Manuscript Owners and a Newly-Identified Manuscript from the Austin Friars, London

Some medieval manuscripts will have had several owners and often information about these people can be found within the manuscripts themselves. This is often a simple statement of ownership such as that found at the bottom of folio 1 of manuscript B.15.1 which tells us that at one time it belonged to the Benedictine Cathedral Priory in Winchester. Such inscriptions were often written on the first folio of a manuscript, rather than on the cover or the flyleaves, so that the information would not be lost if the manuscript was rebound.

Over the course of several hundred years manuscripts might pass between several owners. B.15.1, for example, also contains the name Leonard Chamberlaine in a 17th-century hand.

Provenance is the term applied to information about a manuscript’s ownership though it does not necessarily indicate the place where that manuscript was originally produced and owned. New owners could, of course, choose to erase the evidence of former ones. When M. R. James catalogued the medieval manuscripts of Trinity College Library in the first years of the 20th century, he noted of volume B.2.20 that “A mark of monastic provenance on the lower margin of folio 1b is carefully erased”. With the help of ultra-violet light, we have been able to reveal the hidden inscription:

Teresa Webber Professor of Palaeography has provided the following reading:

‘Pro noua libraria london’ per me Iohannem Lowe’

An identically-worded inscription to this is found on a bifolium fragment of a copy of Sidonius’s Epistolae (now London, British Library, MS Add. 34653, ff. 11-12) and a similar inscription can be found in a manuscript at Trinity College, Dublin (manuscript 486, f.8r).

These inscriptions indicate that B.2.20 was among the books donated by Bishop John Lowe to the convent of Austin Friars in London. Having studied theology at Oxford, John Lowe (c. 1385–1467) had become prior of the London house of Augustinian friars by 1423.  He was made Bishop of St Asaph in 1433 and 11 years later became Bishop of Rochester.

Plan of the Austin Friars, 1550s

Historians including John Bale and John Leland tell us that Lowe left many manuscripts to the library of the Augustinian friary which was founded in the 1260s on a site a short distance from the modern Bank of England. It became an important centre of learning attended by students from all over Europe.

John Stevens wrote of Lowe in 1722:

“He was a wonderful Lover of, and Searcher after Antiquities; added very much to the Libraries of his Order, especially that in London on which he bestow’d many choice Books, besides his own most valuable Works. We are beholding to him for having preserv’d Writings of Antient Fathers, which, but for him might have perish’d.” (Stevens, The History of Ancient Abbeys, vol ii, 219)

B.2.20 is by the scholar and teacher Hugh of St-Victor (c.1096-1141). It is a commentary on a work by pseudo-Dionysius on the celestial hierarchy which has been credited with beginning a revival of interest in the work of this author in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Today eight manuscripts from the Austin Friars are known to survive (for details see the Medieval Libraries of Great Britain website). This new identification adds a ninth.

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