Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts

The Rare Book and Manuscript Library's holdings in this field range chronologically from the eighth century through the twentieth (a miniature by the Spanish Forger), with the majority in the fifteenth century. Geographically, the manuscripts surge north from Italy (38% of the collection) through almost all the countries of western Europe, including Iceland. Textually, the collection features an unusually strong concentration of arithmetics, but all other subjects are represented, including classics, liturgy, bibles, law (both canon and civil), patristics, devotional and pastoral materials, and literature in a number of vernacular languages.

Core and focus of the collection are the almost 400 codices, or fragments that originated as codices, that were bequeathed to Columbia University by George Arthur Plimpton at his death in 1936. Mr. Plimpton's collections had been formed to demonstrate a history of learning; his own lifetime work, in fact, had been with the printers and publishers of textbooks, McGinn and Co. Thus his bequest to Columbia includes writing manuals, arithmetics, and, of course, the medieval counterparts to these printed books. Particular features of such manuscripts are: support is frequently paper (over parchment); many are dated (66 of them, i.e. 17%); script tends to cursive book hands; there is relatively little illumination; commercial arithmetics are common and liturgy is uncommon.

That said, the collections of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts are diversified and augmented by another ca. 400 items that have come to Columbia by a variety of other routes. The single other largest subset was the bequest of Prof. David Eugene Smith (1860-1944), who taught History of Mathematics at Teachers College (66 items); Prof. Gonzalez Lodge (1863-1942), of Columbia's Classics Department, donated both books and funds that brought another 26 medieval and Renaissance items to Columbia.

The other very large section of the collection are the medieval documents. Over 700 items constitute a solid body of material of archival or legal origin: bills of sale, receipts, mortgages, wills, gift of properties, tax rolls, quittances, and so on.

All the medieval and Renaissance manuscript holdings of this library, as well as those of other Columbia libraries (Barnard, Law, Music, Teachers College) have short descriptions and images on the Digital Scriptorium website.

For additional information please contact the RBML Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts Curator.