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The Collation

Folger manuscripts out and about: a field trip to Penn!

During the Folger’s building renovation, we have been fortunate to be able to send a selection of twenty-nine pre-modern manuscripts up to the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts in Philadelphia. This exciting partnership allows for these rare items, produced in England and in continental Europe between the 13th and 16th centuries, to remain available to researchers during our extended period of closure. They have also been digitized and put into the open-access OPenn repository.

The selection of manuscripts on loan to Penn are part of our pre-1500 manuscript holdings. Most of the items were acquired by Henry Folger in 1924 from the estate of the English bibliophile William Thomas Smedley (1858–1920). The items acquired from Smedley’s library include hundreds of incunabula and 16th-century imprints. Henry Folger acquired these items to help illuminate Shakespeare’s broader intellectual and historical background, and because many of the items include evidence of early modern English ownership, which was of particular interest to the Folgers.

W.T. Smedley bookplate from Phaedrum … etc., ca. 1460
Folger MS V.a.107, recto of first front flyleaf. Image: OPenn.

Our medieval manuscripts have been used extensively for teaching purposes, especially during field trips by Rare Book School classes, but other than the Macro Plays, this part of the collection has been under-utilized by medievalists, who might not even be aware that the Folger has them! So one of the things that we are most excited about with this partnership is that it will facilitate increased exposure and access to this wonderful, but under-utilized, portion of our collection.

This joint initiative also leverages the scholarly expertise of Penn’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS), the digitization proficiency of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI), and the robust, open-access OPenn repository for primary digital resources.

During the 2021-2022 academic year, these items were given enhanced metadata by staff at SIMS, were digitized by SCETI, and were added to OPenn. For the duration of the 2022-2023 academic year, they will be made available to members of the public for in-person research consultation in the Kislak Center’s reading room, which welcomes individuals from the Penn and Folger communities, as well as those who do not currently have affiliations with either institution, to consult the manuscripts directly. The visiting manuscripts will also occasionally be integrated into classes.

As a group, these manuscripts complement and fill gaps in the manuscript holdings of the Penn Libraries, notably the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, which traces the journey of practical and empirical knowledge from antiquity through to the Renaissance, often by means of Arabic-language intermediaries.

The renewal of Aristotelean thought during the later Middle Ages is exemplified by the Folger’s fine copy of the Physica dated to around 1300—only about a century after its translation into Latin. In this manuscript, it is accompanied by various pseudo-Aristotelean treatises and a translation of Avicenna’s work on geology (V.b.32). This manuscript’s margins are inhabited—literally. There are many figures, as well as notes and diagrams.

Physica … , ca. 1300?
Left to right, details of: fol. 248v, 8v, and 267r
Folger MS V.b.32, Images: OPenn.

A cluster of works represent the humanist revival of interest in classical rhetoric, especially the didactic works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the fifteenth century: a copy of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, probably copied in Italy for Gundisalvus de Bivero, bishop of Salamanca (V.a.106); a miscellany of treatises and pseudonymous orations (V.a.112); and a selection of shorter works by the author alongside his translation of Plato’s Timaeus (V.a.88). A beautiful exemplar of a classically inspired “modern” text on Latin grammar, Agostino Dati’s Elegantiolae (here falsely attributed to the great rhetorician Lorenzo Valla) is introduced by an imposing pen-and-ink stele with the name of the presumed author of the text inscribed in Roman capitals (V.a.102).

Two Ciceronian incipits.
Left: V.a.112, fol. 1r
Right: V.a.88, fol. 1r
Images: OPenn

Frontispiece from the Latinae linguae elegantiarum compendium …, ca. 1455.
Folger MS V.a.102, fol. 2r. Image: OPenn.

Folger MS V.a.84, a collection of writings from 4th and 5th century Church Fathers, is particularly noteworthy for its scribe: this manuscript was copied out by Peter Meghen for Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor and King Henry the VII’s almoner at the turn of the 16th century. Meghen was known for being the go-to humanist scribe—he was also known for only having one eye (Erasmus called him “Cyclops”!) and it is thought that he was a spy as well. The colophon gives details of the manuscript’s production.

Detail of the colophon:
“…… arte et industria Petri Meghen monoculi theutonis brabantini oppidi Buschiducensis: Anno Serenissimi Regis Henrici vii Nonodecimo: Annoque Domini 1504.”
Appollogeticus … etc., 1504.
Folger MS V.a.84, fol. 66v

The common law legal tradition is represented by a 14th-century book of statutes (V.a.256), while canon law is illustrated through an imposing commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX (V.b.42). The origins of encyclopedism are covered by a portion of a 13th-century copy of Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (V.b.31), which can be compared to a roughly contemporary copy at Penn (LJS 184). The devotional current is exemplified by a book of hours for the use of Sarum, produced in the low countries for the English market and profusely illustrated with historiated initials (V.a.228). Unlike many other books of hours used in England, it has not had its prayer to Thomas Beckett crossed out or erased, in defiance of the order given in 1538 by Henry VIII to obliterate images and texts associated with this potent symbol of resistance to the monarchy. One possible explanation for the survival of the Beckett prayer is that this manuscript was owned by Thomas Wakefield, who was the first Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, and was known for his Catholic leanings.

Un-expurgated prayer to Thomas Beckett in
Hore beate Marie virginis secundum usum Sarum, ca. 1500.
Folger MS V.a.228, fol. 15v. Image: OPenn

Several more of the items were authored or produced in Britain or were owned by English collectors early on, making them invaluable guests to Penn’s burgeoning “med-ren” community of faculty and students in the English Department. A workaday fifteenth-century manuscript, in addition to containing a treatise on the art of rhetoric, remarkably includes Ceolfrith of Wearmouth’s letter on the computation of Easter addressed to King Nechtan, excerpted from Bede the Venerable’s early-eighth-century Ecclesiastical History (V.a.167). Three important works of the Middle English literary canon are represented: John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, in a later 15th-century copy on parchment (V.b.29); a recension of the popular Chronicle of England, known as The Brut on account of its retelling of the legendary foundation of England by Brutus, son of Aeneas (V.b.106); and an imposing and rare copy of Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (V.b.236). While another copy of Gower’s work exists in Philadelphia at the Rosenbach Library (MS 1083/29), and a Brut Chronicle is held at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Lewis E 238; both have been digitized via BiblioPhilly), these signal texts are not otherwise present in manuscript form at Penn. The digitization of our copies now allows for side-by-side comparisons of the texts.

Side-by-side comparison of the opening passage of Brut.
Left: Folger MS V.b.106, fol. 1r
Right: Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 238, fol. 1r

The links between the Penn Libraries and the Folger run deep. Penn’s Furness Memorial Library ranks among the strongest university collections of Shakespeareiana in North America. It was established by Penn professor and trustee Horace Howard Furness (1833–1912). A generation older than Henry Folger, Furness was the graduate studies advisor of Emily Jordan Folger. Though their collection of books and manuscripts related to Shakespeare would grow to outstrip any other, the Folgers admired Furness’ pioneering efforts at establishing Shakespeare studies as part of the university curriculum. They also drew inspiration from his important work as an editor of new editions of the plays.

Researchers on-site in Philadelphia can consult the Folger manuscripts in the Kislak Center reading room by appointment. Researchers will be required to have registered both as Kislak Center Special Collections researchers and as Folger Shakespeare Library researchers. Find detailed instructions for accessing the manuscripts in the Kislak Center on the Penn Libraries website. After the Folger re-opens next fall, the manuscripts will once again be available for consultation in the Folger’s reading room.


Thanks for drawing attention to these Medieval MSS at the Folger, far more than I knew about. More thanks for the digital versions and for drawing attention to other MSS we can consult on line.

Steven W. May — September 9, 2022