Tag Archives: manuscripts; medieval

A Call Number by any other Name . . .

Pressmark? Or what about shelfmark?  They sound old-fashioned, bringing mental images of cupboards ("presses") and shelves where books are stored.  "Call number" isn't just a modern term; it has geographical implications, too:  the OED cites it as "orig. U.S." and it still seems more common in the United States, while in Great Britain these magical alphanumeric-possibly-cum-symbols labels may more frequently be termed "classmarks."  But the term "call number" wobbles in the US, too:  to some librarian colleagues who don't work in special collections, many of our materials don't have "call numbers" in that they aren't catalogued with Dewey Decimal or LC classifications.  To us, a call number is worthy of that name when our readers use it to "call" for a certain book or folder; it's the way we find, and later replace the book or folder:  the label doesn't need to incorporate subject information for its physical object to be requested, retrieved, reshelved.

And in the Middle Ages?  Prof. Derolez (Catalogues de bibliothèques, 1979, p. 51) says that call numbers were rare in the 14th century, but quite common by the 15th, especially in the larger libraries that were neither of private nor of princely ownership.  It's not hard to find images of various sorts of medieval call numbers, which sometimes include a term for the process of labeling them:  signatus (does this imply that a “signum” was a call number?).

New York, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Library, MS NH65, f. 148, detail.  Ownership note and call number at the bottom of the last page with text, "Iste liber est monasterii sancte iustine de padua, signatus 459," with "signatus" meaning "signed" or "marked" where the call number is precisely and only that:  a number.  The book belonged to the Benedictine monastery of Sta. Giustina in Padua.

Then there's the kind of call number, equally sequential, but according to the alphabet; a good example is the "K" on the back cover of this very large choirbook.             New York, Columbia University, RBML, Plimpton MS 041, back cover.     




There are some medieval call numbers that are certainly tied to the text, for example those that begin with the first letter of the author's name, such as appear on these two manuscripts, both from Bury St. Edmunds in East Anglia.  In this case the 14th century catalogue of the library survives, and there is no doubt that these books, both identifiable in the catalogue, are marked with the A for Augustine, embedded as they are within a series of other books, all containing works of Augustine, all with A call numbers.

Cambridge (MA), Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Richardson 26, f. 1, detail.  Upper outer corner of first text page, "A.6."


San Marino, Huntington Library, HM 31151, f. 1, detail.  Upper outer corner of first text page, "A.10."



Sometimes this format of medieval call number –letter followed by a number– may be more arbitrary:  the “G.ii” on this French manuscript marks a copy of Peter Lombard's Sentences; where’s the G in that?  Maybe it was simply the seventh bookcase, and the second (or the eleventh) book in it.


New York, Columbia University, RBML, Plimpton MS 061, f. 1, detail.  Center of upper margin of first text page.


But sometimes, even if the letter designates the bookcase, it still might almost be a classmark carrying some weight of intellectual content, and not solely a pressmark designating location.  Consider the letter and number that signaled this book during the late 15th century:  A.29.   Not “A” for its author, but “A” because it inhabited the first bookcase, and it was in the first bookcase because it was the most important text:  the Bible.


New York, Columbia University, Burke Library, UTS MS 072, front flyleaf, detail.



Ownership note and call number in the upper third of the otherwise blank front flyleaf, "Liber sancte marie de signiaco, signatus littera A, numero xxix," showing that the book belonged to the Cistercian house of Notre Dame de Signy, in the Ardennes,  and that its call number was "signed" or "marked" with the letter and number combination, "A.29."

 For descriptions and more images of the manuscripts mentioned here, please see the Digital Scriptorium.

 Plimpton MS 041, the choirbook with the call number "K," is on loan to the Cleveland Museum of Art for the exhibition, The Caporali Missal:  A Masterpiece of Renaissance Illumination, on view February 17 through July 7, 2013.

599 Years Ago Today

Today, 24 January, five hundred and ninety-nine years ago. The future pseudo-cardinal of S. Onofrio told those guys to pay the wine bill, for pete's sake!  Proof lies in this library's Smith Documents 0300, and here's a picture of it.  (Click on the image to see a larger size.)

It's signed, "J., evesque de Saint Brieuc," and has his mark, the faint swirls that look something like a number 8 with a line through the middle; the small red bits to the right of his mark are what is left of his seal.  The date of the document is in the last line, "le xxiiii jour de janvier l'an mil quatre cens et quatorze."  

The "J." is  Jean III de Malestroit who was bishop of Saint-Brieuc between 1404 and 1419, before he climbed an ecclesiastical ladder to become bishop of Nantes.  He kept climbing after that, and in 1440, he was named Cardinal of S. Onofrio.  It should have been his dream job; who knows? Higher than a cardinal, there is only the step upwards to pope.   But Jean was unwise enough to take the side of the anti-popes, and sadly it was one of them, Felix V, who elevated Jean to the purple.  But "pseudo cardinal"?  Well, such was the wording on fr.wikipedia (accessed last night):  Jean de Malestroit goes down in history, accompanied by that terrible adjective.

For more items like this, see Digital Scriptorium and search on call number beginning with the words:  Smith Documents.

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), http://ducange.enc.sorbonne.fr/, 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, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/med/; 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:  http://www.joerngruber.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/ts-enol-ts-idraul-occ-dozilh-it-cannella/

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:  http://www.digital-scriptorium.org