Terence, Comedies (France, c.1475) MS 117
This manuscript of Terence’s Comedies is one of two medieval Terence manuscripts at St John’s College and also one of only a few medieval manuscripts at St John’s not produced in England. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the plays of the African Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer (c. 195/185 – c. 159 BCE) were used to learn Latin (Jensen, pp. 72-3). All six of Terence’s plays are represented in MS 117: Adria (fols 1r-32v), Eunuchus (fols 33r-67v), Heauton Timorumenos (fols 68r-100r), Adelphoe (fols 100v-130v), Hechira (fols 131r-157r), and Phormio (fols 157r-186v).
The manuscript’s beautiful decorations are a feast for the eye. Like all medieval manuscript decorations they also have the very practical purpose of guiding readers through the texts. For instance, throughout MS 117, red ink is used for running titles of the plays in the top margins, headings in the main text, and the names of speakers in the plays. The beginnings of the respective plays are each marked with six-line large champes. A champe is an illuminated initial with sprays, in this case sprays of vines and flowers. The start of individual scenes in MS 117 are, by contrast, marked with smaller, three-line champes. The folio on which a new play begins is decorated with borders of vines and flowers, demivinets of vines, leaves, buds, and fruits. There is also an occasional bird, like the marvellous peacock on folio 69v.
The manuscript was donated to the College by William Laud (1573-1645) in 1610. That year marked the beginning of Laud’s long but ultimately successful struggle to become President of St John’s College, his alma mater. At the time today’s Old Library was still new (only a good 12 years old) and the Canterbury Quad, which houses today’s Laudian Library, would not be built for another 21 years.
Our special collections website has a great introduction to the decorative features of St John’s College’s manuscripts (Collaborative Blog #1) and a blog post about our other manuscript of Terence’s Comedies (Librarian’s Pick #8), which was once owned by the famous playwright Ben Jonson.
Jensen, Kristian, ‘The Humanist Reform of Latin and Latin Teaching’, The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism, ed. Jill Kraye, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 63-81
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