A Unique Medieval Manuscript of Gregory I’s letters in Australia

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One of the good things about being a PhD is that it gives you the opportunity to receive recent books in your field for free. Of course the catch is that you must review them.

What follows is a rough draft of a book on a unique manuscript of forty of the seminal early medieval Pope Gregory I’s letters.

One does not usually expect to find a unique early medieval manuscript stored in an unlocked filing cabinet in Australia. Yet as John Martyn relates in his new monograph Letters of Pope Gregory, this is exactly what happened to a distinctive tenth-century manuscript of 40 letters written by the late sixth- century Pope, Gregory I (c. 540 – 604). Purchased in 1975 from a London book-seller by the University of Melbourne for a course offered by Martyn on Latin palaeography, it took decades even for this specialist on Gregory to realise that his copy was something special. Far more than just a translation of 40 letters, this study is the stimulating product of Martyn’s forty-year journey of discovery.

With an explanation of how this manuscript wound up in Australia and a short summary of the complex political world of Gregory’s pontificate, the Introduction lays the groundwork,. As Martyn points out, scholars have long mined Gregory’s 854 letters for their valuable perspective on Italy during a troubled period when Byzantines, Lombards, and Italians competed for hegemony. One small criticism. Granted the primary aim here was not to provide an in-depth account of late sixth-century Italy and the letters’ author, but this section would have benefited from greater interaction with recent scholarship on Gregory and his world. For example, many modern scholars would be uncomfortable with Martyn’s rather hostile descriptions of the Lombards as “the Germans”.

Chapter 1 reproduces the glory of the Melbourne manuscript. Coloured illustrations vividly relate the adroit craftsmanship of the tenth-century scribe (s) who crafted the manuscript. As Martyn explains, this type of intricate illumination was rarely utilised in sets of letters, which points to the special devotion on the part of these medieval men for Gregory and his writings.

Chapter 2 offers a one-page schema of the letters. Chapter 3 provides the Latin Text; while the following chapter furnishes an English translation. Clearly at home within the corpus of Gregory’s letters— many of which he has translated previously—Martyn transfers Gregory’s often ornate Latin into lucid English prose. The next chapter presents the variants. Here, Martyn uncovers the parts of the Melbourne text that are unique and may offer a slightly different reading of these letters than other surviving manuscripts. As Martyn explains in his concluding chapter, these variants will need to be dealt with by any future editor hoping to produce the needed update to the corpus of Gregory’s letters.

Utilising more coloured illustrations, Chapter 6 analyses the illuminated capital letters scattered throughout the text. Why is this important? Because, as Martyn argues convincingly, the style and care taken by this scribe, link the manuscript with two other copies of Gregory’s letters that we know were created in the tenth-century Fleury scriptorium.

Chapter seven, which disrupts the flow of the study somewhat, offers an account of the near destruction and lucky survival of the text in the hands of a group of seventeenth-century musicians who utilised the medieval manuscripts’ tough folios to protect their music. While this service caused some damage, as Martyn argues, these men may have unwittingly assured the manuscript’s ultimate survival.

Chapters 8 and 9—in my mind misplaced at the terminus of the study—return once again to the tenth century in order to establish once and for all that the manuscript found in Melbourne was created on the continent under the auspices Fleury’s famous preserver of ancient manuscripts and admirer of Gregory, the abbot Abbo (c. 945 – 1004). Admittedly, without much tangible evidence, Martyn constructs a plausible explanation of how and why sometime in the late tenth century a manuscript of letters so lovingly created in Fleury-sur-Loire wound up in England .

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In an increasingly digitalised modern publishing world, Martyn and his publisher should be applauded for producing an affordable and visually pleasing monograph that pays homage to the “visible artistry” of the Melbourne manuscript. One comes away from the study with not only a greater appreciation of Gregory and the tenth-century scribes that preserved his letters, but with a new admiration for Martyn’s expertise and passion. One may hope, that Martyn takes up his own challenge found at the close of the study, to utilise this new source to create a modern critical edition of these important letters.

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