Firey Review, Part I: On the St. Petersburg Historia Tripartita

Introduction here.

Firey believes that the origins of the St. Petersburg Historia Tripartita (F.v.I.11) are less than certain.

“Paleographers,” she writes, “have always…reminded us that the ‘a-b’ script seems to have been written at houses other than Corbie. Leslie Webber Jones suggested Amiens, Beauvais, St. Hubert in the Ardennes, St. Vaast at Arras, Compiègne, perhaps Fleury, St. Thierry…and other houses in the Paris region. In other words, ‘Corbie’ provenance may not be as certain as the short notations that often accompany shelfmarks would suggest” (31-2). Moreover, she observes that “…[B]ooks moved. Manuscripts written in ‘Corbie a-b’ ended up in libraries other than Corbie, and manuscripts written in other scripts ended up in the Corbie library” (32). The mere presence of Corbie scribes in a manuscript does not mean that we can draw conclusions about prevailing interests or concerns at the abbey: “There is…the possibility that law books could have Corbie provenance, but not really be rooted in particular legal needs at Corbie. That is, the manuscripts should perhaps be seen as part of a book trade, attested in records showing the production of books at Corbie for money” (33). Therefore, “The identification of Corbie as the locus of the Pseudo-Isidorian atelier (if an atelier there was) should probably not be asserted on the basis of the St. Petersburg Cassiodorus (Ms. F.v.I.11), or even on the basis that a number of ‘Corbie’ manuscripts can be associated with transcriptions of Pseudo-Isidorian materials” (54).

Nobody will doubt that early medieval monasteries copied codices for many different reasons, that codices were valuable objects subject to theft, and that they could be traded, borrowed or lent for favors falling on a spectrum from the spiritual to the temporal. Many, however, will find it hard to believe that anything that might fairly be called a book trade existed in Carolingian-era Europe, or that the monastery of Corbie produced very many books for sale. Nowhere in her essay does Firey cite evidence for either point, and indeed one of the secondary authors upon whom she relies seems to contradict her assumptions entirely.[1] And how widespread was a-b minuscule, anyway? According to Jones, it might have been all over northern France, but Jones was writing in 1947. At footnote 46 (32), Firey quietly cites the more recent work of Bernhard Bischoff, who observes that a-b was “restricted to a very few centres.”[2]

But these are quibbles, because we could grant Firey all of these points and they would be of no moment for our estimation of the St. Petersburg Historia Tripartita, which enjoys Corbie provenance beyond any cavil. The codex is in St. Petersburg because Dubrowsky took it from the library at Saint-Germain-de-Prés in 1791, and it came to Saint-Germain-de-Prés in 1638 along with 400 other manuscripts from Corbie.[3] In the eleventh century, Corbie scribes added a colophon recording a local tradition that the codex had been copied at Noirmoutiers at the behest of the exiled Abbot Adalhard. And we also know that the St. Petersburg codex was at Corbie during the era of Pseudo-Isidore, thanks to the “capital N-annotator” identified by David Ganz. This annotator’s activity can be dated to the first half of the ninth century, and it occurs across a variety of Corbie codices, including the St. Petersburg volume. In fact, Klaus Zechiel-Eckes cites this annotator’s activity precisely to forestall the argument that Firey makes here.[4]

Firey’s hand waving might matter for almost any other codex ascribed to any other monastery, but not for St. Petersburg Ms. F.v.I.11. An archetypal product of the Corbie scriptorium, this codex was used as a central data point for the study of a-b minuscule during Adalhard’s abbacy by none other than T.A.M. Bishop. It is therefore strange to find that Firey otherwise cites Bishop as an eminent authority throughout her essay, and even casts her own arguments as a confirmation and extension of his speculations about scribal activity at Corbie. Ultimately, Firey writes of “…a number of ‘Corbie’ manuscripts” that “can be associated with transcriptions of Pseudo-Isidorian materials.” For her, even this is not enough to establish Corbie origins for the forgery atelier, “if an atelier there was” (!).

She seems to be writing of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France Ms. lat. 11611, a copy of the Rusticus version of the acta of Chalcedon that was copied at Saint-Denis, but that has Corbie provenance from perhaps the 830s (“Corbie-owned,” according to Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian Renaissance, 67). It has received the same series of excerpt marks as the St. Petersburg codex of the Historia Tripartita. Excerpted passages in Ms. 11611, as in F.v.I.11, recur throughout the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries.

If two excerpted Corbie codices are not enough to associate Pseudo-Isidore with Corbie, well, there is more. The only complete early medieval manuscript witness of Pseudo-Isidore’s interpolated Hispana, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vat. lat. 1341, is a Corbie codex. Two of three ninth-century manuscripts of the important A/B recension of the False Decretals are from Corbie. The forgers used the Liber contra Varimadum, very likely from Paris, BnF Ms. lat. 12217, an eighth-century Corbie manuscript. And as if all of that were not enough, in the few years since Firey’s essay was published, another Corbie codex (Vat. lat. 3803) has emerged with Pseudo-Isidorian annotations in its margins–the subject of a future blog post.

In fact Pseudo-Isidore’s Corbie associations emerge from so many separate strands of evidence that they tend to banish all doubts as to the origins of St. Petersburg F.v.I.11, if indeed there ever were any. A lot about our forger is uncertain, but Pseudo-Isidore and Corbie is a decided matter. The origins of the St. Petersburg Historia Tripartita rest on equally firm ground.

Ahead to Part II/1.

[1] See David Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian Renaissance (Sigmaringen, 1990), 67: “The landscape of Carolingian learning was very different from that of Late Antiquity or of the high middle ages, when it is possible to speak of a book trade. The interests of abbots and librarians were the main factor behind the growth of the Corbie library.”

[2] Latin Palaeography (Cambridge, 1990), 106.

[3] This is a history that Firey herself relates (31).

[4] Ganz, Corbie in the Carolingian Renaissance, 73; Zechiel-Eckes, “Ein Blick in Pseudoisidors Werkstatt,” Francia 28 (2001), for example at 39-40 and 44-5.

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