Dramatic discovery of medieval manuscript

Last year two members of library staff discovered an unknown manuscript in the City Library Special Collections. The two members of staff, Rob Hodgson and Simon Bralee, unearthed the manuscript whilst auditing the collections.


An illustrated calendar from the manuscript. Note the number of the days in each month in the inner circle, the names of the months in the middle circle and the names of the Zodiac signs in the outer circle.

The text

The manuscript contains two texts – the Algorismus (or De Arte Numerandi) and the De Anni Ratione – written by Johannes de Sacrobosco (aka John of Holywood or Halifax) The Algorismus was the first major text of the Western tradition that dealt with, and examined, the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals. It became a key text of the medieval European university curriculum. Before this date, roman numerals were used. Hindu-Arabic numerals allowed a major advance in mathematics and made possible developments like mathematic calculation of physical properties, double entry bookkeeping and the Dewey Decimal Classification.

The De Anni Ratione is a criticism of the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar was the calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. Due to the complexity of calculating when to add intercalary days (think 29th February), the Julian calendar was prone to error. Sacrobosco was influenced by medieval Arabic astronomy. His theory – to take a day out every 288 years – was later largely discredited probably because he did not have access to more accurate astronomic data (also based on Arabic astronomy). The Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, country by country in a slow process over a period of 350 years from 1582 to 1923. The changes did not take place in Great Britain until 1751-2.

Both texts were very popular. This means that copies of the text were not uncommon.

An arithmetic circle


The manuscript

Both texts are in Latin. This was usual in the medieval West until a very late date. For example Newton’s Principia, published in 1687, was written in Latin. The opening words of De Anni Ratione are: ‘Compotus est scientia considerans tempora ex solis et lune motibus’ [‘The science of calculation are considered from the motions of the sun and moon…’].

Throughout the text the scribe of the manuscript used abbreviations. This allowed more text to be placed on less parchment and made the book cheaper. The abbreviations followed standard practice that was used throughout the medieval period in various languages. The word Compotus has been abbreviated to Compot with a superscript symbol looking (“like a backward ‘c’ or an exaggerated apostrophe”) to represent the final letters ‘us’. First lines are written with red ink. This is called the rubric and makes it easier to read.

Note the fancy initial letter on the first page and splashes of red throughout the text.

The book shows two different styles of handwriting (called hands); one in black and red and another one in a chocolate brown ink. The chocolate brown ink seems to be written around the black text and may be the notes of the first reader. This kind of text, found in manuscripts, is called marginalia. It can be very valuable to historians to reconstruct the histoire des mentalités or weltanschauung of a medieval university. You may sometimes see this form of writing called scholia. These are comments or explanations on the text intended for future reading. Scholia is sometimes copied alongside the main text.

Some learned marginalia at the side of the main text.

At the side of the manuscript you can see several regularly placed holes. These would have been placed there by a copyist or more often the apprentice. The copyist could then draw lines across the page to help them write neatly.

Notice the holes pricked into the right hand side of the page. These are to help the scribe write in straight lines

The book contains several holes. Manuscripts are notoriously easy prey to parasites. The word bookworms originally referred to insects who bored through pages of the book. You can sometimes trace their routes through books. Holes that appear after the creation of a manuscript are called lacunae (a single hole is called a lucuna). The word lacuna is sometimes used for gaps in text or missing words. If you look closely at the holes in this manuscript however, you will notice two very interesting things. First the text has been written around the hole and secondly the holes show signs of repair. These holes are not lacunae but were in existence when the book was written. The reason for this is because during the preparation of parchment the skin of the animal was dried and stretched. Any miniscule holes in the animal’s skin at the time of death would stretch in size. The older the animal, the more holes the parchment would likely show. Expensive manuscripts would often use younger animals. Vellum, the luxury writing material of the medieval period, was prepared from calf’s skin.

A rip that shows signs of having been in position at the time of writing.

The book is 18 cm by 12 cm book of 10 pages. The two texts are quite short. The Algorismus is about 5 to 10 folios.  Given its small size and relatively cheap manufacture the book is likely to have been the edition used by a University teacher or even student.

A most learned image

The discovery

Rob Hodgson who discovered the book is the City Law School Law Librarian. A barbate, well-dressed scholar with intelligent keen eyes, he did not expect to find such a treasure as he began auditing the special collections. Asking him about his discovery he says Truth be told whenever I catch the heady aroma of red rot in the air I’m always on the look-out for manuscript leaves used as pastedowns or a Wynken de Worde printers mark … but I never expected to find a full manuscript!” He was trained as a Rare Books librarian at UCL and has had substantial knowledge and experience of rare books. His previous role at The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn Place Inn Library saw him supporting legal practitioners (barristers) and students. The Library also contained a collection of manuscripts and rare books upon which Rob cut his teeth. At City Library he curates the Rare Books collection.

Rare Books as a term correctly means books printed between 1500 and 1800. Books printed before this are called incunabula. Movable-type printing in Europe was developed by Johannes Gutenberg from around 1450. Similar technologies had existed previously in China. Printing in this manner made the production of books quicker, easier and cheaper. Before printing, books were hand copied. Handcopying was more expensive in terms of time. It was also prone to mistakes. As it is felt mistakes accumulate over time, medievalists often trace the mistakes found in different manuscripts of the same text to form family trees (or stemma) from the surviving manuscripts. Through this they can identify, as closely as possible, the original texts. Not only were Sacrobosco’s texts popular enough to be regularly copied they were also printed at a very early date. Algorismus was printed in 1490.

His apprentice Simon Bralee was even more shocked by the discovery. A Coptologist by training, his schoolboy Latin nevertheless helped crack the code and identify the texts found in the books. “Nothing like this was ever to be expected in the Special Collections”, he says when I meet him over a coffee at the Courtyard Cafe. “What struck Rob most about the book was not that it was old, but that the spine looked so new in comparison with the other books on the shelves. Even before he opened it, he had said he wondered whether it was a manuscript”.

Librarian holding book.

Simon reading the manuscript.

Taking the book down from the shelves and opening it carefully, turning the pages of front matter Rob realised straight away it was a genuine manuscript. The hair on the pages, the smell of the pages and the holes at the edges all identified it as a manuscript. After a brief examination of the manuscript the Archives group sought the professional advice of Justin Clegg from the British Library. Justin identified the date and provenance of the manuscript from the handwriting found in the text. He gave a date of late fifteenth century and suggested it was likely from a university setting. The text has not yet been professionally edited.

Rob is sanguine about discovering more rare gems. He says “This may be the springboard I need to start my quest to locate one of the missing copies of Codex Amiatinus and return it to Tyneside… you never know what might be hidden inside a generic Victorian library binding !” Here’s hoping.

About Simon

Library staff at City University London. Writes about libraries, history, literature and design.
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4 Responses to Dramatic discovery of medieval manuscript

  1. Jessica says:

    What a find! Brilliant post about an interesting artifact.

  2. Ted says:

    Wow. This is fascinating. Thanks for a great blog.

  3. Rebecca says:

    I’ve only just read about this – really interesting – deserves more publicity!

  4. Nik says:

    This is well interesting. Thanks for posting.

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