Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #1

Occasionally I engage on some tedious research that, I know, has little, if any, practical value. Yet I am incapable of resisting the urge to do the work. I find this occurs most often with odd citations or errors in documentation or sloppy references and I eventually spend hours tracking down a quote, primary source, obscure re-print, or an equally irrelevant detail, knowing all the while that I will never find a publishable use for such efforts.

A blog, however, is the perfect place to compile these irrelevancies. So, in what may become a recurring series here at PBS, I present the first episode in Adventures in Forensic Bibliography.

There is an odd bibliographic entry at the end of Mark Rector’s translation of Hans Talhoffer’s 1467 fight-book.1 This is how most of these investigations begin. Like I said, this will not lend itself easily to film adaptations.

Rector’s bibliographic oddity did take quite a while to explain, and I can’t be sure this is how it all worked. I could have simply contacted Rector, but where is the fun in that?

There are a few citations for manuscripts in Rector’s bibliography, including this one:

Tower Fechtbuch I. 33 (c.1280). London, British Museum, Ms. No. 14 E iii, No. 20, D. vi.2

Readers may recognize elements in this reference from 7 June entry on PBS. Ignoring for the moment, that Rector’s citation does not follow any established bibliographic standard, and ignoring the unlikely date of attribution, there are three major bibliographic errors.

1- The manuscript may be colloquially known as the ‘Tower Fechtbuch’ but its proper ‘title’, since it has no actual title, is the shelf-mark. If one wanted to be slightly medieval in their citations, one could use the incipit, which in this case would be Notandum quod generaliter omnes dimicatores, but no-one does that anymore.

2- Manuscripts formerly in the British Museum were moved to the British Library in the 1970s and one always wants to use the current location and shelf-mark in descriptions. Therefore the citation should read “London, British Library, MS I 33.” But…

3- MS I 33 was never in the British Museum, or the British Library for that matter. It was purchased for the Royal Armouries in 1950, at auction, and until the library moved to Leeds in the 1990s, it lived with the rest of the manuscripts owned by the Armouries at the Tower of London. The correct citation in that case should be “Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS I 33.”

This is small potatoes compared to the rest of Rector’s citation, which is its own error of note. Rector has conflated the colloquial name, the location, collection, and the actual shelf-mark, together into a sort of composite title. The actual shelf-mark, as provided by Rector at the end, is harder to explain.

The contents of that shelf-mark, taken individually, certainly look like proper manuscript references, but it looks like there are two of them. That’s exactly what they are, two separate shelf-marks for two separate manuscripts, stuck together. They are properly “London, British Library MS Royal, No. 14 E iii” and “London, British Library, MS Royal, No. 20, D. vi.”

I can forgive Rector for assembling this mess of a bibliographic entry. MS I 33 was not very well known at the time, and if Rector only heard about the text through indirect channels, he would have struggled to find reliable bibliographic data in the absence of an online catalogue or if he was unaware of either Singman or Anglo, as sources, he would have trouble knowing where to get a proper citation.3 The secret meanings of manuscript descriptions and bibliographic conventions are not common knowledge, and it is reasonable to expect that Rector would miss this internal error. But where did Rector get this odd reference in the first place? If all one had was the basic awareness of the manuscript, you would not expect to see such a specific, and oddly wrong, shelf-mark. Where did that come from?

I think it’s best to solve this mystery by starting at the chronological beginning. Joseph Strutt (1749-1802) was a talented illustrator and antiquarian and, amongst his literary output was an 1801 book, published as Sports and Pastimes.4 This was edited and re-issued in 1830, by William Hone who hoped to improve on the original in one important respect. Readers had complained that Strutt’s 1801 edition, which was full of his careful engravings copied from period sources, was frustrating to follow. Strutt had grouped the illustrations on plates, which were numbered, but contained multiple images, which were not themselves numbered. Strutt’s text was vague when referencing specific engravings and Hone tried to correct this. He did so with limited success and on page 260 of the 1838 edition, edited by Hone, figure 87, and 88, which were copied from one of Strutt’s original plates, were inserted into the text and given footnotes describing their sources.

Strutt’s illustrations appeared again, with the same shelf-marks, in Egerton Castle’s 1885 book, Schools and Masters of Defence.5 Castle captioned the two illustrations on page 14 and 15 as “a MS in the Royal Library, No. 14, E, iii. Thirteenth century” and, “from an MS in the Royal Library, ‘No. 20. D. vi.” These two illustrations look a great deal like those of I 33.

Carl Thimm, a contemporary and colleague of Castle, compiled a massive bibliography of fencing and dueling literature and included an entry, under ‘sword and buckler,’ a reference to “mss. in the Royal Library, British Museum. No. 14, E. iii, 13th century, and No. 20, D. vi.”6 The unwary reader, unfamiliar with the plural abbreviation of manuscript, and seeing how similar the images are, as they appear in Castle, might conflate these two separate citations as one item.

Taken together, Castle and Thimm provided Rector with his odd shelf-mark. At least that’s what it looks like. But it gets better. One of the citations in Castle (and, ultimately, Strutt) was wrong, and I’m not sure if anyone has noticed it. Not only are these little illustrations not from MS I 33, one of them, the pair attributed to Royal MS No. 20. D. vi, does not appear in that particular manuscript either. I’m still not sure where it’s actually from.

I had the occasion, in 2009, to consult both of these mss at the British Library. Royal MS. No. 14, E, iii. is an early 14th century history of the Grail, composed in French, and supplied with 116 miniatures as well as foliate borders, historiated letters, and heaps of decorative furniture. Amongst the crowds of beasts, saints, decorative shrubbery, and gold leaf, are a pair of small combatants, with sword and buckler, who fight in the lower margin of f. 140r. That is the extent of the sword and buckler play in the manuscript.7

Royal MS No. 20. D. vi. is another Arthurian romance, equally sumptuous and decorated, but no-where is there a pair of combatants like those pictured by Castle.8

Strutt, or Hone, or someone else in the causal chain, mixed one reference for another when ascribing the one pair of fighters to MS No. 20. D iv. Rector, working from Castle, and assuming that these illustrations were actually from the fabled Tower Fechtbuch, simply copied the string of references in the hope that most of them would be right. We know that Strutt could not have used MS I 33 for his illustrations, because it was still tucked away in an obscure German library, studiously ignored by just about everyone until the early 50s.

This type of error caused by several layers of confusion when working with 3rd and 4th-hand repetitions of primary material is a hazard of the historical profession. The inexperienced make this mistake with regularity and often impressive creativity. And although Rector’s particular error has not re-appeared elsewhere in print, it is repeated on the Wikipedia entry for Ms I 33, and dozens of websites related to historical martial arts.

A less complex, but still entertaining error, along these lines, appears in a more recent work and with considerably less rational excuses.

Heslop and Bradak’s Lessons on the English Longsword (Boulder, CO.: Paladin Press, 2010) managed to contradict itself within the same citation for London, British Library, MS Cotton Titus A xxv. They write that “Cottonian Ms Titus A. xxv, Fols. 105r-v resides in the Cottonian Library in Cambridge, England.”9 Over the course of the authors’ work, they must have missed the bit about the Cotton collection being one of the foundations of the British Museum. Fine, but where did they get Cambridge? Apparently, Heslop and Bradak worked from the transcription made by Elianora Durban (née Litta) who included a reference to Colin Tite’s edition of Smith’s early Catalogue of the Cotton library.10 That book was published by D. S. Brewer, in Cambridge. Since Durban’s transcription does not give the full reference for Titus A xxv, Heslop and Bradak assumed that Tite’s catalogue was the product of a corporate body, “the Cottonian Library”, and reasoned, based on the location of publication, that here was the place where the manuscript lived.

This is actually one of the lesser sins of Heslop and Bradak. They commit far greater crimes against historical integrity through the rest of the book, but this is a nice example of forensic bibliography at work.

I now await angry comments from the said authors, who may be alerted to my musings, by some Google notification. I’m not really worried about internet censorship, it’s internet publicity that worries me.


1 Hans Talhoffer, Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Manual of Swordfighting and Close-Quarter Combat. Translated by Mark Rector. (London: Greenhill Books, 2000). This has its own complex publication history, being an English version of a German book from 1998, which, in turn, is a re-print of Gustav Hergsell’s 1887 facsimile of München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Co. icon. 394a. There are other issues with Rector’s book, which I am less qualified to discuss. That is covered in Harald Kleinschmidt, “Reviewed Work(s): Medieval Combat: A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Manual for Sword-Fighting and Close-Quarter Combat by Hans Talhoffer; Mark Rector.” Journal of Military History 66, no. 1 (2002): 193–194.

2 Ibid., 317.

3 There are works in German that correctly reference MS I 33, but if we stick to the English sources, Rector could have found a citation in Sydney Anglo, “How to Win at Tournaments: The Technique of Chivalric Combat.” The Antiquaries Journal 68, no. 2 (1988): 248–64, and Jeffrey Singman, “The Medieval Swordsman: a 13th Century German Fencing Manuscript.” Royal Armouries Yearbook 2 (1998): 129–136.

4 Joseph Strutt, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England … A New Edition, with a Copious Index by William Hone. Edited by William Hone. (London: William Reeves, 1830).

5 Egerton Castle, Schools and Masters of Fence, from the Middle Ages to the Eighteenth Century; with a Sketch of the Development of the Art of Fencing with the Rapier and the Small Sword, and a Bibliography of the Fencing Art During That Period (London: G. Bell and sons, 1885).

6 Carl A. Thimm, A Complete Bibliography of Fencing and Duelling as Practiced by All European Nations from the Middle Ages to the Present Day (London: J. Lane, 1896).

7 A description of the manuscript can be found here.

8 This is described here.

9 Heslop and Bradak, ix.

10 Durban’s transcription has been online for several years and can be seen here. A more formal transcription of the same was published in 2011 and can be read here.

* nota bene – I’m not sure how many of these I will actually write. This took rather longer than I had expected, required three edits after I posted it, and I think this took about 4 hours, spread over three days to complete. As much as I enjoy this detective work, it does rather cut into productive time. I forget how the effort increases in proportion to depth and detail. Maybe I should have written about a movie or something.

1 thought on “Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #1

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #3 « Pen, Book, Sword.

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