Western and Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures | 06 December 2017

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Lot no.


Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae , in Anglo-Saxon minuscule, in Latin

Sold for £25000

Est: £25000–35000

Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae , in Anglo-Saxon minuscule, in Latin, manuscript on parchment
[Germany (probably Lorsch), late eighth century or c. 800]

Large rectangular cutting, taken horizontally across a leaf, with remains of 12 lines in a pointed Anglo-Saxon minuscule (of originally single column of 28 lines), with long descenders and wide spacing between words, initials marked with red dots, wide margin remaining on one side with eleventh-century marginalia there, somewhat scuffed and rubbed from reuse in binding (notably on reverse), but obverse perfectly legible, 210mm. by 102mm.; in modern cloth-covered card binding

A substantial fragment in early Anglo-Saxon script of one of the fundamental works of Late Antiquity and the entire Middle Ages; and along with its four sister fragments probably from the grand imperial abbey of Lorsch


1. Written by a scribe in an Anglo-Saxon-influenced community in Germany (probably Lorsch, see below), or perhaps by an Insular scribe while there. Four other fragments of leaves from the same parent codex survive in Berlin, Staatsbibl. Der Stifung Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Lat. fol. 445, Limburg, Diözesanbibliothek, and Wiesbaden, Hauptstaatsarchiv Abt. 1105 no. 1 .

2. As argued by Bischoff and Brown, the parent volume was probably in the library of the imperial abbey of Lorsch, one of the grandest monastic sites in Carolingian Europe as well as one of its most important pilgrimage centres. The abbey was founded in 764 by the Frankish count, Cancor, and his widowed mother, Williswinda, and entrusted to Cancor’s nephew, Chrodegang, archbishop of Metz (author of the ecclesiastical Rule which bears his name, and later a saint, d. 766). The abbey was given by his successor directly to the Emperor Charlemagne, thus falling under his patronage, and subsequently used for the burials of some of his immediate descendants. If correct, then the parent codex must have been either the “Isidori libri etymologium XXI in uno codice” or the “item ipse liber in alio codice” which are items 328-329 and 27-28 in the early ninth- and tenth-century Lorsch booklists (see Becker, Catalogi bibliothecarum antiqui , 1885 and reprint 1973, pp. 106 and 121). By the tenth century, Lorsch had one of the best libraries in the world, and it is awe inspiring to note that the parent manuscript of the present fragment shared shelf-space with glorious codices such as the Lorsch Gospels (split between Vatican, Pal. Lat. 50 and Batthyaneum, Romania, with its carved ivory boards in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the whole perhaps a gift from Charlemagne), and books of great antiquity and importance, such as a seventh-century Bible with an underlying palimpsest of Classical authors from the third or fourth century (now Vatican, Pal. Lat. 24), the Vatican Vergil, written c . 500 (now Vatican, Pal. Lat. 1631) and unique copies of parts of Livy in a manuscript of the sixth century (Vienna, ÖNB, cod. 15). In 774, the abbey was consecrated in the presence of Charlemagne himself, and it is difficult to comprehend how such a bookish emperor would not have taken the time to examine the library, perhaps studying the parent volume of the present cutting if it was there by that point.

3. From the thirteenth century, Premonstratensian monks were given charge of Lorsch, and much later printed books from there found their way to the Premonstratensian abbey of Arnstein (the Berlin fragments were reused on the bindings of accounts for the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries for estates in the immediate region of Arnstein, the newly discovered Wiesbaden strips come from this medieval library) and Eberbach (the origin of the Limburg fragment). Both houses were suppressed in 1803, and their contents and libraries scattered.

4. Stephan Beissel (1841-1915), acquired after Beissel’s death by Antiquariat Wöfle, Munich.

5. Bernhard Bischoff (1906-1991), grand scholar of Carolingian paleography. Acquired directly by gift from Robert Wöfle, as payment for cataloguing the Stephan Beissel collection.
6. Bernard Rosenthal, purchased after Bischoff’s death, and thence to Quaritch.
7. The Schøyen collection, of Oslo and London, their MS. 1816; sold immediately after their sale in Sotheby’s, 10 July 2012, part of lot 27.


This leaf contains parts of book 9, II: 33-37 (on the Ages of Man) and III: 5-7 (de Portensis), of the fundamentally important encyclopedic work of Isidore of Seville (c .560-636). The author towers like a colossus over the dawn of the Middle Ages and modern Western society, as one of the last humanist polymaths of antiquity and one of early Christianity’s most influential scholars. The text encompasses such diverse topics as grammar, rhetoric, mathematics (including music and astronomy), medicine, law, the Bible (with sections on writing materials and libraries, specifically the use of papyrus for the earliest copies of the Bible, and the invention of parchment in the city of Pergamon, hence its name), the Church and celestial beings, the languages of men and the alphabet, humans (including the functioning of their body parts and the ages of their history), animals, fish and birds, the elements, earth and heaven, cities and rural life, stones, metals and gems, agriculture, war and games, and finally food and drink. It stands at the head of the tradition of pagan Roman encyclopaedists, uniting their works to produce a single vast book aiming to encompass the entire scope of “the knowledge of human and divine matters”. Isidore served one of the new barbarian masters of post-Roman Europe, the Visigothic court in Hispania, and dedicated the first version of the work to King Sigebut (c .565-620/1), and it may have been intended as a ready source of civilised knowledge for his barbarian overlords. However, the text proved useful to many masters, and quickly swept through the monastic and scholarly communities of Europe, becoming the most widely consulted scientific reference work of the Middle Ages, and surviving in nearly a thousand manuscripts (Barney et al ., Etymologies of Isidore of Seville , 2006, p.24).


Codices Latini Antiquiores, Supplement , 1971, no.1674 (with the photograph there of the present fragment).
S. Krämer, Aevum, Rassegna de Scienze storiche linguistiche e filologie , 81, 2007, pp. 627-28.
B. Bischoff, Katalog der festländischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts: Laon-Paderborn , 2004, p. 72.
B. Bischoff, Katalog der festländischen Handschriften des 9. Jahrhunderts , Aachen-Lambach , 1998, p.78, no. 372.
S. Krämer, Handschriftenerbe des Deutschen Mittelalters , 1989, p. 26.
B. Bischoff and V. Brown, ‘Addenda to CLA’, Mediaeval Studies 47 (1985), p. 361.
B. Krings, ‘ Fragmente karolingischer Handschriften aus dem Hessischen Hauptstaatsarchiv in Wiesbaden. Ein Beitrag zur Bibliotheksgeschichte des Prämonstratenserstifts Arnstein’ , Nassauische Annalen 94 (1983), p. 308.
TM6784 in LDAB , online Leuven Database of Ancient Books

Western and Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures

Wednesday 06 December 2017, 2.00pm

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