Digitizing legal manuscripts at the Vatican Library

In this century several major research libraries and national libraries have started to digitize their manuscript collections. On my blog I have reported for instance about digitized legal manuscripts in the British Library. Legal manuscripts were included also in the project Europeana Regia for the reconstruction of the medieval royal libraries. One of my earliest posts concerned the Swiss project e-codices. More recently I wrote here about digitized manuscripts from Chartres and the Mont Saint-Michel. The digitized medieval and Renaissance legal manuscripts at the Collegio di Spagna in Bologna did not escape my attention, too. In 2013 the project at UCLA for the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts came to a halt because the two courageous scholars responsible for this project could not cope anymore with the tasks of creating a consistent and yet detailed catalogue. The question how to find out about the presence of digitized manuscripts is not easily answered.

Logo Digivatlib

For one particular massive project there is a way to stay informed. The current digitization project for the manuscripts of the Vatican Library has made considerable progress. Already some three thousand manuscripts can now be viewed online. However, this library did until this week not publish lists of recent additions. How can you stay informed about manuscripts which might interest you? In this contribution I will look at the efforts of Jean-Baptiste Piggin, a journalist and historian in New-Zealand, who since 2015 has patiently reported at his blog Macro-Typography about recently added digitized items. His service to scholars and the general public deserves our thanks and admiration. For your convenience I have put together a list of the legal manuscripts Piggin signalled until now. Piggin himself is interested in the history and use of diagrams, including those created by medieval lawyers, and this offers me a chance to write here about legal iconography, too. At Twitter you can find Piggin, too (@JBPIggin).

Thousands of manuscripts

The collections of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) in Vatican City are truly extraordinary. Not only their sheer number is immense, but also the presence of many remarkable manuscripts make this library an institution beyond repositories elsewhere. During its long existence the BAV was able to acquire entire manuscript collections. The Palatini came from the ducal library at Heidelberg, the Ottoboniani from cardinal Ottoboni, the Urbinati from Urbino, the Chigiani from the Chigi family, and these are just a few examples. Luckily there are even special bibliographies for the modern scholarly literature about these manuscripts. The BAV has created a separate online manuscript catalogue. The main digitization project of the BAV has several sister projects, for example for Syriac and Chinese manuscripts.

Logo Bibliotheca Palatina Digital - UB Heidelberg

The most important accompanying project deals with the Palatini latini, some 2,000 Latin manuscripts originally kept at Heidelberg, and now digitized and only accessible online at the portal Bibliotheca Palatina digital of the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. With the advanced search mode of the Palatina Search you can directly search for particular manuscripts. For the subject Recht you will find some 220 digitized manuscripts, but alas it turns out this search does not yield the result you would expect, because not only legal texts show up. Using filters such as Pal. lat. does help somewhat, but in my view it is not correct when the filters Justiz and Kanonistik give almost completely identical search results. The fact you can find individual texts within a manuscript is not only welcome, but simply necessary. The overview of Palatini latini is organized in some twenty lists with each one hundred manuscripts. Arranging by year, author or title does help a bit. However, a check with the lists’ view at Heidelberg makes clear you can confine your search for legal manuscripts among the Palatini latini mainly to the shelfmarks Pal. lat 621 to 800. The university library at Heidelberg has a separate website for searching images in the Palatini manuscripts.

Having the Palatina Search at your disposal is really useful and important when you look at Piggin’s series of posts with digitized Palatini latini. It would be a herculean task to add for each manuscript in his lists a short or long description. For the Palatini Piggin often gives the author’s name and the title of a work. So far Piggin has counted some 3,200 digitized manuscripts from the BAV. In his early posts he did not include complete lists. Until now he mentioned on his blog some sixty Palatini latini with legal texts. By the way, at the end of each post Piggin asks for comments and additions from people who know more about newly digitized manuscripts.

Apart from the Palatini latini Piggin mentions I have now a list in front of me with 33 legal manuscripts. This number puzzles me a lot. Stephan Kuttner and Reinhard Elze published two volumes of their Catalogue of canon and Roman law manuscripts in the Vatican Library, I: Codices Vaticani latini 541-2299, II: Codices Vaticani Latini 2300-2746 (Città del Vaticano 1986-1987). These two volumes should have been followed by three consecutive volumes, but for various reasons this has not yet happened. Gero Dolezalek and Martin Bertram have put PDF’s with the draft galley proofs of the third volume online. They bring us to Vat. lat. 11527. A similar project for other manuscript collections at the BAV is one of the projects that will bear fruits in particular for the field of medieval canon law. The overviews created by Brendan McManus for medieval canon law texts, the Manuscripta Iuridica database at Frankfurt am Main for texts concerning Roman and feudal law, and the Initia operum iuris canonici medii aevi of Giovanna Murano are at many points much more concise for manuscripts held at the Vatican Library. With this information at our disposal I should really look again at the nearly fifty (!) posts Piggin published and check them against these combined resources. For my consolation I can only remark that you will have to perform a similar task when you want to know about for example medieval medical or mathematical manuscripts at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

After all these preliminary remarks I had better give you simply these thirty-three manuscripts as presented by Jean-Baptiste Piggin, starting for your convenience with the Vaticani Latini:

  • Vat.lat. 630 pt.1 – Isidorus Mercator, Decretalium collectio
  • Vat.lat. 841, De Regimine Principum, a guide-book for princes, by Giles of Rome (Aegidius Romanus)
  • Vat.lat. 1130, anonymous (John of Paris?) on papal authority
  • Vat.lat. 3978, handbook for the Inquisition
  • Vat.lat. 3740, about 60 texts on apostolic poverty made to advise Pope John XXII at the time of a controversy with the Franciscans 1322-23 on the issue
  • Vat.lat. 3833, Collectio Canonum by Deusdedit, written between 1083 and 1087. This is the sole complete manuscript of this legal work. See Lotte Kéry. Notable for tabular material, but no diagrams. This is a palimpsest with four Vulgate gospels from the 7th or 8th century underneath (see Trismegistos)
  • Vat.lat. 12723, manuscript records of the Inquisition

The presentation of these manuscripts differs from a short notice to a much fuller description for some of them. “Lotte Kéry” refers to her repertory Canonical collections of the Early Middle Ages (ca. 400–1140) : a bibliographical guide to the manuscripts and literature (Washington, D.C., 1999), partially digitized by The Company with the Search Engine. Trismegistos is a database for ancient papyri and inscriptions. I will expand later on Piggin’s interest in diagrams.

The descriptions for the other manuscripts I took from Piggin’s blog follow here in alphabetical order of their shelfmarks. Behind the arrows I expand or correct his notes:

  • Barb.lat. 1396, a consilium of Baldus de Ubaldis >> numerous consilia by Baldus and other authors
  • Borgh. 7, Pope Boniface, Decretales
  • Borgh. 12, Works of Godefridus Tranensis
  • Borgh. 26, 13th-century legal text, Apparatus Decretorum
  • Borgh. 95,14th century, legal, Arnoldus de Augusta
  • Borgh. 154, Tancredus, 1185-1236, Opera, 13th-14th century
  • Borgh. 214Opera quaedam de re iuridica, 14th century,
  • Borgh. 226, Novels of Justinian
  • Borgh. 230, Iohannes de Lignano, 1320-1383 Lectura super decretales
  • Borgh. 231, Abbas Antiquus
  • Borgh. 248, Rottfried: civil law, canon law >> Roffredus Beneventanus, Libellus de ordine iudiciorum
  • Borgh. 262Decretales of Pope Gregory IX, glossed by Bernardus Parmensis (also known as Bernard of Parma, Bernard Botone, Bernard Bottoni), seems similar to Ms. 1 at Syracuse University
  • Borgh. 290, Bottoni, Bernardo, Summa super titulis decretalium
  • Borgh. 348, collection of opinions written in 1320 for Pope John XXII before 14th-century decision to extend inquisition to practitioners of “black magic” in southern France. Notes >> a reference to Annelies Maier, Ausgehendes Mittelalter III (Rome 1977) 208.
  • Borgh. 372, Glossa on Justinian >> Codex Justinianus with the standard Accursian gloss
  • Borgh. 374: A 13th-century text of the Emperor Justinian’s legal codifications including the Institutions, annotated by medieval lawyers. Justinian was emperor at Constantinople 527-565. >> Institutiones, Novellae, Libri Feudorum and Tres Libri (Codex 10-12).
  • Ott.gr. 64, legal synopsis
  • Ott.lat.15, legal texts, compiled by Capuchins
  • Reg.lat. 189, papal register
  • Reg.lat. 1024, the Liber Judiciorum, an early-8th-century code of Visigothic law (probably) copied in Urgell, Spain
  • Ross. 555, a beautiful Hebrew codex with four fine Italian miniatures. From Evelyn Cohen I read that this is Jacob ben Asher’s legal treatise, the Arba’ah Turim, and that the images depict a synagogue scene, animals being slaughtered according to Jewish ritual, a wedding and a courtroom scene.
  • Urb.lat. 157, Innocent IV, decretals
  • Urb.lat. 158, Azo of Bologna, decretals >> Azo, Summa Codicis and other works
  • Urb.lat. 159, finely illuminated law text by Bernardo Bottoni on Gregory’s Decretals, with a 14th-century arbor consanguinitatis where the tree is held in a planter by the law-giver (discussed by Hermann Schadt, Arbores, at p 259 ff.)
  • Urb.lat. 160, Johannes Andreae, Boniface VIII, decretals dealing with marriage and other legal issues >> mainly the Liber Sextus of pope Boniface VIII
  • Urb.lat. 1057, bound book of papal records

Piggin very sensible enlivens his lists with small format images of often remarkable illuminations, but to keep it here within sensible length I have excised the images and his remarks, except for those concerning legal trees such as the arbor consanguinitatis. In a post about digitized manuscripts in Bologna I have looked at the Mosaico project and its section about the Arbor actionum, the “Tree of actions”, a tool designed for determining which legal action(s) you should choose. Among legal diagrams Piggin looks in particular at the arbores consanguinitatis et affinitatis, and he proposes some substantial revisions of the views expressed by Hermann Schadt in his classic study Die Darstellungen der Arbores Consanguinitatis und der Arbores Affinitatis : Bildschemata in juristischen Handschriften (Tübingen 1982). Piggin published a post about legal arbores, and he has even has written an accompanying guide, The Missing Manual: Schadt’s Arbores. The virtual exhibition Illuminating the Law of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge shows some examples of these arbores. Piggin questions the very use of the word tree and invites scholars to look more closely and use terms carefully.

In Piggin’s notes the sheer variety of manuscripts faithfully mirrors the wealth of the manuscript collections at the BAV. For the field of legal history I have included also some items concerning the papal inquisition (Borgh. lat. 348, Vat. lat. 3978 and 12732) and some papal records (Reg. lat. 189 and Urb. lat. 1057). The manuscript Vat. lat. 3740 with questions concerning apostolic poverty reminded me of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and this subject as a bone of contention figuring in his novel. DigiVatLib does in many cases include at least some bibliographical information with which you can start further exploration of a manuscript.

Apart from his interest in legal iconography Piggin explores the origin of the use of diagrams with stemmata. I can only admire his tenacious approach and the way he blogs about his research in ancient and medieval history. The main results of his research appear at his own website. One of his latest blog posts concerns the text of a medieval commentary on biblical arbores humani generis, a kind of genealogical schemes showing the genealogy of Christ. The text seems to have been overlooked because it only filled gaps in drawings. It seems the kind of discovery only made by those who look at things supposedly well-known with an ever open mind.

While finishing this post the staff of DigiVatLib is busy transferring digitized manuscripts and incunabula to a new platform with enhanced interoperability. There have been complaints presence of large watermarks on the digitized images. It is also remarkable to see an interface for English, Italian and Japanese. There is now an advanced search mode with even fuzzy filters (“partial match”). You can tick a field for non-digitized items and choose to search only manuscripts. The galleries with selected manuscripts and the twenty latest digitized items wet your appetite for more. Twice every month you can get at Piggin’s blog a preview of newly digitized manuscripts. Even if it is possible to correct and expand his notes on legal manuscripts, you must admit that creating commented lists does at least provide useful orientation. Perhaps some legal historian might take up the challenge of providing a regular list of updates for digitized legal manuscripts at the BAV with sufficient information to start benefiting truly from this massive digitization project.

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