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Book Collections in Special Collections & University Archives

This guide featires the Rare Books collection and Oregon Collection held by the University of Oregon Libraries Special Collections & University Archives

Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts

The majority of hand-written manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, and most are of a religious nature written in Latin. From the13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were created usually taken from Greek or Roman philosophers, poets or playwrights. Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, which had superseded the scroll format, using instead a bound format, which later served as the predecessor of modern printed books. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin), but most manuscripts important enough to illuminate were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.

Falling in this time-period, Special Collections holds a significant number of Medieval and Renaissance titles.

In addition to finding these manuscripts, you can also access manuscripts that fall into the Renaissance period. Although debate about when exactly the period began, most scholars still agree that the Renaissance period in European history marked the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity and covers the 15th and 16th centuries. It occurred after the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages and was associated with great social change. The catalog records, including both Medieval and Renaissance items can be viewed by clicking the highlighted links below. The listing provides access to materials from a topical/genre perspective.  

There is also an online exhibit focused on non-Western language codices covering titles from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and countries using Cyrillic scripts.

Le geste de Garin de Monglane

The Geste de Monglane (MS 065) was purchased in 1861 by Sir Thomas Phillips (1792-1872), a noted English antiquarian, who assembled and cataloged a remarkable collection at his Cheltenham estate. The volume was later purchased in 1956 by the University of Oregon with generous funding from the Walter A. Woodard Family Foundation.

Commonly known as the Cheltenham Manuscript, the work was created at a monastery in France (likely Paris) around 1490. Arranged in a single column with short lines, the script is lettres bâtardes, with flourishes in brown ink, and extended decorative ink flourishes at the top of each page. Some upper swashes and capital letters are accented with yellow-brown wash but most capitals are accented in gold leaf and colored ink. The volume was rebound in modern brown leather by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, London, England. In 1966, David M. Dougherty and E.B. Barnes edited an edition of the Geste.

The chanson de geste (Old French for “song of heroic deeds”) is a medieval narrative, a type of epic poem that appears at the dawn of French literature. The earliest known poems of this genre date from the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, before the emergence of the lyric poetry of the trouvères (troubadours) and the earliest verse romances.

These narrative poems were originally sung or recited by minstrels (jongleurs). More than one hundred chansons de geste have survived in approximately three hundred manuscripts that date from the 12th to the 15th century. Knights, when they weren't at war, loved to hear them sung and religious pilgrims enjoyed hearing of famous legends. The most popular, which is still read in schools today, is the Song of Roland.

Composed in Old French, the chansons de geste narrate legendary incidents (sometimes based on real events) in the history of France, with emphasis on their conflicts with the Moors and Saracens, and also disputes between kings and their vassals. The poems contain an assortment of character types; the repertoire of valiant hero, brave traitor, shifty or cowardly traitor, Saracen giant, beautiful Saracen princess, and so forth.

Garin de Monglane is a fictional aristocrat who gives his name to the “second cycle” of Old French chansons de geste: La Geste de Garin de Monglane. In ancient times, a small landless lord, Garin, had carved out a fiefdom by seizing the Saracen castle of Monglane; then, having brought up his four sons: Girard, Hernaut, Milon, Renier, he had driven them out of his home to encourage them to conquer their own fiefs over the enemy.

The Geste de Monglane tells mainly the story of Garin, and the Merovingian hero of war and religion, Saint William of Gellone (or Guillaume d'Orange). The text is a medieval epic poem, containing five segments of the cycle of Guillaume d'Orange, as follows:

  • Hernaut de Beaulande ‪(‬folios 1a-35a‪)
  • Renier de Gennes ‪(‬folios 35a-46b‪) [Eight folios missing as of 1883]
  • Girart de Vienne ‪(‬folios 47a-83b‪)
  • Galiens li restorés ‪(‬folios 83b-135b‪)
  • La Chronique de Saint-Denis ‪(‬folios 137a-224a‪)

In one popular sub-plot, the story follows Olivier (the son of Garin), Roland and Charlemagne on their crusade to and from Jerusalem. Remarkable miracles caused by Charlemagne’s fervent prayer occur, including transforming an entire Turkish army into stone. After they return, Galien is born but his father, Olivier, leaves to join Roland in Charlemagne’s crusade. Many years pass where Garin trains in horsemanship, arms, and appropriate court manners. Once he reaches a suitable age, he departs to find his father. During his journey, he goes through many trials of strength. At the end of his journey, Garin encounters Roland and Charlemagne, where he impresses the emperor so much that he dubs Garin a knight. Garin learns that his father, Olivier is still alive, fighting with Roland. They fight valiantly together, but Olivier falls in battle. Galien continues to serve under Charlemagne and assist him in his crusade, eventually becoming emperor of Constantinople.

The codex is fully described in the Library online catalog.

A scanned version of selections of the codex are available for viewing at the Oregon Digital Collections

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