look pretty much like the example provided above. It does not look like there are any missing leaves or like there were more gatherings either in the beginning or at the end. Parts of other manuscripts, however, were used as practical means to preserve this small book of 34 leaves as well as to support it. The binding of MS C189, which is presumably original, comes from another manuscript, as do the flyleaves in the front and the back from two others. Thus, we have one medieval manuscript that is placed inside fragments of two different medieval manuscripts and then wrapped with another one.

Front cover of MS C189 showing re-use of a manuscript bifolium Back cover of MS C189 showing re-use of a manuscript bifolium

Left: Front cover of MS C189. Right: Back cover MS C189.

MS C189 has a limp binding, in which a bifolium (that is, two conjoint leaves) from another manuscript is used as a cover in the form of a case. The repurposed parchment cover is attached to the bookblock by means of split lacing double sewing supports made out of leather. The sewing-support slips are laced out of each side of the cover through three single exit slits and then each double support returns through two separate slits, one at approximately 45 degrees above and the other at 45 degrees below the exit slits, creating a V shape. What used to be the upper margin of the bifolium (now the fore-edge turn-in of the front cover) is trimmed, with all edges of the cover left large enough to allow for turn-ins. The cover has lapped mitres; the fore-edge turn-ins lie on top of the head and tail turn-ins at the corners. There is no lining or any kind of other reinforcement and the sewing-support slips, which are mostly intact, are fully visible.

Opening with interior of the front cover of MS C189 on the left, displaying the lapped mitres and the exposed sewing-support slips, and on the right the first front flyleaf, a repurposed fragment from another manuscript.
Left: Interior of the front cover of MS C189, displaying the lapped mitres and the exposed sewing-support slips. Right: The first front flyleaf, a repurposed fragment from another manuscript. Click image to enlarge.

Considered original, in the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, the binding of the MS C189 is described as made from two leaves of a twelfth century theological manuscript. There is no other information provided regarding the fragment. Furthermore, since then, neither MS C189 as an artefact nor this fragment now fashioning the cover of the manuscript seem to have attracted any attention from scholars.

The parchment leaf that now forms the outer cover (the recto side of the first of the two folios) of MS C189 is almost fully visible without any intervention. Except for the trimmed upper margin, it looks like the entire leaf is preserved. Moreover, there seems to be no loss of text due to trimming. Most of the text also is still readable on the cover and the turn-ins. I was able to identify the existing text as a part of Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae (Sentences). Composed in the early seventh century, the Sententiae employs the ancient and medieval literary form of collecting brief passages on a given topic. The work as a whole consists of three books (in thirty-one, forty-four and sixty-six chapters respectively) in which Isidore creates a compendium of essentials of theology in an organized manner.

Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae was fairly popular and there are many copies of manuscripts that survive from the Middle Ages. Indeed, we have another manuscript, MS C54, that contains the Sententiae. Therefore, when I identified the text, I was expecting the conjoint leaf whose verso is partly visible on the interiors of the cover to contain a different part of the same text. The text on the outer cover is from Book 10.11 of the Sententiae, a chapter entitled “De angelis” (On the Angels). The text on the inner cover, however, is not from the Sententiae but instead is part of a sermon attributed to John Chrysostom, who was the Archbishop of Constantinople at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries. The sermon is simply known by the title “De misericordia” (On Mercy) or by its opening words, “Tria sunt quae in misericordiae opera,” which are not visible in MS C189.

Further research revealed that this chapter of Isidore of Seville’s Sententiae was sometimes used as part of medieval homiliaries. A homiliary, or a book of homilies, is a collection of short texts consisting of lectures or discourses on a moral theme, which are also known as sermons. More research (and perseverance) revealed that there is at least one other manuscript in which both of these texts are found. In Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 3783(2), known as the Moissac Homiliary, not only do they both exist in the same manuscript but they are also in the same order that we have them.

Image of folio 279v from Latin 3783 (2) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France Image of folio 286r from Latin 3783 (2) at the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Left: The portion of “De angelis” in Latin 3783(2), folio 279v that corresponds to MS C189. Right: The portion of “De misericordia” in Latin 3783(2), folio 286r that corresponds to MS C189. Source: Gallica, Latin 3783(2), Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits.

According to the description of the Moissac Homiliary, Isidore of Seville’s “De angelis” opens a gathering of eight folios and the pseudo-John Chrysostom’s “De misericordia” closes it, with a series of shorter texts with similar topics in between the two (folios 279 to 286). The Moissac Homiliary is dated to the mid-eleventh century and is thought to have been compiled in Moissac Abbey in south-western France. What is now the binding of MS C189 probably looked like this manuscript in its original form. Both the cover of MS C189 and the Moissac Homiliary are written in late Caroline minuscule and both are laid out in two columns on folios of approximately the same size. The cover of MS C189 has 38 lines to a page whereas the Moissac Homiliary has 37 but seems to be a little bit more compact and has large initials in the beginning of each section. (We do not know whether the cover of MS C189 originally had any illuminated initials in the same places.) If the biofolium we have as the cover of MS C189 was indeed part of a larger book with a similar arrangement with six bifolia in between the two leaves we have, the two texts would fall more or less to the same places. It seems more than likely, therefore, that MS C189 and the Moissac Homiliary are related, possibly one copied from the other.

Additional research on MS C189, with all of its features and fragments, would certainly yield further answers as to how the manuscript came to be and perhaps even how it ended up in Alpha Loretta Owens’s collection in the early twentieth century.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library purchased the manuscript from Book Nook in May 1966, and it is available for consultation at the Library’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room when the library is open.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

Color Our Collections: St. Patrick’s Day Edition

March 17th, 2020

We hope that you are all at home and safe and practicing good social distancing this St. Patrick’s Day. To help, we’re sharing four images from our Irish Collections for you to print out and color in shades of green (or really any color of the rainbow). Click here for the printable PDF file. The first two images are from the Supplement to The Irish Fireside from July of 1885, and feature “Heroines from Irish History.”

Picture of "Aideen Rescuing the Body of Oscar at the Battle of Gabhra" (Aideen on horseback with shield and Spear), converted to black and white drawing
“Heroines of Irish History–I: Aideen Rescuing the Body of Oscar at the Battle of Gabhra.” Supplement to The Irish Fireside (July 8, 1885). Call #: DK17:5b, Item 1. Click image to enlarge, click here to see what the original color version of the illustration looks like, and click here to download a printable PDF of all four images.
Illustration of from "Heroines of Irish History--III: The Rescue of Connor O'Byrne by Emmeline Talbot," showing Emmeline Talbot holding a torch pointing the way out to O'Byrne, converted to black and white.
“Heroines of Irish History–III: The Rescue of Connor O’Byrne by Emmeline Talbot.” Supplement to The Irish Fireside (July 22, 1885). Call #: DK17:5b, Item 3. Click image to enlarge, click here to see what the original color version of the illustration looks like, and click here to download a printable PDF of all four images.

The next two images are from Young Ireland: An Irish Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction, founded by the Irish Nationalist Alexander Martin Sullivan, and continued by his brother, T. D. Sullivan.

Cover of 1877 St. Patrick's Day issue of Young Ireland, featuring four men holding up clovers to "Erin" with her harp and Irish Wolf Hound, with St. Patrick above in the sky
Cover of St. Patrick’s Day issue of Young Ireland. Vol. III, No. 11 (March 17, 1877). Call #: O’Hegarty E144. Click image to enlarge, and click here to download a printable PDF of all four images.
Illustration for "Castle Daly" on the cover of the 28 July, 1877 issue of Young Ireland
Cover of the 28 July, 1877 issue of Young Ireland. Vol. III, No. 30 (28 July 1877). Call #: O’Hegarty E144. Click image to enlarge, and click here to download a printable PDF of all four images.

Looking for other things to do at home this St. Patrick’s Day? Browse some of our past St. Patrick’s day blog posts and posts featuring our Irish Collections. Want more coloring? Look at our recent blog post on Spencer Research Library’s contributions to this year’s #ColorOurCollections (hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine).

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian

Manuscript of the Month: Putting the Spotlight on the Once Influential Translation ‘On the Life of a Tyrant’ by Leonardo Bruni

February 25th, 2020

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings. 

According to our records, it has been some years since any researcher looked at Kenneth Spencer Research Library, MS C68, a paper manuscript of 16 leaves arranged in a single quire. MS C68 contains a single text, a translation into Latin of a work in Greek called the Hiero by Xenophon. Xenophon (c. 431 BCE–354 BCE) was an ancient Greek historian and the Hiero is significant as being his first work to be translated into Latin as far as we know. This translation into Latin by Leonardo Bruni was completed at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, in May 1403, under the title of the De vita tirannica [‘On the Life of a Tyrant’]. Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444), a renowned Italian humanist, translated several classical works from Greek into Latin including those of Aristotle and Plato as well as other works by Xenophon.

Xenophon’s Hiero is a short piece, set as a dialogue between Hiero I, tyrant of Syracuse in Sicily from 478 to 467 BCE, and Simonides of Ceos (c. 556–468 BCE), a lyric poet. They discuss how the lives of a tyrant and an ordinary citizen differ with regard to joys and sorrows. Framed as a conversation between a ruler and a wise man, the Hiero is left somewhat open-ended, with Hiero arguing that a tyrant has far fewer pleasures and many more and much greater pains than an ordinary person and Simonides offering advice on how to improve Hiero’s life by enriching himself with friends and employing deeds of kindness.

Image of the leaf, with ornamental initial, giving the beginning of Leonardo Bruni's preface to his Latin translation of Xenophon's De vita tirannica. Italy, first third of the fifteenth century. Call # MS C68
Beginning of Leonardo Bruni’s preface to De vita tirannica, his Latin translation of Xenophon’s Hiero. Italy, first third of the fifteenth century. Call # MS C68. Click image to enlarge.

Knowledge of the Greek language was very rare in the Latin West in the later Middle Ages. Leonardo Bruni learned Greek from Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 1355–1415), who was a diplomat of the Byzantine Empire in Italy. In 1396, Chrysoloras was invited to come to Florence as a professor of Greek by Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406), the Chancellor of Florence, who was also a renowned humanist scholar and a book collector. Salutati was also the patron of Bruni, who succeeded Salutati as the Chancellor of Florence. In his preface to the translation, Bruni refers to the De vita tirannica as a libellus–a little book or a booklet–and dedicates it to Niccolò Niccoli, who he thinks would “embrace Xenophon with a particular love.” Another Florentine and a friend of Bruni, Niccolò Niccoli (1365–1437) was also a protégée of Salutati and is credited for developing the Italian cursive script.

Opening showing the end of the preface and beginning of Xenophon's De vita tirannica in a Latin translation by Leonardo Bruni. Italy, 14--. (MS C68)
End of the preface and beginning of De vita tirannica in MS C68. Click image to enlarge.

The lack of interest in MS C68 may be explained with what Brian Jeffrey Maxson calls a “small amount of scholarship” on the work in modern times. Even though Bruni’s De vita tirannica had made available to readers in Latin an otherwise inaccessible text in Greek and was very popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it has received little attention in modern scholarship. There is neither a modern edition nor a translation of the work into a modern language. Nor are there any comparative studies dealing with both the Greek and the Latin versions of the story. We know, for example, that Coluccio Salutati published a treatise titled the De tyranno [‘On the Tyrant’] in 1400 and the topic of good rulership was being discussed in his political and scholarly circles. Therefore, it can hardly be a coincidence that Bruni titles his translation the De vita tirannica instead of keeping the original, that is the tyrant’s name, Hiero. Another indicator that Bruni’s translation was read and circulated widely is that this short translation was published in print editions at least eight times within a span of thirty years between 1470s and the end of the century, and our MS C68 is one of estimated 200 manuscript witnesses of the translation that survive today.

Neither the origin nor the early history of MS C68 is known. However, the examination of script and the watermarks in the manuscript put the date of origin to somewhere in the first third of the fifteenth century. This means that MS C68 was probably copied during Bruni’s lifetime.

Image of the bookplate of Bookplate of Sigurd & Gudrun Wandel in MS C68, which features a cherub riding a tortoise.
Bookplate of Sigurd and Gudrun Wandel on the front pastedown of MS C68. Click image to enlarge.
Oil portrait of elf portrait of Sigurd Wandel, painting in front of easel with Gudrun Wandel. Denmark, early 20th Century.
Self-portrait of Sigurd Wandel with Gudrun Wandel. Denmark, early 20th century. Source: Lauritz Christensen Auctions, Denmark.

As it currently stands, MS C68 has a modern binding, perhaps from the nineteenth century, and carries the bookplate of Sigurd and Gudrun Wandel on the front pastedown. Sigurd Wandel (1875–1947) was a Danish painter, who later became the director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and Gudrun Wandel (1882–1976) was his first wife. At least two other books with the same bookplate from their collection in Denmark ended up in the United States and are now at the Penn Libraries.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library purchased the manuscript from Bernard M. Rosenthal Inc. in July 1960, and it is available for consultation at the Library’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room.

  • Read a translation from Greek into English of Xenophon’s Hiero on Perseus.
  • Read more about translations from Greek into Latin in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries here: Paul Botley. Latin Translation in the Renaissance: The Theory and Practice of Leonardo Bruni, Giannozzo Manetti and Desiderius Erasmus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN: 978-0521837170
  • Read more about the context in which Leonardo Bruni translated the Hiero here: Brian Jeffrey Maxson. “Kings and Tyrants: Leonardo Bruni’s Translation of Xenophon’s Hiero.” Renaissance Studies 42.2 (April 2010): 188–206. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-4658.2009.00619.x

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher