The prior provenance of one of the first medieval manuscripts to arrive in Philadelphia

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 2/52

Traictie des VII fruis de tribulacion, Philadelphia, The Library Company of Philadelphia, Ms. 18 875.Q, fol. 1r

The Library Company of Philadelphia is justly famous for being the first successful lending library in the western hemisphere, and one of North America’s oldest cultural institutions. And while the Library’s headquarters on Locust Street houses an unparalleled collection of books and manuscripts relating to early American history, few are aware that it is also home to about thirty Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Several of these are exceptional not, primarily, for their content, but for the early date at which they arrived on American shores. Manuscripts known to have been present in American collections before the turn of the nineteenth century are vanishingly rare, and the paths by which they crossed the Atlantic remain relatively understudied.

A good example of this phenomenon is a late-fifteenth-century manuscript that contains an unpublished devotional text in French, the Traictie des VII fruis de tribulacion or Treatise on the Seven Fruits of Tribulation, written by a member of the Celestine order, an offshoot of the Benedictines founded by Pope Celestine V. The manuscript itself contains a single, heavily damaged opening miniature representing a kneeling layman in prayer before Saint Michael, Saint James (or possibly Saint Roch), and a bishop saint. The unidentified coat-of-arms below it has been erased and crudely re-drawn, frustrating our ability to identify the figure represented in the scene above. The preceding flyleaf contains a later ownership inscription, perhaps dating to circa 1600, also in French, that has unfortunately been partially effaced and rendered illegible, though the somewhat earlier, elaborate, late-Gothic penwork below it is clearly readable as “L’an mil cinq cens et trente huit,” or, the year fifteen-thirty-eight.

The Library Company of Philadelphia, Ms. 18 875.Q, unnumbered flyleaf recto

The manuscript is of special interest to Philadelphians because it once belonged to the pioneering bibliophile William Mackenzie (July 1758–1828), who bequeathed the little book to the Loganian Library, later the Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1828. As Edwin Wolf stated, at the time of his death, Mackenzie possessed “by far the most valuable collection of antiquarian and modern books up to then gathered by an American.”[1] The diminutive Traicitie des VII fruis can be found in the first Catalogue of the books belonging to the Loganian library, published in 1837. But the manuscript’s rather unusual title has facilitated the identification of this very volume in a Parisian auction catalog of 1785 (De Bure, Catalogue des livres rare et précieux de M. …. [d’Hess], Paris, 7 March 1785, lot 35).

This was the sale of Joseph-Louis, Baron d’Heiss, the ambassador of the Palatine Elector in Paris. According to a recent Christie’s sale catalogue the Baron “ruined himself through extravagant book acquisitions and was forced to sell his library in 1781 for 100,000 livres to Antoine-Rene d’Argenson, marquis de Paulmy (1722-1787), founder of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal…. Able to pay off his debts, but bereft of his library, d’Heiss began to collect again, and in the next few years formed a second library, which was dispersed in his anonymous sale by de Bure.” Throughout the multiple sales of his collection, detailed here in an excellent blog post by Jean-Paul Fontaine, he preferred to remain anonymous, noted only as “M. le Baron d’***,” though his identity may have been an open secret to those in the know.

We do not know how rapidly Mackenzie purchased the manuscript following the sale, nor if he knew anything of its prior provenance. Little is known about William Mackenzie’s life, aside from his book collecting, though he apparently did not travel much beyond Philadelphia. The publication that accompanied a 1995 exhibition held at the Library Company, entitled William Mackenzie: America’s First Rare Book Collector, provides some further information,[2] as does the entry in the American National Biography, which recalls that:

The dispersal of hundreds of monastic and aristocratic libraries during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars created an unprecedented opportunity for collectors such as Mackenzie, who were able to acquire a far greater amount of much older and rarer material on the open market than had previous generations. While few sources for Mackenzie’s purchases have been identified, it is known that he bought at local bookstores…. It is likely that he had a European agent looking out for his interests.[3]

Trade between Europe and the United States had resumed in 1784, so by the following year the acquisition of such a book would have been feasible, though presumably an intermediary was used.

Whether Mackenzie acquired the book directly from this sale via an agent in Europe, or through the intermediary of an American bookseller such as Thomas Dobson (1751–1823), is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, the Library Company manuscript represents an extremely early example of an (admittedly modest) object from a major European aristocratic collection being purchased by a New World collector, preceding the large-scale American interest in medieval manuscripts by a century or more.

[1] Edwin Wolf II, “Great American Book Collectors to 1800,” Gazette of the Grolier Club 16 (June 1971), 23.

[2] Karen Nipps, William Mackenzie, America’s First Rare Book Collector (Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1994). See also Monica Bourke, “Exhibit Review: ‘William Mackenzie: America’s First Book Collector,’ The Library Company of Philadelphia” Pennsylvania History 62.3 (1995): 402–406.

[3] Karen Nipps, “Mackenzie, William (1758-1828), bibliophile and book collector” in American National Biography (2000). Accessed 3 Mar. 2019.

An unpublished, autograph booklet by Jean Lemaire de Belges, presented to the Queen of France on New Year’s day 1512

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 1/52

Lemaire de Belges, Jean, 1473-1524 – Pronosticque historial de la félicité future de l’an mil cincq cens et douze, Philadelphia, The Rosenbach Museum and Library, MS 232/11, fols. 1v-2r

Our series begins auspiciously with a long-lost royal prognostication on the good fortune of the year to come, the Pronosticque historial de la félicité future de l’an mil cincq cens et douze, or, translated roughly into English, the Exemplified foretelling of the future joy of the year fifteen-hundred-and-twelve. This sixteen-folio manuscript, written and signed by the important Walloon poet and historiographer Jean Lemaire de Belges (c. 1473–c. 1525), is an autograph copy produced for the Queen of France, Anne of Brittany (1477–1514). The text is otherwise unknown, and its rediscovery in the collections of The Rosenbach Museum and Library makes for an important addition to the author’s corpus while providing new information about the literary leanings of its famed recipient. Anne, to whom the work is dedicated, was an extraordinary political leader and a great patroness of the arts. She has the distinction of being the only French sovereign to have been twice crowned, first as the wife of King Charles VIII and then, after his sudden death in 1498, as the consort of Charles’ successor and second cousin once removed, Louis XII. Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (Great Hours of Anne of Brittany), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms lat. 9474, portrait of Anne in prayer, fol. 3r

Philadelphia in fact preserves numerous manuscript artifacts related to Anne and her husbands: the Free Library of Philadelphia houses the beautiful February, June, August, and September calendar pages from a grand Book of Hours made by the court painter Jean Bourdichon for Louis XII in 1498, while a single leaf fragment with a miniature of the Lamentation by Jean Poyer includes, on its reverse side, an inscription identified by Roger Wieck as possibly being in Anne’s own hand.[1] The FLP also houses a manuscript with an unusual binding decorated with the ermine tail, one of Anne’s emblems, and a (previously unnoticed) fragment from the once-impressive choirbooks commissioned by Anne and Louis,[2] bearing their initials and emblems. Anne’s library has been the subject of some excellent recent scholarship,[3] and this new find helps to enrich our knowledge even further.

As mentioned above, the present manuscript is the sole surviving exemplar of an unpublished text apparently unknown to specialists. Its most detailed prior mention occurs in the Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts of 1876, when it was in the collection of Evelyn Philip Shirley (1812-1882) of Ettington Hall, Warwickshire (where, incidentally, scenes from the 1963 film The Haunting were filmed). It was presumably Shirley who brought the manuscript to the British Museum to have it inspected by Keeper of Manuscripts John Holmes (1800-1854), whose handwritten notes are found in the front flyleaves of the manuscript. Previously, it had been in the collection of Walter Henry Bracebridge (d. 1832). It is not immediately clear how the manuscript ended up with A.S.W. Rosenbach in Philadelphia. Despite being present in prominent collections, the book has escaped mention in the voluminous literature dedicated to Lemaire de Belges, being noted briefly only in Paul Oskar Kristeller’s Iter Italicum. As such, I am currently at work on a critical edition of the short text, to be published in the not-too-distant future.

But what does this unusual text actually say? As a prominent court poet, Lemaire de Belges was renowned for creating “poésies de circonstance” or short works intended to address a particular situation. In this case, he addressed the auspicious numerological circumstances of the year 1512. The first page opening includes the queen’s Castilian motto “NON MUDERA” inherited from her Spanish mother (and also seen below, on the right, in the most splendid book she owned, the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne), as well as the year in Roman numerals. These insriptions are contained in two red banderoles, which frame a star-like emblem with a cypher containing the letters of ANNA BONA (good Anne/good year).

MS 232/11, fol. 1v and Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (Great Hours of Anne of Brittany), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms lat. 9474, emblem of Anne of Brittany on final flyleaf, fol. 238r

The book’s prologue consists of a pompous justification as to why a historian like Lemaire de Belges ought to engage in prognostication, traditionally the realm of soothsayers and astrologists. The first main section of the text (fols. 5v-8r) consists of examples from ancient and modern history demonstrating the universality and preeminence of the number twelve (“universalité et preeminence du nombre de douze”). The second section (fols. 8v-10v) draws parallel examples of duodecimal supremacy from the sacred scriptures. A conclusion (fols. 11r-15v) draws together both strands while explaining the palindrome-like pun, visualized in the opening emblem, of ANNA BONA (“good Anne”) being a pseudo-anagram of BON AN (“good year,” in French). A helpful colophon (fol. 15v, see image below) tells us that the short text was written in Paris at the beginning of January, 1512. It is subscribed by a large rendition of Lemaire de Belges’ personal motto, “De peu assez,” (In little, enough), in sputtering red ink. Finally, the text is accompanied by a rhyming “double virelay” (fols. 16r-16v), also unpublished, consisting of two twelve-line stanzas, signed by the author at its conclusion (fol. 16v):

6541_0043_web   6541_0045_web
MS 232/11, collophon (fol. 15v) and signature of Lemaire (fol. 16v)

Lemaire de Belges and his contemporaries were fond of word play, complex rhymes, and clever layouts. In fact, another manuscript in Philadelphia, quite damaged and certainly not an autograph copy by its author, contains a similarly virtuoso device in praise of Queen Anne. The University of Pennsylvania’s partial copy of Le vray-disant, advocate des dames (UPenn Ms. Codex 956), written in the same years by Lemaire de Belges’ contemporary Jean Marot, includes a “Ballade de la Paragonne des Dames” in which the letters at the start of each line spell the Queen’s name and title: ANNE DE BRETAIGNE, ROYNE DE FRANCE. This kind of acrostic device was especially popular with the French rhétoriqueurs of the early sixteenth century. Can you spot this example of word-play in the images below?

Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts Collection: Ms. Codex 956 - Marot, Jean, 1463-1523 - [La vray-disant, advocate des dames]   Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts Collection: Ms. Codex 956 - Marot, Jean, 1463-1523 - [La vray-disant, advocate des dames]
Marot, Jean, 1463-1523 – [La vray-disant, advocate des dames], Philadelphia, UPenn Ms. Codex 956, fols. 9r-9v

[1] See Roger S. Wieck, “The Artist Jean Poyet and His Oeuvre,” in The Hours of Henry VIII: A Renaissance Masterpiece by Jean Poyet, ed. Roger S. Wieck, William M. Voelkle, and K. Michelle Hearne (New York: George Braziller, 2000), 27–29.

[2] For an otherwise comprehensive list of known fragments, see Christopher De Hamel, Gilding the Lilly: A Hundred Medieval and Illuminated Manuscripts in the Lilly Library (Bloomington: Lilly Library, 2010), no.83, 183.

[3] Cynthia J. Brown, ed., The Cultural and Political Legacy of Anne de Bretagne: Negotiating Convention in Books and Documents (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010); Cynthia J. Brown, The Queen’s Library: Image-Making at the Court of Anne of Brittany, 1477-1514 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project: An Introduction

March 2019-March 2020 (with a weekly post every Friday morning at 6AM EST)

The Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project has provided the opportunity to spend some two and a half years examining nearly five hundred wonderfully diverse manuscripts produced before the year 1600, and now preserved in the great codicological metropolis that is Philadelphia. This ambitious project has led to innumerable discoveries great and small by the team of scholars tasked with cataloguing this vast ensemble. Because the manuscripts in question hail from sixteen collections of differing size and scope (see a map of participating institutions here), the existing descriptions we had to work from varied considerably. In many cases, we were able to build on existing published and unpublished catalogues, but in other cases, scholarly descriptions of manuscripts were non-existent. Manuscripts ranged from the very famous, to those that were essentially identified and located as a result of this very project. However, we make use of the term “discovery” here cautiously, since we are well aware that others (beginning with the very scribes and illuminators responsible for making the manuscripts!) may indeed have previously deduced some of the facts presented in the following posts. Still, we’ve attempted to produce a selection of exciting or unexpected findings made during the course of our study and not otherwise recorded or published. Many of these findings have been enabled by new digital tools, searchable digitized full-text publications, new research on regional schools of book production and illumination undertaken over the past few decades, and good old-fashioned detective work.

Our hope is that by publicizing these discoveries on the internet, by publishing the most significant ones in print, and by including much of this information in our rich metadata, we will in turn facilitate the recognition of these hidden gems by interested researchers around the world. We also hope that some of the discoveries will form the basis for an exhibition in the near future, and, further out on the horizon, a comprehensive multi-institution print catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in Philadelphia-area collections.

This series will occur in no particular order, and is based on observations made between October 2016 and March 2019 by Nicholas Herman with guest contributions by co-catalogers Dot Porter, Amey Hutchins, Erin Connelly, Oliver Mitchell, and Judith Weston.


Nicholas Herman

Curator of Manuscripts

Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies

University of Pennsylvania

The Uncanny Valley and the Ghost in the Machine

Cartoon of young man viewing a butterfly captioned "Digital Image of LJS 101" and asking Is this a manuscript?"

A discussion of analogies for thinking about digitized medieval manuscripts, presented by BiblioPhilly co-principal investigator Dot Porter at the University of Kansas Digital Humanities Seminar, September 17, 2018.

In this talk, which presents research and  concepts in the embryonic stage, Porter asks “If a digitized manuscript isn’t a manuscript, how can we present it in ways that explore aspects of the original’s manuscript-ness, ethically and with care, while both pushing and respecting the boundaries of technology?” Although this practice of thinking about what it means to digitize a manuscript and what that becomes seems really philosophical, Porter continues, she contends that this is really a practical question. She presents the concept of the Uncanny Valley, from robotics, in which the more human and lifelike a robot appears, the better received it is — until it becomes too lifelike, and even creepy. This is the territory of the Uncanny Valley, and the way this might inform thinking about digitized manuscripts.

Porter’s presentation draws upon a number of digital representations of manuscripts, including images, page-turning interfaces, videos, and collation models. She concludes with a discussion of the concept of “The Ghost in the Machine” and the degree to which a digital representation of the manuscript can and cannot convey the Ghost or the aura of the manuscript.

Read the whole thing here:


And that’s how we roll…

Genealogical rolls showing the direct descent of English kings from Adam were a major (and blatant) propaganda tool during the Wars of the Roses in later fifteenth-century England. The BiblioPhilly libraries have three from the reign of Edward IV, each very fine — but this one from Lehigh University has an intriguing nineteenth-century housing that makes it especially remarkable.

The Lehigh roll is based on the text of a roll that Roger of St. Albans presented to Henry VI, with continuation into the reign of Edward IV. The survival of considerable numbers of the these rolls suggests, as Alison Allan notes, that “they were the work of a small group of craftsmen,”[1] and that their production was deliberately planned to support the usurpation of the young Yorkist king. They showcase his purportedly superior hereditary claim and hint that his accession was divinely foreordained.

The glass-fronted wood housing with rollers and external knobs for this particular roll is an artifact in and of itself, and the question of how to photograph the roll without destroying its  enclosure has been the subject of a great deal of discussion. If removal of the roll from the case is impossible, as seems increasingly likely, the imaging team will explore photographing portions of the roll and digitally stitching it together.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of principal investigator Lois Fischer Black carefully turning the handles to get a full view of the roll.

Lehigh University Ms 8

Roger of St. Albans. Geneaological Roll, in Latin. 15th-century manuscript on a vellum roll 20 feet 5 inches x 12 inches (612.8 x 30 cm.), written in England. Bears the 16th-century inscription “liber Robert Ohlund (?) de Stondlley (?).” Acquired by Lehigh in 1955, the gift of Mr. Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Chronicle from the time of Adam to the reign of Edward IV.  A high-resolution digitization of this image will be prepared as part of the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis project.

[1] Alison Allan, “Yorkist propaganda: Pedigree, prophecy and the ‘British History’ in the Reign of Edward IV.” C. D. Ross, ed., Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England, Alan Sutton, Rowman & Littlefield, 1979.

Caring for the body: Lilium medicinae by Bernard of Gordon

 Lilium medicinae, Bernard de Gordon. Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Ms 10a 149, fol. 55v. Image from Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis on OPenn.

Lilium medicinae, Bernard de Gordon. Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Ms 10a 149, fol. 55v. Image from Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis on OPenn.

Not all medieval manuscripts are all about the pretty pictures and salvation (or not). This one is about the body.

This manuscript of Bernard de Gordon’s Lilium medicinae (Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians, 10a 249) is one of a number of manuscript editions of a comprehensive and practical manual for medical practitioners. The work is divided into seven sections that address the body from head to foot. Each section includes definition, causes, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, and clarification.

Lilium medicinae survives in a number of copies, including its original Latin and a number of translations including English, a testament to its popularity, especially in England. The College’s copy was made in 1348 and completed at the feast of Corpus Christi (June 20) — almost exactly when the Black Death landed in Melcombe in the county of Dorset.

Lilium Medicinae, Bernard de Gordon, Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians, ms. 10a 249, fol. 15v, showing the beginning of the passage on pestilential fevers. Photo courtesy of the Library.
Lilium Medicinae, Bernard de Gordon, Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians, ms. 10a 249, fol. 15v, showing the beginning of the passage on pestilential fevers. Photo courtesy of the Library.

Chrissie Perella, Archivist at the College of Physicians, translated a 1551 Latin version of Lilium medicinae on the causes of pestilence in her “Medieval Monday” series of blog entries: “Pestilential fevers are those that arrive in the time when crops are destroyed and all is barren because of corrupted air and water. . .The signs of which are common, and some belong to fever.  Signs of a future pestilence appear as stars called comets, with a round tail and a meteor, and the way in which it [the weather] is hot and then cold, and then hot and then cold again, many times in one day….” Read more here: Pestilential Fevers, or, The Black Death

 CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow Erin Connelly, who reviewed and expanded the cataloging data for Lilium medicinae for the BiblioPhilly project, has a personal interest in the work: her dissertation at the University of Nottingham focused on a manuscript of a fifteenth-century Middle English translation, The Lylye of Medicynes (Oxford Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1505). In addition to working on an edition of the manuscript, she has mined it for a project called Ancientbiotics that seeks to find new remedies in old sources that can be used when antibiotics have failed.

In two guest posts at the University of Nottingham, Connelly noted the income inequality that might determine whether the patient lived or died (‘ȝif it be a pore man . . .’: Healthcare for the Rich and Poor in the Lylye of Medicynes),  an issue that  still resonates today; and the medieval belief in the curative properties of breast milk (‘þe best mylke is womman milke’: Does Breast Milk Heal?) For Ancientbiotics, she is examining a database of ingredients and ailments from the Lylye of Medicynes for recurring patterns that might aid in the development of new remedies for antibiotic-resistant infections. [Listen to an NPR interview with Connelly on Ancientbiotics]

Where the College of Physicians’ manuscript spent the first century of its life is not known, but it was sold to a John Kokkes of Oxford (d. 1475), possibly a doctor and teacher, who in turn sold it for a reduced price in exchange for medical services.

Another unsolved mystery: what happened to the scribe? Perella wonders whether he survived the Black Death. And so do we…


View the manuscript online at