Smith College’s rare book room is home to a number of beautiful medieval manuscripts. One of them, a 14th century bible, held an interesting note in the catalogue about an anomaly in the book of Genesis. Curious, I took a closer look, little knowing it would lead to even more questions.
MS 240 is a French Vulgate Bible with a gorgeous 17th century italian binding. The moroccan red leather is beautifully complimented by the gold tooled crest of Cardinal Alderano Cibo (1613- 1700). Questions arise as soon as we delve into the pages.
Halfway through the book of Genesis, the text changes abruptly. Starting on fol. 13r the entire second half of Genesis is written in a completely different hand. What was even more surprising is how this section lacks the precision seen in the first scribe. To begin with, though the style of Gothic glossing script may match, the quality does not match the rest of the text. Compared to the rest of the latin text, this hand can only be described as very loose, if not sloppy. The ink is also a different quality and drastically varies in consistency, changing visibly in blocks of text, almost as if pieces were written at different times using different ink. Maybe the variation of the ink here could indicate more than one scribe?
The leaves also lack the red and blue running title head and the typical multi-color rubrication found in the first half of Genesis. Instead, capitals are written with regular black ink and decorated only with yellow paint. Not only is this yellow paint found only within this section, but it lacks any sense of precision. This yellow is also used to decorate the few illustrations within the section. The most elaborate illustration being a wolf, though a much cruder drawing than the illuminations found in later chapters.
The similarities between the illustrations and text lead me to believe they were done by the same hand, which is unusual. Does this poorer quality give us any clues then about who finished the chapter? Perhaps it was a student’s copy, perhaps the exemplar the scribes copied from, or the work of an enthusiast?
But why then does this second hand appear in the middle of this chapter and no where else? Looking at the gatherings, we can venture a guess. This half of Genesis begins on the first leaf of the second gathering. The three blank leaves that follow conclude the gathering, a total of three sheets. Perhaps this means the second gathering was lost and this copy inserted.
What’s interesting then is that the writing ends halfway down the unruled column (fol. 21v) at the end of Genesis, the rest of the gathering left blank. This hasty, unfinished look gives the impression it was written solely to complete the unfinished chapter. This guess is backed by the fact the scribe left the next few leaves blank rather than continuing on to the next chapters. Thanks to this Genesis anomaly I realized that in fact twenty chapters of theVulgate are missing (Exodus-Psalms of the Old Testament), since gathering three begins on fol. 25r with Proverbs .
The mystery takes another turn with the discovery of a distinct impression found the end of the gathering. A brown impression can be seen (and felt) on the final blank leaf, as well as a second faint impression most likely made from shifting of the object. Vessical in shape, the unidentified object (25x40mm) left the impression of two figures within a border of text. The shape, size, and text border leads me to believe it was made by a seal matrix. So far I have been unable to match the impression to any seal matrix, or other object, but I found one that is very similar and so is useful for comparison.
Looking at it from different angles and using the negative images, the text becomes slightly more distinct, but I have yet to decipher it. This impression is only present on the blank folio of Genesis, as no marks are made on the first leaf of Proverbs. Perhaps this gathering, if made later and in haste, was made on vellum sheets that had been long resting on top of a seal? Perhaps if we figured out what material would produce this color, then we could determine if it was a seal matrix, pilgrim medallion, or another object altogether. Until then, this image, along with the rest of the chapter, will remain a mystery.
Any ideas? Please share any thoughts you might have in the comments below!