Volume 8 Number 7
July 9 - August 13 2012
In 1975 the University of Melbourne purchased, on request by then Classics lecturer John Martyn, medieval documents collected into a manuscript that were to be used by final year Arts students taking a course on Latin paleography (the study of ancient writing).
Now a Principal Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Professor Martyn says the folios (or pages) from the 9th to14th centuries were costly in the 70s. “In those good old days departments at the University of Melbourne were given annual grants to buy artifacts, folios, Greek pots and such; a luxury not affordable today.”
The manuscript containing the folios was for several years kept in an unlocked filing cabinet drawer in Professor Martyn’s office, and used in classroom exercises on understanding the direction of pen strokes, the interpretation of scripts, analysis of illustrated capitals, and related particulars of paleography.
It is now kept “carefully protected in a special container,” secure in the University’s Ian Potter Museum of Art, where it is part of a small but important collection of medieval manuscripts.
Because as it turns out, the documents are important letters from Pope Gregory, very likely copied in a French scriptorium at Fleury-sur-Loire some time around 950AD, where from the early middle ages onward monks painstakingly recreated works of scripture, scholarship and learning.
“When translating all of Pope Gregory’s letters in 80s and 90s my attention was drawn to these Gregorian folios, but I didn’t work on them then,” Professor Martyn says. “Last year I spent a week in the Potter, in which I sensed their importance.”
Professor Martyn has now published a scholarly book about the documents – which constitute copies of 40 (three only fragments) of the total 854 letters written or dictated by Pope Gregory the Great (c 540-604), known collectively as his Registrum. It was Gregory who sent Augustine on a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons of Britain, and Gregory’s writing and thought had profound influence on the shape of worship in the Roman church.
Considered by Professor Martyn to be the “greatest of all the popes,” Gregory is also apparently the ‘favourite’ of the current Pope’s pontiffs, and Professor Martyn has sent a copy of his three-volume translation of Gregory’s letters to Pope Benedict. “A reply soon came,” he says, “indicating that he would keep the books for his private library, and he prayed that God would bless me.”
As much as the manuscript of the letters is significant, it’s the back-story of these documents themselves which is especially compelling.
Professor Martyn says the close affiliation of these letters to those in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, known to be from Fleury-sur-Loire, shows their provenance.
When every book of the era was copied by hand from another book, introduced errors, scribal habits and style, choice of materials and their performance over time are all clues to time and place of creation, and experts refer to kinship patterns of manuscripts, like a family of books, each descending from the other.
Professor Martyn says the manuscript now residing in the Potter consists of plain and ‘illuminated’ (richly illustrated) pages from other dismembered manuscripts. From English letters pasted inside the manuscripts covers, its recent provenance can also be worked out.
“At some stage the whole manuscript of Pope Gregory’s letters had been obtained by the scriptorium of the Abbey at Tenbury Wells in Worcestershire, in England,” he says. “The library of the abbey of Saint Michael was turned into one serving a Choral Music College, and is now part of a well-known school … the sixteenth century books and musical scores having been sent to the Bodleian Library (at Oxford University).”
Professor Martyn says the original donation or purchase of the manuscript by the Abbey at Tenbury Wells probably occurred late in the 10th century, not very long after the work had been copied in Fleury-sur-Loire.
“All the works of Pope Gregory were in great demand during the first few centuries after his death, in England especially, following Augustine’s mission. Regular use by monks of this manuscript which contained his very informative and beautifully written correspondence may explain its gradual disintegration, until many folios were hanging loose, no longer held firmly by the leather spine.”
And so some centuries later – around 1600 – “several folios were removed from the tattering manuscript and used by musicians looking for some good quality old folios to employ as outside protection for their precious musical scores.”
They have been much abused, with wear and tear at the top of the music roll and holes where the various musical parts were attached.
Professor Martyn has recently studied 80 musical part-books in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the oldest ones, containing 17th century ‘pop songs’, show damage caused by the removal of the Gregorian folios.
So although we know so much about the ‘lives’ of these documents from around 950 until the 17th century, one can only wonder about their whereabouts, until they made their improbable way to Melbourne in 1975.
This latest, and to be his last, publication is Professor Martyn’s 32nd book and he is also the associate producer for an historical film based on his book The Siege of Mazagâo (which occurred in 1562), to be produced by Pixar CG.
Professor Martyn has completed most of the work on the script, and is the technical adviser to the producer, Stephen Amis. He says it will be “a very modern production, probably circulating late in 2013”.