A Magnificent Manuscript of 1458, Signed by its Scribe — and by its Illuminator?

Giovanni Balbi, Catholicon. Scheide Library (M 163), f. 2r

An immense folio manuscript of Giovanni Balbi’s Catholicon, the essential Latin dictionary of the later Middle Ages, is one of the most spectacular illuminated manuscripts in the Scheide Library. Bound in 15th-century tooled calfskin over wooden boards, it consists of 326 vellum leaves measuring 534 x 355 mm, and is estimated to weigh as much as a well-nourished toddler. The book was first recorded in 1783, in the library of the Augustinian Canons of Heilig Kreuz (Holy Cross) in Augsburg, Germany.1 

The completed manuscript, one of the longest of all medieval Latin texts, was signed by its diligent scribe, Hainricus Lengfelt, on Saturday, 18 December 1458. Lengfelt, originally from Erfurt but active in Augsburg, is known to have produced two additional manuscripts: a very similar second copy of the Catholicon, written for the Cistercians of Aldersbach bei Passau in 1462 (illuminated by Johannes Bämler, now at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, Clm 2975); and a German translation of Arnoldus de Villanova’s Remedia ad maleficia (Colmar, Bibliothèque Municipale, Ms 81), dated 1467.

Hainrich Lengfelt’s signature (1458) in the Scheide Catholicon, f. 303r.

Scheide Catholicon, f. 76r

The rich illumination of the Scheide Catholicon, which includes 29 large capital letters painted on gold leaf with extensive foliate borders, long has been securely attributed to Heinrich Molitor, a leading calligrapher who worked both in Augsburg and for the Benedictine Abbey of Scheyern during the 1460s.2

It was recently noticed that the large initial M on folio 182 recto has a handsome brown-ink M written in the margin to its left, whereas the other illuminated letters of the alphabet have a much smaller guide letter. A similar M, written next to various large initials in a Latin Bible manuscript illuminated by Molitor, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Ms lat. 140), appears to serve as Molitor’s signature.3

Scheide Catholicon, f. 182r (with Molitor’s ‘M’ in left margin?)

Latin Bible, Paris, BNF, Ms. lat. 140, illuminated by Heinrich Molitor, with ‘M’ written next to other illuminated initials.

If this interpretation of the otherwise unexplained M proves to be correct, then the Scheide Library’s Catholicon would be one of the extremely few 15th-century manuscripts that was ‘signed’ both by its scribe and by its illuminator.

Lengfeld’s pride in his calligraphic skill (and possibly Molitor’s justifiable pride in his illuminated initials) should be considered in light of the immense changes in book production methods that arose in Germany during this period. The emergence of Europe’s typographic printing technology in Mainz during the early 1450s, credited to Johannes Gutenberg, led to the publication of extensive folio editions of the Catholicon at Mainz in 1460 (by Gutenberg?) and by Günther Zainer in Augsburg in 1469, as well as some twenty further editions printed by others by the year 1500. Whereas Lengfeld and Molitor would have had many more books to write and illuminate, future generations had far fewer opportunities to work on this scale and at this level of luxury.

   

        

 

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1 Philipp Wilhelm Gercken: Reisen durch Schwaben, Baiern, angränzende Schweiz, Franken, und die Rheinische Provinzen… 1: Von Schwaben und Baiern (Stendal, 1783), pp. 258-59.

2 John T. McQuillen, ‘Fifteenth-Century Book Networks: Scribes, Illuminators, Binders, and the Introduction of Print’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 107, No. 4 (December 2013), pp. 495-515.

3 I thank Paul Needham, Scheide Librarian (Emeritus), for bringing this Bible to my attention.