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Worlds Real and Imagined


Our current exhibition seeks to pull items from our collection that deal with the world and our interactions with it. From the maps drawn by a monk at St. Albans abbey, to the travelogues of medieval adventures, from the fictive garden in which Chaucer recites the tale of Troilus and Criseyde to depictions of creation in Genesis we've approached the idea of Worlds Real and Imagined as broadly as possible, pulling both from our medieval manuscripts collection as well as some of our early printed books. This page mirrors the exhibition currently on display in the Wilkins Room with one fundamental difference: there, the books lie behind glass in their cases, here you can turn the pages.

Drawing the World of Matthew Paris

MS 26, Matthew Paris OSB, Chronica maiora, vol. 1

Made by Matthew Paris and inserted into the first volume of his Chronica Maiora, this map is part of a seven page set that depicts the journey from London to the Holy Land and serves as a preface to Paris’s history of the world. The map includes significant landmarks such as Mount Arat in Armenia, the supposed location of Noah’s Ark; the Black Mountain, home to a renowned monastic scriptorium, and the cities of Cairo and Alexandria. The smaller relative size of the city of Jerusalem to that of Acre likely is a product of not only the fact that Acre was the larger city, but also that it was the administrative and commercial centre of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem; especially as the city of Jerusalem had been under Muslim control for decades at the time of the map’s creation. Never having been on crusade himself, Paris’s knowledge of the region is entirely second-hand, derived from ‘the world maps of Magister Robery Melekely and of Waltham (Abbey) [and] the King’s world map, which is in his chamber at Westminster’.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 016I: Matthew Paris OSB, Chronica maiora II

MS 16i, Matthew Paris OSB, Chronica maiora, vol. 2i

Matthew Paris, the scholar-monk of St. Albans, was a man of many maps. This magnificent and memorable example, illustrating Northern England and Scotland is preserved as part of the preliminary materials to the second volume of Matthew’s Chronica maiora, his majestic universal history. The map shows the northern regions of England, including Northumbria, York with its castle (“Eboracum”), Durham (“Dunelmum”) and its local rivers, such as the Wear (“Werdale”) before heading North to Scotland (“Scocia”), subdivided into the kingdoms of Galway (“Galeweia”), Fife (“Fiif”), Ross (“Ros”), Caithness (“Katenes”) and Sutherland (“Sutherland”). However Scotland could only be reached by travelling beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Begun on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian around the year 122 A.D., this 73-mile long structure traversed the entire width of the island, running from Carlisle in the West (“carleolum”) to the town on the eastern coast still known today as Wallsend (“wallesend”). The Wall represented the North-West frontier of the Roman Empire, and a defensive fortification against the Picts, a function which Matthew notes in his descriptive labelling of the Wall as “murus diuidens An/glos et pictos”, or ‘The wall which divides the Angles and the Picts’.


Mapping Worlds

MS 194, The Scala Mundi

The Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, is a diagrammatical chronicle of universal history from the Creation to the early fourteenth century, when this manuscript was made. It includes the earliest known depiction of Stonehenge, shown here, which is described as having been built by Merlin the magician who brought the huge stones magically from Ireland (“Stonhenges iuxta ambesbury in anglia sita /de hybernia non vi : sed arte mer/lini deuecta apud stonhenges.”) This copy is part of an anthology of historical texts which belonged to the Hospital of St. Mary without Bishopsgate in London, and would have held a particular appeal for Archbishop Parker, who collected together many of the standard primary sources of history or of pseudo-history, including Geoffrey of Monmouth, Symeon of Durham, Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, in addition to a whole range of minor chroniclers and local antiquaries, in his voracious pursuit of the “auncient recordes and monuments” of the British Isles.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 400: Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae, Verses, etc. Verses from Canterbury Cathedral Windows

MS 400, Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hiberniae

This volume is made up of several manuscripts, but mostly comprises tracts by Gerald of Wales, or Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1226), the celebrated and prolific author of works exploring the history, geography and ethnography of the British Isles. It begins with an early thirteenth-century copy of Gerald’s famous Topographia Hiberniae, an account of the landscape and people of Ireland, written around 1188. It opens with this charming, if simple, map of the British Isles in brown and green, exhibited here. The principal islands of the British archipelago are all present - Britain, Ireland and the Orkneys - although without any real attempt to give their respective outlines, and no places are marked, but all are labelled, the land masses in red (e.g. “orcades”) and the north in blue (e.g. “Aquilo”). The remainder of the book offers its readers a further selection of Gerald’s more popular works, including a highly flawed sixteenth-century copy of his Descriptio Kambriae and early thirteenth-century copies of his Retractationes, Catalogus brevior librorum suorum, and De iure et statu Meneuensis ecclesiae.


Travelling Worlds

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 066A: Jacques de Vitry, Historia orientalis. Willelmus de Rubruk OFM, Itinerarium ad partes orientales. pseudo-John of Damascus, Barlaam et Iosaphat

MS 66A, William of Rubruck OFM, Itinerarium ad Partes Orientales

This manuscript preserves a rich selection of materials on diverse subjects, but of particular note are the numerous medieval travel narratives it contains, including copies of Jacques de Vitry’s Historia orientalis, the Itinerarium usque ad paradisum terrestrem and the famous letter of Prester John in addition to copies of the Imago mundi and Johannes de Sacro Bosco’s Tractatus de sphaera. However most important is the manuscript’s inclusion of the principle text of the celebrated Itinerarium ad partes orientales by the Franciscan friar William of Rubruk, or Willelmus de Rubruk (also preserved in MSS 181 and 407). There are illuminated historiated initials at the beginning of most of the texts in this volume, but none finer than that which opens William’s Itinerarium exhibited here, whose upper portion shows two friars offering a book to a king, while below, two purposeful friars equipped with staves and satchels stride off on their adventures.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 426: Coluccio Salutati, De fato et fortuna. Roger Bacon OFM, Opus maius (extract). Bede the Venerable, De locis sanctis. Mandeville's Travels (extract)

MS 426, Jean le Long (attrib.), The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

This full-page map of the Holy Land comes at the end of a copy of the famous medieval travel narrative The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, an extremely popular travel memoir filled with tall tales of fantastic lands, exotic places and strange and mysterious peoples. It forms part of a late fifteenth century compilation of extracts from medieval texts on sacred places and the Holy Land by well-known contemporary authors, including a description of the Holy Land from Roger Bacon’s Opus maius (pt. iv, sec. 5: ‘Geographia’) and a copy of Bede’s De locis sanctis, as well as a third, unidentified text. This compilation was later bound with a fifteenth-century copy of De fato et fortuna by Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406).


Imaginary Travels

MS 81, Homer, The Odyssey

This volume entered Parker’s collection as an unintentional imposter. A cartouche on its first page reading, in Greek characters, ‘Theodoros’, led Parker to believe the book once belonged to the Greek Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury (602-690) and thus eagerly acquired it. Although Parker was in fact extremely mistaken, his library nevertheless gained this magnificent copy of classical texts written in Greek, principally copies of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Its pages contain intermittent scholia throughout and feature additions in the hands of many annotators including Parker, who himself added a whole host of notes in Greek in his characteristic red pencil. The book’s contents were recorded and made identifiable through the addition of the text “Homerus grece” on the fore-edge of the book itself, offering a pleasing insight into the ways and methods in which books were stored on shelved during this period.

MS 246, T-O Map

Here we find a tiny diagram of a T-O Map, or mappa mundi, the simplest medieval depiction of world geography: Asia occupies the top half of the circle (hence the ‘O’) and Europe and Africa a quarter of the lower half apiece, Europe on the left, Africa on the right (thus the ‘T’). This map is included as part of a series of preliminary materials appended to the beginning of this pocket-sized single-volume copy of the Bible. That we discover this delicate little illustration at the front of a copy of the Bible may come as a surprise. However through their innovative inclusion of the entire biblical text in one portable little volume, portable pandect bibles such as this forever transformed the function of The Bible, permitting their use as preachers’ aids, for liturgical purposes, and, as in the case of this delightfully portly little English copy, as reference tools, equipping these books for use as study tools. This copy is particularly noteworthy for the fact that it retains its original binding and is one of the best medieval bindings in the collection.

MS 275, The Letter of Prester John

This miscellany of tracts on various subjects includes devotional texts, travel literature, legends of saints, and biblical figures. Shown here is the opening page of the text of The Letter of Prester John, an epistolary wonder tale supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenus (1143-80) by Prester John, alleged descendant of one of the Three Magi and King of Judea. Although certainly a fake, the many marvels of richness and magic it contained captured the imagination of Europeans and it circulated in ever more embellished form for centuries. Unlike most of its fellows exhibited here, this manuscript came into Corpus’ possession not as part of Archbishop Parker’s celebrated donation of 1575, but rather though the generosity of another, earlier celebrated benefactor of the Library’s collections, namely Thomas Markaunt, Fellow of the College c.1413-1439 in whose list of books it was simply, if unimaginatively, entered as Liber diversorum tractatuum (‘A Book of Diverse Tracts’) and was valued at eight shillings.


Created Worlds

MS 61, Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde

Although the Parker Library is yet to acquire a copy of the Canterbury Tales, this copy of Troilus is usually referred to as the most beautiful surviving copy of the poem. It was planned as a luxury edition intended to have over ninety illustrations; however only the full-page frontispiece was painted, with blank spaces left at the positions intended for the other pictures. In the frontispiece Chaucer is shown reading his poem to the English court. The patron of this manuscript is unknown, but it is likely to have been the prominent male figure dressed in a gold-embroidered costume in the centre of the courtly group. In 1570 the book is recorded in the collection of Stephen Batman, one of Matthew Parker’s chaplains, and was later incorporated in the Archbishop’s collection.

MS 293, William Langland, Piers Ploughman

Piers Ploughman is a Middle English alliterative allegory that teaches laymen the central tenets of orthodox theology through simple and effective language and its Christ-like titular figure, Piers, a poor and virtuous ploughman. Despite the text’s conservative intentions, its fervent criticism of the late medieval clergy’s corruption and inadequate pastoral care received attention by the leaders of the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1381 as well as numerous later radical religious reform movements. Although it is no deluxe copy, it was collected by Parker himself, and you can see his hand here, written in a characteristic red crayon, providing the page number.


Creating the World

MS 485, Bible

The largest of any of the decorated initials in this volume, the ‘I’ which opens the text of Genesis depicts the creation of the world as it is described in the text copied in the right-hand column. Beginning at the top of the initial a barefooted God rests his hand upon the separated heaven and earth, in the next image God has created the firmament, then the plants, the sun and the moon, the animals, and finally man. At the bottom, two dragons with curling tails look on towards God with Adam and Eve.

MS 48, Bible

Made in St. Albans during the Abbacies of Abbot Simon (1167 – 1183) and Abbot Warin (1183 – 1195), this volume is one of three St. Albans bibles known to have survived. The Genesis initial here contains the same scenes as the manuscript to the left, though it is certainly a more elaborated form with its detailed miniatures, even down to the fish visible swimming in the penultimate roundel. Depictions of God as Jesus Christ are found in the top and bottom quatrefoils, perhaps recalling the end of the book of Revelations in which God is defined as the ‘Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’. In both miniatures Christ is portrayed holding a blank scroll, but in the bottom quatrefoil he hands down two tablets to the bearded figure of Moses.

MS 83, Peter of Poitiers, Genealogia Historiarum

Unlike the Bibles that are also on display in this case, Peter of Poitiers’s text does not include the story of Genesis; instead, the events of creation are represented in the roundels on the left-hand side of this opening and are flanked by allegorical and moral interpretations of the events. The very last roundel depicts the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib; the two figures are repeated at the top of the next page at the top of the Biblical family tree, while Peter of Poitiers fills in the spaces between their descendants with information about the key characters. Given Peter of Poitiers’s position as a theologian and then Chancellor at the University of Paris, it’s likely that this text was composed primarily as a teaching aide.

Creating the World in the Bury Bible

MS 2i, The Bury Bible

The majestic Bury Bible was made c.1130 in Bury St. Edmunds under Abbot Anselm (1121-1146). The Abbey’s accounts provide records of the book’s creation in unusual detail, recording the commission of a ‘giant’ Bible and listing the expenses involved from the payment for parchment for the illuminations, sourced from ‘Scotiae’, and the hiring of a professional artist to create the book’s magnificent decoration. The record of Master Hugo’s involvement makes this the oldest known English work of art by any named professional artist. The opening here shows the beginning of the book of Genesis reading ‘Principio creavit deus caelum et terram. terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebre erant super faciem abyssi et spiritus dei ferebatur super aquas’ – In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the Earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved over the waters.