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Revising the Catalogic Record

By Vincent Leung

As is well known, written word in the Middle Ages projected the verisimilitude of authority and veracity via the use of ​auctoritates​, personnages and works whose popularity survived centuries with the rubber stamp of intellectual, religious, and governmental institutions. Of course, times have changed. By no means are former sources revered solely on the basis of their written form; indeed, modern scholarship advances by eviscerating antiquated written models for the proposal of novel paradigms.

This being the case, it may be odd therefore that one largely overlooked—albeit important—genre of written scholarship for the most part retains an air of irrefutable truth: the manuscript catalogue. Whether it be for the difficulty of verifying all the entries contained therein, or if I dare suggest.. laziness and poor scholarly practice … it is expected by most that the catalogue contains all there is to know about a manuscript: it’s contents, physicality, birthday, favourite colour, political affiliation, whether it sees white and gold or blue and black.. etc. It may be surprising, therefore, that my History of the Book project stood against this scholastic axiom by pointing to numerous errors in all preceding catalogic entries of a manuscript.

MS Canonici Italiani 100

The manuscript I worked on was first brought to my attention by the first comprehensive catalogue of the Canonici Collection, compiled by Count Alessandro Mortara and published by Dr. Rev. Henry Wellesley of New Inn Hall, Oxford in 1864.1​ ​The text of the MS Canon. Ital. 100 was initially of especial interest for the fact that it was listed as bilingual (separate sections written in Latin/Italian Vernacular), featuring commentaries on all three ​cantiche​ of Dante’s Divine Comedy​, and left unattributed to any known commentators by Mortara.2​ ​Upon conducting further research into the catalogic history of the MS, I was referred to the three other catalogues in which the MS had been previously documented.3​ ​As I became aware of the very notable variation in the catalogue entries both with regard to the authorial attribution, the layout, and interpretative features of the commentaries, my research was formed around the following queries:

  • To which commentator(s), if known, can the MS. Canon. Ital. 100 be definitively attributed to?
  • How many commentaries are there in the manuscript? Covering how much of the Comedy?​

Findings and Takeaways

My research culminated in the production of a comprehensive catalogue description for the MS based on the editorial conventions of Daniela Mairhofer,4​ ​which built upon and significantly corrected the efforts of previous cataloguers.5​ ​Apart from verifying the structural/exegetical scope of the MS text, through my diplomatic transcriptions and textual comparisons, I was able to emend the former authorial attribution to the first section as well as posit new attributions to previously unidentified sections. Perhaps more interestingly, all of these newly identified texts constitute previously undocumented Latin/Italian Vernacular translations/​excerpta​ of two well-known medieval commentaries.6​ ​There also remains one unidentified section which appears to offer portions of linguistic and rhetorical commentary unidentifiable with any other known commentary which will form the basis of some of my future research.

At this point, you may be wondering ‘But how should one go about identifying a previously understudied/misidentified manuscript?’. Glad you asked. The first thing you should do is compile the entire catalogic record for the manuscript in question, paying special attention to any specific discrepancies (in attribution, dating, physicality, etc). Next, you should try to consult the manuscript(s) as much as possible, as early as possible. There is a fair amount of chance involved as it may take consulting a few different volumes before you find a manuscript of enough interest and original material to study. In my case, I simply chose my 100th favourite number, and landed a stunner on the first try. However, this is not guaranteed nor recommended. As modern scholars with resources our predecessors would’ve dreamed of, we bear the responsibility of verifying works such as manuscript catalogues. It may be that many long-ignored volumes, previously discounted as being of no interest by older catalogues, could yield information of extreme interest to the scholarly community.

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