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Pious Voices: Nun-scribes and the Language of Colophons in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy

From: Essays in Medieval Studies
Volume 29, 2014
pp. 43-73 | 10.1353/ems.2013.0000

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Correction:
Due to a production error, volume 29 of Essays in Medieval Studies was released with the incorrect publication date of 2013 on the article title pages. The correct publication date is 2014.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, colophons were a means through which nun-scribes and decorators could express self-identification and associate themselves with the monastic virtue of piety. Loosely defined, the colophon is the note usually added at the end of the text that contains details of its production. These notes became increasingly common in secular manuscript production from the early fourteenth century onward. However, colophons written by religious women were uncommon in this and earlier periods, largely because the monastic virtue of humility precluded the use of personal identifiers in one’s work. This changed in the fifteenth century, when convent populations exploded and a new demographic of women entered monastic life. Within the realm of female monastic book production, colophons are often thought to be formulaic and predictable meta-texts that—though valuable for dating the manuscript and sometimes providing notes on production—do not offer much personalized information about the copyists. It is only by looking at a large number of these inscriptions that this image can be reshaped. Fifteenth and sixteenth-century nuns presented a range of identities in the colophons they left at the end of the manuscripts they copied. Treated as a genre of writing, these messages provide a vivid female-authored voice from the ‘anonymous’ walls of the convent and demonstrate how nuns creatively shaped their identity within the often-limiting strictures of monastic life.

Nuns’ Scribal Colophons

Within my survey of almost two hundred manuscripts, I have identified over fifty “scribal colophons,” those written by the nun who copied the text, instead of by someone else at the time or at a later date (see Appendix). These come predominately from central and northern Italian houses of Observant Dominican and Franciscan nuns—as well as a large selection from the prolific Bridgettine nuns

Figure 1. 

Nun-scribes’ Manuscripts and Their Correlation to Nuns’ Scribal Colophons Charted by Quarter Century from 1400–1600. Chart credit: the author.

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of the Paradiso in Florence. The following figure shows all the dated and datable manuscripts identified from nun-scribes in the period (Fig. 1). Those with scribal colophons are also indicated. The graph illustrates a sharp increase in the production of dated and datable manuscripts from the mid-fifteenth century through the early sixteenth century. The late fifteenth century is very full, with numbers double that of the previous or following quarter century. As far as raw numbers go, the 1480s had the greatest number of dated manuscripts. However, manuscript evidence from nuns’ houses relies to a large degree on the presence of a colophon, so this must be taken into account when assessing the true number of nuns’ manuscripts produced in the period (i.e., the overall number of nuns’ manuscripts was likely higher than reported in the pre-1450 period, when colophon use was less common). The presence of dates in colophons also increases during the period, as more information began to be included in these inscriptions. Book production increased and so did colophon use. There were more books, but these books were also increasingly likely to include the name of the scribe, date, details of its production and use, and information about the text being copied. The Bridgettine double monastery of the Paradiso in Florence offers excellent evidence for the increase in scribal colophons in the late fifteenth century, since a large number of manuscripts survive from their library, allowing for a controlled comparative study of colophon use by male and female religious in the same community. The Bridgettine friars began producing books in the early 1400s but male production slowed by the mid-Quattrocento, when the nuns began working, producing manuscripts through the mid-sixteenth century.

Though the picture of nuns’ manuscript production shifts slightly with every new manuscript added to the canon, the general trend of an increase in the production of books echoes that of the rise in convent populations in the period. Convent populations were at record lows after the Black Death and...



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