This photograph of Sir Antony Gormley’s ‘Free Object’, a sculpture which stands on the College Backs, was taken by James Kirwan and recently won second prize in a College-wide competition. James says his photograph seeks to capture ‘the texture and geometry of the statue’. When he is not taking photographs, James manages the Library’s project to digitise the College’s medieval manuscripts. The project has been running for almost 5 years and over 700 manuscripts can be viewed online. The Wren Digital Library includes, not only treasures from the medieval collection, but also some of the more significant modern manuscripts.
Trinity manuscript R.2.70 is a parchment fragment which has a Middle English love lyric written onto one side. While at some point in its history the parchment formed part of a binding, its original function is unclear. It is within the bounds of possibility, though, that this decorated poem was composed and copied out as a missive for delivery. It may thus constitute a very early example of a Valentine’s day message.
The verse is written in a late fifteenth-/early sixteenth-century hand and is addressed to a woman named ‘Susane’, asking for merciful treatment and offering compliments of a mostly conventional kind. Late medieval poems were sometimes addressed to named individuals and it is tempting to believe that ‘Susane’ was a real woman. Ballades such as this were often designed as lovers’ petitions with the envoy (the concluding lines) offering the opportunity for the lover to sign off in some way. The two couplets at the end of this lyric apparently identify the writer in the form of a cryptic puzzle: “By him that in forestes walkethe wyde/Where noone may passe with out his gyd/Nor kene may in dale nor doune/But that he is other blake or broune”. This may be a hidden message to the recipient hinting perhaps at the name Darkwood, Greenwood or Whitewood. This address to a named person and final cryptic signing off are still recognizable today as characteristic features of a Valentine.
Furthermore, the verse is carefully decorated and embellished with calligraphic initials, some containing profile faces.
At the bottom a bleeding heart is pierced crosswise by two arrows, above which is a small four-leafed clover that contains words which are now indecipherable but which may include ‘true’ and ‘ I love’.
In the late medieval period these symbols – the pierced heart and the quatrefoil – would have been familiar in devotional contexts, but also in secular ones. Occasional poems were written for St Valentine during the fifteenth century and although this poem does not explicitly refer to the saint, its allusions to frosty weather (line 9) and to summer as a season expected in the future (line 11) allow for the possibility that it was composed at the end of winter and conceived as a Valentine’s day gesture.
Medieval Valentine poems are now mostly preserved within longer works. However they were presumably also sometimes passed from person to person on single sheets of parchment or paper in a similar way to the exchange of other love tokens such as rings. It is tempting to suppose then that this carefully composed and decorated poem may have been sent to the woman who was its subject, in much the same way that Valentines are exchanged today.
This binding is royal blue morocco with an inlaid border featuring Scottish thistles. The Scottish arms in the centre are 18 carat gold, set with pearls, rubies and diamonds. It was designed by Alberto Sangorski around 1925-26 and bound by the firm Wood of London (est. 1875).
Alberto (1862-1932) was the elder brother of Francis Sangorski (d.1912), one of the founding partners of the bookbinders Sangorski and Sutcliffe established in 1901. This company is regarded as one of the most important bookbinding firms of the 20th century, known in particular for sumptuous jewelled bindings using genuine stones. Jewelled bookbindings – or treasure bindings – use gold and silver inlay, rich fabrics, jewels and ivory. Very few medieval treasure bindings in England survived the dissolution of the monasteries (for examples see here and here and here) and the practice waned over the following centuries until the early 20th century revival.
Alberto developed skill and reputation as a calligrapher and illuminator working for Sangorski and Sutcliffe. However, after a quarrel with his brother around 1910 apparently over his refusal to acknowledge Alberto’s work on the books they created, Alberto left to work for a competitor. Later, when the market for luxury bindings declined after the First World War, Alberto worked as freelancer with various binders and booksellers.
Inside, the manuscript was written out and decorated by Alberto and illuminated with a series of miniature watercolours. The signed colophon states ‘This manuscript will not be duplicated’. It can be viewed here. The volume has been in Trinity College Library since 1931 and is currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.