(Mis)understanding Medieval Manuscripts in 19th Century Philadelphia

by Innocent Smith, op

By the end of the 18th century, at least three illuminated manuscripts had reached Philadelphia. In an overview of these manuscripts in his 2001 study on “Collecting Illuminated Manuscripts in Philadelphia,” James R. Tanis draws attention to a Bible with historiated initials produced in northern France in the second quarter of the thirteenth century and given to the Monthly Meeting of Friends of Philadelphia by the Quaker minister John Pemberton. After briefly describing the manuscript, Tanis makes the following claim: “Unlisted in any modern catalogue, the volume was only recently discovered and is published here for the first time.”

In fact, the “reception history” of this Bible is more complicated and interesting than Tanis suggests. Over the course of the 19th century, two publications appeared which mentioned and attempted to describe the manuscript, although with mixed results. The manuscript was in fact described in quite different ways by two successive printed catalogues of the Friends’ Library published in 1831 and 1853. Although the presence of the manuscript was overlooked in the compilation of the early-to-mid twentieth century “Census of medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada”, these contrasting earlier presentations reflect shifting understandings of the nature of medieval manuscripts over the course of the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

The first printed description was drafted in Philadelphia on December 8, 1824 by Joseph James (1755–1830) and published seven years later as an appendix to the “Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library of the Four Monthly Meetings of Friends of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia: Joseph Rakestraw, 1831). Joseph James was the older brother of Thomas Chalkley James (1766–1835), a noted physician and teacher based in Philadelphia. The James family were devout Quakers, and the children attended the Friends’ School where they received a classical education in Latin under the direction of the Quaker historian Robert Proud (1728–1813). Joseph James had a varied career, working at a printer and later bank clerk in Philadelphia, as a merchant in New York City, and as a teacher, bookseller and druggist in Baltimore, in addition to editing “A Compendious Hebrew and English Lexicon” (Philadelphia: William Brown, 1826).

Haverford, PA, Haverford College, MS J2.16.10, flyleaf 1 verso: Ownership inscription: “John Pemberton’s, bought of John Kendall, Colchester, Great Britain. 6th Month. 13th. 1787. For 1 Guinea.” (OPenn Collection)

James’ description of the Pemberton Bible provides fascinating glimpse into early 19th century (mis)understandings of medieval manuscripts. James begins his description by focusing on the provenance of the manuscript, essentially quoting the ownership inscription of John Pemberton describing the purchase of the manuscript from John Kendall. He then goes on to claim that it contains “a part of the writings of Ambrose, Bishop of Mediolanensis.” Although it is difficult to grasp why James was unable to recognize the manuscript as being in fact a Bible, he may have been misled by the opening prologue of the Bible, which contains Jerome’s Epistula 53 to Paulinus, which begins with the words “Frater Ambrosius”.

Haverford, PA, Haverford College, MS J2.16.10, fol. 1r: Frater Ambrosius prologue (OPenn Collection)

In the following paragraph, he goes on to compare the manuscript to another locally preserved Philadelphia manuscript which contains “a part of the above mentioned Commentary of Ambrose; the date of which is marked in the beginning, as being written Anno 1016.” In this case, he is referring to the thirteenth-century Bible, Philadelphia, The Library Company of Philadelphia, MS 9 (191.Q). Although it is not clear who decided – and on what grounds – that the manuscript was written in 1016, the 1807 “Catalogue of the Books, Belonging to the Library Company of Philadelphia” lists Quarto 191 on p. 305 as “A curious manuscript bible; written in Latin, on vellum, in the year 1016. Gift of Dr. George Vaux, of London.”  On a flyleaf that is presently at the end of the manuscript, the words “Written in 1016” appear in ink, although a later hand has more accurately added “13th Century” in pencil above. In his description of the Friends’ Library manuscript, James compares the word spacing in the Friends’ and Library Company manuscripts, leading him to conclude that the Friends’ manuscript “must have been written at or before the year of our Lord, 900; and it is, in my opinion, the most ancient manuscript I have seen.”

Philadelphia, The Library Company of Philadelphia, MS 9, closing flyleaf recto: “Written in 1016” (OPenn Collection)

James then goes on to compare the Friends’ manuscript to some “fac similie’s” he has seen of classical Latin manuscripts from the “Library of Schoenborn Gaibacensis (a German)”, referring to the “Bibliotheca Gaibacensis” established by Lothar Franz von Schönborn (1655–1729) and Friedrich Karl Graf von Schönborn (1674–1746).

In addition to printing James’s 1824 description, the 1831 “Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library of the Four Monthly Meetings of Friends of Philadelphia” provides two short entries for the manuscript on p. 4 in the “A” section of authors and titles and on p. 12 in the “B” section:

“AMBROSE. Ancient manuscript Commentary, on vellum, in Latin, on the Holy Scriptures. By Ambrose. Q. No. 10. See Appendix.”

“Bible. Ancient Commentary on the Bible, in Latin. By Ambrose. Velum, illuminated. Q. No. 10. See Appendix.”

In both cases, the shelf mark “Q. No. 10” matches the shelf-mark still to be found on the inside cover of the manuscript, written above a book plate which simple labels it “(No. 10) Belong to the Library of Friends of Philadelphia: The Gift of John Pemberton.” (On another sticker, the following is added as a prudential afterthought: “Not to be taken out”!)

Haverford, PA, Haverford College, MS J2.16.10, inside cover: Friends’ Library Book Plate and Shelf Mark (OPenn Collection)

In 1853, a new edition of the Friends’ Library was printed: “Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library of the Four Monthly Meetings of Friends of Philadelphia” (Philadelphia: Kite and Walton, 1853). As the Introduction notes, the collection of the library had grown extensively over the past two decades, with it now occupying a new section of a building erected in 1844 and by 1853 numbering more than 5,100 volumes. This expansion is reflected by the extent of the Catalogues themselves: the 1831 volume is 152 pages, while the 1853 volumes goes to 347. (The c. 1795 “Catalogue of books in Friends’ Library”, perhaps printed by Joseph James himself, is only 32 pages.)

In addition to expanding the collection, the librarians had become somewhat more sophisticated as to the true contents of their single manuscript. While there is no longer any entry under “Ambrose” for “Q. 10,” it appears at the head of the list under “Bible” on p. 34:

“Bible. Q. 10. Illuminated Latin manuscript of the Vulgate, on Vellum, supposed to have been written about A.D. 900.”

Here we can see the lingering influence of Joseph James’s dating of the manuscript, but a rejection of his attribution to Ambrose. The cataloguers accurately identify it as a Bible, and place greater emphasis on the presence of illuminated initials than in the previous accounts.

Contrary to the claim of James Tanis, John Pemberton’s Latin Bible was published at least twice in 19th century catalogues, although the earliest publication was rather misleading as to both the content and date of the manuscript. By 1853, however, a more sophisticated set of librarians had at least partially overcome the misleading description offered by Joseph James in 1824. Although James’ conclusions regarding the genre and age of the manuscript are wildly incorrect, it is interesting to see him attempting to apply a relatively sound methodology of comparison with other manuscripts available to him in person or through reproductions. The Bible manuscript retains to this day the bookplate of the Friends’ Library, offering the same shelf mark used to identify it in the two nineteenth century catalogues.

More recently, the manuscript has become more easily accessible, having been “loaned indefinitely” to Haverford College near Philadelphia in 2002 and having been fully digitized as part of the OPenn project. In addition to its interest as an example of the strengths and limitations of 19th century manuscript studies, the manuscript itself deserves further study, as it is part of a rare subset of 13th century Bibles which also contain liturgical texts for the Mass. I am grateful to Peter Kidd for drawing this Bible Missal to my attention, which I had the chance to study at Haverford College in February 2020. The study of manuscripts involves both drawing on previous scholarship as well as challenging received assumptions; further study of this manuscript may continue to yield interesting evidence both about the production and use of Bibles and liturgical manuscripts in the 13th century and the preservation and reception of these manuscripts over the succeeding centuries.



Haverford, PA, Haverford College, MS J2.16.10, olim Philadelphia, The Friends’ Library of Philadelphia, Q. No. 10. Fully digitized at http://openn.library.upenn.edu/Data/0006/html/J2_16_10.html

Philadelphia, PA, The Library Company of Philadelphia, MS 9 (191.Q). Fully digitized at http://openn.library.upenn.edu/Data/0012/html/lcp_ms09.html

Printed Catalogs of the Friends’ Library

Catalogue of Books in Friends’ Library. [Philadelphia]: [J. Crukshank? Joseph James?], [1795?].

Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library of the Four Monthly Meetings of Friends of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Joseph Rakestraw, 1831. Fully digitized at https://books.google.de/books?id=83IqAAAAYAAJ.

Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library of the Four Monthly Meetings of Friends of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Kite and Walton, 1853. Fully digitized at https://books.google.de/books?id=-JBaAAAAcAAJ.

Printed Catalogs of the Library Company of Philadelphia

A Catalogue of the Books, Belonging to the Library Company of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Bartram and Reynolds, 1807. Fully digitized at https://books.google.de/books?id=z3pZzZyHnjkC.

Secondary Literature

James Tanis, Collecting Illuminated Manuscripts in Philadelphia. Edited by James Tanis, 5–13. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2001.

Thomas A. Horrocks, James, Thomas C. (1766–1835), physician and teacher. In: American National Biography. 1 Feb. 2000, https://www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1200450.

Innocent Smith, op (https://innocentsmith.info/ | @innocentop) is a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies at the Universität Regensburg and an associate member of DFG Research Group Metropolität in der Vormoderne. His research interests are at the intersection of liturgy and theology, including liturgical manuscripts, scholastic theology, ecclesiology, and sacred music. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on medieval Bible Missals.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
retour (2020, 8. April). (Mis)understanding Medieval Manuscripts in 19th Century Philadelphia. RETOUR. Abgerufen am 25. Mai 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/toed

2 Antworten auf „(Mis)understanding Medieval Manuscripts in 19th Century Philadelphia“

  1. Hello,
    You way want to look at my essay, “Material Present: Collecting Late Medieval and Early Modern Objects in (and around) Philadelphia” in the recent exhibition catalogue, Making the Renaissance Manuscript: Discoveries from Philadelphia Libraries (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Libraries, February 2020). I discuss this very episode in some detail.

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