Moving east: some ‘western’ books at the Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul

Professor Anthony Bale
Professor Anthony Bale

Blog-post author Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London

One of the original research questions that framed the Pilgrim Libraries research project was the fate of a key library for pilgrims: that of the Franciscans of Mt Zion in Jerusalem. The Ottomans conquered Jerusalem in 1517, and expelled the Franciscans in 1551. A few years later, in 1560, the Franciscans were allowed to return, to a new home at St Saviour’s, in Jerusalem’s Old City. However, very few of the medieval manuscripts seem to have made their way to the new convent. Might the Ottomans have taken manuscripts from Mount Zion, as spoils, or as valuable knowledge about the city? Might there have been books from Jerusalem in the rapidly growing Ottoman imperial archive, housed at the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul?

I recently visited the Library of the Topkapı Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi), which was the power-base and central archive of the vast empire of Mehmet II (‘the Conqueror’), who ruled as Sultan from 1451 to 1481. The Topkapı library has long been a major resource for those studying Ottoman history and Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts of the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Library also has a small non-Islamic collection, most of which has received little or no scholarly attention, apart from the brief German catalogue prepared by D. Adolf Deissman (Forschungen und Funde im Serai: Mit einem Verzeichnis der nicht-islamischen Handschriften im Topkapu Serei zu Istanbul (Berlin-Leipzig, 1936)). Some of the Latin and other western manuscripts were intriguing to me as possible pilgrims’ books, whether from Jerusalem or from the other way-stations in the Eastern Mediterranean, many of which became part of the Ottoman empire.

The reading room at the Topkapı Palace. Photo: Anthony Bale

Working with the books at Topkapı is challenging. It took many months to receive the necessary permissions from Ankara; the online catalogues are not always accurate; there is no wifi in the reading room and photography of the books is strictly prohibited; and several of the books I would have liked to see are in such a poor state of repair that they could not be shown. However, working in the Library is also a delight: the Library is a haven from the thousands of tourists in the Palace grounds, and its Reading Room is now housed in the small anteroom of the former Ağalar Camii (one of the mosques within the third courtyard of Topkapı), a fifteenth-century building, constructed for Mehmet, decorated with stunning seventeenth-century Iznik tiles.

The library at the Topkapı Palace, in the former Ağalar Camii. Photo: Anthony Bale.

In this blogpost I will briefly summarise the manuscripts that I saw, and their diverse origins. Sadly, none of the manuscripts can be connected with Jerusalem and only one (Gİ54, La vie de ihesu crist hystoriee) can really plausibly be connected with pilgrims’ reading. However, the books do provide a fascinating and unusual snapshot of the diverse kinds of textuality circulating in the later fifteenth century, and the different kinds of movement – of travel, war, conquest, translation, donation – to which books can be subject.

Topkapi Palace Museum. Photo: Anthony Bale

The letters ‘Gİ’ stand for ‘non-Islamic’ (‘Gayrı İslam’), and is how the catalogue is now organised.

  • MS Gİ19a. A volume on paper, dating to 1460-62; an inventory of the the troops and horses of a Venetian commander on Negroponte (Euboea). The island was conquered by the Ottomans, led by Mehmet in person, in 1470. The manuscript possibly came to Topkapi following the conquest of the island; large sections of the book remains blank, as if its owner intended to complete its pages at a later date. Intriguingly, and somewhat poignantly, the manuscript contains three small slips of paper showing the Venetian commander’s mathematical sums. The book has been studied by Carmelo Capizzi, especially for the light it sheds on mercenaries in the Venetian armies. The manuscript’s paper stocks have two watermarks: first a cloverleaf and then a majuscule R, but neither correspond conclusively with the examples given in Briquet.
  • MS Gİ30. A fifteenth-century Greek-Latin lexicon (Greek to Latin and then Latin-Greek), in a beautiful late medieval tooled leather binding. The manuscript has been heavily used and annotated in both Latin and Greek, and at one point a first booklet has gone missing and replaced by a later writer (ff. 5-8). The book contains numerous pen-trials of the Latin and Greek alphabets, perhaps by a hesitant Arabic or Turkish speaker learning a new language? This book has clearly been heavily used, and likely came from one of the Greco-Latin arenas in the Eastern Mediterranean (such as Corfu, Kos, Euboea, Cephalonia, Zante and Ithaca) which were conquered by the Ottomans. The watermark of the book is scissors, and corresponds closely with Briquet, Ciseaux 3682 (Siena, 1426) and 3683 (Genova, 1438).
  • MS Gİ42. The Istanbul Antiphonal (Istanbul Antifonale’si), fragments from a beautifully-illustrated Latin breviary; this manuscript was restored and extensively studied in the late 1990s. It it is an antiphonal (a liturgical book), dating from c. 1360, which probably came from the Hungarian city of Ezstergom. The city was attacked by the Ottomans on several occasions and conquered by Suleiman I in 1543; it was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1683. The book was no doubt taken to Topkapi during this time. There are several other books with Hungarian origins in the Topkapı collections.
  • MS Gİ43 – too delicate to show
  • MS Gİ45 – too delicate to show
  • MS Gİ49 – too delicate to show
  • MS Gİ42. Biblia pauperum in roll form (‘Rotulus Seragliensis’). Thirty-eight New Testament scenes, each one flanked by Old Testament typologies. A stunningly beautiful and impressive manuscript, as studied by Deichmann and Wegener (Die Armenbibel des Serail (Rotulus Seragliensis Nr.52) (Berlin/Leipzig 1934)). The roll is said to have been made in Venice c. 1450. It could conceivably have been used for preaching, and would have made a highly mobile devotional manuscript.
  • Gİ54. La vie de ihesu crist hystoriee, an early printed book in French, c. 1500. This book is bound in a heavily-damaged soft vellum cover which has been fashioned from a recycled medieval manuscript (seemingly a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Latin legal or commercial document, judging from the legible words such as ‘vendiderunt’, ‘sic vendita’, ‘causa’). As Deichmann says, the book itself is related to other books printed at Lyons between 1491 and 1510. On p. 1 there is what seems to be an ownership inscription, partially legible, relating to a ‘Messire Louis’. This book is very plausibly the former belonging of a French pilgrim; unlike most of the other western books brought to Topkapı, this one is very much one of everyday religion. It is addressed to unlettered, devout people, ‘pour toutes devotes creatures’, ‘simples gens qui nont eu & nont lopportunitie de estudier’ (sig. aiiir). I will be undertaking some further work on this book to try better to understand its milieu and circulation.
  • MS Gİ58 – too delicate to show
  • MS Gİ60 – too delicate to show
  • MS Gİ62. Martianus Capella, The Marriage of Philology and Mercury, in Latin, fifteenth century. A Humanist manuscript on paper, now in extremely poor condition, and unbound. The book seems to be have been nibbled at by a rodent or insect, and significantly damaged by damp mould.
  • MS Gİ63. Ovid in Latin, fifteenth century. Too delicate to show.
  • MS Gİ68. Latin gradual, written by a Franciscus de Futhak, 1463 (his signature is at f. 316r: ‘Explicit iste liber per manus ffrancisci de futhak: anno domini mill. cccc. sexagestimo tertio: Deo gracias’). This is another Hungarian manuscript which probably made its way to the Palace during the Ottoman occupation of Hungary.
  • MS Gİ77. Notebook of the Bavarian military engineer Konrad Kyeser (c. 1366- after 1405) of Eichstätt. This paper manuscript is entirely blank, apart from one word on f. 7r, a pen trial, perhaps of the name Sigismund; and on f. 7v, a one page account of the book’s owner. The book has been rebound by the Ottoman bindery, so it is hard to reconstruct the original collation or contents, but this book’s original journey to the East probably pre-dates even the Topkapı Palace. Kyeser was a military engineer of the Emperor Sigismund; Kyeser was part of Sigismund’s forces at the Battle of Nicopolis (now Никопол/Nikopol, Bulgaria) in 1396, a significant victory for Sultan Beyezid I and the Ottomans. The watermark of this book is a bar with a star, similar to Venetian watermarks of c. 1400.
  • MS Gİ78. Miscatalogued as ‘romence’; one page in Old Church Slavonic. A fragment on paper from a previously bound book.
  • MS Gİ79. One leaf of a fifteenth-century Latin book, in extremely poor condition.
  • Gİ84. A very beautiful and rare humanist book of 1480-82, the Geographia of Francesco Berlinghieri (1440-1501) of Florence, Ptolemy’s geography in terza rima, with maps, some of which are in a parlous condition, painted in lapis lazuli. This book was addressed  to Mehmet II, including a letter (f. 2v) to the Sultan from Berlinghieri, and with the Islamic crescent in the decoration on f. 3r. Mehmet’s name was scratched out and that of his successor, Bayezit II, inserted, suggested that it arrived at Topkapı around the time in Mehmet’s death in 1481. The book includes a map of France and England in the fifteenth century, showing the following English and Welsh towns (anti-clockwise from the south east:

    Canterborges [Canterbury]; Rocestre [Rochester]; Londra [London]; Donseupel [Dunstable]; Bidefort [Bedford]; Northacon [Northampton]; Glouscestour [Gloucester]; S. Dd [St David’s]; S. Melori [an unidentified place in South Wales]; Briscola [Bristol]; Nolles [?]; Bercolant [?] Mons hole [Mousehole, Cornwall?]; Mons s michel [St Michael’s Mount]; Excestria [Exeter], Preimouh [Plymouth]; Godester [?]; Salbori [Salisbury]; Antoria [?]

    This manuscript has received a considerable deal of attention in modern scholarship (e.g. Thomas Goodrich, ‘Old maps in the library of Topkapı Palace in Istanbul’, Imago Mundi 45 (1993): 120–33, and Karen Pinto, ‘The Maps are the Message: Mehmet II’s Patronage of an “Ottoman Cluster”‘, Imago Mundi 63 (2011), 155-79). Amongst other things, this map shows what knowledge of the geography of England and Wales was available to Mehmet the Conqueror via his Italian map-makers. The towns mentioned are mostly coastal or ecclesiastical. The British Isles appear on the maps in MS Gİ84 as a place at the edge of the world, helping us to see instead the globe as it looked from the ascendant Ottoman capital.

  • MS Gİ86 – a collection of small manuscript fragments, too delicate to show.

As Julian Raby has shown with regard to the Ottoman interaction with Greek manuscripts, the Ottomans were often represented as bibliophobes who destroyed the books of the communities they conquered; Greek commentators of the mid-fifteenth century thought that the Ottomans would destroy Greek learning forever. Yet, as Raby goes on to demonstrate, it is clear that Mehmet was involved in the commissioning of Greek manuscripts, written on paper stocks made in western Europe, as well as collecting Byzantine sculpture, antiques, and Christian relics. The western manuscripts at Topkapı cannot simply be understood as plunder or booty, but instead offer us glimpses of the various roles books can play as cultural intermediaries. My notes on the Latin, French and German manuscripts presented here are simply a starting point for further work on this small but fascinating collection of books and their movements from ‘west’ to ‘east.’

The view from the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia, August 2017. Photo: Anthony Bale

‘Fro Baffe to Jaffe’: a fifteenth-century itinerary from Venice to Jaffa and the River Jordan

Professor Anthony Bale
Professor Anthony Bale

Blog-post author Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London

The bibliographic remnants of medieval pilgrimage are often haphazardly or imprecisely catalogued; one can rarely rely on caalogues and handlists, without inspecting a book itself, to understand what the medieval source is. A good case in point is a book I recently inspected in the beautiful John Rylands Library, Manchester; from its record in the Index of Middle English Prose, I had thought that this manuscript (now Latin MS 228) might be a Jerusalem-bound pilgrim’s manuscript.

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

Latin MS 228 is a miscellany, and represents a very common kind of medieval manuscript, in which ‘useful information’ – legal documents, recipes, poetry, medical writing, and many other types of text – were gathered together. It is neither always apparent that a miscellany has an organising principle, nor is it often clear when the manuscript was organised. In the case of some manuscript miscellanies, their development seems to be organic, taking place over many years, and with many different owners adding – and deleting – contents, according to changes ideas of what was useful or desirable.

The John Rylands Library, Manchester

Latin MS 228 looks, on first sight, like it could be a pilgrim’s manuscript. It has a beautiful binding, dating from c. 1490-1525, in soft vellum. It would have been highly portable, and the back of the binding even has a flap in which to store loose leaves or other items. The binding is also important because it represents the moment at which someone put the book’s current contents together: that is, the moment of the book’s binding can reveal what was valued at that particular moment in time.

Moreover, Latin MS 228 contains two texts that relate to pilgrimage to Jerusalem, one in Latin and one in Middle English.

The Latin text (ff. 43v-44r) is headed ‘Itinerarium terre sancta’. In fact, it contains a few notes on the distances from Rome to Naples, from Venice to the Holy Land, from Jaffa (‘Portiaff’) to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from Bethlehem to the River Jordan, and from Jerusalem to ‘Monte Synay’, Mt Sinai, and the tomb of St Katherine there. Then follows some notes on the relics and indulgences of Rome, and some historical notes on Saladin and the history of Jerusalem. There’s no evidence from this short Latin text that it was used by an actual pilgrim.

The Middle English text reads:

The way from venice unto Jaffe. Fro Venice to Jaer [Zadar] CCl mille ffor the town of Jaer to Corslake [Corcula] ciiiixx x mil ffor Corslake to Ragosa [Dubrovnik] iiiixx mil ffro Ragosa to Curfu CCC mil ffrom Curfu to Modyn [Methoni] CCC myle Ffrom Modyn to Candy [Crete] CCC myle ffrom Candy to þe Rodes [Rhodes] CCC myle ffor Baffe [Paphos] to Jaffe [Jaffa] CCC myle ffor Jaffe to Rames [Ramla] x myle ffor Rames to Emax [Emmaus] xxv myle ffor Emax to Jerusalem xvi myle from Jherusalem to Fflome iordan [River Jordan] xxxti myle. Curfu standys in Cypris [Cyprus] and Albany standys in the tother syde within the torke. Summa milliarium de venecia usque Jherusalem et deinde usque fflome jordane ii milia ccc iiiixx I millaria.

Rylands Latin MS 228: Middle English itinerary from Venice to Jaffa and the River Jordan

The Middle English text is perhaps more likely to represent an actual journey undertaken, suggested by the late-medieval toponyms and its greater detail. The mileages given here are not the same as in the Latin text, and the two texts are written in different hands. At the end of the Middle English itinerary a charm has been added.

So was Rylands Latin MS 288 a pilgrim’s book? Sadly, it’s impossible to say. We don’t know who its medieval owners were; the book has been much reorganised; and the Middle English text is on a single leaf – the other pages it was originally with have been cut out. On the reverse of this leaf is a short Latin extract, in the same hand as the itinerary, with an excerpt from the political prophecy of ‘Sixtus of Ireland’ (which includes the prophecy that the cities of Jerusalem and Acre will be retaken by a Christian prince).

However, the miscellany as a whole suggests that the pilgrimage texts were valued by whoever brought the book together in its current binding probably in the fifteenth century. What else did this person value? From the contents of his miscellany, we can discern an interest in medicine, law, and history. Some of the texts include:

  • the fees and lands of the knights of Yorkshire
  • a Middle English prose treatise on how to ‘undrestand what thi dreme betokenes’ using the letters of the psalter (f. 60r)
  • the archers of each English shire, in French (f. 69r)
  • medical recipes, including one to reduce swelling of the testicles through applying a paste made of boiled mint and pigeon-droppings
  • several Middle English herbals, including a text on the uses of rosemary, which can ‘destroye all infirmites in manys body’ (f. 123v)
  • a recipe for ‘bragot’ (f. 137v), a drink of ale warmed with honey and herbs
  • a mass for ill cattle (f. 140r), which involves leading the animals into the barnyard, and having a priest with holy water say various gospel texts to the cattle as they turns their heads to the east.

As I am repeatedly discovering, it is very difficult securely to connect ‘pilgrims’ texts’ with actual pilgrimage or pilgrims. The journey to Jerusalem was clearly valued as a useful piece of information, something worth remembering, a mental route to return to over and over again, whether or not it had any practical application. We cannot say with any certainty that Rylands Latin MS 228 was ever used by a pilgrim; but we can be confident that the route to Jaffa and Jerusalem was on the mind of the book’s owner(s) in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century.



A Latin manuscript in Greek Jerusalem

Professor Anthony Bale
Professor Anthony Bale

Blog-post author Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London


The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the most important resources for understanding the religious history of the Holy Land: in the Patriarchal Library are gathered the ancient manuscript treasures of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and several other monasteries in the region.

The Monastery of the Holy Cross, Jerusalem. Photo: Anthony Bale

The Monastery of Mar Saba, near Bethlehem. Photo: Anthony Bale

The Library’s main holdings comprise the Greek manuscripts previously held at Mar Saba near Bethlehem and the unique Greek and Georgian manuscript holdings of the Monastery of the Holy Cross (a Georgian foundation which is now a Greek house) in west Jerusalem.

In my work tracing the manuscripts held at the now-vanished medieval Franciscan monastery at Mount Zion, I had wondered if any pilgrims’ books might have found their way to a Greek monastery in the region. I was thus intrigued to find that amongst the Patriarchal Library’s holdings – which are overwhelmingly Greek and Georgian in origin – there is one Latin manuscript: MS Taphou 27.

Thanks to the assistance of Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantina, I was recently able to examine MS Taphou 27, to see if the book could be more securely associated with its medieval owners. What follows is very much a preliminary account of the manuscript, a starting-point for plotting the biography of a manuscript that seems to be ‘out of place’.

Inside the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem. Photo: Anthony Bale

Taphou 27 is a copy of Eutropius, a Classical chronicle dealing with Roman history. It was a very widely-read work, in both humanist circles and as a school text-book. Taphou 27 dates from the later fifteenth century, and includes some exceptionally beautiful illustrations and fine decorated lettering. The manuscript was almost certainly made in Italy, perhaps in Milan or Naples. It has a post-medieval binding, apparently British of c. 1800, and some of the book’s folios have been clipped.

There are a few clues in the book about its history and its journey from Italy to Jerusalem and the Greek Patriarchate. First, on the book’s first folio, are two Greek inscriptions, in different hands. The first, hard to decipher, suggests that the book was at Constantinople, at the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre, by the year 1677. The second says that the book comes from “the belongings of Panayotis…which are useful to him” – it’s not clear exactly who or what this refers to. Over the coming months I hope to explore the possible meanings of these inscriptions with members of the Pilgrim Libraries project who are more familiar with Greek materials.

As Christopher Wright has shown, the manuscript was part of a large number of ancient books that were taken from the Ottoman empire to England, c. 1801, by Joseph Dacre Carlyle, Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, via the British embassy in Constantinople. Carlyle certainly took at least six books from Mar Saba, as a surviving receipt shows (now The National Archives, FO 78/81, f. 56r), and a number of manuscripts from the Metochion, lent by the Patriarch of Jerusalem Anthimos, who at that time resided in Constantinople. The manuscript passed to Carlyle’s sister Maria in 1804, and she retained it as a memento, having given the bulk of her brother’s collection to Lambeth Palace Library. The manuscript was returned by Maria Carlyle to the Greek Patriarchate around 1813, via the Patriarch Polycarpus. A Greek note on the front of MS Taphou 27 confirms the return of the book from England.

An important though previously overlooked aspect of MS Taphou 27 is that it contains the name of its scribe. On f. 138v, the final folio of the text, the scribe has written in his beautiful humanistic hand

I A C O B U S  Laurentianus scripsit.

This Iacobus Laurentianus was the scribe of the whole volume. Laurentianus is by no means an unknown scribe: on the contrary, he was evidently a prestigious and highly-productive scribe in late fifteenth-century Italy, his work including commissions for the Aragonese court in Naples and the Sforza family in Milan. My preliminary research shows that a group of surviving Laurentianus manuscripts can be traced, now in collections around the world (given in a working hand-list below).

MS Taphou 27 can therefore be added to the known works written by Jacobus Laurentianus. It is not clear from the book however if it was written to commission – in my inspection of the book, I did not see any heraldic devices or similar evidence that would point to a medieval patron. As W. S. Monroe has shown, Laurentianus’ manuscripts were sometimes copied from printed texts, and MS Taphou 27 was likely copied from the printed edition of Eutropius (Rome, 1471); Laurentianus copied another manuscript of this text, now in the Escorial in Madrid.

This still doesn’t get us any closer to establishing how the book got from Italy to the Middle East, although the Greek inscriptions suggest that it was there by the mid-seventeenth century.  The library of the Dukes of Aragon, based at Naples, shows that it held three books by Jacobus Laurentianus, including the copy of Eutropius, now in the Escorial, dedicated to Ferdinand/Ferrando of Aragon and, as Tammaro de Marinis shows, written at some point between 1471 and 1480. The Jerusalem manuscript is therefore almost certainly closely connected to this prestigious commission, although as I have not yet inspected the Escorial manuscript I cannot be sure of the relationship between the two. The Aragonese library at Naples was broken up in the later fifteenth century.

I am not at present in a position to make any firmer or larger conclusions about the book’s history but it is clear that Taphou 27 presents an intriguing piece of evidence in our attempts to understand the movement of books in the late medieval and early modern Eastern Mediterranean.

A provisional hand-list of manuscripts written by the scribe Jacobus Laurentianus

  1. Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana MS ACB.IX.83
  2. Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana MS 1569.s.15 (“Iacobus de s. Laurentio”)
  3. Jerusalem, Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Library MS Taphou 27
  4. Madrid, Escorial MS H.II.2; produced for the Aragonese court at Naples
  5. Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli MS XI.AA.51
  6. Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli MS XIII.C.76
  7. Paris, Bibliotheque National de France MS italien 1712, Vita de santi padri (1465); this manuscript seems to have been owned by Ippolita Sforza.
  8. Providence, Brown University, John Hay Library MS Latin Codex 9
  9. Rome, Biblioteca Casanatense, MS 112 (Laurentianus was the scribe of some sections)
  10. ?Venice, Biblioteca Marciana MS Lat. vi.245, Pliny the Elder
  11. Current whereabouts unknown: Diodorus Siculus (“Iacobus Laurentianus scripsit”), mentioned by Cherchi and de Robertis.

References and further reading

Paolo Cherchi and Teresa de Robertis, “Un inventario della biblioteca aragonese,” Italia medioevale e umanistica 33 (1990): 109-307

Lampadaridi, Anna, “Jerusalem, Library of the Patriarchate_1808-1827”, in Jerusalem, Patriarchy Library, Panaghiou Taphou 27 , Paris, IRHT, 2016 (Ædilis, Sites of scientific programs, 4) [Online] http: //www.libraria .fr / en / RIMG / jérusalem-librairie-du-patriarcat1808-1827

de Marinis, Tammaro, La biblioteca napoletana dei re d’Aragona (Milan, Hoepli, 1947-52) 4 vols.

Monroe, William S., “The Scribe, Iacobus Laurentianus, and the Copying of Printed Books in the Fifteenth Century”, paper presented at the Medieval Academy of America meeting, Vancouver 2008

Schadee, Hester. “The First Vernacular Caesar: Pier Candido Decembrio’s Translation for Inigo d’Avalos with Editions and Translations of Both Prologues.” Viator 46.1 (2015): 277-304.

Wright, Christopher, ‘Provenance and sub-collections’, in Christopher Wright, Maria Argyrou and Charalambos Dendrinos, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Greek Manuscript Collection of Lambeth Palace Library [Online]

I would like to thank the following for the help in drafting this blogpost: William S. Monroe, Marina Tompouri, Kostya Tsolakis, Nickiphoros Tsougarakis, and Archbishop Aristarchos of Constantina, Elder Secretary-General of the Greek Patriarchate, Jerusalem.

Inside the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Jerusalem. Photo: Anthony Bale

William Brewyn’s medieval pilgrims’ guidebook

Professor Anthony Bale

Blog-post author Professor Anthony Bale, Birkbeck, University of London

The medieval pilgrimage guidebook of William Brewyn of Canterbury.

Medieval map of Rome (in Limbourg brothers 'Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry', c.1415)
Medieval map of Rome (in the Limbourg brothers’ ‘Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’, c.1415)

In the library at Canterbury Cathedral there is a small vellum volume dating from the later fifteenth century: a guidebook for pilgrims to Rome (now Canterbury, Cathedral Library & Archives, Add. MS 68). It is, plausibly, a book made both for travellers and for travelling – its small dimensions (the size of a paperback, 14cm high and 9.8cm wide) and its contents (almost all of which are concerned with pilgrimage, relics, and travel) suggest as much. This little book has long been thought to be the personal pilgrimage guidebook of William Brewyn of Canterbury, whose name appears at several points throughout the book. Parts of Brewyn’s book were edited and translated in 1933 by the Kent historian C. Eveleigh Woodruff;[1] most modern scholars who have mentioned Brewyn have relied on Woodruff’s incomplete and inaccurate edition, so I took the train to Canterbury to spend the day with the manuscript itself.

Wenceslas Hollar (1607-77) Canterbury Cathedral
Wenceslas Hollar (1607-77)’s view of Canterbury Cathedral

Almost nothing secure is known about Brewyn, other than what he tells us about himself in this manuscript. Brewyn evidently spent a great deal of time in Rome in the 1460s, and was at Canterbury in 1470. Brewyn’s name appears in the text, for example at the end of his account of the Church of S. Cecilia in Trastevere: ‘Deo gracias quod Willelmo. Brewyn capellano’ (f. 37v): ‘Thanks be to God, says William Brewyn, chaplain.’ He says that he was personally present at Pope Paul II’s excommunication of various reprobates which took place at the door of St Peter’s at Easter 1469 (‘Michi Willelmo Brewyn Capellano tunc temporis ibi existenti et audienti’); he goes on to say that he copied the excommunication himself from the bull that the pope hung on the door (ff. 38v-40v). The miraculous gilded pine-cone from the Pantheon, which the devil sought to hurl at the Vatican, ‘can still be seen to this day’ (f. 21v), says Brewyn, in the courtyard at St Peter’s. At some points in the manuscript, the text does indeed read as if Brewyn is locating himself, devotionally, at each site he describes; for instance, at the end of his account of the church of S. Maria in Trastevere he writes ‘Jhesus miserere mei’ – ‘Jesus have mercy upon me’ (f. 37v). The perspective, voice, and soul of the individual pilgrim seem to be present.

Canterbury Cathedral Library (2013) [License: CC BY-SA 3.0]
Canterbury Cathedral Library (2013) [License: CC BY-SA 3.0]
The eye-witness status of Brewyn’s book is suggested more compellingly by his itinerary from Calais to Rome (f. 40r). Here, Brewyn’s annotations certainly suggest not only a local familiarity with the route but also ongoing process of editing and correcting. At the German town of Bonn, Brewyn mixes Latin and English to say that ‘ibi fals shrewys summe’ (f. 40v), with another tart comment added above: ‘nisi meliorantur’: ‘unless they have improved’. At ‘Ulmys’ (Ulm) it pays to show one’s tonsure (‘monstra coronoam capitis pro tributo’) to evade the tax. At Memmingen, a comment has been added in the top margin (f. 41r) that the road is said to be fairly good, but further on the mountains begin (‘incipient montes’). In a list of currency exchanges, Brewyn’s authorial ‘I’ appears: ‘Ego Willelmus Brewyn capellanus’ (f. 42v), who got 2 Roman ducats for 9 English shillings.

William Brewyn's 'Guide to Rome'. CCA-AddMS/68,f.6r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury
William Brewyn’s ‘Guide to Rome’. CCA-AddMS/68,f.6r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Intriguingly, the index to Brewyn’s book includes an itinerary of Jerusalem and the Holy Land (f. 4r). Here, Brewyn writes that he will describe the pilgrimages to be made in Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Zion, Acheldama, the Valley of Jehosophat, the Temple, Bethlehem, Bethany, the River Jordan, Jericho, Mount Quarantine, ‘Galgala’, Cairo (‘Kaer’), Alexandria, Caesarea in Palestine, Acre (‘Acra’), Tiberias (‘Tybiriadis’), Arabia, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut (‘Baruta’). In addition, he says he will include the names of the stations of Jerusalem in English for those who wish to visit and gain the indulgences. He describes how he had read about the pilgrimage sites and indulgences in the Holy Land ut inveni in rotula – that is, found them on a scroll (f. 4r) – and there’s no evidence, or even suggestion, that he made it to Jerusalem himself.

Indeed, the places he mentions in his table of contents – including Acre, Tiberias, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre – would have been difficult to reach for a clerical traveller in the 1460s and ‘70s and suggest an inherited itinerary from an earlier book – such as Mandeville’s Travels – rather than an eye-witness account. Galgala, or Gilgal, appears in several written itineraries but was not a late medieval pilgrimage site of any status, but rather a town near Jericho mentioned in the Book of Joshua.

William Brewyn's 'Guide to Rome'. CCA-Add MS/68,f.10r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.
William Brewyn’s ‘Guide to Rome’. CCA-Add MS/68,f.10r. © Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.

The pages relating to the Holy Land have been excised from the book – there are stubs where the folios have been removed (after f. 39 and after f. 94). Perhaps this speaks to Brewyn’s own assertion of the primacy of pilgrimage to Rome over that to Jerusalem: ‘if people only knew how great are the indulgences at the Lateran church, they wouldn’t think it necessary to go overseas (‘de ultra mare’) to the Holy Sepulchre’ (f. 16r). It also seems that some of the things Brewyn included in his account of Rome are also places he hadn’t seen himself: in an account of ‘snow balls’ (pilae nivis) on the walls on what was on the entry into Rome, Brewyn says ‘satis credo’, so I believe, or I believe well enough (f. 35r); at the Church of St Laurence outside the Walls in Rome are ‘plures alie quas nestio notiarum’ – ‘many other things I am unable to name’ (f. 35v).

Old St Peter's basilica (H.W. Brewer, 1836 – 1903)
Old St Peter’s basilica, Rome (H.W. Brewer, 1836 – 1903)

Brewyn’s book seems to be both a record of travel and of reading; it is at once a personal record of a journey made and a guide for others yet to make their journey. Large sections of Brewyn’s book are taken from key texts, especially saints’ lives from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (ff. 58r-94r) and geographical notes from Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (ff. 44r-49r), both of them widely-read and much-cited authorities. To be a traveller was not only to take to the road, but also to read and cite the correct authorities, and accordingly to order one’s experience of the world around an established body of textual knowledge.

Further reading

[1] C. Eveleigh Woodruff (ed. and trans.), A XVth. Century guide book to the principal churches of Rome compiled ca. 1470 by William Brewyn (London: The Marshall Press, 1933).

Online images of the manuscript are available to view on the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library website.


In our time

A recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time’ featured, as an expert guest, Professor Anthony Bale from Birkbeck, University of London (English & Humanities).

The discussion centred on England’s medieval mystic Margery Kemp. The figure of Kemp has been a lynchpin of Anthony Bale’s recent research, resulting in the publication of his lively translation of Kemp’s writing: The Book of Margery Kemp’ (OUP 2015).

In the book’s accompanying editorial commentary Bale brings fresh insights into the extraordinary life of this proto-eminist pilgrim and pioneering travel writer. Critically acclaimed internationally, the book is record of popular religion, women’s spirituality and pilgrimage practices. It vividly conveys the vitality and vivacity of late medieval European and Middle Eastern cultures captured in a female gaze.

• BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’. Margery Kempe and English Mysticism.
• First broadcast: 2 Jun 2016. Listen again at

Anthony Bale is currently leading a network of international scholars as part of a Leverhulme-funded research project (2016-18) called Pilgrim libraries: books and reading on the medieval routes to Jerusalem & Rome.

Professor Anthony Bale