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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 724-726

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Book Review

The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058-1105

The Scriptorium and Library at Monte Cassino, 1058-1105. By Francis Newton. [Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology, Volume 7.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999. Pp. xxvi, 421; 4 color plates, 212 plates, 82 figures. $175.00.)

In 1914, Elias Avery Loew [Lowe] published The Beneventan Script, a landmark in palaeographical studies. Since 1914, and especially since the re-edition of The Beneventan Script by Virginia Brown in 1980, an impressive body of scholarship has been and continues to be devoted to Beneventan-script manuscripts, as is attested by the list of titles and references in the bibliography published each year since 1993 by the Scuola di specializzazione per conservatori di beni archivistici e librari della civiltà monastica of the Università di Cassino. [End Page 724] Such studies have led to occasional revisions of Lowe's conclusions; Brown has shown, for instance, that the script was used in some locales into the sixteenth century, more than two hundred years after Lowe had thought it abandoned. Nonetheless, Lowe's methods of analysis and his broad conclusions remain canonical.

Although the scriptorium of Montecassino, from which almost half the Beneventan MSS known to Lowe originated, was central to Lowe's study, and the MSS written at Montecassino under the abbot Desiderius (1058-1087) marked the highest achievements of the script, Lowe's work was the history of a regional script, not the history of the script's most prominent scriptorium. Francis Newton's impressive study of the scriptorium and library of Montecassino in its golden age under the abbots Desiderius and Oderisius (1087-1105) fills the gap with the first monograph to examine book production in one Beneventan center in its most productive decades, a center which happens also to be central to the history of the regional script. Lowe's fundamental conclusion about the importance of Montecassino is not challenged by Newton's study, but our understanding of the monastery, its culture in the second half of the eleventh century, and the specific developments of the script is enriched greatly by Newton's detailed and definitive examination of Montecassino's MSS. Newton argues, for instance, that the development of the "classical" Desiderian script was not the result of decades of incremental modifications, as Lowe claimed, but occurred in a short period early in Desiderius's abbacy. Using book inventories in the Chronicle of Montecassino, internal references, and contextual arguments, Newton first establishes a list of datable MSS, many of which are here dated for the first time; for others, Newton's dates are convincing revisions of former assessments. Newton then describes clearly and precisely how in a few years between ca. 1066 and 1071, some scribes changed their angle of writing, letters became more clearly tied to the head and baselines, and the systems of punctuation and abbreviation were simplified and regularized. The result was an unmistakable new look presented first in a series of liturgical display MSS commissioned by Desiderius to "ornament" the monastery's new basilica dedicated in 1071. Again working from the firm foundation of dated MSS, Newton identifies palaeographical and codicological developments over the next generation, including the preference for more compact books and a smaller script under Oderisius.

Even more remarkable than Newton's elegant new outline for the script's development are the detailed and insightful comments on the scores of individual Cassinese MSS that Newton uses. In many cases, MSS are re-dated; the famous Tacitus MS now in the Laurentian library of Florence (Flor. Laur. 68.2) is identified, for instance, as Desiderian, not pre-Desiderian, as Lowe held. In other cases, close study of the MSS reveals formerly unrecognized layers of meaning; the Desiderian Lectionary now in the Vatican Library (Vat. lat. 1202) is dated, for instance, to 1075, and the dedication of the chapel of St. Bartholomew, not to 1071 and the dedication of the monastery's new basilica, and Newton presents [End Page 725] a nuanced reading...


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