Classical Manuscripts in the Leiden University Collections

By Irene O’Daly

The project organised a colloquium last week (3 September) entitled ‘Writing the Classics in the Middle Ages’ which focused on the production, form and transmission of classical manuscripts in the medieval West. Alongside a number of papers, the colloquium also included two displays of manuscripts from the Leiden University Library, which has a particularly large and significant collection of classical texts among its holdings.

Leiden holds several manuscripts that are significant within the textual tradition of some classical works. Chief among these are the manuscripts of the ‘Leiden Corpus’ – a collection of the philosophical works of Cicero (106-43 BC). Two manuscripts (VLF 84, VLF 86) contain these works, and include the earliest examples of Cicero’s De legibus among other texts. These manuscripts were written in France in the early ninth century. This example, the conclusion of the De natura Deorum (f. 18v) shows the use of book divisions to aid navigation on the part of the reader.

'The Leiden Corpus', VLF 84, f. 18v

‘The Leiden Corpus’, VLF 84, f. 18v (Photo courtesy of Julie Somers)

Leiden holds two of the rarest exemplars of the text of Lucretius’ (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) De rerum natura, a text that only survived in two non-fragmentary ninth-century manuscripts. Because of their formats, these are colloquially known as the ‘Oblongus’ (VLF 30) and the ‘Quadratus’ (VLQ 94). On this page of the ‘Oblongus’, a rectangular-shaped manuscript which was copied in Northwestern France, the text has been corrected in an insular hand by an Irish scribe called Dungal, a monk who is known to have been present at the court of Charlemagne. The correction is clearly visible, not only because of the change in script, but also because the scribe replaced one line of text with two.

Corrections in  the 'Oblongus' copy of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, VLF 30, f. 20r

Corrections in the ‘Oblongus’ copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, VLF 30, f. 20r (Photo courtesy of Julie Somers)

Another manuscript which can be counted among the treasures of the classical collection is a tenth-century illustrated version of the plays of Terence (195/185–159 BC) (VLF 38, Fleury?). Illustrations were not uncommon in collections of the works of Terence, and may derive from antique exemplars. Not only did the illustrations serve to decorate the text, and explain the scene, they also provided a comic commentary to the text. The presence of such a richly illustrated classical text in the tenth century demonstrates the regard in which Terence was held.

A tenth-century illustrated Terence manuscript, VLF 38, 16v

A tenth-century illustrated Terence manuscript, VLF 38, 16v (Photo courtesy of Julie Somers)

Another manuscript also contains a small miniature which exemplifies the interest in the classical part in this period. VLQ 33 contains a depiction of ‘Rhetoric’ (shown wearing a helmet and carrying a spear) in discussion with two characters dressed in archaic clothing holding phylacteries, or speech-rolls. Rhetoric’s shield contains words taken from Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, a famous work on rhetoric and philosophy composed in c. 410.

Illustration of Rhetoric: VLQ 33, f. 1v

Illustration of Rhetoric: VLQ 33, f. 1v (Photo courtesy of Julie Somers)

The collection in Leiden contains items that are unique in the history of the transmission of the Latin classics, and provides a fascinating insight into the traditions of copying and scholarship that shaped the medieval curriculum.

All photos taken by Julie Somers. You can view more photos of the day on our flickr photostream.

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