Visigothic script leaf at Bloomsbury’s auction

11th-century fragment of a codex in Visigothic minuscule script to be sold at Bloomsbury.

Earlier this year I was surprised by Tim Bolton at an after-lecture reception – exceptional Daniel Wakelin on the “why” behind written practices, by the way – with the news that a leaf of a Visigothic script codex was going to auction at Bloomsbury (lot no. 4). You can read more about it here – if you have some money to spare I am sorry to say the opportunity to buy this leaf has passed. I did not write about it then but thought to do it now for I consider important to highlight the fact that, as the Visigothic script charter auctioned by Christie’s in late 2013, material as significant as this is still around in private hands.

I do not think there is the need of addressing again all the vicissitudes Iberian medieval manuscripts went through particularly in the 17th to 20th centuries – you can read some notes on the topic here. I would prefer for all the surviving manuscripts now in private collections to make it to official archives, although at the same time I am glad that someone, during armed conflicts in which the parchment was eaten and used for bedding, saw the importance of preserving manuscripts, being for cultural or merely for economic reasons.

The thing is that this leaf made its first appearance into society this year, almost a thousand years after it was copied. It is welcomed into a community of scholars who are aware of the fact that many fragments as this are around because we know not only about the written production of monasteries as the one in which the codex to which this leaf belongs was made but about how these medieval treasures were dispersed. With this I mean to say I will not be surprised if other leaves very much like this one appear in the near future.

Its particulars. The leaf (layout: 2 columns of 33 lines, external, lateral and lower borders remaining – 72 mm and 73 mm wide respectively –, original dimensions 470 x 370 mm approx.) belongs to a codex compiling lives of saints. It was copied in a beautiful calligraphic Visigothic minuscule script by a fairly skilled scribe, not the best example but closer; there is some cursive influence in a couple of nexuses with inverted beta t. The hand who copied this leaf can be dated as to the mid/late 11th century, around 1060-1070 since it does not show any influence from the Carolingian writing system.

On its provenance, in all likelihood, it was written in the area nearby Burgos. My first impression was that it belonged to the Benedictine monastery of Silos, for which indeed three Visigothic script codices of this content were listed as part of the 13th-century catalogue of the monastery’s library, but after revising all Silos’ extant manuscripts I no longer concur. Whichever was its origin, I still think of it as from that area, and a clue pointing in that direction is that this leaf has been preserved because it served as a binding of a late 16th-century account book of, it seems, a church in Covarrubias that happens to be some 20 km far from Silos.

The leaf sold for £21,000, despite that the estimated value was of between £10,000 and £15,000. I think for the estimated to be a reasonable price all things considered, and I would like to congratulate the person or institution who saw its value. I hope they not only preserve it but open access to it for scholars to investigate.

* I would like to thank Tim Bolton for kindly share with me not only the news but images of this leaf. Likewise, to all the people on Twitter who sent me messages alerting of the auction; the community works because of you.

by A. Castro

[edited 11/07/2018]

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