Revising the Description of Florence, BML, MS Plut. 89 sup 86

I’ve spent a few days this week revising and correcting my description of Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana MS 89 Plut. 86 which I studied and described as part of my FWF Lise-Meitner project (my end of project blogpost from May can be found here). I acknowledged in March when I uploaded the descriptions that they were drafts, reasonably good, I hoped, but that I would polish and replace each in short order, as required. I’d expected that phase to come some throughout the summer, but time, tide and the writing of the next research proposal and monographs wait for no one. Winter is already drawing in and, so far, I’ve only revised one of the manuscripts. The finalised description of the Florence manuscript and the other drafts can be found on the main portal on this website. The other manuscripts will get revised as and when I get the chance. Hopefully most of the others won’t require as much work as this one did!

It’s quite common in research to only publish successful findings, while errors and wrong directions get swept quietly under the rug. Perhaps they get aired with friends, or at a departmental seminar, but they’re rarely made public. It’s also becoming more common to note that this is not actually a good response. On the one hand, it curates an impression of researchers as infallible that can be down-right disheartening if you compare all your own errors with everybody else’s apparent stream of perpetual successes. On the other hand, sharing and talking through some of those mistakes may be useful for others engaged in similar research or for clarifying a methodology if a similar situation is encountered again. So, in the spirit of comradeship and usefulness, here’s an outline list and commentary of some of the errors I made in my original draft description of the Florence manuscript of the Liber Papiensis and how/why I corrected them. Conveniently, by going through the emendations and alterations in the order they appear in the description, I get to leave the biggest to last.

I should also note that, despite the issues, I have been using these descriptions as a working tool. I’m currently in the process of writing the first draft of my chapter on the materiality of the Liber Papiensis manuscripts, and am currently focusing on the various strategies taken to pricking and ruling the quires and producing the ruling grid. Through the process of writing up a prose description, which is a detailed form of analysis in itself, some of the major errors were revealed. Other errors came to light simply from having put nine months between writing them and re-reading them (not to mention over two years from first taking the notes on which the descriptions were based in a fortnight of manuscript handling in Florence in August 2014).

The first error is an invisible one from the outside, and arose from bad data management. Oh, I’ll make excuses about a hard-drive having burnt out, and a laptop having died between then and now, but that’s really no excuse. When I went to try and find the .doc of the description I discovered it was… gone. All I could find was an early draft from 2015, which had only about quarter of the information. Thankfully, I had the pdf from the website, and was able to cut and paste a lot of the information back into a word file, and reformatting most of it wasn’t too bad. Apart from the tables and diagrams in the appendices, those required a bit more effort. I’ll come back to the actual contents of the table of ruling grids in due course.

The next error is an issue of naming.  I raised this in my blog post from May of this year, when the funded period of my postdoc came to an end. From the outset of my project, I’d referred to the collected text of the Lombard Laws and Frankish and Saxon capitularies as the Liber legis langobardorum rather than the alternate title, the Liber Papiensis, by which it is also known. I opted for the former, having read in the scholarship that this was attested in the manuscripts (I don’t have the reference to hand at the moment, unfortunately). Conversely, the name the Liber Papiensis is modern, a convention adopted in the mid-nineteenth century when the laws were edited for volume IV of the Leges series of the Monumenta Germiniae Historica. All very good, except that the manuscript attestation of the Liber legis langobardorum only survives on other versions of the laws, whether the Edictus or the twelfth-century re-systemisation of the Lombarda. As I said, this wasn’t a newly-discovered error of the last week, but a long-standing correction that has been lingering on the to do list for months.

The next error was actually the last I discovered, floating to the surface of that golden-haze moment when I thought the corrections were finalised, I re-made the pdf, sent a copy to the printer and then went to collect it. My eye glanced down to the front page and took in the opening sentence of the manuscript’s summary, which I reproduce here verbatim for your amusement:

“A distinctly decorated manuscript of relatively portable size, with numerous line-drawn initials with foliate and knot-work features and highlighting in red-ink.”

What on earth, I asked myself, does ‘distinctly decorated’ mean? It reads like one of subjectively vague description of palaeographic hands, when some scribe is described as elegant, dramatic, crowded, untutored or whatever. an expression that means everything (to the describer, perhaps) and nothing (to the bemused reader). I certainly agree with my former self in that the Florence manuscript is relatively more decorated than most of the other surviving copies of the Liber Papiensis dating to the eleventh and early twelfth centuries. (The two volumes of the copy of the Liber Papiensis now held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan MSS O 53 sup and O 55 sup, are even more decorative than the Florence manuscript, in that there are animalistic and anthropomorphic elements to the initials, and a wider range of coloured inks are also used. Meanwhile, the copy in the British Library, London, MS Add. 5411 has a half-page line-drawing of an enthroned Charlemagne flanked by two dapper retainers at the start of the capitularies. I digress from my subject here, though). But still, what does ‘distinctly decorated’ really mean? The latter part of the sentence covers it I think, as it emphasises the foliate and know work construction of the line-drawn initials used to introduce new clauses. Conveniently, a cleaner opening sentence to the summary description of the manuscript can be produced simply by removing those two offending words, and increasing rather than losing meaning in the process: “A manuscript of relatively portable size, with numerous line-drawn initials with foliate and knot-work features and highlighting in red-ink”.

The main area that needed correcting, however, was the table of ruling grids. As can be seen from the quire diagram (which, apart form having been remade as I couldn’t cut and paste it from my pdf, remains the same), there are only two atypical quires in the manuscript, the first and the last. Quire 1 has a folio added at some later point, while Quire 17 was produced from the outset from five bifolia rather than the more regular four. Apart from that later, additional folio at the start of the manuscript, the scribe made no use of half-sheets (or singletons if you prefer) and every folio is one side of a complete bifolium. Moreover, every ruling grid throughout the manuscript has through-lines that extend through the central spine of the bifolium. As such it can be confirmed that both sides of each bifolium were ruled simultaneously as one large, open sheet. This is not unusual, of course. But my tabulation of the ruling grids described them by folio, effectively treating each half as an independent block. Perhaps that is not painfully problematic, but it jarred with me when I was trying to use the description as raw data to write my section on the pricking and ruling of the manuscript. So, I decided to revise it. And there I found another set of errors.

Examination of the photos of the manuscript available online from the BML revealed that a notable number of the extenders and through-lines I’d recorded by folio back in 2014 didn’t always match the images. Now many of the ruling lines are faint and often difficult to discern, and my notes from the library frequently mentioned this. But comparing the two revealed a much different pattern. My impression before had been that each bifolium had been ruled individually, and where two ruling grids appeared to be roughly the same it was in most cases chance rather than design or an artefact of the scribe’s working practice. Reviewing the data revealed a significantly large number of adjacent bifolia with paired ruling grids, and sometimes where there were still differences between them there was enough evidence to support a strong hunch that the difference was because some lines on one were too faint to notice. It seemed that the regularly (if not exclusively) employed pattern was to rule the bifolia stacked simultaneously in stacked pairs.

Revising that error took the better part of the three days. It was definitely worth it. Moreover, I also uncovered in the process some further evidence that did not quite fit that model: Suggestions of the ruling grid sometimes having been produced in two phases. However, that reaches beyond the requirements of describing the manuscript, and brings me back to the interpretation of how the scribe physically produced the manuscript, a further insight into the material praxis of their book culture. As such undertaking corrections to my previous work, some of which I have been a touch embarrassed to confess to and type up, has brought me full circle to the activity that allowed me to spot the errors in the first place. I’ll save further discussion for the monograph, but suffice to say it’s peeled back another layer of the obfuscating mist that lies between us, looking on in the modern day, and the minutiae of activity of the otherwise unknown scribe who made this delightful and intriguing manuscript of laws, capitularies and related text in the last decades of the eleventh century.


Oh, and I’ve also made multiple back-ups of the revised files 🙂


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