Most of the older Oxbridge colleges have collections of manuscripts – the handwritten books that made up their reference libraries before the Reformation. Peterhouse has a substantial collection, about 280 items, most of them still the College’s property, though a few strayed to other places in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. Not many Colleges have larger collections than this. Trinity, with about 1500 items, is exceptional, but these came largely in the 17th century. Peterhouse, on the contrary, has a complete library catalogue from 1418, and about half of the items in it still survive. The survival of the catalogue itself is a piece of luck, and if did not exist we would be hard put to prove that very many of the surviving MSS were at Peterhouse as early as that.
Being handmade, MSS differ from printed books precisely in the fact that no two are identical. On the contrary, individual MSS differ from each other in all kinds of ways. This means that a scholar wishing to know almost anything one can think of about a particular Peterhouse MS needs some sort of guide or gateway into the collection. That guide is provided by a Descriptive Catalogue, which is what Professor Rodney Thomson has been compiling for Peterhouse since 2012. This is a book, hopefully large and handsome, in which each MS is described in minute and technical detail. Anything likely to interest a scholar from any number of fields has to be included: date, origin, usage, handwriting, contents, decoration. This technical information is prefaced by an essay on the growth of the College’s medieval library (which any Fellow or alumnus should be able to comprehend and ought to find of interest), and is followed by several indexes. These days illustrations are normally provided, not only of the artwork in the MSS, but to present all kinds of physical features such as bindings, inscriptions recording owners and donors, and identifiable scribes and annotators. Professor Thomson hopes to finish the Catalogue in the course of 2015. He writes about one recent discovery below.
On the way, a cataloguer always makes discoveries, mostly small ones, occasionally sensational. Most of the new information recorded from the Peterhouse MSS concerns the owners of the books before they came to the College – for they always came second-hand, often with more than a century of history already behind them. The College, understandably, usually erased the names of previous owners, but ultra-violet light can often disclose them, and it has now done so in dozens of cases. In this way the early travels of many books are revealed: made at a monastery or friary far from Cambridge, brought to the University by a monk or friar studying there, sold, pawned or lost then offered on the open market to another student who happened to be, or become, a Fellow of Peterhouse. This was how the College acquired most of its books: not through planned acquisition, but as the pious gift of a former Fellow.
Take for instance MS 44. In itself it isn’t an uncommon item, a Latin Bible of a recognised type, made commercially in the mid-13th century in England, probably at Oxford. As usual with such books, it is neatly written and still contains remains of its originally handsome decoration. Now the Peterhouse MSS have been described once before, by the grand Etonian, scholar and writer of ghost stories, M. R. James, in 1899. He omitted to mention the one fact that makes this particular book out of the ordinary: the copious annotation which fills its margins almost to capacity.
When I first looked at MS 44, I noticed that the annotation was in two hands, one neat and formal, like the hand of the main text, the other informal (what is called ‘cursive’) and untidy. On my second time round, I examined these hands more closely and found that they turn out to be of extraordinary interest. The man who wrote formally was a considerable scholar who had seen and compared many copies of the Latin Bible and some in Hebrew, noting textual difficulties and corruptions which he tries to explain and resolve in his notes. As for the other annotator, when examined closely, it became obvious that the writing was untidy because written by a pathologically shaky hand. Then it dawned on me: I was looking at an unknown occurrence of the famous ‘Tremulous Hand of Worcester’. This thirteenth-century monk from Worcester Cathedral Priory annotated dozens of his monastery’s books, recording meanings of words and often translating them into an English that was archaic by this time. In the Peterhouse MS I have found only one translation into English but many into French. As a matter of fact, some scholars have thought that the man was a native speaker of French, whose lists of words in English were to help him learn the language.
So we probably have a book made in Oxford, then at Worcester where it was worked on by two of the monks. One would like to know more about these men, especially the exceptionally learned one. Eventually the book escaped from the Cathedral Priory and we lose track of it until it was presented to Peterhouse by William of Whittlesey, archdeacon of Ely, shortly before 1369.