“This is our first original manuscript and is a prized possession.”

Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 46/52

Pierre Mésenge, Journal de sainct voyage pour visiter le sainct sepulcre, Bryn Mawr, Bryn Mawr College Library, MS 13, fol. 1r

The title of this post refers to a statement made by Lois A. Reed in the Report of the President to the Board of Directors of Bryn Mawr College in 1942, when the manuscript that is the subject of the present post, a copy of Pierre Mésenge of Rouen’s itinerary to the Holy Land, was presented to the institution by Howard Lehman Goodhart (1884–1951).1 H. L. Goodhart was a renowned collector of antiquarian books and a lifelong enthusiastic supporter of his daughter, college alumna and noted Renaissance historian Phyllis Goodhart Gordan (BMC ’35).2 While Bryn Mawr’s holdings of European pre-modern manuscripts now number some 53 items (all fully digitized and freely available via the BiblioPhilly interface and OPenn), this was, apparently, the first codex to be illuminated by the glow of the Lantern, so to speak.

Though the manuscript was thus proudly trumpeted upon its arrival on the Main Line, its significance has been largely ignored in the decades since. The book is one of only three primary witnesses of a an account of an eight-and-and-half-month pilgrimage from France to the the Middle East and back undertaken by Pierre Mésenge of Rouen in 1507, in the company of a group of associates. Following a preface that exhorts the Christian reader to visit the Holy Sepulcher and the other sites of the Holy Land, the fascinating narrative begins with the departure of Mésenge, a priest and canon, together with the priests Jacques Masselin, Jacques de La Chesnaye, and Jean Chauvin, and the merchants Nicolas Masselin, Jean Brymare, Jean Vollant, Roger Guener, and Guillaume de La Haye, from Rouen on 8 April 1507. The group of eleven pilgrims from Normandy were joined by others in Orléans, on the Loire, and reached Lyon in eight days. A week later, they had crossed the Alps and arrived in Turin (other members of the company had chosen to go via Genoa, where the French King Louis XII was staying at the time). At Pavia, they abandoned their horses and navigated along the Po, arriving in Venice on 5 May. Like many pilgrims of the period, Mésenge and his group used the Adriatic port city as a provisioning point. All told, they spent a full month there, staying at the Lion Blanc guest house and undertaking complex negotiations to secure passage eastwards.

While discussing the stay in Venice, Mésenge provides helpful hints for the prospective traveler (fol. 5r), including a fascinating list of necessary items: the proper amounts and units of currency; a chest for storing one’s belongings during the voyage and for sleeping upon; appropriate table linens for eating; a good number of clean shirts to avoid vermin; wine, water, and bread to supplement the poor quality offerings onboard; ham and sausages for meals; dried prunes, raisins, almonds, eggs, butter, and fish, which one can eat instead of the rancid meat rations that can cause illness; and a variety of preserves that can soothe an upset stomach or seasickness. This portion of the manuscript also includes a curious set of medicinal recipes shared with Mésenge by a Venetian doctor (fols. 5r–5v).

MS 13, fols. 5r–5v (section on necessary items for the Mediterranean journey and medical prescriptions)

Though the group reached Jaffa on 12 July, they were only permitted to disembark twelve days later. On 30 July, they finally entered the Old City of Jerusalem. On 18 August, they began to retrace their journey, leaving from Jaffa but only arriving back in Venice on 12 November. By 28 December they were back in Rouen, in time for the New Year.

Such pilgrimage accounts from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance are, of course, a widespread genre, and in the main they are extensively studied. However, Mesenge’s engaging, French-language text is too-little known. It is not the subject of a published edition: the two other main witnesses (Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. Lescalopier 99 and Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale ms. 1119) were transcribed for two separate Masters’ theses, but neither is available digitally, nor in any copies beyond those preserved in their repository libraries.3 Only the prescriptions offered to Mésenge by the Venetian doctor, of interest to historians of medicine, have been transcribed and published (based on the Amiens exemplar of the text).4

Equally unfortunate, while the current manuscript is listed as a witness of the text in the authoritative Europäische Reiseberichte des späten Mittelalters5 and in the related web project, Digitized travel accounts of late medieval and early modern Europe, its current whereabouts at Bryn Mawr are not noted, despite having arrived there, to great fanfare, in 1942. Interestingly, the importance of the present manuscript was noted by none other than Seymour de Ricci (1881–1942), the bibliographer responsible for the Census of medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada. In 1939, he wrote a short article highlighting the text’s importance and connecting the present copy with an earlier provenance trail.6

In these sources, the last known location of the manuscript was listed as the London book trade in the 1930s. The gift of the volume to Bryn Mawr occurred around the time of de Ricci’s death, and the Faye and Bond Supplement to the Cenus makes no mention of de Ricci’s article from 1939. A project run by the Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes (IRHT), the Répertoire des textes et des manuscrits médiévaux d’oc et d’oïl (JONAS) does record the Bryn Mawr manuscript, but not the Rouen version! The only scholarly publication that appears to make specific mention of the Bryn Mawr manuscript’s contents, however briefly, is an article on daily life aboard Venetian ships during the Renaissance.7

Amiens, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. Lescalopier 99, fol. 1r

As can be seen from the image above, the Amiens copy of the text is significantly later in date (as betrayed by the mature “bâtarde” script), and in fact appears to bear the year 1534. Furthermore, it appears to have suffered from significant damage. The Rouen exemplar, BM ms. 1119, appears likewise to be a later copy, from 1545. The Bryn Mawr example, in this case, may well be the earliest known exemplar of the text. The style of its still-Gothic textualis script, and especially of its illuminated initials and borders, has much in common with Rouen scriptoria of the turn of the sixteenth century and indicate a date that could not be much later than 1508, the return date from the pilgrimage journey, as specified in the text itself.

Compare, for example, a detail of the preface initial with that from another Bryn Mawr manuscript, the Chew Psalter, produced at the end of the fifteenth century. Or, an initial from an account of Anne of Brittany’s death, produced in Rouen in 1514 or soon after, now in Lyon. Clearly, with the Bryn Mawr manuscript, we are dealing with a very-close-to contemporary copy of the text. Perhaps a critical edition of the Bryn Mawr exemplar would draw us closer to this lively and engaging account of trans-Mediterranean adventure. We can end with de Ricci’s own words on the topic (which I have translated from their original French):

“Let us hope that the new owner of this curious volume has the good idea to publish this unknown text, comparing it with the two, likewise unpublished versions in Amiens and Rouen.”8

  1. Lois A. Reed, “Report of the Librarian” in Report of the President to the Board of Directors of Bryn Mawr College (Bryn Mawr: Bryn Mawr College, 1942), 35.
  2. See Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, “The Medieval Library at Bryn Mawr,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 46, no. 2 (1952): 87–98; and Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, Fifteenth-Century Books in the Library of Howard Lehman Goodhart With a Description and Check List (Stamford, CT: The Overbrook Press, 1955. ).
  3. Marion Muller, “‘Livre et exortation pour esmouvoir les chrestiens d’aller visiter le Sainct Sepulchre de nostre Seigneur en Hierusalem et les aultres lieux sainctz en la Terre Saincte’, par Pierre Mésenge : transcription et édition annotée, Amiens Bible. mun., Fonds Lescalopier 099 C (5216),” Master’s Thesis, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, 2016; Françoise Pouge, “Edition commentée du pèlerinage en Terre Sainte, fait en 1507 par Charles de La Rivière,” Master’s Thesis, Université François Rabelais, Tours, 1976.
  4. Jacques Daoust and Georges Dillemann, “La curieuse ordonnance d’un « notable docteur en médicine » vénitien (1507),” Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie 55, no. 193 (1967): 425–33.
  5. Werner Paravicini, Jôrg Wettlaufer, and Jaques Paviot, Europaische Reiseberichte des spaten Mittelalters: Eine analytische Bibliographie: Teil 2 Franzosische Reiseberichte (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999), 126–28.
  6. Seymour de Ricci, “Onze Normands en Terre Sainte,” in Mélanges syriens offerts à monsieur René Dussaud (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1939), 2:87–90.
  7. Benjamin Arbel, “Daily Life on Board Venetian Ships: The Evidence of Renaissance Travelogues and Diaries” in Rapporti mediterranei, pratiche documentarie, presenze veneziane: le reti economiche e culturali (XIV-XVI sec.), eds. Gherardo Ortalli and Alessio Sopracasa (Venice: Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 2017): 183–219, at 187.
  8. “Souhaitons que le nouveau possesseur de ce curieux volume ait la bonne idée de publier ce texte inédit, en le comparant avec les deux manuscrits, également inédits conservés à Amiens et à Rouen.” De Ricci, “Onze Normands en Terre Sainte, 90.”