Thursday, 3 March 2016

An Oxford binding and a medieval Bible commentary.

Phi 02278 - Phi. 02282 - Digestum nouum : Pandectarum iuris ciuilis tomus tertius sextae partis reliquum ac septimam eandemq[ue] nouissimam digestorum partem continens, ex Pandectis Florentinis ita in vniuersum recognitus ac emendatus, vt nihil ... desiderari possit : ad[i]ecimus pluribus locis annotationes ex varijs ijsdemq[ue] classicis autoribus ... nusquam antehac euulgatas.
Lugduni : Apud Hugonem à Porta & Antonium Vincentium, 1551.

These books are a set of five volumes of the Emperor Justinian’s ‘Corpus Juris’ and were printed in Lyon in 1551. This was a standard work of Roman Jurisprudence, which influenced both Canon and Civil Law from the middle of the sixteenth century.

The five volumes were imported into England and were bound uniformally not long after printing. The bindings are of dark brown Calf and are tooled in blind, panelled into four concentric rectangles with a fillet of a thick and two thin lines. A roll decorated with an arabesque pattern, has been run around the second and third rectangles. A single and a double line fillet are used to decorate the otherwise plain spines. The binding is a typical product of the Oxford binderies of the sixteenth century.[1]   

All five volumes are in poor condition and are kept in conservation boxes.  In the case of two of the volumes the covers have become detached from the text block and these give a rare and valuable view of the underlying binding structure of the books.

The books are straightforwardly but robustly bound, as you would expect from a set of text books used by scholars.  As is typical for the book of this date, the quires are sewn onto split leather thongs that are let into wooden boards. The spine has been glued, but not lined. 

When covered with the leather, these split thongs produce the very thick and pronounced raised bands on the spine that are characteristic of a late sixteenth century binding.  You can see them on the leather of the spine in the photo below. 

The original endbands remain on some of the volumes on the set. Where they exist they are also uniform, worked over a leather thong with alternating blue and white linen thread, which would have been quite bright when the book was first completed.  

Again typical of Oxford bindings of this period, the boards of the books are lined with reclaimed manuscript. The front and back pastedowns of all five volumes are formed from sheets of parchment waste, pages from the same medieval manuscript. 

The manuscript is a thirteenth century Gloss, a commentary on the Gospel of St John, perhaps the Glossa Ordinaria. On each page the text of the Gospel of St John is in a larger hand, with the glosses, the commentaries on the text placed around them. The glosses are taken primarily from the works of St Augustine of Hippo, but also from Alcuin, St Jerome, St John Chrysostom and St Isidore of Seville.  

The page illustrated above shows the text of John 16, verse 23, surrounded by glosses from Alcuin, Augustine and John Chrysostom.  Copies of the Glossa Ordinaria where mass produced from the middle of the thirteenth century, they were texts that were in common use within the Universities. [2]  It is tempting to see the manuscript waste as a victim of the Reformation, perhaps plunder from the Monasteries.  However, it's just as likely that the manuscript was a victim of the development of the print trade.  Thousands of medieval manuscripts were flooding the market in the sixteenth century, particularly in University towns, having been replaced by more reliable printed versions of the texts.     

There is some tantalising inscriptions in the book that hint at a possible provenance and also might indicate the cost of the set of books at the end of the sixteenth century when newly bound. 
Phi 2282 has the inscription on the title page: ‘Johannes Jenour me possidet’ ‘John Jenour, owns me’ in an early sixteenth century hand – and what appears to be the cost of the set of books ‘ xiii.s …’ (£3 & 13 shillings), a significant sum. The same inscription occurs on the back paste down too, with more text below it, sadly indistinguishable due to water damage. 

 In the same hand below the title is written twice: ‘Initium sapientiae timor dei’ - ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’.   It’s not certain who Jenour was who bought this set of books for the considerable sum of £3 and 13 shillings, but a Johannes Jenour, alias John Jener or John Jeynor was Vicar from 1572-1580 and then Rector of Great Bardfield in Essex from 1580-1616.[3]


[1] See D. Pearson, Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2000). A quick trawl of the internet picks up a couple of comparable examples with similar arabesque rolls.

[2] L. Smith, The ‘Glossa Ordinaria’: The Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary, (Leiden and Bosto, 2008), p. 73.



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