Our Old Library manuscript of Ovid’s Metamorphoses parts I-IX by the Caxton Master is currently being exhibited at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, Belgium, until June.
The exhibition is entitled ‘Haute Lecture: Colard Mansion and the dawn of printing’, and will focus on the transition from manuscript to printed book with reference to Colard Mansion (active c. 1457-1484). Mansion was a manuscript scribe and an early adopter of the new printing technology with movable type developed by Gutenberg. He was an important figure in early printing in Bruges, and he worked with William Caxton from 1474 to 1476. Therefore, our manuscript will be displayed in order to illustrate connections between Mansion and Caxton’s work.
The manuscript has had a fascinating history. Parts I-IX of the Metamorphoses form the first section of the manuscript, part of the Old Library’s collection, whereas the second section is bound in a separate volume, which was owned by Samuel Pepys and is still in the Pepys Library today. How did two sections of the same manuscript come to be separated, and how were they reunited at Magdalene? The former is a little more difficult to answer than the latter.
The Metamorphoses manuscript was produced in around 1483, using Caxton’s translation of the text into English which was completed three years earlier, from a French version which added moral interpretations of the stories (known as the Ovide Moralisé). It serves as a useful reminder that Caxton, although famous for his printing exploits, was also a writer, translator and diplomat. The manuscript is written in a style of handwriting called ‘bâtarde bourguignonne’ or ‘lettre bâtarde’ commonly used in Flemish manuscript making. Colard Mansion went on to produce a printed text of the Metamorphoses in Bruges in 1484.
Both sections of the Metamorphoses manuscript were certainly kept together in the 16th century. They may have become separated either before or during the ownership of Lord John Lumley (1533-1609). Pepys then purchased Lumley’s remaining volume containing parts X-XV in 1668, and is still in the Pepys Library to this day. Pepys surely must have wondered where parts I-IX of the Metamorphoses had got to.
The whereabouts of the first section of the Metamorphoses manuscript was a complete mystery until, remarkably, it was discovered in the miscellaneous papers of Sir Thomas Phillipps’ collection in the 1960s. Famous in bibliographical circles, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) amassed an enormous collection of manuscripts in the 19th century, which was sold off throughout the 20th century at auction.
The discovery is considered one of the most important modern finds of a medieval manuscript. It was auctioned in 1966 at Sotheby’s and was destined to go to New York, however the government placed a moratorium on its export, due to the significant interest in reuniting this section of the manuscript with its other half in the Pepys Library. A fundraising appeal by the college was launched, and, thanks to the generosity of benefactors and in particular the American philanthropist Eugene Power, the manuscript was eventually taken into the college’s formal ownership in 1970.
Due to Pepys’s stipulation that nothing should be added or taken away from his library, the first section of the Metamorphoses could not simply be added to Pepys’s collection upon its acquisition. It is part of the college’s Old Library collection, which enables us to lend it to the Groeningemuseum, with permission of the Master and Fellows.
A member of our library staff oversaw the installation of the manuscript in the display case at the Groeningemuseum, as is the usual practice, and it was a great opportunity to meet other librarians and curators from Europe and the US. The Old Library manuscript will be one of the exhibits in a whole room dedicated to the Metamorphoses, amongst other loans mostly from European national libraries. Our manuscript is sharing a display case with a copy of Mansion’s printed Metamorphoses from Det Kongelige Bibliotek, the national library of Denmark.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Hughes, M E J. Ovid at Magdalene: Reception and Adaptation. (Captions from an exhibition held in the Pepys Library, 2017).
Magdalene College Cambridge. The Caxton Ovid: A complete facsimile in two volumes of William Caxton’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. New York: George Braziller, 1968.
Moll, Richard J. (ed) William Caxton : The booke of Ovyde named methamorphose. Toronto : Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2013.
Scott, Kathleen L. The Caxton master and his patrons. Cambridge : Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 1976.