Behind the scenes Collections Guest post Research

Unexpected treasures from early medieval Spain: the Visigothic manuscripts in the Rylands

Visiting Early Career research Fellow, Dr Ana Dias, explores the Rylands Visigothic Manuscripts.

Dr Ana Dias is Visiting Early Career Research Fellow in 2020-21. Her project, ‘Image in Iberia and the Medieval West ca. 700-1080: an Intellectual History’, investigates attitudes towards religious images in Iberia, ca. 700-1080, within the broader intellectual and cultural panorama of the early medieval West and the Mediterranean world.

Amongst the collection of Latin manuscripts in the Rylands, there are three fascinating codices from tenth-century Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal). The circumstances surrounding their arrival in Britain remain mysterious, but they featured in prominent British collections, such as those of Thomas Bateman, James Ludovic Lindsay (the 26th Earl of Crawford) and, since 1901, the John Rylands collection.

Recently, I had the opportunity to consult these works as I develop my next research project about ideas and attitudes to religious images in early medieval Iberia. Their first-hand examination has enabled me to reflect further on their significance as witnesses to a very important period in the history of Iberian culture and art.

The Manuscripts

The three manuscripts – Latin MS 83 , Latin MS 89 and Latin MS 104 – were produced between 900-1000 CE in north-central Iberia. This period saw a significant growth in cultural activity accompanied by the foundation of several monasteries, which were often located at the unstable frontier between the northern Christian kingdoms and al-Andalus, the territory under Muslim rule in the peninsula.

Like most Western early medieval manuscripts, they were made in monastic scriptoria (workshops where books and documents were copied) by scribes in charge of producing the necessary works for monastic study and administration. They preserve key texts for medieval monastic culture (especially for Benedictine houses), namely Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job (Latin MS 83), Cassiodorus’s Commentary on the Psalms (Latin MS 89), and Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel’s Commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict (Latin MS 104).

While the origin of Latin MS 89 remains debatable, Latin MS 83 and MS 104 have been identified as products of San Pedro de Cardeña.[1] Considering their dates, they may have been among the earliest works created after the refoundation of this monastery, thus making them very important sources to understand the development of local book production. 

All three books are written in Latin on parchment, possibly made from sheep or goat skin. Although their production postdates the ‘Visigothic Kingdom of Iberia’ (which ended with the Muslim conquest in 711 CE), they are generally described as ‘Visigothic manuscripts’ due to the eponymous script employed in their copying. 

John Rylands Library, Latin MS 89, fol. Cassidorus Commentary on the Psalms

Latin MS 83 and MS 89 also reflect a custom commonly observed amongst medieval Iberian scribes but exceptionally rare elsewhere: that of signing and dating their work. This privileged information has enabled scholars to establish important connections between the Rylands Visigothic manuscripts and other Iberian works. The copy of the Moralia in Job is a case in point: it preserves the name of its chief scribe, Gomez, who seems to have been also responsible for the tenth-century Bible of Cardeña, one of the earliest extant Iberian Bibles. 

Detail of John Rylands Library, Latin MS 83, fol. 
Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job 
Inscription by scribe Gomez

Future Research

Getting to know the Rylands Visigothic manuscripts was a crucial first step for my next research project. Assessing how they were made, what decorations they include and where these are located within the manuscript, as well as analysing potential signs of use by contemporary readers can tell us about how people engaged with the books and illuminations. Latin MS 83 and 89 are especially relevant due to the array of decorated initials and some miniatures they preserve. For instance, the copy of the Moralia in Job includes striking initials comprising representations of ecclesiastical figures (tentatively identified as Gregory the Great himself) that, for their nature and antiquity, have been important points for reflection for me.

Detail of John Rylands Library, Latin MS 83, fol. 
Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job 

But as frequently happens, while seeking answers to a question many more arise, and the Rylands Visigothic manuscripts have raised several that I hope to pursue in the near future. The origin of the copy of Cassiodorus’ Commentary on the Psalms (Latin MS 89) is one such problem. When comparing it to other contemporary deluxe Iberian works, it becomes apparent how incredibly accomplished this manuscript is. It is made from high-quality parchment, with a rich and varied palette, and executed by highly proficient craftsmen. The combined analysis of these features and other internal evidence has the potential to shed a brighter light on its context of production and, importantly, may offer evidence that will recast its historical importance. 

The time spent at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library has also marked my return to the archives since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The experience was as enriching and stimulating as I could have hoped and has reminded me that time spent with these objects is of inestimable value for researchers.

[1]  Barbara Shailor, ‘The Scriptorium of San Pedro de Cardeña’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 61:2 (1979), pp. 444-473.

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