Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A sheepskin manuscript with mysterious, missing artwork

Worcester Cathedral library MS F.9 is a fourteenth century manuscript of Flavius Josephus’ The Jewish War and the Antiquities of the Jews, which is thought to have been professionally made by a team of lay scribes and artists, though the exact location of production is unknown. Unlike many of our manuscripts, the monks of the Cathedral priory had no physical role in the production of F9, and we can provide no evidence for the priory owning the manuscript before the seventeenth century. As to how this MS came to the Cathedral is a mystery. Upon displaying it to visitors this summer we found it was a rather curious manuscript indeed, with a lot of scribal quirks and artistic oddities (such as the one pictured below). This week I explore what makes F9 an unusual item that stands out from the rest of our collection.

F9. A detail from the top line of a page,
the scribe has drawn a small profile head with
a large pointed nose. Photograph
© the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
The first unusual point about MS F9 is that it is made from 324 leaves of thick sheep skin, rather than vellum (calf skin). This is uncommon for manuscripts of this date. Vellum was the usual choice of skin after the ninth-century, though the Saxons did reserve sheepskin for some special liturgical texts (for example the Echternach Gospels). Sheepskin is greasier than vellum and can often be more translucent, making painting directly onto it more difficult. F9 evidences some of the problems associated with using sheepskin for manuscripts. The hair side of sheepskin parchment yellows overtime and F9 has certain leaves which are severely yellowed.

This manuscript of The Jewish War has an unusually large number of (probably contemporary) repairs also; every few folios you will find a hole which has been sewn or repaired by pasting another bit of parchment on top. There are more holes found in F9 than you would normally find with a vellum manuscript, because the layers of sheepskin are fattier, therefore more prone to separating and allowing holes to develop. Even in cases where small holes are stitched up, it is not uncommon that the hole continues to grow and eventually bursts open the repair.

Yet by far the most puzzling thing about F9 is to be found on folio 229 (see pic below), where we can see that the artist has drawn out the border and square of an illuminated letter but left the space blank. A similar blank space for a decorated initial with a border is left on folio 230.  Illumination is generally accepted as the last stage in manuscript production. Only once the scribe or scribes have written the text block will the quires of parchment be passed on to an artist or a team of artists for decorating. Could it be that the artist simply forgot these pages? Did they make a mistake? Was the illuminated letter stolen from the manuscript at a later date?

© the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
We will never definitively know the answer as to why these two folios remain undecorated. It cannot be because they were considered unimportant, for within the manuscript folio 229 marks the beginning of the prologue by Josephus and folio 230 signals the beginning of the main text of The Jewish War. I also think it’s unlikely that these pages were forgotten, for the artist took the time to draw the title of the section at the top of the page in alternating blue and red. Moreover, the scribes or the artists have continued throughout the book to extend the descenders of letters on the last line of each page and embellish them artistically either with grotesques or frilled designs.
Looking at the manuscript, I’d like to suggest that there is evidence that these two illuminated letters with part borders were done, or at least designed, on a separate piece of parchment which was intended to be pasted onto the main body of the manuscript at the end. This was not an uncommon practice for illustrators working on sheepskin. As early as the ninth-century, according to Bischoff, miniatures were being painted onto separate pieces of calfskin and pasted onto folios of sheepskin, because the rough surface of calfskin proved better suited for coloured painting.[1]

 Looking through F9, you can see instances where the translucency of the sheepskin causes coloured inks to bleed from the verso to the recto, which must surely have been a source of frustration for the artists! Below is a picture of a completed illuminated initial in blue from f. 279. You can see that the sheepskin has been difficult to paint onto, and when the book has been closed, blue ink has bled onto the opposite page as the greasy nature of sheep skin means it struggles to absorb paint. It seems likely that these sizeable spaces have been left, then, with intention of pasting completed artwork onto them so as to avoid the inks running through to the underside of the page or blotting onto the other. If you run your finger over folio 229 (pictured above), the border is definitely raised suggesting that the outline in blue may be pasted down.
F9. an illuminated letter with border, looking to the opposite page there is blue ink which has been transferred. Photograph
© the Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (U.K.)
Perhaps the ultimate question with F9 is not 'why are these two folios missing decoration' but 'why did the stationer or workshop in which the manuscript was made opt for sheep skin in the first place, when it was known to be of lesser quality'? It could be that calf skins were in short supply at that time in the region where the manuscript was made, but we have no way of knowing this because no information or research has been done to shed light on where this manuscript was produced. Though we currently know little about the context of the production of this manuscript, F9 nonetheless provides a useful contrast to the rest of Worcester Cathedral Library's manuscript collection, the majority of which is done on vellum. It also evidences how making manuscripts, even in a professional context, could still have many challenges in the later middle ages and suggests that artists and scribes had to come up with inventive solutions to circumvent the challenges of working on sheepskin.

[1] Bischoff, Latin Palaeography trans. Daibhi O Croinin and David Ganz (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990), p. 10.

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