Friday, March 4, 2016

Noting the Bern

The Smithfield Decretals have been mentioned recently. They are a book of decrees drawn from 1,971 letters from Pope Gregory IX, with glosses (detailed commentaries) and lavish illustrations. About 700 copies of these decretals exist—most of them created after the advent of mass printing technology; this particular one was made in France in about 1300, but found in Smithfield in the UK, hence its name. It is thought that the owner in England had the illustrations added in about 1340.

Apes fighting as knights, from page 75
Thanks to the British Library's plan to digitize all of its manuscripts, you can actually flip through the pages if you go here. You will see all the illustrations, including depictions of daily life as well as fanciful portrayals of animals acting like humans.

But those are just the side show. The reason 700 copies exist of the writings are because of the importance of the papal letters, and the explicating of the important statements within. The editor of the decretals was one Bernard of Botone (d.1263), also called Bernard of Parma because of his birthplace. He studied at the University of Bologna, where (according to his gravestone) he became Chancellor in his later years. An expert at canon law, he was an ideal commentator for the decrees.

Bernard drew from multiple sources for the commentaries. Many medieval manuscripts give no hint as to authorship, or editor-ship. In the case of the Decretals, however, attribution is always given to the other authors and commentators whom he quoted. Whenever the notes and commentaries were his own, he signed with a simple "Bern" at the end.

The whole thing is finished; give the guy who wrote it a drink.
Bernard died in 1263, and the copies that exist were all made years later. In the case of the Smithfield decretals copy, we do not know who the copyist was, nor who the illustrators were. The copyist, however, did leave a "personal stamp" on the manuscript. On the very last page, after the last line, he added the following:
The whole thing is finished; give the guy who wrote it a drink.

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