A further manuscript from the collection of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester

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What was I saying the other day about the vain pursuit of finishing? While the proofs of the manuscript catalogue of Christ Church, Oxford progress towards the dreaded finality of print, I am also working to complete the text of another book, my monograph on humanist scripts and England. One chapter which I thought I had put safely to bed woke up this week with a start and a cry for more attention. The reason was the discovery of the provenance of an understudied manuscript in Cambridge University Library.

I am not complaining about this: it has happened at a moment when I can make the necessary changes to my text. Besides, I have already outed myself as a discovery junkie, waiting for the next high that comes with uncovering something not previously noticed. Not that this was a full hit — that comes when serendipity and surprise combine. In this case, I already suspected what might be there to find.

The trail to CUL, MS. Mm.iii.18 began with a note in the unpublished papers of A. C. de la Mare, a mine of gems held in the Bodleian. It was Tilly de la Mare who, in 1988, produced the last detailed study of the library of John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, one of the two English secular princes — the other being Humfrey, duke of Gloucester — famed for collecting humanist manuscripts in the fifteenth century. She listed twelve manuscripts, including some by the enigmatic scribe known only by his initials ‘VfI’, but this Cambridge manuscript was not among them. She must have come across it later, for her notes comment that it too was by ‘VfI’. A few months back, I tried to follow up this lead and found to my surprise that it is not listed in the recent monumental catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in the UL, though it does include four bianchi girari initials. I contacted the library staff, and the amazingly helpful James Freeman sent me some images which confirmed that this codex, even though it is unsigned, is definitely written by ‘VfI’. That raised the question of whether it was made, as were several other of his productions, for the earl of Worcester. That I could not check without going to the UL myself and this last Wednesday was the first opportunity in a busy term to do that.

I assume that Tilly had not had the opportunity to consult the manuscript because if she had she could not have missed the tell-tale sign which welcomed me when I randomly opened the volume (a small moment of serendipity). What appeared was this:

If you ever come across a pointing hand like this, please drop me a line straightaway, for this is the highly distinctive manicula of John Tiptoft. There are, in fact, only a few other interventions by him in the volume, but it does also include annotations by his secretary, John Free, and others by another Englishman in his circle, John Gunthorp. What is more, this manuscript gives a hint about the origins of the scribe himself — but I will not mention that now; I have, after all, to leave something for the book.

As I said, the list of manuscripts provided in 1988 included twelve items; at that point, another ten were also known to have been his. The number now stands at 33, with another six related to Tiptoft but probably not owned by him. This is a notably high figure; it is nearly as many as survive from the library of the other noble just mentioned, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, whose collection (I estimate) originally numbered over 600. There are, though, I suspect, more of Tiptoft’s to find. I wish I could wait to discover them before publishing, but one never knows in this pursuit when the chase is done. Instead, I predict that the day I sign off the proofs of this monograph, an e-mail will appear in my inbox, responding to my request for new sightings of his manicula, alerting me to a previously unknown instance. I will curse the day but also allow a little cheer.

Tagged: A. C. de la Mare, Cambridge University Library, CUL MS Mm.iii.18, John Free, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester