Birkbeck Books – Descriptions

Birkbeck MS. I

Birkbeck MS II

Birkbeck MS III

Birkbeck INC I


■ THE BIRKBECK HOURS ■ France (north), s. XV2

Books of hours are Christian devotional books containing sets of prayers and psalms. They were often made for personal or family use, and therefore represent the most common type of medieval manuscript book – so much so that they have been defined as the “best seller” of the Middle Ages. Books of hours were often illuminated – images had an exemplary and meditative function – and richly illuminated, as is the case with this manuscript owned by Birkbeck College.

The Birkbeck Hours was made in France in the fifteenth century, which is commonly considered as the golden age (and place) of the book of hours. Its structure is absolutely typical: it begins with a calendar of Church feasts, followed by extracts from the four Gospels, two popular Marian orations, the Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the seven Penitential Psalms and a Litany of Saints, the Hours of the Cross and an Office for the Dead.

ff. 1–12v: Calendar in French.

ff. 13–18: Extracts from the four Gospels (Saint John, Saint Luke, Saint Matthew, Saint Mark). “Inicium sancti evangelii / secundum Iohannem … sermonem confir / mante sequentibus signis. / Deo gratias”.

ff. 18–25: Two orations to the Virgin Mary, “Obsecro te” and “O intemerata”. “Oratio ad nostram dominam. / Obsecro te / domina … et letitiam sempiternam / amen. Pater noster”.

ff. 25v-26: Added in a French hand (s. XVI/ XVII?), prayers headed “Les trois Aves Maria”. f. 26v is blank.

ff. 27–84: Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary. f. 84v is blank. “Domine labia / mea aperies … ad dona perveniat sem / piterna. Per Christum dominum / nostrum amen”.

ff. 85–101: Seven Penitential Psalms and Litany of Saints. “Domine, ne in f / urore tuo argu / as me … Sequuntur hore de sancta cruce”.

ff. 101v–108: Hours of the Cross. “Laudem tuam. / Deus in adiutorium me[um] … Sequuntur vigilie mortuorum”.

ff. 108v–138v: Office for the Dead. “Dilexi, quoniam / exaudiet Dominus … Fidelium Deus omnium est ut supra.

Parchment, ii+138+iii leaves (no foliation); 112 X 80 (67 X 44) mm. Collation : 112, 28, 38( – 7, 8),  4–108, 114( – 3, 4), 12–178, 188( – 7, 8). 18 lines per page. Ruled in pale brown pencil. Gilded page edges. Humidity has bleached the first four folia (especially the blue ink).

Written in gothic littera bastarda. Borders of scrolling against the outer margin of each folio, in blue, gold, red and black, often with lozenges with floral motifs on a ground of gold paint. Line fillers in blue and red patterned in white, with black contours and occasionally spots of gold, of various forms (mostly rectangular, but also elliptical and flower-shaped). Twelve 60 X 40 miniatures picturing, at f. 27, the Annunciation; at. f. 49, the Visitation; at f. 60, the Nativity; at f. 65v, the Annunciation to the Shepherds; at f. 69, the Adoration of the Magi; at f. 72v, the Presentation of Christ at the Temple; at f. 76, the Flight into Egypt; at f. 79v, the Coronation of the Virgin; at f.85, King David praying; at f. 101v, Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John; at f. 105, Pentecost with Virgin and Apostles; at f. 108v, burial with priest with two hooded weepers. On these same leaves, there are 4-line blue initials patterned in white on golden ground, with floral motifs inside, and the border scrolls frame the entire leaf. The decoration of the single sections is as follows:

  1. Red, blue, and gold script. The names of the Saints of the day alternate in blue and red, though some are in gold. At the top of each folio recto, a 3-line miniature in blue, red, and gold with the letters “kl” (kalendas) precedes the name of the month.
  2. At f. 13: 8-line initial framing picture of Saint John; at f. 14v, 3-line decorated in initial, and picture of Saint Luke in a panel of the border scroll; at f. 15v, 6-line initial framing a picture of Saint Matthew; at f. 17, 8-line initial framing picture of Saint Mark.
  3. At f. 18: 7-line initial framing picture of the Virgin Mary with the Child; at f. 20v: 6-line miniature with a picture of the Piety and a 2-line initial in the right-hand corner.

5–8. 1- and 2-line initials in gold paint, patterned in blue and red.

Eighteenth/nineteenth-century binding, red morocco with gold tooling.

Written in northern France (probably Paris or Reims) in the second half of the fifteenth century. Given to Birkbeck College in 1977 by Eileen Kaye, widow of Dr Charles Fox, Lecturer in Mathematics at Birkbeck between 1920 and 1951.

Secundo folio (f. 14): [potesta]tem filios Dei fieri hiis qui


~Dr Giacomo Giudici, June 2017

The cataloguing of this book was made possible through the generous support of The Pilgrim Trust.


Birkbeck MS. II


The confraternity of Saint Jerome and Saint Francis was founded in Siena (Tuscany) on 26 October 1427, modeled on Florence’s confraternity of San Niccolò del Ceppo. As in the case of many similar lay fraternities of the Middle Ages, its primary objective was the assistance within a religious framework to the poor of the city. The activity of the confraternity was connected to Siena’s hospitals, first the Spedale di santa Croce nella Castellaccia, then the Ospedale di santa Maria della Scala.

The ordinances were formulated at some unspecified time (“doppo alcuno spatio di tempo”) after the foundation. The material writing of this manuscript happened after 1434, because it is written that the ordinances were first approved by the bishop of Siena, Carlo da Gnolmo (1427–1444), and then, “eight years later”, by Pope Eugenius IV (1431–1447) during a stay in Florence. The manuscript was physically handled at every meeting of the confraternity, as one or more capitoli (rules) were read aloud.

ff. 1–3: presentation of the fraternity, with its three pillars (vita contemplativa, vita activa, vita morale, ff. 1v-2) and the concise description of the circumstances that brought to the fraternity’s foundation (ff. 1r-v) and regulation (ff. 2-3). “Al nome della sanctissi / ma et individua / trinità … concessione / alloro facta si manife / starà”.

ff. 3–20v: ordinances, divided in 12 chapters (capitoli), regarding the mores of the confraternity’s members; the acceptance of novices; the modalities of meetings; the visits to the sick members of the confraternity; the election of the rettore (a cleric supervisor) and of the confraternity’s officials; the collection and distribution of alms. All brothers were bound by a vow of secrecy, and every year each one of them could be excluded from the confraternity if at least two-thirds of the brothers agrred. “Capitolo primo. / Dell’onestà et buono co / stume … sca / ndalo alla compagnia, o / vero ad alcuni dela com / pagnia”.

ff. 20v–21: transcription of supplication for licence to elect a confessor, and papal approval. “Supplicant Sanctitatis / vestre Beatissime / pater … In pre / sentia domini nostri pape. C. Anniven.”

ff. 21r–v: . “La forma della absolu / tione al ponto della mor / te ordinata in concistoro … In nomine / sancti amen.

ff. 21v-24: evening office. “Offitio della sera … si vada / a posare per infino all’o / ra del matutino con si / lenzio”.

ff. 24-25: morning office. “Offitio del / la mattina … compar sit laudatio. / Amen”.

ff. 25v-27: originally left blank. 25v, 26, 27r-v still blank. On 26v: inventory of some possessions of the fraternity, dated 1548.

Parchment, i+27 leaves (contemporary foliation on the top right corner of each folio, modern foliation on the bottom right corner); 280 X 195 (170 X 125) mm. Collation: i-28-16-15, with catchwords in the centre of the lower margin of the page. 2 columns of 27 lines, pale pencil ruling. Damaged by wormholes, especially in the initial and final leaves.

Written by one gothic hand. 2-line initials, alternately in red and blue penwork, with ornament of the other color (supplication initial at f. 20v is 3-line). Capital letters in the text filled with yellow. Titles of rules, absolution, evening- and morning office written in red. In the absolution, three red-ink crosses interval the words of the benedictions. In the offices, a number of capital letters is colored in red/blue, and written in red are the words describing the liturgy to be performed. Pencil maniculae at f. 4, 8, 9v. Corrections and additions by the scribe at ff. 7, 13v, 18; by other hands at ff. 4, 11.

Contemporary binding of wooden boards covered with brown leather; four bands; ten bosses, five for each cover, five of them missing; of two strap-and-pin fastenings, only the pins remain on the lower cover.

Written at Siena after 1434. Bought by Birkbeck College in the first half of 1959, probably at an auction.

Secundo folio: [mille CCCC] XXVII la nocte preceden[te]

Two records relating to this item are to be found in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts: Schoenberg_4088 and Schoenberg_11883.

~Dr Giacomo Giudici, June 2017

The cataloguing of this book was made possible through the generous support of The Pilgrim Trust.

Birkbeck MS. III


This collection of dictums, mostly of ancient Greek and Latin philosophers, was compiled for the use of the monks of the Benedictine monastery of San Zeno in Verona. The monastery was a very important and rich one in the medieval and early modern periods. Throughout the Middle Ages it had a very strong relationship with the Holy Roman Emperors (who used to set up court there in their visits to Verona and northern Italy), and one of its abbots even appears in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio, chant XVIII).

f. 1-61v: Aristotle’s (and Pseudo-Aristotle’s) dicta, from various works: Metaphysics; Physics; De coelo et mundo; On Generation and Corruption; Libri methaurorum; On the Soul; Sense and Sensibilia; On Sleep; On Length and Shortness of Life; On Youth, Old Age, Life and Death, and Respiration; Movements of Animals; Generation of Animals; Parts of Animals; De animalibus; De proprietatibus elementorum; De substantia orbis.

f. 39v-40: dicta from Proclus’s De causis and Porphyry’s De universalibus.

f. 40v-42: dicta from Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation.

f. 42-v: dicta from Gilbert de la Porrée’s Liber sex principiorum.

f. 42v-60v: dicta from Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics, Liber de bona fortuna, Rhetoric, Poetics, Rhetoric to Alexander.

f. 60v-61: dicta from Giles of Rome’s De regimine principum.

f. 61-v: dicta from Aristotle’s De pomo et morte.

f. 61v-62: Plato’s dicta.

f. 62: Socrates’s dicta “ex libro Apulei”.

f. 62v-69v: Extracts from Senecas the Elder’s works, entitled De formula honeste vite, De prudentia, De magnanimitate, De continentia, De iusticia, De mensura prudentie, De mensura magnanimitatis, De mensura continentie, De mensura iusticiae, De remediis futurorum bonorum, and Sensus.

Paper, ii+69+ii leaves (first and last leaf pasted to cover boards, modern foliation at the top-right corner of each folio); 204 X 146 (147 X 97) mm. Leaves are not bound in the original order, but go 1–13, 26–35, 14–25, 36–69: this error in binding precedes the book’s 1851 purchase by William Henry Black (see below), who noted the error at f. ii. Collation: 112, 21, 3–410, 5x, 6–712, 83, 96 . 34 lines per page. Grey-pencil ruling.

Written in one gothic hand. The titles of the books from which the dictums are extracted are written in red. The first initial of the first dictum from each book alternates in blue and red (3-line, 4-line, 6-line, 7-line). Several capital letters in the text are filled in yellow. A small number of dictums is written in red (ff. 50v, 52v, 61, 61v). Sparse marginal annotations and underlining.

Bound in vellum on paper boards. The first and last leaf pasted to cover boards are re-used from a printed text .

Written in Verona in the fifteenth century. Pasted to the back of the front board is the ex libris of a Peter John Bruff. The manuscript figures in the catalogues of manuscripts on sale by Thomas Rodd the Younger (1796–1849) between 1836 and 1841 (“T. Roddi Catal.” is also noted at f. i v). In March 1851, William Henry Black (antiquarian and British Library reader, 1808–1872) bought the book from bookdealer George Bumstead in Holborn (f. i v: “Bought of Bumstead, Holborn, 6/3/51; f. ii: “Liber Guillelmi Henrici Nigri Londinensis, mense Martio 1851”). The book appears to have been on sale again at Sotheby’s in 1891. It was then owned by antiquarian and scholar R. A. H. Bickford–Smith (1859–1916), who bequeathed it to the Anglo-Hellenic League (founded in 1913), which in turn lent it to King’s College London: the dates of these transactions are unknown, as well as the date in which the book finally came to Birkbeck.

Secundo folio: “Non solum his gratiam dicere iustum est quorum opinionibus quis communicavit”.

Four records relating to this item can be found in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts: Schoenberg_67546, Schoenberg_67714, Schoenberg_95814, Schoenberg_98285.

~Dr Giacomo Giudici, June 2017

The cataloguing of this book was made possible through the generous support of The Pilgrim Trust.


Birkbeck Incunabula I


Dictys Cretensis’s Ephemeris belli Troiani (here De historia belli Troiani) and Dares Phrygius’s De excidio Troiae historia (here Historia de excidio Troiae) were, throughout the Middle Ages, the two chief sources of knowledge of the events of the Trojan war. For this reason, they were often copied together in medieval manuscripts. Dictys Cretensis (the legend goes) fought the Trojan war in the Cretan army of Idomeneus. Dares Phrygius figures in the Iliad as a Trojan priest.

The curator of this 1499 Venetian edition is Francesco Faraone (Franciscus Faragonius, c. 1460–c. 1525), a distinguished Hellenist active in Messina (Sicily). And in fact, the Venetian edition was preceded by one printed there in 1498 (by Wilhelm Schömberger). The choice of Venice was probably due to the success of the first edition. Not coincidentally, the Venetian publisher, Cristoforo Pensi (Christophorus de Pensis de Mandello) was a rather prolific printer – 113 editions between 1488 and 1505 – who specialised in scholarly titles of various kinds (medical, grammatical, rhetorical, poetical, historical), even though he did not disdain devotional and literary works for broader audiences. The dedicatee of this De historia belli Troiani is Bernardo Rizzo (Bernardus Riccius), a dear friend of Faraone: a lover of Greek culture, he conducted a political career in Messina, and financed the 1498 .

The book’s paratext is very rich, and includes a letter-prologue addressed from Lucius Romanus (first Latin translator of Dictys Cretensis into Latin) to Quintus Aradius, and a letter of Cornelios Nepos (who allegedly translated Dares Phrygius) to Sallustius.

a1: title page: “Iesus Maria. / Dictys Cretensis / De historia belli / Troiani et Dar / ses Priscus / de eadem / Troia / na”.

  1. a2-a3 : Francesco Faraone, letter addressed to Bernardo Rizzo: “Dyctin Cretensem gravem historicum … & me quod facias ama”.

a3: Francesco Faraone, epigram dedicated to Bernardo Rizzo: “Ediderat mundo summum pia Creta tonantem … Mox maiora dabo: spesque decusque vale”.

a3: Francesco Faraone (?), hexastich: “Vndeni uersus partem si sumpseris imam … Auctoris totum syllaba nomen habes”.

a3: Francesco Faraone (?), tetrastich: “Tarpaei montis templum Dictynna colossus … Illa soluta iacent: Dictys ad ora uolat”.

a3-a3v: Francesco Faraone (?), distich: “Vertice nata dei quondam velut aegide Sais, / Gnosida trinacriae sic tulit arte caput”.

a3v: Francesco Faraone (?), monostich: “Ilion obsedit bello gens Graeca bilustri”.

a3v-a4v: Francesco Faraone (?), “Appendiculae ad libri interpretationem”: “Minos, Iovis & Europae filius … cibariis expleuerunt”.

a4v: Francesco Faraone, epigram dedicated to Bernardo Rizzo: “Phoebigenam precibus mouit Dictynna sub orcum … Longaquae Cumanae saecula uatis agas”.

a5-a5v: Septimius Romanus, prologue addressed to Quintus Aradius, edited by Francesco Faraone: “Ephimeridem belli troiani Dictys Creten[sis] … saue coeptis atque in legend dietim.

a5v-g8v: Dictys Cretensis, Historia Belli Troiani (six books): “Cvnctis refes qui Minois Iove geniti … neque tamen inualidus virium”.

g8v: first colophon.

  1. h1: genealogical note (“Historia de origine Troianorum”): “Origo Troianorum Dardanus fuit … Nunc / qui Aeneam filium procreauit”.

h1-h1v: Cornelius Nepos, letter addressed to Sallustius: “Cum / multa Athenis curiose … Nunc / ad pollicitum reuertarum”.

h1v-i9v: Dares Phrygius, Historia de excidio Troiae: “Pelias rex in Peloponneso Aesonem fratrem ha / buit … Anchises Aeneam, Aeneas Ascanium”.

i10: Francesco Faraone, decastich addressed to the reader: “Iam sunt plena malis haec tempora nostra nefandis … Bellis igne fame sulphure cuncta ruent”.

i10: second colophon.

i10v: blank.

Paper incunabulum, 4° (size: 210 X 154 X 18; size of leaf: 208 X 150). Printed foliation appears at the bottom right corner of the first four leaves of each gathering only (ai, aii, aiii, aiiii; bi, bii, biii, biiii etc.). Imprint: Venice: Christophorus de Pensis de , 1 February 1499 (first colophon) 1 March 1499 (second colophon). Collation: a–h8, i10. 74 leaves, 30 lines per leaf.

One woodcut initial at f. h1. Gatherings a and b have annotations (mostly corrections of the Latin text).

Bound in parchment over paper boards. On the front cover is noted: “Dytis [sic] Cretensis / Dares Phrygius”. On the back cover: “Dytis [sic] Cretensis de bello troiano”. On the book edge: “Dyctis Cretensis Historia Troi[a]na”.

Provenance: at f. a1v: “Fr[ancisci] Sini d[omini]Ant[on]ii Zeni alumni”.

References: Incunabula Short Title Catalogue: id0018700.

~Dr Giacomo Giudici, June 2017

The cataloguing of this book was made possible through the generous support of The Pilgrim Trust.