Monday, 5 February 2018

New Donne Manuscript Discovery: The Hand of WA2

By Daniel Starza Smith (King's College London) and Matthew Payne (Westminster Abbey Library)

This blog post offers further information about the discovery at Westminster Abbey of a manuscript of Donne’s satirical library catalogue, known in English as The Courtier’s Library – see "Rediscovering John Donne’s Catalogus librorum satiricus," Review of English Studies ( As well as publishing full images of the manuscript, we note here some of its most distinctive palaeographical features. We welcome any suggestions about the scribe’s identity.

The hand is fluent and may show evidence of professional training. The text has been left- and right-aligned, and hyphens are used in both margins to signal word-breaks. The scribe often employs tittles over double-s, and his ampersand looks as if it is tilted slightly to the left.


B and D are formed in a similar fashion, beginning with a stroke down and to the left, then a sharp movement to the right; the rest of the letter is formed with a separate application of the pen, starting with a flourish to the left. I/J is formed with four strokes, including quite a heavy central cross. After a simple initial downward movement, the second and third strokes of N are more elaborate. M is notably dissimilar to N, consisting of three simple minims; the final one finishes with a short spur to the right. Majuscule P rests on a long horizontal foot, which begins with an upward flourish on the left; a vertical spur is also usually visible at the top of the letter, above the bowl. A spur can often be found to the upper-right of majuscule S, while V and W both feature a distinctive ‘kink’ in their initial down-stroke (also visible on the minuscule forms).


The scribe uses a mixture of Greek and secretary minuscule e. The ascender of d often bends far to the left before curling back under and to the right, sometimes but not always crossing through itself. The descender of g is rather distinctive: from the lower centre of the bowl, it travels briefly down and to the left, before bending sharply to the right and circling down and left, then passing upwards through itself to join to the next letter. (Descenders on minuscule y do not take this form.) The letter p is notable for starting with a sharp diagonal upwards flourish; the descender rises above the bowl, resulting in a short vertical line.


The word "sesqui=barbarus" (l. 140) has been altered.

A deleted first letter was a majuscule, or had an ascender, or both, although we cannot see another letter in the manuscript starting with a similar motion. The first s may not have been the scribe’s original intention. The double-hyphen has been written over a now-illegible letter which seems to have two minims, and might therefore be n or u. The i may have been altered from r, and although it is clearly dotted, there is also what looks like a grave accent above the letter, perhaps indicating some indecision or confusion on the scribe’s behalf. We can say, then, that "squ" and "barbarus," have both been written confidently, but that the scribe was uncertain about some other letters. The word "sesqui-barbarus," despite valiant attempts to English it, is not good Latin.1 It is notable that the other known surviving contemporary copy, CT2 (Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B. 14. 22 (James 307), or DnJ 4065 in CELM) features "St. quintarbarbarus," at this point. This nonsensical reading can now be explained as deriving from a defect in a common source.

1 Brown renders it as ‘The More-than-Half Uncivilized’; Simpson gives ‘A Foreigner-and-a-Half’.

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