THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

10 May 2018

What's in a name?

Do you ever sign your name in your books? Is that something you did as a child (as I used to do in my Mr Men books) or is it a habit you've carried over into adulthood? Do you ever inscribe your books in case you lend them, or do you date them as a record of when they were acquired?

One person who regularly signed his books was the politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631). Cotton's library of manuscripts was presented to the British nation upon the death of his grandson, John, in 1702, and it now resides at the British Library. Among its many treasures are two copies of Magna Carta as issued by King John in 1215, the sole surviving medieval manuscript of Beowulf, and the state papers of the Tudor monarchs.

I am particularly keen to learn more about how and when Cotton obtained his manuscripts. Much pioneering work on this topic was done by Colin Tite, who died last year, as recorded in his The Manuscript Library of Sir Robert Cotton: The Panizzi Lectures, 1993 (London, 1994), and The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton's Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London, 2003). Among the evidence for the gradual growth of Robert Cotton's library are the various catalogues compiled during and after his lifetime, his correspondence with other scholars, and the manuscripts themselves. I hope in time to be able to collate all this information. Below are some examples of Cotton's dated signature, starting in 1588 when he was aged just 17, and encompassing manuscripts such as the magnificent Vespasian Psalter, dated in 1599.

A page from a 10th-century penitential manual, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1588.

A detail from a 10th-century penitential manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton.

A penitential manual (10th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1588, aged 17: Cotton MS Vespasian D XV, f. 83v

 

A page from the Vespasian Psalter, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in the lower margin, dated 1599.

A detail from the Vespasian Psalter, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1599.

The Vespasian Psalter (8th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1599: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 12r

 

A page from a 12th-century historical chronicle, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated to 1600.

A detail from a 12th-century, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1600.

Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1600: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 28r

 

A page from a 12th-century Glasgow pontifical, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated 1604.

A detail from a 12th-century Glasgow pontifical, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1604.

A Glasgow pontifical (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1604: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/1, f. 3r

 

A page from a 12th-century manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton, dated to 1612.

A detail from a 12th-century manuscript, showing the signature of Sir Robert Cotton in 1612.

Honorius Augustodunensis, Gemma animae sive De divinis officiis (12th century), signed by Robert Cotton in 1618: Cotton MS Tiberius C III, f. 4r

 

Among other manuscripts whose acquisition we can potentially date on the basis of inscriptions in the books themselves are:

  • Cotton MS Julius E IV, 'Rob. Cotton Bruceus ex dono Walter Cop militis 1603' (f. 10r)
  • Cotton MS Nero D VII, 'Robertus Cotton Bruceus Liber ex dono vicecomitus sancti Albani 1623' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Vespasian B XXVI, 'Ro: Cotton Cuningtonensis 1602' (f. 1r)
  • Cotton MS Titus A XXII, 'Ro: Cotton / 1596 / Conington' (f. 2v) and 'Robert Cotton / 1598' (f. 286r)
  • Cotton MS Faustina B VII, 'I had this book amongst Mr Talbotts papers 1598' (f. 2r). According to the Oxford Dictonary of National Biography, Thomas Talbot died between 1595 and 1599; this manuscript may indicate that he died around 1598.

Putting all this evidence together, I very much hope one day to be able to continue Colin Tite's magnificent work, so that collectively we understand more about the origins, growth and early usage of Sir Robert Cotton's manuscript collection.

 

Julian Harrison

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