ASC Rewind: The Fall of Princes

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with new eyes.
This article was originally published in February 2009 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

In February 2009 we featured an illuminated manuscript from 1467, a copy of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, or The Fall of Princes, a compilation of morality tales based on the lives of famous men and women.

Miniature of the Prologue depicting Fortune and her Wheel MS Hunter 371 (vol. 1): fol. 1r

Boccaccio (1313-1375) is regarded as one of the most important and influential writers of the Middle Ages, producing works both in Latin and the vernacular. The De Casibus Virorum Illustrium was written in the late 1350s. Loosely translated as ‘The Fall of Princes’ it is a moral treatise on the transience of man’s fortune. Boccaccio had turned to religion in his later years and morality began to feature at the centre of his work. He provides many examples of the errors and excesses that kings and princes should avoid, lest their lives end in tragedy.

The writer draws on stories from the Bible, the Church Fathers, classical sources and Greek mythology, in particular Livy and Ovid. Other anecdotes are taken from medieval Latin writers such as Valerius Maximus and Hyginus.

Full page with miniature of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel MS Hunter 371 (vol. 1): fol. 5r [Book 1]

The work is presented in the framework of a vision. As Boccaccio sits in his study, a succession of unfortunate figures from history and mythology pass before him. From Adam and Eve to King John II of France, the text runs in roughly chronological order, as characters such as Agamemnon, Dido, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Herod, King Arthur, Pope Joan and the Knights Templar appear. Through savage cruelty, death, rape and torture, Fortune influences the lives of all, making De Casibus grim reading. Typical of the stories is that of the Emperor Maurice: he was usurped by his lieutenant Phocus and is said to have been forced to watch his sons being murdered before he himself was beheaded.

The volume in Special Collections is a copy of Laurence de Premierfait’s 1409 translation of the tale. In French it was known as Du cas des nobles hommes et femmes. Laurence (1380-1418) was a poet and orator who made a living by translating work for eminent patrons.

Miniature depicting Seleucus being shipwrecked MS Hunter 371 (vol. 1): fol. 147r [Book 5]

Like many Medieval translators, Laurence sought not only to transcribe the text in his own tongue, but to “improve” it, by omitting some passages and adding material of his own. By embellishing passages with background detail drawn from his own interests in the Bible, astronomy and geography, he hoped to make the text more comprehensible to the reader. The additions make Laurence’s work nearly three times longer than the original.

His aim, like that of Boccaccio, was didactic. The work is dedicated to Jean, Duke of Berry and intended to be read by other members of the nobility. By using examples of the evils of rulers of antiquity, he hoped to influence the moral problems of France in the 15th century, still in the throes of the Hundred Years War. Almost all of the protagonists have catastrophic ends.
The translation was hugely popular and large numbers of copies were made, many richly decorated. It was also printed in at least seven editions before 1539. John Lydgate paraphrased it into English rhyme as The Fall of Princes, and it was imitated in The Mirror for Magistrates.

Full page with miniature of Petrarch visiting Boccaccio to encourage him to continue his tale. MS Hunter 372 (vol. 2): fol. 65r

This is one of two illustrated 15th century manuscript copies of the Du cas in Special Collections. It is a luxury production, well written out in professional French book hand on good quality vellum. It is split into two volumes of 180 and 142 folios respectively. Unusually, we know the name of the scribe of our manuscript: Nicolas Saint Homme of the Order of St John in Paris; the work finished on the 8th day of April 1467 after Easter. The manuscript was probably decorated soon after.


As well as the full-page illustrated large miniature – surrounded by a border containing acanthus leaves and flowers – that begins each book, the text is embellished throughout with decorated initials illuminated in gold, marking the beginnings of chapters.

Our manuscript is from the collection of William Hunter (1718-1783) who amassed some 650 manuscripts in his library. It is thanks to his legacy that we have so many splendid examples of medieval codexes in Special Collections today.

Dame Fortune speaks with Boccaccio. Full page with miniature MS Hunter 372 (vol.2): fol. 1r

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