Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #3

The Case of the Cotton Collection Confusion, or, How Many Ways Can You Possibly Reference the Same Manuscript Incorrectly?

This case-study of bibliographic mystery is a companion piece to the first Adventure; it’s a variation on a citation error with the same manuscript.

Back in June I explained how it was possible that Mark Rector managed to construct the confusing, and entirely fictitious, shelf-mark for Leeds, Royal Armouries, MS I 33, otherwise known as the Tower Fechtbuch. The citation Rector used had a causal chain from sources published in the 19th century and it was only after the manuscript was more widely known that it was possible to understand the source of the error. Rector’s limited sources made this error easier to make, if not entirely excusable, or plausible.

A less easily understandable error was made on two separate occasions by Ken Mondschein, who is a prolific writer on popular culture and historical re-enactment, and is now a fully carded academic. He started writing on the history of fencing back in 1999-2000 and has since finished a Phd at Fordham University. Mondschein wrote an article for The Journal of Western Martial Art, back in 2001, in which he made mention of our now familiar friend, MS I 33. Like Rector, he made a mistake in citation. Unlike Rector, his mistake was out of complete nowhere.

Mondschein cited the manuscript as part of the British Library’s Cotton collection and gave it the shelf-mark “Cotton MS I 33.”1 The Cotton collection, begun by Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), is one of the foundations of the British Museum and later the British Library. The collection was given “to the nation by his grandson, Sir John Cotton,” in 1702.2

I really don’t know where the idea began that this manuscript was part of the Cotton collection. Perhaps it was a bit of inaccurate word of mouth or an unpublished, and inaccurate source. The earlier works that mentioned the text, namely Anglo and Forgeng (writing as Singman), may not have come to Mondschein’s attention. A poor citation is one thing, but working on the belief that the manuscript was in the British Museum back in the 18th century leads to a false criticism of early historians of fencing.

Mondschein mentions, at some length, the Victorian historian/antiquary, Alfred Hutton (1839-1910) and Egerton Castle (1858-1920). He chides these proto-historians of fence for their Whiggish prejudice against the medieval practice of arms, a criticism largely deserved. But it is unfair to blame them for their ignorance of MS I 33.

As mentioned in the earlier case-study, MS I 33 was never in the British Museum, and certainly was never in the Cotton collection. What’s more, when Hutton and Castle were active, the MS was likely still in the Ducal library of the Gotha family and hardly anyone knew of its existence.3 It did not come to England until 1950, and its presence there is only mentioned in German language publications until Anglo’s article from 1989.4

This is the sort of problem you get when working from limited sources. Mondschein’s timing was unfortunate as his paper appeared around the same time that Anglo’s major work, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe appeared from Yale, and if he had seen that book earlier, this error would have been avoided.

And I admit, this makes me sound rather pedantic, picking away at little bibliographic errors like this. Why make a big deal about a little error in a relatively obscure article not really written for academics? Well, the interest for the student of forensic bibliography lies in the fact that Mondschein repeated this error in the introductory material of his 2008 translation of Camillo Agrippa’s 1553 fencing manual.5 Mondschein actually cites Forgen’s edition of MS I 33 and several of Sydney Anglo’s works, which cite the manuscript correctly. Mondschein was actually working with Forgeng at the Higgins Armoury Museum around the time the book was in progress. I’m sure Mondschein is aware of the error, and he probably hates that someone, anyone, noticed it and went so far as to write a blog entry about it.

For that, I apologize, particularly if Dr. Mondschein, through the agents of Google, finds this entry himself.

Now, to his credit, he does get it right third time around in his entertaining 2011 book on the Getty Museum’s Fiore manuscript.6

Let this serve as a cautionary tale for those who cut corners on proof-reading footnotes (be they editor or author).


1 Ken Mondschein, “Daggers of the Mind: Towards a Historiography of Fencing” Journal of Western Martial Art (2001) <;

2 The best single source on Cotton and his collecting is K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton 1586-1631. History and Politics in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). The quote comes from C. G. C. Tite, The Early Records of Sir Robert Cotton’s Library: Formation, Cataloguing, Use (London: British Library, 2003), 1.

3 MS I 33 does have other legitimate shelf-marks from its past. It was catalogued in 1714, as Mbr. I n. 115 when it was in the Gotha Ducal library. See Cinato and Surprenant, xviii, opt. sit.

4 I think one paper, possibly this one, lists the manuscript as missing: Karl E. Lochner, Waffenkunde Für Sportfechter Un Waffenliebhaber (Vienna: Isda and Brodmann, 1960).

5 Camillo Agrippa, Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise. Edited by Ken Mondschein. (New York: Italica Press, 2008). This is reviewed by Anne Curry for The Medieval Review.

6 Ken Mondschein, The Knightly Art of Battle (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011). Also reviewed by James Hester for De Re Militari.


4 thoughts on “Adventures in Forensic Bibliography #3

  1. In all seriousness, I have no idea why I thought that. Probably someone said Cotton MS in casual conversation and it got stuck in my head. Obviously, I’ve since corrected it.

    • I completely understand. Besides, I wouldn’t have bothered noticing this if I did not think your work was worth the effort to read closely. I could fill pages and pages of criticism, just on the poor citations, in other books on martial history, most of them published by Palladin, but that would be a wase of time. It would be like criticising the board-game ‘Risk’ for being an innacurate representation of international power politics.

      And well done with the Fiore book. It’s very readable, accessable, and tightly focused. That’s a hard ballance to strike in that genre. Oh, and I haven’t found any citation errors either!

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