Philologists from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków have examined a collection of three thousand Romance manuscripts preserved in almost five hundred bound volumes. Thanks to their studies, the rediscovered works could be restored to European culture.


THE JAGIELLONIAN LIBRARY is the repository of the so-called Berlin collection, that is a part of the library that once belonged to the kings of Prussia. It comprises many thousands of archival items, including manuscripts by Boccaccio and Giordano Bruno or original sheet music by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. Among them is also a collection of Romance manuscripts. They were the subject of the research project entitled ‘The history of the collection of Romance manuscripts from the former Preussische Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, kept at the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków’.

‘It was virgin territory, it had not been studied at all,’ lead researcher Professor Piotr Tylus recalls the beginnings of the project. A team of sixteen scholars from the Institute of Romance Studies faced 467 bound volumes. Almost each of them included from several to several dozen manuscripts – almost 3000 pieces in total, composed in five languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan, over the course of seven centuries (from the 13th to the early 20th century). It was often unclear what the texts were, as the catalogue from 1918 contained inaccuracies and errors, and the manuscripts were often neither titled nor signed.

Restoring Identity

What does the collection comprise? What are these manuscripts? When were they composed? Who were the authors? Who were the first and subsequent owners? How did the manuscripts end up in the Prussian kings’ library? Are they valuable originals, on the basis of which new editions could be produced, or are they only copies of copies, with no particular textological value? Those are only some of the questions that the philologists wanted to answer.

‘It was a genuine investigation,’ Prof. Piotr Tylus says. ‘In many instances, we studied the history of the documents on the basis of indirect data. For instance, a note in a document said that the book had belonged to a Charles de Croÿ, Prince de Chimay. We found out that prior to becoming Prince de Chimay, Charles de Croÿ had been Count of Chimay until 1486. It follows that the manuscript was composed after 1486.’

The scholars not only studied the history of each manuscript, but also carried out textological work. ‘It meant identifying the author and the text, and if a given text had been kept in various manuscripts, we compared it with manuscripts from other collections. We travelled to foreign libraries and archives and used various sources and databases. Each text posed a different challenge,’ Prof. Tylus explains.

Novels and Cooking Recipes

Each manuscript was meticulously described, including the author, the title, the date of composition, the content and the information on any existing copies. It took the team three years to examine the entire collection. The scholars found out that it included literally everything: literature and cook books, travel journals and legal texts, philosophical and religious works, scientific and pseudoscientific treatises, chronicles and diplomatic reports. Some documents are valuable from the bibliophilic point of view, as for example a fifteenth-century manuscript bound in cuir de Cordoue, that is gilt leather with embossed floral motifs. It is the fourth example of such binding known in the world. Other works are valuable for textological reasons, such as the sole copies of specific pieces, e.g. the literary history of Charlemagne’s parents or the oldest (thirteenth-century) Italian version of the story of Alexander the Great.

The studies carried out by the philologists from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków allowed to unveil a part of European history, and the descriptions of manuscripts prepared by the scholars are a great tool for anyone who might want to study specific documents in the future.

The project has one more outcome. ‘We have shown that it is possible to carry out this type of interdisciplinary research in terms of both thematic and linguistic diversity here in Kraków,’ emphasises Prof. Piotr Tylus.

Jagiellonian University

Faculty of Philology, Institute of Romance Studies


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