At an unknown moment in the 16th century, no earlier than 1520, a European bookbinder reached for scrap vellum to complete the binding of a recently printed book, an edition of Suetonius’ De Vita Duodecim Caesarum Libri XII (Lives of the Twelve Caesars) printed by Johann Prüss in Strassburg.
The bookbinder’s exterior work, beautifully blind-stamped calf over oak boards, stands in contrast to what’s found inside. The first interior views for a reader would be these centuries-old vellum scraps, encountered as paste-downs and flyleaves, before and after Suetonius’ work.
What’s found on these vellum pieces is something wonderful. The vellum features a manuscript of Lucan’s Pharsalia, or Civil War, Book 4, lines 634-659, 667-692, and 700-725. The epic poem, which narrates the war between Caesar and Pompey, was written in the first century C.E. This book of the Pharsalia recounts a legendary battle between Hercules (Alcides) and the terrible Antaeus, a creature who gains renewed strength simply by touching the earth beneath his feet. In the end, Hercules understands that to defeat his enemy, he has to lift him from the ground—and at last he’s victorious.
This manuscript is very clear, clean, and legible, and can easily be read. For instance, the leaf above begins with lines 634-637:
nec sic Inachiis, quamuis rudis esset, in undis
desectam timuit reparatis anguibus hydram.
conflixere pares, Telluris uiribus ille,
Even in the Inachan waves, although he was inexperienced, he was not afraid when the hydra regenerated her snakes after being cut.
They struggled equally, one with the strength of Mother Earth, the other with his own. (trans. Paolo Asso)
It’s striking that the bookbinder used fragments of the Pharsalia, a poem concerning Caesar, in his work on the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Was the choice purposeful? Was it accidental?
Dating as early as the 11th century, this fragment of Lucan is one of Duke’s earliest Latin manuscripts (Duke Latin MS 125). The book bears evidence of its provenance. It was purchased by Duke in 1970; in its distant past, the book was owned by classical scholar Pieter Burman (1668-1741) (or his son, also named Pieter Burman!) and bears annotations by him. It bears the (somewhat intrusive!) bookplate of a British owner named Campbell.
Duke holds many important early manuscripts, including a complete 12th century Italian manuscript of the Pharsalia. Many of these manuscripts need scholarly attention: contact us to learn more about our collections!
Post contributed by David Pavelich, Head of Research Services.