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The Western Manuscripts Collection

Medieval Manuscript Books from the 5th-15th Centuries

The National Library of Russia is especially fortunate in possessing medieval manuscript books of the 5th-15th centuries. The group of antiquarian Latin copies is the most remarkable among them. These copies were created in the scriptoria of West-European monasteries during early Middle Ages. The history of the 36 manuscripts, for the period before 830, is closely connected with the history of the celebrated monastery Korbi, which had been found in the 7th century at the northWestern of the frank's country (the north of contemporary France). In the majority of cases, these manuscripts were created in the Korbi's scriptorium, but there are some of them, which came to the monastery's library after long travells.

Among the latter is the 'Collected Works' of Saint Augustine, the oldest Latin manuscript in possession of the National Library of Russia. Scientists consider the copy to be created during the 5th century in Hippo, small Northern African town, where Saint Augustine was ordained bishop. It is quite possible that at the end this text bears the actual autograph of Saint Augustine.

No less unique is the 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People' by the first English historian, the Venerable Bede (died in 735), a monk of Jarrow Monastery in Ancient Northumbria (the north-eastern England). The remarkable historical manuscript is often called 'Leningrad Bede' in scientific literature. This second oldest surviving copy was created near 746, 10 years after the death of the author.

The illuminated manuscripts, from the 12th to the first third of the 16th centuries, form the most celebrated and valuable part of the Petersburg's collection. Undoubtedly, more than a half of them are secular copies, such as historical chronicles, novels and scholarly treatises, translations of antique authors, but they also include Biblical and liturgical manuscripts (Psalters, Books of Hours etc.). A set of magnificent manuscripts demonstrate the manner of artistic decoration in Italy, Spain, Germany, Netherlands. However, the majority has come from the libraries of French kings or other members of the royal family, great nobles and officers of state.

Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Copy of 746
Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Copy of 746
Guiart des Moulins. The Bible Historiale. 14th century
Guiart des Moulins. The Bible
Historiale
. 14th century
The first page of the Bible Historiale bearing the signatures of John d'Albret; Henry II of Navarre; Jeanne d'Albret, and Henry IV of France
The first page of the Bible Historiale bearing the signatures
of John d'Albret; Henry II of Navarre; Jeanne d'Albret, and Henry IV of France

Naturally, manuscript books produced for kings and great aristocrats were written and decorated by the finest calligraphers and artists of the age.

Experts regard the illumination of so-called 'Bible Historiale' to be a brilliant example of early fourteenth century Parisian work. In the 13th century the canonic Guiart des Moulins produced this free French translation of the Petrus Comestorus's 'Scholastic History' from Latin. This two folio volumes belonged to the d'Albrets, the house of Navarre, therefore, the blank pages and covers bear the signatures of many members this family, including Henry IV and his wife Margaret of Angouleme, " Queen Margo".
The Library has the small, but precious collection of the 14th-16th century books of hours in existence.

The most famous book of hours was given to Mary, Queen of Scots by her uncle, the Duc de Guise, when she was still betrothed to the Dauphin, the future Frances II. It was created and beautifully illuminated in France in the second quarter of the 15th century. On blank pages and of the margins there are many notes,written by Mary herself. It is said that she took this very book to the scaffold with her.

The prayer book of Mary, Queen of Scots. France, 15th century
The prayer book of Mary, Queen of Scots.
France, 15th century
The Grandes Chroniques de France. 15 century
The Grandes Chroniques de
France
. 15th century

But the undeniable masterpiece of book illumination in the Library's holdings is the 15th century manuscript 'Grandes Chroniques de France'. It was created in 1455-1457 for the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, who vied with the French king for wealth and power.

The huge volume is decorated with miniatures by the outstanding artist of the age, Simon Marmion, who his contemporaries called the Prince of Miniaturists.

Apart from its unique medieval codices,the Library collection also contains extensive documentary material of that period. There are deeds of Germanic emperors, French and Spanish kings; papal bulls; acts relating to monastic lands; financial reports about the collection of taxs and the construction of fortifications during the Hundred Year War;official and private correspondence. The earliest surviving medieval documents of the Library's holdings are the papers of Inda Monastery (Cornelismunster), dating between 866 and 997.

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