Category Archives: Medieval & Renaissance Collections

What is this place? A short intro to RBML

That is the question we hear a lot at the beginning of the new academic year as students explore Butler Library and end up here, in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, aka “The Pink Palace.”

pink castle design and acronym rbml

Is there difference between a “castle” and a “palace?”

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) is Columbia’s principal repository for primary source collections.  The range of collections in the RBML spans more than 4,000 years and includes rare printed works, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, papyri, and Coptic ostraca; medieval and renaissance manuscripts; posters; art; comics & cartoons, and oral histories.

Forming the core of the collections: 500,000 printed books, 14 miles of manuscripts, personal papers, archives and records, and 10,000 (and counting) oral histories.

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Book History Colloquium: Old Books as Digital Objects

13 February 2019 | 6pm | Room 522 Butler Library

early english manuscript

Photo courtesy

We are used to reading texts with our eyes—reading the words and images for their content (in fact, this is so obvious it’s odd to describe it). But we also read texts with our fingers—the feel of the materials, the act of navigating through a codex or scroll, and the feel of the weight shifting or paper folding as we move through the content all contribute to our understanding of the work we’re reading.

The guest speaker for this event is Dr. Sarah Werner, independent scholar, editor of the blog Wynken de Worde books, early modern culture, post-modern readers and the author of the forthcoming Studying Early Printed Books 1450-1800: A Practical Guide.

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Talk | Philology and Authenticity: Lorenzo Valla, Constantine, and Styles of Renaissance Reading

November 1, 4:30 pm
Bulter 203 (with a post-talk reception in the RBML’s Kempner Gallery)

Dean of Georgetown College and Professor of Classics and History at Georgetown University, Christopher Celenza will deliver the sixth Paul O. Kristeller lecture.

He is the author of The Intellectual World of the Italian Renaissance: Language, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning (2018), Petrach: Everywhere a Wanderer (2017), and Machiavelli: A Portrait (2014).

This event is co-sponsored by the Italian Academy. Registration is required


Exibition: Middle English Prose

hand with palm writing

In 1984, Ralph Hanna III published the first volume of the Index of Middle English Prose, listing manuscripts held by the Huntington Library in southern California; we are now almost 35 years into the project, with 24 volumes completed, and several more in preparation. 

One volume will represent prose in Middle English held in manuscripts of New York City’s libraries. Of these, Columbia’s is the largest.  To celebrate the years of work that this project has demanded, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Columbia University will display books containing prose in Middle English; the display will be in the RBML’s Chang Room through September 2018.

Fri., Apr. 17th at 6:00 PM: “Writing and Reading Manuscripts in Germany in the 16th Century”

The Paul Oskar Kristeller Memorial Lecture
Prof. Dr. Eef Overgaauw
Director, Manuscripts Department
Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

When Johannes Gutenberg and his followers started printing books, around 1452, the production of manuscripts did not come to a sudden end. On the contrary: during the second half of the 15th century, the production of handwritten books increased substantially until the 1480s and remained high until the end of the 1490s. In the course of the 16th century we notice the appearance of new kinds of manuscripts, unknown in the 15th century, such as cookery books and handbooks for craftsmen. These developments came along with a shift in the conditions for the production of manuscripts, in the design and lay-out of manuscripts, and in writing and reading habits, as Europe shifts dramatically to an ever growing number of printed books.


Bertykin’s Books

Libraries care about library catalogues, or, more broadly, lists of books, compiled for all sorts of reasons.  On the back flyleaf of a manuscript of a well-known grammatical text is a list of medical books:  it's in the same hand as that of the grammar, and it ends with a curious statement:
The sum of Bertykin, containing the summary of all that which is in the library of his own house, which was acquired in Nuremberg for six florins.

There are uncertainties in this reading:  is this indeed the sum of little Berty's books?  Or is "summa Berthikini" itself the title of another text?  If so, I certainly haven't found it and I certainly have looked.   And why is "comperatur" in the singular?  Are all the listed texts in fact bound as one volume?  Not impossible, since none of them is very long; they add up to some 120 leaves in early printed copies of the works.

Speaking of print, were Bertykin's texts in manuscript or in print?  The fourth and fifth item occur in this order and, more compellingly, with the same unusual title for the fifth text in an incunable printed in Rome by Bartholomaeus Guldinbeck ca. 1475-76 (?;Goff A-1070).  Even the main text, the grammar, Lilium grammaticae, could easily have been copied from a printed text; there were nineteen editions of it between ca. 1490 and 1501,  and the edition printed ca. 1495 in Cologne (Goff V-264) provides a good match with the present manuscript.  Or perhaps Bertykin owned a mixture of manuscript and printed texts:  the 6th item wasn't printed until 1919-1920, as far as we know.

What do we know?  That the watermark of the paper suggests a date of the main manuscript at the end of the 1400s (but the final leaf, the one with the book list, is on a different paper stock).  That the same person copied the grammar and wrote the list of books, and that person was German (paleography, quotes in the grammatical text, reference in the list to Nuremberg all agree).

Plimpton MS 137, f. 17v:   Bertykin's Books:

  • Liber arnoldi prepositi S. iacobi de regimine sanitatis ad agustinum  episcopum sagabriensem [The Book of Arnold, provost of St. James, On the regime of Health, dedicated to Augustine, bishop of Zagreb]
  • Liber qui dicitur Thesarus  pauperum in medicinis et incipit Practica dividitur [The Book which is called the Treasure of the Poor in Medicine, and it opens with the words, "Practica dividitur"]
  • Tractatus de venenis Petri de Albano [The Treatise on Poisons by Peter of Abano]
  • Tractatus Magistri arnoldi de villa nova de arte cognoscendi venena [The Treatise of master Arnold of Villanova On the Art of Knowledge of Poisons]
  • Tractatus de Epidimia et peste domini Valasci de tharenta regis francie prothomedici excellentissimi <a price?> [The Treatise on Epidemics and on the Plague by Valascus de Taranta, the most excellent main doctor of the king of France]
  • Et Flores dietarum Magistri iohannis de sancto paulo [The Flowers of Diet by master Johannes de S. Paulo]
  • Summa Berthikini continens summatim omnia que habentur in libraria domui proprie comperatur Nuremburge pro 6 florenis.  [The sum of Bertykin, containing the summary of all that which is in the library of his own house, which was acquired in Nuremberg for six florins]

For more images and for a brief description of this manuscript, please see the Digital Scriptorium searching on the call number: Plimpton MS 137.

Technical vocabularies–serving wine in the Middle Ages

Plimpton MS 160 is a late 14th century manuscript held by this library; its texts are serious and scientific:  Euclid’s Elements, followed by theoretical treatises on astronomy and mensuration.  A while ago, I had noticed a casual drawing on f. 41v, an otherwise blank leaf at the end, but only recently made an effort to read the words on the drawing.


As it turns out, the image, casual and fun-loving as it seems, remains coherent to the book owner’s take on life, serious and scientific in its vocabulary.  The cask of wine is duly labeled "Vas vini" (and that’s pretty basic Latin); the small lidded jug into which the wine is being decanted bears the label, "Cantrum parvum."  Go to Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis (1883-1887) online (for which grace, we truly thank the Sorbonne in Paris),, and search for "cantrum"; up comes a cross reference to "cantharum" and, inter alia, it states "vas quoddam est, ad aquam vel ad vinum portandum."  Aha!

But the final word demands a high resolution image, or a powerful magnifying glass, because the word’s letters and the wine-enthusiast’s fingers intersect.  With that bit of aid, up pops a word that looks like "ducillus."  Du Cange cross-references it to a couple of options, one being "duciculus."  Well, I can live with that.  Both forms are clearly diminutives, so let’s see what "duciculus" has to offer.  One synonym offered is "Paxillus," meaning "peg."  That works.


And then there are many examples from medieval sources, from which I’ll report one here:  "Forte ille tunc promptuarium ingressus, ante vas steterat, et sudem, quæ vulgo Duciculum, a potu scilicet educendo, dicitur, in manu tenens, cerealem amphoræ potum infundebat."  But what’s it talking about?

Source of the citation is Nicholas Camuzat, Promptuarium sacrarum antiquitatum Tricassinae diocesis (Troyes, 1610); according to the online WorldCat, that book seems unfindable in the US, with the exception of a microfilm held by the Lea Library at Penn.   But push a bit on the web, and it turns out that Camuzat was simply printing an already-extant life of St. Bercharius, the 7th century founder of Moutier-en-Der.  The actual author we need to locate is Adso Dervensis, a 10th century monk who composed the life of his monastery’s founder.  Well, push only a tiny bit more, and, voilà, there’s Adso’s Vita S. Bercharii abbatis online, courtesy this time of Chadwyck-Healey’s publication of Migne’s Patrologia latina (and of this university that foots the subscription bill); the quote is at PL 137:674D.

Here’s the story.  By chance, Bercharius’s abbot called for him right as Bercharius, cellerar of the monastery, had pulled the stopper out of the barrel of beer.  With monklike obedience, Bercharius hurried off to obey his abbot’s summons, forgetting to plug the barrel.  The beer gushed forth, and when it had filled the pitcher that Bercharius had left behind, it grew itself into a column, ever taller, but never spilling.  A miracle.

That works; our image is about a man pulling out the peg, or opening the spigot of the cask.

We can do more.  Look up "dossil" in the online Websters; it has the basic meaning we’ve seen, i.e. "a plug, wad, or fold of cotton or cloth, as for a wound" , and that it derives from Middle English, "dosel."  Look up "dosel" in the online Middle English Dictionary,; the definition is "A spigot or plug of a barrel," with many citations including one from the 15th century Latin-English dictionary, the Promptuarium parvulorum, which duly offers the Latin form, "ducillus" with the definition "stoppynge of a vesselle."  A perfect circle.

And then play with the web just one more time.  Google the word "duciculus."  Someone else has had fun with this word just like I have:

I love the web.

The thirsty little spotted dog is great.

For more images of this manuscript, type its call number into the Search box for Shelfmark on this website:

More Bookplates

Inspired by my colleague’s post about bookplates, I thought I’d like to add a medieval example. Not that the Middle Ages produced bookplates, per se; the earliest one, ‘tis commonly said, is the angel holding a shield with an ox——the bookplate of Hilprand Brandenberg, who in 1505 donated his personal library of some 450 books to the Carthusian monastery of Buxheim in Germany. It is printed (if that’s a necessary component in the concept of “bookplate”), and it was applied to the front pastedown of books, and it did point to a specific owner. You can see a colored example of it at:

But the bookplate I’m talking about here would more usually be described as a historiated initial——an initial that contains a “story,” with human figures in it. No more suspense; here it is:

The initial is an N; two saints stand on a doorstep, admonishing a group of kneeling clerics, an angel flies above, the whole in a lovely verdant landscape. The N begins the mass for Sts. Peter and Paul, “Nunc scio vere …,” “Now I truly know ….” But all Columbia owns of what was once a very large choirbook is this single leaf, catalogued as Plimpton MS 040A. Where was it made? For whom was it made? Squawking birds’ heads (there are three in the foliage across the top margin) point to the Veneto; “broccoli” trees in the landscape suggest Lombardy. And the brilliant blue of the clerics’ robes can only mean one religious order: the Canons Regular of S. Giorgio in Alga whose nickname was “Azzurrini” for obvious reasons. Put it all together! The house of the Azzurrini in Brescia, in territory now Venetian and now Lombard, was dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul. Is this historiated initial a bookplate or what?

There’s more. On the edge of one of the steps is a profile face of a man; he looks to me like a real man, as if this is a real portrait. I fondly imagine this man to be the artist who has “signed” his “bookplate.”

A “New” Medieval Manuscript

Great news: we were the successful bidders at the November auction of medieval manuscripts at Christie’s, London! The wonderful new addition to our collection, soon to be known officially as Western MS 88, is a canon law compilation, copied in France, ca. 1240. It’s a superb example of the way medieval books usually circulated, with multiple texts of varied origin assembled for the owner’s convenience (it’s in early medieval binding–beat up, but the real McCoy), and that’s something that doesn’t show up too often in American collections, since dealers usually split codices up in order to sell them off text by text.

The first text in this composite volume dates from very close to the author’s lifetime; it’s “secondary literature” for its day. The third and the fourth are closer to “primary source” material, but the fourth is arranged alphabetically, showing an important shift in access-approach to texts.

The second piece, although acephalous and only in four leaves, is the nearest to my heart: it’s a paleography manual! –with handy little bits of instruction, such as “S cum est finalis dictionis que semper debet scribi retorta, sic [s] vel [s], [s]” showing the various ways of shaping the letter S when it’s at the end of a word.

The book is a perfect fit for our collection that looks at the history of education; it will be yet another building block in helping our students to understand the tools of learning, as they themselves learn.

Here’s a quick outline of the texts:
1. ‘Libellus Rotfredi in iure canonico’ [i.e. Roffredus Beneventanus, (c.1170-1244)], ff.1-45
2. Fragment of a handbook for scribes, ff.46-48
3. Decretals on usury, marriage, patronage, rules governing the clergy and other matters, ff.48-59
4. Set of decretals, lettered alphabetically from ‘A’ to ‘Q’, ff.60-103.