ASC Rewind: Devotional and Philosophical Writings – A Manuscript Compilation

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes.   

This article was originally published in June 2008 by Julie Gardham and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

This week we are featuring a beautiful illuminated 14th century (c.1325-1335) manuscript compilation, comprised of 38 texts, including works by Seneca, St Augustine and Aristotle [MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)]. Lavishly produced and glittering with gold, the volume is illustrated by 13 historiated* initials and 3 illuminated full-page pictures by the chief artist of the Taymouth Hours.

*an historiated initial is when a letter incorporates an identifiable scene or figures, often linked to the accompanying text.

The volume is a personal compilation of works intended for private use. Consisting of some 485 pages on vellum, there are a series of devotional texts, treatises on morals and the liberal arts, some scientific writings of Aristotle and excerpts from philosophical treatises.

Illumination accompanying an unknown author’s hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary (p. 81)

The first 98 pages are dedicated to religious devotional works, with the likes of Saint Anselm, Hugh of Saint Victor, Saint Augustine, Saint Bernard and Saint Benedict being represented. There are also several meditations, hymns and prayers to Mary of unknown authorship. The middle section of the book (pp. 99-274) largely consists of works by or excerpted from Seneca. It is illustrated by four historiated initials and a full-page picture of the philosophers Seneca, Plato and Aristotle. The final part of the manuscript contains a compilation of texts by Aristotle (or pseudo-Aristotle). There is also a dialogue on the nature of man by an unknown author, an excerpt from Isaac Israeli’s 10th century treatise on Philosophy, and a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. On the last page is a copy of St Augustine’s Creed.

Historiated initial and text beginning St Augustine’s On the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (p. 36)

The current binding is from the 17th century, although repaired and re-backed in the 1960s. A contemporary listing of contents bound in amongst the preliminary leaves includes details of some works not now found in the volume, indicating that some of its contents have been lost or extracted since it was first made in the 14th century.

The manuscript has been well used and its margins are annotated by a number of hands. Although some of the pages have been soiled and marked over time, the high quality of its illustrations suggests that it must have been commissioned by a person of some wealth. Unusually, in this case, we do know who originally owned it. Although the manuscript is not inscribed by any early owner, there are visual clues in many of the illustrations where a figure is found repeatedly: dressed either in a red or blue gown, tonsured, and often kneeling as a supplicant, this figure is identified as “Rogerus” by the text banderoles** that accompany several of the pictures. 

**a banderole is a representation of a ribbon or scroll bearing an inscription.

Historiated initial accompanying hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary (p. 50)

The manuscript has been well used and its margins are annotated by a number of hands. Although some of the pages have been soiled and marked over time, the high quality of its illustrations suggests that it must have been commissioned by a person of some wealth. Unusually, in this case, we do know who originally owned it. Although the manuscript is not inscribed by any early owner, there are visual clues in many of the illustrations where a figure is found repeatedly: dressed either in a red or blue gown, tonsured, and often kneeling as a supplicant, this figure is identified as “Rogerus” by the text banderoles that accompany several of the pictures. 

It seems, therefore, that the book was made for Roger of Waltham. A rich administrator, Roger was a clerk of Antony Bek, the Bishop of Durham. He held several benefices in the north, and was a canon of St Paul’s London. He also held the important administrative position of Keeper of the Wardrobe of Edward II for a year in the 1320s, and was nominated by Edward to the archdeaconry of Buckingham in the diocese of Lincoln; probably intended as a reward for royal service, this had to be cancelled when it was discovered that the previous incumbent was still alive. 

The connection between Roger of Waltham and this manuscript was first established in 1953 by Richard Hunt (1908-1979), Keeper of Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. A letter (still kept in the annotated catalogue to the Hunterian manuscripts) from the great scholar Dr Otto Pacht (1902-1988) documents how he showed photographs of the illustrations to Hunt who suggested Roger of Waltham as the possible identity of “Rogerus”. Pacht states that ‘Investigating this hypothesis I came to the conclusion that Dr Hunt is absolutely right. Roger of W. is the author of a compilation of moral philosophy based mainly on Seneca. Now Seneca is one of the principal authors in MS. U.3.4 and he holds the centre of the philosophical Trinity on fol. 276. Stylistically the MS. has to be dated exactly in the period of Roger of W.’ 

The identification of Roger of Waltham as the first owner of the manuscript has subsequently been reinforced by Lucy Freeman Sandler (New York University) who has researched the manuscript in detail and written articles about it. Having compared its contents with the Compendium, she has confirmed that they each contain five of the same devotional texts; furthermore, the original contents list two more works that appear in the Compendium morale but that are now missing from our manuscript. Like the Compendium, it is likely that Roger was closely involved in the selection of texts for this manuscript, even though it was intended for his own private use rather than circulation. 

The named portraits of Roger are all found in the devotional section of the manuscript. A distinctive figure, he is depicted in either a red or blue furred gown, almost always shown kneeling with his hands raised in supplication, focusing on the object of his devotion. The incorporation of owner portraits in the illustrative scheme of medieval manuscripts is fairly common, as handmade and expensive individual commissions. According to Sandler, the majority of these images are found in devotional books such as this, intended for personal meditation and prayer. The images were added to enhance spiritual experience in reading the text, whilst the inclusion of a portrait was a physical and lasting manifestation of that person’s devotion to God, hopefully helping to secure them a place in heaven.  

Sandler points out that depictions of Mary as a nursing mother are also fairly rare. One instance of this accompanies John Peckham’s Philomena: in this poem, the soul meditates on the life and passion of Christ, living through a mystic day before dying of love as the nightingale dies through the passion of her song. The two historiated initials found at the beginning of the text reflect this subject matter – in the upper ‘C’, Christ’s life (his infancy, public ministry, and death on the crucifix) is summarised, whilst in the lower ‘P’, a figure reminiscent of Roger reaches up to a nightingale (the ‘Philomena’ of the poem).  

Though the historiated initials are undoubtedly fascinating, the chief glory of the book lies in its three full-page miniatures. The first is of the Coronation of the Virgin, a scene found in a number of psalters of the period. Christ is shown placing a crown on Mary’s head as she sits in an attitude of devotion. The grouping of the figures of Christ and Mary is standard, but no other representation from the same period incorporates text scrolls. Very much a feature of this manuscript, the scroll which emanates from Roger (kneeling at the foot of a flight of steps) reads ‘Ruling with your son let a realm be prepared for Roger’.   

Full-page miniature of the Coronation of the Virgin (p. 83)

Perhaps the most striking illustration is that which couples the rapturous visions of God that were experienced separately by Saint Benedict and Saint Paul through contemplation. A blazing light appeared to Benedict while he was in prayer, in the splendour of which he saw the soul of Germanus, Bishop of Capua, being carried to heaven by angels. Paul is said to have experienced a similar blinding revelation. According to Sandler, the two visions are brought together here as meditative models to bring the reader closer to God.  

Divided into three compartments, the giant face of God – surrounded by flames and radiant streams of light – is at the top. In the background are four angels, one holding up the naked soul of a mitred Bishop Germanus. In the middle – positioned between heaven and earth – are Benedict and Paul. Benedict holds a crozier in his left hand, gazing upwards as he kneels and points with his right forefinger to the diagram of the Universe below. Paul kneels in adoration behind a huge sword, pointing downwards. In the lower compartment, Roger and another figure (possibly Roger again) are shown on either side of a diagram of the twelve spheres. The two speech scrolls read: ‘All creating I beg, as I hope, have mercy on Roger’ and ‘May all things created by God be my medicine’.  

Full-page miniature accompanying St Benedict’s Vision of the Universe (p. 85)

The image of the spheres represents the medieval view of the cosmological universe (see below). The stationery earth is at the centre – here depicted by the Fall of Man – surrounded by the three remaining elements (water, air and fire), the seven known planets (including the moon), and the stars orbiting the earth in concentric rings. Such diagrams of the universe were common in medieval astronomical and mathematical manuscripts. 

Detail of lower compartment of full-page miniature from St Benedict’s Vision of the Universe, depicting the spheres (p. 85)

In the last full-page miniature, Plato (left), Seneca (middle), and Aristotle (right) stand dressed in Doctors’ caps and fur-lined gowns. All hold open books before them, to which Plato and Seneca point their right forefingers, whilst Aristotle raises his right hand with a didactic gesture. The books are inscribed with quotations from each of their writings, each sentence summing up the chief message of its author as transmitted in the medieval period. Beryl Smalley explains that the three ancient philosophers are here presented according to the medieval iconography of the Blessed Trinity (i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Seneca, the favourite moralist of the Middle Ages, replaces God in the centre of the picture.   

The lavish use of raised gold in the background is clearly seen in this illustration. Here, the gold has been incised in a pattern of stars and lozenges. Such patterns increase the eye-catching quality of the burnished gold, serving to illuminate the page.  

The miniatures and historiated initials are clearly the work of one artist, identified by Sandler as the Master of Taymouth Hours. Given Roger’s association with court, it is likely that this artist worked in London.  

Despite the lavish illustrations, the script is a rather hurried Anglicana, presenting a somewhat workman-like appearance at odds with the illustrations. Exceptionally, the writing on each page starts above the top line – a practice generally discontinued from about 1230. The text is otherwise broken up by the standard use of rubrications for headings and penwork initials to flag up the start of different sections.  

Historiated initial and beginning of text of correspondence between St Paul and Seneca (p. 99)

There are several annotations in the flyleaves that offer clues about the book’s history in between its ownership by Roger of Waltham and William Hunter (1718-1783), who bequeathed the book to the University of Glasgow at the end of the 18th century. One of these was once supposed to be the monogram of Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the Lord Chancellor of England – however, this theory was disputed by A.I Doyle who suggested that ‘it may be nothing more than an elaborate ‘Jesus Mercy’’. Below this is a 17th century ownership inscription of one Andrew Bridge, about whom nothing is known. Underneath this, in an 18th century hand, the title of the manuscript is given, followed by what is probably a price – ‘2.12.6’. This is possibly the inscription of the bookseller, Thomas Osborne (1704?-1767). The most celebrated bookseller of his day, he bought up and sold the collections of many eminent individuals, including the Harleian Library books. A catalogue of his indicates that this manuscript was once in his possession: it was probably sold to Hunter from his collection in 1768.  

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