Tag Archives: Medieval history

A personal touch: Chasing autograph manuscripts of medieval lawyers

The Middle Ages span a millennium, and the very term has long darkened our understanding of this period in European history. Somehow the image of the Dark Age keeps to some extent its force for children, the general public and scholars alike. Seemingly out of the dark come the persons whose names we know, and romantic phantasy has often been very active to make them as colourful as possible. Clovis, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Saint Louis, the holy French king pronouncing the law, are among the people for whom we can find out more than only battles, deeds and orders, but we hear seldom the voice of more ordinary people. Thus the counsels of Dhuoda to her son, the visions and songs of abbess and composer Hildegard von Bingen, and Christine de Pisan, a passionate writer and defender of women, stand out even stronger, because they shed light on the history of women, too. In the field of medieval art there has been a hunt to find traces of individual artists. Some works of art still bear their names, but others remain anonymous.

Cover Autographa I.2

Medieval law, too, can seem not only a very masculine, but also a very impersonal affair. However, juridical glosses from the twelfth century in the manuscripts with the main texts of Roman and canon law are sometimes signed with an abbreviated form of the names of lawyers such as Azo, Jacobus Bassianus, Rogerius and Pillius. In the last decades another hunt has brought some astonishing results. Scholars have been able to identify autograph manuscripts of a surprising number of medieval lawyers. Individual scholars succeeded in connecting one or more manuscripts directly to the author of a particular juridical text. Surprisingly this is indeed possible for medieval lawyers, for many scholars not the group in medieval society you would immediately pinpoint.

On February 8, 2017 the second volume of a series of studies about medieval autograph manuscripts will be presented at the École française de Rome. This post is a small tribute to the scholars contributing to these volumes, and especially to Giovanna Murano, the courageous editor who has set an example herself in approaching legal manuscripts with new questions and sharing her wisdom and results with others. The blog Storia del Diritto medievale e moderno alerted me to the presentation of the new volume, and apart from translating the main information of their message in French I will try to provide some context for this important publication.

The hands of the masters

During the thirteenth century a system for the reproduction of medieval texts used at universities came into existence. Book shops were given controlled master copies, exemplars of these texts. Students could hire quire after quire for scribes to make copies. The pecia system – literally “piece” – was first described for theological manuscripts by Jean Destrez. Last year Frank Soetermeer died, the Dutch scholar who did research about the use of the pecia system for legal texts in Italy and France. Giovanna Murano, too published a book about the pecia system, Opere diffuse per exemplar e pecia (Turnhout 2005). Since a few decades it becomes clear that the chances for survival of original author manuscripts were relatively high. In the sixteenth century, however, printers often discarded the very manuscript(s) they had used to produce printed versions of texts.

Recognizing the handwriting of a specific author can be easy, but first you have to connect an inimitable script with him or her. The almost illegible script of Thomas Aquinas (circa 1225-1274) got nicknamed littera inintelligibilis by his contemporaries, and the mirror writing of Leonardo da Vinci in the fifteenth century is rightly famous. Medieval lawyers signed in particular charters, acts written on parchment, or added some confirming lines in their own hand to consilia, legal consultations. The cover of the new volume shows a consilium with some of such closing lines and signatures. The interest in these consilia has helped very much to make the identification of the handwriting of medieval lawyers possible.

Perhaps the single most important step was the identification of a set of autograph manuscripts in the Vatican Library written by or produced under the direction of Baldo degli Ubaldi (1327-1400), first signalled by Giancarlo Vallone, ‘La raccolta Barberini dei “consilia” originali di Baldo’, Rivista di Storia del Diritto Italiano 62 (1989) 75-135. You can read online (PDF, 9 MB) an article by Vincenzo Colli, ‘Collezioni d’autore di Baldo degli Ubaldi nel MS Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 1398’, Ius Commune 25 (1998) 323-346. Twenty years ago Colli identified more autographs and other manuscripts close to their author for other medieval lawyers as well, for example for Guillelmus Duranti (around 1237-1296), the author of the Speculum iudiciale, a massive legal encyclopaedia, ‘L’apografo dello Speculum iudiciale di Guillaume Durand’, Ius Commune 23 (1996) 271-280 (online, PDF, 3 MB), and together with Giovanna Murano ‘Un codice d’autore con autografi di Giovanni d’Andrea (ms. Cesena, Biblioteca Malatestiana, S.II. 3)’, Ius Commune 24 (1997) 1-23 (online, PDF, 9 MB).

In the second volume of the series on medieval autograph manuscripts [Autographa I.2: Giuristi, giudici e notai (sec. XII-XV)Giovanna Murano (ed.) (Imola 2016)] you will find some eighty images of medieval manuscripts, and very often you will see a medieval consilium and a manuscript of a particular work as evidence for the identification of an author’s hand. Apart from lawyers who published legal works the team looks also at medieval judges (giudici) and notaries (notai). For the second volume twelve scholars have identified 49 authors and consulted more than one thousand manuscripts in more than two hundred libraries. The new volumes contains eighty photographs.

Giovanna Murano contributed an article about the autograph of Antonio de Roselli’s Monarchia for the second volume of the Festschrift for Mario Ascheri, Honos alit artes. Studi per il settantesimo compleanno di Mario AscheriPaola Maffei and Gian Maria Varanini (eds.) (4 vol., 2014), a publication briefly mentioned here, too, available in print and online. In the first volume a whole section is dedicated to articles concerning medieval legal consilia. Murano provides a must-read on this genre with her article ‘I consilia giuridici dalla tradizione manoscritta alla stampa’, Reti medievali. Rivista 15/1 (2014) 1-37. She offers an uptodate illustrated introduction to this medieval genre. It gives you an example of her rigorous thinking and dense argumentation. At every turn Murano makes you think and reconsider matters you had not thought about for a long time or simply not carefully enough. In a similar article she gives a status questionum for the study of the Decretum Gratiani, the great treatise for medieval canon law from the early twelfth century [‘Graziano e il Decretum nel secolo XII’, Rivista Internazionale di Diritto Comune 26 (2015) 61-139; online].

The first volume of the series Autographa appeared in 2012. In my view both volumes can serve also as a palaeographical atlas for anyone studying the learned law, i.e. the medieval – and Early Modern – use of Roman and canon law. Instead of hunting digitized manuscripts on your computer screen or tablet you might want to sit down and study the variety of handwriting offered by Murano and her international team. The books can be used indeed as a fine guide to medieval legal manuscripts. However, maybe it is simple the urge to come as closely as possible to the hands of the great magistri of Italian and French medieval universities that makes you want to have these books within your reach. The names of medieval lawyers change here from glorious but inevitable dead names into living persons, not just as law professors producing a theoretical frameworks for judges, advisors and officials all over Europe, but at work themselves, counseling parties or pronouncing judgment on cases which show law in action. These manuscripts and archival records offer a splendid window to medieval life and society. My warmest congratulations to Giovanna Murano and the scholars participating in this great project! It deserves your attention by all means.

Digging up cold cases, a useful metaphor

The start of the Cold cases exhibit in Museum Flehite, AmersfoortA few weeks ago I visited an exhibition with a title which I had associated first of all with law and justice, Cold Cases Amersfoort at Museum Flehite in Amersfoort. Even its subtitle Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingen [Old skeletons, new discoveries] did not turn me away from making the short journey by train from Utrecht to the lovely small city of Amersfoort. The exhibition was certainly not exactly what I had in mind, but in fact the very difference between my expectations and the actual exhibition made me think. While walking in beautiful old Amersfoort and visiting two other historic locations it seemed these three locations each bring their own perspective. In a way this post is about some of the metaphors we often use almost without noticing them. In the light of a sunny Saturday afternoon they became visible again.

An archaeological approach
Logo Museum Flehite

Cold cases, these words worked for me like a trigger. You might associate it first with reconstructing and analyzing cases, but here archaeologists worked with some five hundred human skeletons, a reminder that however abstract analysis can become you meet here the physical remains of people who walked on the surface of the earth, just as we do now. These skeletons were found during the excavations of cemeteries on four locations, some of them attached to monasteries. Some excavations took place a few decades ago, but with new technical equipment the skeletons can now be studied in far greater depth than a generation ago. Think only about the way tiny fragments containing DNA can now be analysed in a way simply impossible twenty years ago. In this respect the title Cold cases is certainly aptly chosen.

Harm and violenceIn this exhibition you do not just have complete and incomplete skeletons. There is general information, there are showcases about individuals whose skeleton in some way can tell us vital information about their life. There is for example attention for the way you can determine gender and age, or detect traces of diseases. Some skeletons, in particular skulls, show the signs of accidents or violence, others are marked by the deadly effects of a disease. Syphilis came to Europe in the early sixteenth century, and its harmful presence is clearly visible once you know the tell-tale symptoms.

Reconstructing a girlPerhaps the most telling part of the exhibition is the room showing the reconstruction of the face of a young girl. She has received the nickname “The Girl with the Ear Clamp” because of the iron clamp used for head caps found in her grave. A lot of techniques and skills are necessary to reach the final result, a startling lifelike face. In order to bring especially young visitors closer to the work done to achieve such results part of the exhibition is a kind of study room with a laboratory. Every Wednesday an archaeologist can give you more explanations about the exhibition and the way archaeologists can now approach human remains. On other days a story-teller takes you back to late medieval Amersfoort, and on Sunday afternoons you can meet the challenge to reconstruct yourself a skeleton.

Food for thought

When I left a bit earlier than expected the exhibition at Museum Flehite I had enough time to visit two other historic locations. I went first to a museum housed in the remaining buildings of an Early Modern hospital, the Sint Pieters en Bloklandsgasthuis at the Westsingel. In fact it is the only still existing one of its kind in my country. The chapel built around 1500 and the men’s hall from 1536 have survived the centuries. On weekdays visitor can meet actors dressed as inhabitants who re-enact some inhabitants in the year 1907, just before the removal to new premises at Achter Davidshof. The choice to play out this situation with as its surroundings the situation of the nineteenth century might seem startling, but it would indeed be more difficult to stage people from the sixteenth century. The actors tell the visitors they do not yet know the new place and that they are excited and anxious about their new housing. Instead of telling in ample detail about their daily life, as indicated in an ordinance you can read in the main hall, they prefigure almost the way a historian approaches the past. You do not know what is around the corner of what someone will day or do in a few moments, unless a lifetime of patient attention, study and reflection over the years has taught you something fundamental about people living in particular times and circumstances.

My third visit on this afternoon in August was to the Mondriaanhuis, a museum documenting the life and works of the Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan (1872-1944), a pioneer of modern art, often associated with the De Stijl [The Style] group whose members favoured cubic forms and sparse use of colors. The museum is located in the very house where Mondrian was born. On the first floor there is a faithful reconstruction of his humble apartment and atelier on the attic of a Parisian house. Even the background noises and fragments of songs from the roaring twenties add to the atmosphere, as if the painter could walk in here any moment. Apart from documenting the life and works of Mondriaan this museum has also space for exhibitions that show his impact on contemporary art. To be honest, the Mondriaanhuis does have only a few works by Mondriaan himself in its holdings. I use the Dutch spelling Mondriaan on purpose!

Looking at the different approaches in these three museums is certainly interesting. At Museum Flehite there is much attention for the how of a reconstruction. At the old hospital there is a sharp contrast between the seemingly timeless space and the expectations of the last inhabitants about their new home. In the Mondriaanhuis the reconstruction of the attic in Paris evokes almost to perfection the surroundings of an artist in the world capital of art. Every approach has its values and shortcomings. I bring these museums together fully aware they cannot be compared completely at the same level, but any comparison goes faulty. We use metaphors from all kind of spheres of life together, often without noticing the funny effect of for example naval terms side by side with agricultural words.

Has archaeology any uses for legal historians? I was hoping this question would show up here sooner or later. When reviewing in my mind the three museums at Amersfoort I would say that any discipline can be important, either on its own or more as a kind of handmaiden in the role of an auxiliary science. At Bordeaux a symposium will be held on February 8-10, 2017 concerning the theme (Re)lecture archéologique de la justice en Europe médiévale et moderne, “An archaeological (re-)reading of justice in medieval and Early Modern Europe”. There will be three main sections, one focusing on justice and space, another on justice and the body, and the third on objects associated with justice. The way archaeological approaches and methods used more commonly by legal historians can interact with each other will be explicitly addressed. The deadline of the call for papers is September 15, 2016. If you think you can convince scholars to use with great benefit the ways archaeologists approach the past, or make inversely them aware of the particular and fruitful ways legal historians work, you are most welcome. Hopefully this post helps you to consider the role of archaeology for legal history, not to solve just one cold case, but to gain perspectives on cases that might be closer connected than you can see at the surface.

Cold cases. Oude skeletten, nieuwe ontdekkingenMuseum Flehite, Amersfoort – June 19 to September 25, 2016