When my colleague Gwendolyn Verbraak (Allard Pierson, University Library of Amsterdam) and myself (Utrecht University Library) were at the CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva for an Erasmus+ program, we were shown a beautiful incunable with an inscription thought to be in Dutch. But what we encountered simply baffled us. Parts seem indeed to be in Middle Dutch, but other words looked English or German. Several words we did not recognize at all. The decoration of the incunable pointed to Flanders and the Habsburgs. What was this riddle about? And for whom was it written? This last question is in fact probably the most easy to answer.
In the first decades of European book printing, incunables could be decorated in such a way that they rivalled their handwritten counterparts in splendour. Inc 715 in the fons antic of the CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva in Barcelona is such a book. It contains the second edition of Vergil’s Bucolica, Georgica and Aeneis, printed in 1470 on precious parchment by the German printer Wendelin of Speyer (Vindelinus de Spira), who was based in Venice. Unfortunately, a total of 17 folio’s were cut out, but the imprint of the coloured ink shows that these had been adorned with marginal decorations, each time at the beginning of a new ‘book’ in Virgil’s poems. Two leaves with marginal decoration are left, fol. 66r (Aeneid book IIII) and fol. 117r (book IX). Why these two were spared is unknown, but they are sufficient to give a good impression of how the leaves which were cut out must have looked like.
On fol. 66r the margin is filled with images of pilgim’s medals in silver and gold and a small depiction of the Veil of Veronica. Daniele Guernelli and Xavier Espluga have studied these marginal decorations (Els tresors de la Universitat de Barcelona, pp. 102-5, Spanish and English translation, pp. 376-8). They argue that the decorations come from the Flemish workshop of the Master of the Book of Hours of Maximilian of Habsburg, as the medals and the Veil are in the same style as those found in several books of hours made there. Both decorated pages also include a coat of arms, which they establish as that of Philip the Fair (1478-1506), Duke of Burgundy and king of Castile. He was the son of emperor Maximilian of Habsburg (1459-1519). It appears that the decoration was done in the 1490s, when Philip was coming of age. However, it should be noted that Philip’s coat of arms is identical to that of his father, as depicted in the manuscript Statuts, Ordonnances et Armorial de l’Ordre de la Toison d’Or (Statutes, Ordonnances and armorial of the Order of the Golden Fleece), The Hague, Royal Library, 76 E 10, fol. 77v, made in 1473. So, Maximilian may also have been the recipient of the manuscript.
One may wonder what young Philip made of the marginal decoration on fol. 117r. The letters at the top continue in the right and lower margin, where they are made up of tree trunks. It reads: ´IAMQVE : FATIGATUS : RECIPIT : SE : IN : CASTRA : SUORUM : SNEAI´. This is simply the last line of book VIII of the Aeneid that ends here, and which is also printed at the top in the incunable as part of the regular text – except for the last word. What can SNEAI mean? It is written at the end of the lower margin, and fills out the rest of the line. My best guess is that it is an anagram of ANEIS, and that the decorator did not have enough space to make an anagram of AENEIS.
The marginal text in the left margin is even more puzzling. It reads: ´LOORDT : IIACHTELT : COMT : TE : DI : LEMMENT : INEFI : TIERRIS : BISSEN : I´. Obviously, DI is to rhyme with I, and COMT TE DI is Middle Dutch for ´comes to you´. LOORDT could be the English word ´Lord´, which is at least once attested in a Flemish chronicle when speaking about the English king Edward (die loordt voorzeit: ´the lord just mentioned´). IIACHTELT could perhaps be a mistake for the female name HACHTELT or MACHTELT, so that we can very tentatively translate the first part as ´Lord, H/Machtelt comes to you´. This may make sense, but requires some assumptions.
Interpreting the second part is even more of a challenge. While TIERRIS is attested for the name Thierry (Dutch Diederik or Dirk), the other words do not allow themselves to be linked to a Middle Dutch word of which the meaning would make any sense in this context, such as LEMMENT for LEMMET ´blade´, and BISSEN ´walk around wildly (of agitated cattle)´. INEFI defies even such an unlikely meaning. None of the words appear to be an anagram, and although some may be foreign words, as a whole the meaning remains unclear. There are also no obvious links between the names of H/Machtelt and Thierry or to the Burgundian court.
There are medieval manuscripts which have puzzled generations of scholars, such as the Voynich manuscript. Here, then, we have an incunable with a handwritten text of which the code has not yet been cracked either. But perhaps there are readers who can solve this mystery and read the hidden message – a message that may well have been written for the edification of young Philip the Fair.
Bart Jaski, Utrecht University Library