Three Pages: Three Empires

The title page of Garrett MS 108 was added some 900 years after the original text was written down. Stylistically, the 19th century English creator of the title page sought to emulate the Carolingian hand of the original text, imitating the 10th century scribe who created the work. This act of mimicry is reflective of a broader Victorian trend whereby scholars imitated ancient and medieval aesthetics in their original work.

Vergil, Aeneid, with German glosses
Manuscript, Germany, 900s
Binding, England, 1800s

Garrett 108 reflects the influences of three empires separated by time and space: the ancient Roman Empire, the medieval Holy Roman Empire, and the modern British Empire. The manuscript is comprised of two 10th century pages from a Carolingian copy of Vergil’s Aeneid (Book 7, lines 205-361), accompanied by a 19th century title page which imitates the Carolingian style of the original text.

The original two pages of Carolingian Latin were reused as pastedowns in an early printed book in the late 1400s. Aging medieval manuscripts were sometimes broken apart and used to stuff and support the binding of new books. In this case, a previous owner’s shelfmark on the corner of one page indicates that the folios were recycled to bind an incunable (an early printed book) in Germany in the 1490s—a copy of an encyclopedic work known as Hortus sanitatis. These two pages were thus preserved concealed from view until their 19th-century rediscovery in England. At that moment, the leaves were separated from the incunable and rebound with a new pseudo-Carolingian title page and a cover of red goatskin. All the contributions which led to the final collation of the title page and these two leaves share imperial contexts.

The very damaged fol. 2r of Garrett MS 108. Whatever 19th century method was applied to remove this page from the earlier pastedown tore a vertical rip about halfway up the page. Someone attempted to mend the tear at some point, but the restoration was reversed and the binding agent removed. Whatever held the tear together may have been harmful to the chemical composition of the page.

The Latin text of the Aeneid was written in the 1st century BCE by Vergil, and many elements are propagandistic, acting to validate the rule of Augustus Caesar, who was the emperor in Vergil’s time. The portion of the Aeneid which appears in this manuscript is when Aeneas, the main protagonist and refuge of the Trojan War, lands in Italy, encounters king Latium, and marries Lavinia. Elsewhere in the Aeneid, Aeneas consults with his mother, Venus, associated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Other Augustan authors added that Aeneas was related to Romulus and Remus, who engaged in infamous mortal combat which led to the founding of the city of Rome. Last but not least, Augustus himself claimed that he was a direct descendant of Romulus, and correspondingly Aeneas and Venus. This text established a divine right to rule, proclaiming to the Roman populace that the new imperial system should be trusted by virtue of the emperor’s divine heritage.

About a millennium after Augustus’ time, a Carolingian scribe transcribed Vergil’s Latin text, creating two-thirds of Garrett 108. The 10th century Latin was written in a German hand, and the text contains glosses in a Middle Franconian dialect of Old High German. These glosses provide German definitions for individual Latin words, aiding the reader with tricky vocabulary and difficult grammatical constructions. For example, a gloss on fol. 1r, seven lines from the bottom, modifies the word sanguine from lines 271-272 of the Latin (“qui sanguine nostrum / nomen in astra ferant,” trans.: who by (his) blood, carries our name to the stars). It reads, “knetheidi,” which has been translated from the Middle Franconian as “bravery” or “valor,” (Mayer, 71). This gloss interprets sanguine metaphorically, indicating to the reader that it does not connote actual blood, but rather bravery.

Detail of the Carolingian gloss on line 22 of fol. 1r, reading “knetheidi,” (bravery) which interprets the Latin sanguine (blood) metaphorically rather than literally.

The 10th century scribe lived in the Holy Roman Empire, which emulated Rome’s imperial model, but used Christianity rather than the polytheistic Roman religion to establish a divine right to rule. Since this particular section of the Aeneid recounts the exact moment when the Augustan lineage was allegedly established (with the union of Aeneas and Lavinia), perhaps this Carolingian scribe was interested in the concept of hereditary monarchy. However, considering the fragmentary nature of the surviving manuscript, we should be cautious in discerning patterns from so few surviving clues.

At some point soon after the pages’ creation, they were glued into a printed book to line the inside of the cover as pastedowns. They likely stayed in this position for centuries, hidden from view. The book containing the pastedowns traveled from Germany to England during this time, where someone eventually recognized that the pastedowns were a recycled medieval manuscript. The individual removed them from the incunable covers and rebound them as a self-contained work. During this process, the Victorian contributor added a title page, attempting to mimic the example of a scribe who lived probably about a millennium beforehand.

What possessed the Victorian contributor to invest time and money in these two recycled pages? It would not have been cheap to remove and restore the pages, purchase red goatskin for the cover, and pay for the collation process. The Victorian contributor lived in a time of massive imperial expansion in the British Empire, which likewise emulated the Roman model, linking itself to Christianity like the Holy Roman model, but derived its succession plan along lines of blood descent rather than divine right. Perhaps this late 19th- or early 20th-century person was similarly interested in the processes of empire formation.

All the contributions which led to the final creation of Garrett MS 108 demonstrate the influences of imperialism, albeit three distinct iterations of imperialism separated by millennia. The three contributors, who never could have met one another, were united in their interest in how the Roman empire came to be. Since the medieval and modern contributors lived in imperial contexts which sought to emulate the ancient Roman model, their contributions seem to try to legitimate their respective imperial systems by harkening back to an earlier imperial precedent.

Manuscript Citation

Garrett MS 108. Princeton University Library. [catalog link]

Catalog Reference

Don C. Skemer, Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts in the Princeton University Library (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), vol. 1, pp. 239–241.

Further Reading

Geert H. M. Claassens and Werner Verbeke, eds. Medieval Manuscripts in Transition: Tradition and Creative Recycling (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2006).

Sabine Grebe, “Augustus’ Divine Authority and Vergil’s ‘Aeneid,'” Vergilius 50 (2004): 35–62.

Hartwig Mayer, “Drei althochdeutsche Glossen zu Vergil aus Ms. Garrett Coll. 108 (Princeton University Library),” Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 21, no. 1 (1984): 71–72.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, The Emperor’s Old Clothes: Constitutional History and the Symbolic Language of the Holy Roman Empire (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015).

Norman Vance, The Victorians and Ancient Rome (Cambridge, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).