De proprietatibus rerum (Durham Cathedral Library Inc.3)
The digitisation of medieval books and manuscripts is generally a pretty straight forward process; provided you have the right equipment and you take the time to do it carefully. The Priory Library Recreated Project uses conservation copy stands, also known as ‘book cradles’ (there is a photo of one in action on the homepage). We have a well-established workflow, and most books and manuscripts take around two weeks to digitise.
Now and again however, we have to tackle something that presents a bit more of a challenge and requires a little creativity. Recently, we were asked to digitise one of Durham Cathedral Library’s incunables (early printed books) which, having been in use since it was printed in 1491, is unfortunately now damaged, with both of its 15th/16th century front and back boards having become completely detached. De proprietatibus rerum (‘On the Properties of Things’) by Bartholomeus Anglicus is an encyclopedia first written in the early 13th century. It contains 19 books covering a variety of topics such as religion, medicine, geography, astronomy and the natural sciences. Our copy has been heavily annotated by Thomas Swalwell, a monk of Durham who lived from approximately 1483 until 1539. Besides his notes on almost every page, he has also added a glossary index and an index of herbs to our volume. This makes the book a particularly interesting copy of an already significant text.
When digitising books of this age, a solid binding is important because it protects and supports the delicate paper or parchment during the process. Although De proprietatibus rerum is rather badly damaged, because it is still quite frequently used, we felt it was important to digitise it, as having a digital copy will of course reduce the need to handle it.
Our book cradles allow a book to lay open to about 110 degrees, and the camera is positioned to capture one page at a time, so we digitise all of the rectos, then turn the book around and digitise all of the versos.
The first challenge was simply putting the book on the cradle. We considered whether to try to place the volume with its boards in position (which may have caused the three separate parts to slip around), or to leave the boards off (which would have left the outer leaves of the text block with no protection). In the end, we decided on a bit of both. Leaving the board underneath the text block gave it some stability and protection, but the other board could not be placed in any useful way, so had to be set aside. However, as predicted, this left the unprotected pages sort of floating around, with nothing to rest against. We decided to make a false board in the shape of a wedge, to bridge the gap between the pages and the cradle, and to enable pages which had been digitised to be strapped down securely. We used some old exhibition mounts (we like to recycle here!) to make a hinged wedge, which could be adjusted as the book opened further and changed position.
In all honesty, this did not go perfectly first time round. The way that we had initially planned to use the hinged wedge didn’t work at all, and we had to try it round every which way until it fell into the perfect position, which ultimately happened though luck as much as judgement. Still – it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you get there in the end!
We also added an extra layer of thin foam underneath the book to cushion it a bit more, and used foam blocks to support the spine and pages when necessary. As we got further through the book (after about forty pages), we were able to turn the wedge around so that its thin end was towards the spine, matching the angle of the spine as the book opened more. We continued to adjust the wedge until eventually, it was no longer needed at all. We then did the whole thing more or less in reverse when we digitised the versos.
We would normally use the book cradle to photograph the covers, spine and edges of books and manuscripts as well, but in this case the book was too badly damaged to be properly supported during this process. Fortunately we also have a Guardian International copy stand here (for digitising flat documents) and so, after experimenting with the best way to support the volume, we used that instead. This set-up also enabled us to use raked lighting (lit from one side only) on the binding, which is beautifully decorated with tooled leather. By lighting the book from one side and adjusting the high dynamic range (highlight and shadow) of the image, we were able to make a lot more of the delicate tooled decoration visible. Of course, these images are not colour accurate, but they show a level of detail that is hard to see on a normal photograph, or even with the naked eye.
There was no great complexity to what we did, but the simplest solutions are often the best (and cheapest). Our two bits of board, some foam and a bit of tape enabled us to successfully digitise a fragile book, which can now be enjoyed anywhere in the world, while it remains safe and sound in the Cathedral Library.
I’m very lucky that I get to look at a huge number of really beautiful books from Durham and call it work. One of my favourites so far is this eleventh-century gradual. It’s not the most spectacular book I’ve worked with, but it’s pretty special nonetheless. Click through the images at that link and I hope you’d agree with me.
It survived from the eleventh century! That’s already pretty rare, especially for this sort of music book that was in use day to day. The script is this fantastic, clear handwriting that must have been very lovely to sing from if you were a monk here in the middle ages.
But then the Reformation hit and this book was picked out of the library shelves, probably by Thomas Horsley. He carried it off to Newcastle along with other Durham books and to make sure it was really his book, he wrote his name in it. I make it at least eight times that Thomas wrote his name in the margins. Even better, Roger Clarke also wrote that it was his book, amen.
There’s also a fab multi-lingual annotation by someone who just knows a few Latin phrases like ‘a vincula doloris (from the sad chains i.e. life)’ that tells us that Horsley was a kind man and that he has died:
Isti liber pertinet bore it well in mynd domino Thomas Horsley curtis and kynd a vincula doloris Cryst him beynge ad vitam eternam the ewerlasting kynge. Amen.
Other people have added notes, tried out a phrase or two in the margins, drawn silly faces and best of all, accused their friends of being knaves. This book was well-used and loved by a whole series of people after Horsley, some of whom wrote their names in too. But then it came back to Durham when John Davenport bought it, just as he bought quite a lot of other manuscripts, and gave it to the library founded by his boss, John Cosin, bishop of Durham.
I want to know why Horsley took this book. Did he like the way it looked? Was there some reason why he particularly wanted to own a musical manuscript from Durham Priory? Who added the picture of a monk kneeling in prayer? Was it the same person who added comments about transubstantiation, whether or not Christ was really present in the bread and wine of the mass, one of the key theological points in the Reformation? This book hints at so much about the Reformation in Durham and the surrounding area and the ways in which people were feeling their way through a very confusing time.
2017 marks five hundred years since Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed his famous theses to the church door in Wittenberg and so set off the set of conflicts and changes in the European Church that we now call the Reformation. In 1517 Durham was still a monastery. Luther’s writings first really reached England in 1519, in advance of his excommunication the following year. Henry VIII was to write his “Defence of the Seven Sacraments” in 1521. Durham sadly does not have a copy of this from the sixteenth century that I have found- it would be fascinating to see what the monks made of Henry’s response to Luther’s theology. They probably would have approved of the Defence, even as they might have suggested other possible arguments in the margins, supported by quotations from the Bible.
The first of the anti-Lutheran tracts in the Durham collection is Johan Dietenberger’s “Contra Temerarium Martini Luteri” (Against the Recklessness of Martin Luther) from 1524. For the next twenty years, Durham monks were to take an interest in the theological developments in Germany, writing commentary in the margins of books on the situation of the Church. Spoiler alert: monks such as Thomas Swalwell absolutely hated Luther’s ideas. There are lots of comments in the Durham printed books about how Peter was the foundation of the Catholic Church and the popes were heirs of Peter and thus had authority over Christendom. ‘On this rock will I build my Church’ (what Christ said to Peter in Matthew 16:18 playing on the Greek meaning of ‘petros’ as rock) was frequently quoted in margins.
Bishop Tunstall’s chaplains also really did not like Luther and his theology. Walter Preston, who died in 1533 so never had to face the choices of the English Reformation, annotated his 1514 copy of Jean Gerson’s works with lots of comments on Lutheran follies, including comments on the appropriate powers of the church and why celibacy for priests was a good idea. He also was quite concerned with heresy, and probably saw Luther as fitting into Gerson’s fourteenth century understandings of heretics. Gerson had been a prominent theologian of the fourteenth century and an active advocate for Church reform. Luther clearly didn’t measure up, in Preston’s view! Preston was much more impressed with the ideas of people like Erasmus and their calls for some sort of reform with the Catholic Church.
Lutheran ideas did eventually come to Durham in the late sixteenth century. There’s a fun collection of sermons and other liturgical texts, “A Postill or Exposition of the Gospels“, printed in London in 1577. It says that ‘God hath raysed up Luther who (as our Orpheus of Germanie) hath comprised in Dutch verse the summe of Christian Doctrine’. It belonged to the parish of Redmarshall in the 1580s, probably when the wonderfully named Marmaduke Blakiston was rector. Blakiston was a young man then, and only become a canon at Durham in 1599. He probably brought the book to the Cathedral with him. In the 1580s, he might have purchased the sermon collection to instruct his parishioners in Lutheran ideas. The monks and Walter Preston would have been horrified. Preston might at least have liked that someone in 1585 added a note to pray for the soul of Preston’s boss, Cuthbert Tunstall, to the flyleaf.
Luther at Durham shows us a little of the changing religious landscape of the north of England from suspicion of Protestant ideas before around 1550 and then the possibility of using Lutheran ideas in a parochial context in the later sixteenth century. Of course, this was all heavily contested. In the 1520s, Preston had been among those involved in trying people interested in Luther as heretics. Equally in the 1570s and 1570s there was a long-running controversy over the dean of Durham, William Whittingham and his evangelical views and connections to John Calvin and the Geneva Church. That’s a story for another time.
The last Catholic bishop of Durham, Cuthbert Tunstall, liked to promote his family. Most of those men who can be identified as being in his service were related to him. Tunstall was born in 1474 at Hackfurth in Yorkshire, and his family correspondingly were also from the north-east as well as Lancashire.
After years in the south at the universities and working for the archbishop of Canterbury, and then as bishop of London from 1522 to 1530, Tunstall and his household, along with relatives, returned north in 1530 when he was appointed bishop of Durham. He would stay and build things here until his death in 1559, with the exception of a few years under house arrest in the 1550s. His nephews and cousins were his chaplains, his secretaries and above all else the recipients of the sort of patronage that a wealthy bishop had at his fingertips- rectories, masterships of hospitals, college fellowships and so forth. A few came to Durham Cathedral after 1539 as Tunstall’s appointees, others were involved with the cathedral in other ways, usually involving books.
His household really were fascinating, especially as they faced the choices of the Reformation. Tunstall was a scholar, who was close friends with Erasmus and Thomas More, and he expected his relatives to similarly be educated and engaged with the wider world of theology and classics.
He gave books to the cathedral library, including copies of his friends’ work, such as the two works by Guillaume Budé and a medical text by Matthew Sylvaticus. Tunstall may also have given more books than stayed at Durham. I’m slowly exploring the books that went elsewhere, which have Tunstall’s name in them to see if they ended up in the cathedral at some point. Some books are very securely attested, especially as the bishop himself gave books to friends or to Cambridge colleges. Others are much harder to unpick and may simply have been left behind in Durham or London when he was arrested in 1551 and then again in 1558, just before his death.
Tunstall’s relative and chaplain, Robert Ridley was widely admired as a theologian in the 1530s and helped with Polydore Vergil’s edition of the Romano-British writer Gildas, for example (sadly there’s not a contemporary copy in the library here). Ridley, who gave quite a few books to the monastery in 1534 hated Luther and what he saw as sloppy scholarship and heresy against the papacy, judging from his marginal notes, and from a letter that he wrote about Tyndale’s New Testament in 1527. One of his books that came to Durham was a tract against Luther, which was then of intense interest to Thomas Swalwell, suggesting that in Durham the monks were paying close attention to the religious changes in Germany and that Ridley knew his recipients when he decided to give the book away. Yet Ridley’s nephew was the evangelical bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley, who was burned at the stake in Mary’s reign. This is all the more surprising when you realise that Nicholas Ridley was really rather fond of his uncle, who had paid for his education.
In 1542 the first outsider to become a canon turned up. His name was John Crawford and although he was new to Durham, he was not new to the general area. He had been a Franciscan friar, university educated, and then based in Newcastle. He fitted in fairly easily into the ex-monastic community in the cathedral and became Tunstall’s chancellor. Crawford seems to have been committed to Durham because when he died in 1561 he left gifts to many of the canons, to the vicars and to the choristers as well as the grammar school students and lay clerks and asked to be buried by the Bolton altar in the south transept of the cathedral.
Most interestingly for my purposes, he left three sets of books to the common library- a set of St Augustine’s works, St Basil in Greek and what he called ‘Rabbye Moyses’, the Hebrew legal commentator, medical writer and astronomer Maimonides.There’s lots by St Basil and plenty of copies of Maimonides in the library today, but the earliest existing copies come from the seventeenth century, probably replacing Crawford’s gifts when they were no longer usable. The Augustine is still here though, and I’m looking forward to having a look at it next week. Another of Tunstall’s servants and friends, Walter Preston also had books that are now at Durham. Preston was never a canon of the cathedral (he died too young in 1533), but he was Tunstall’s chaplain and the rector of Redmarshall church in County Durham, as seen here, so would possibly have been drawn into the orbit of the church and its library through Tunstall himself. Again, I’m looking forward to having a chance to figure out how his books joined the collection.
What does this all have to do with Tunstall? Well, Tunstall is a frustrating figure; he survived the Reformation, he was conservative yet defended and protected Bernard Gilpin, who consistently expected martyrdom for his Protestant beliefs under Mary. Tunstall was a noted scholar, yet his intellectual response to the Reformation seems inconsistent and unclear. By looking at those around him and his own relationship with his cathedral community, I’m hoping that I can perhaps make some suggestions about how we should read what we know about him. And he’s a fun research subject!
If you’re interested, here’s a couple of works that have been written about these people recently:
- Mark A Loudon, ‘Cuthbert Tunstall, Humanist Bishop and Counsellor to Henry VIII: Education and Ecclesiastical Patronage in Tudor England,’ (University of Toronto PhD thesis, 2004).
- Margaret Harvey, ‘Reaction to Revival: Robert Ridley’s Critique of Erasmus,’ Studies in Church History 44 (2008): 77-86.