Newly Discovered Fragments Found in the Choir Books of Saint Dominic’s Monastery Library in Bologna

Oxford University

The Order of Preachers was associated from its origins with the rise and growth of the largest universities: this is why Dominic of Guzmán (1170-1221) himself decided, a few years after the approval of the rule of the order by Pope Honorius III, to settle with his companions in Bologna, in the convent that would soon become a religious, intellectual and cultural landmark (image 1). The wealth of the library collection of the monastery, whose foundation dates back to 1219, was well known in the city of the Alma mater studiorum, as it was distinguished by the number and quality of sacred, classical and secular works (image 2).

The convent library holds 35 Latin choral books, which are large parchment musical volumes remarkable for their antiquity, preciousness and richness of the miniatures, as well as for their liturgical content. Used during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in cathedrals and monasteries for the daily prayer services, these massive codices were placed on large lecterns in order to be visible to all the chorus. Written in Gothic letters on large parchment folios, they contain particular portions of the liturgies that were to be sung and for this reason they feature text along with musical notation. The bindings are very solid, often adorned with precious metals (image 3). According to their special liturgical use, the choir books were indicated with different names, such as antiphonary, gradual, pontifical, or psalter.

Archival research led to the discovery of dozens of fragments of medieval Hebrew manuscripts within three choir books respectively entitled Antiphonary of the Time (Corale 1002), Antiphonary of the Community of Saints (Corale 1026), and Graduale with votive Masses (Corale 1058). On the basis of the liturgical content as well as the miniatures (image 4) it is possible to go back to the period of execution of the codices, that is in a time span comprised between 1307 and 1324, which is also confirmed by the distinctive style of the letters, notes and ornaments edited by scriptores[1].

Hebrew manuscripts were dismembered and recycled by bookbinders to restore choir books’ folios, primarily to repair tears (images 5 and image 6), but also to strengthen the bindings or hide stitches and imperfections of the parchment (image 7).

35 fragments were found in the Antiphonary of the Time – detached from the host volume following a restoration –, 7 in the Antiphonary of the Community of Saints, and 7 in the Graduale with votive Masses. Manuscript fragments are scattered all over the choir books like pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle, and contain different portions of the most important codification of the Talmud prior to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, that is the Sefer ha-Halakhot (also known as Hilkhot ha-Rif, and Talmud Qatan) by Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi (1013-1103). The disiecta membra found in the Saint Dominic’s Monastery Library extract all the pertinent legal decisions related to two Talmudic treatises, Yevamot and Ketubot, featuring textual variants and marginal comments.

The style of the script, which can be classified as unpunctuated Byzantine bookhand, suggests that the fragments originally belonged to the same manuscript. It is not excluded that many of the additional notes, which often reflect the reader’s immediate response to a text, were compiled by the same scribe who wrote the main text, thus revealing his thought process. An accurate study of these fragments, whose dating goes back to the 13th century, will undoubtedly implement research in the field of Hebrew codicology and palaeography, as well as increase our knowledge on Alfasi’s compendium, halakhic literature and legal discussions, also thanks to marginalia – precious glosses, comments or annotations, which may shed new light on particular sections of the treaties.


[1] For further information see: V. Alce-A. D’Amato, La Biblioteca di S. Domenico in Bologna, Firenze, Leo S. Olschki, 1961, pp. 157-160.

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