Lot 31
  • 31

The Courtenay Compendium, a collection of English and Near- and Far-Eastern historical accounts including Marco Polo's 'Description of the World', the anonymous Encomium Emmae Reginae, Gildas' 'Ruin and Conquest of Britain', William of Tripoli's 'State of Saracens and Mohammedans', and other accounts of medieval Islam, decorated manuscript on vellum

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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219 leaves (4 leaves blank), 272mm. by 190mm., complete, collation: i-viii8, ix12 (viii and ix are an additional bifolium stitched into the gathering), x-xxii8, xxiii7 (last but one leaf blank, between pp. 210 and 211), xxiv-xxvii8, horizontal catchwords and early pagination with occasional omissions (but followed here), written space 220mm. by 140mm., 2 columns (except for last section which is single column), outer frame of text ruled only, hence 47-52 lines, dark brown ink in a single cursive anglicana hand, small but quite legible, paragraph marks in red, small initials touched in red, numerous 2- to 5-line initials in same used to open significant areas of text, slight trimming to edges, minor cockling throughout and some discolouration to first leaf, else in excellent and notably fresh condition, in eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century limp vellum over thin pasteboards, with gilt arms of the Courtenays on front and 'VARIÆ TRACTATI MSS' on spine


This is evidently the long-lost manuscript of historical tracts used by the scribe of the Burghley transcripts, last seen in the sixteenth century, and containing the only substantial Marco Polo manuscript to come to the auction market in nearly a century, as well as the only medieval manuscript of the Encomium Emmae (a contemporary biography of the wife of King Cnut) in the version revised for her son Edward the Confessor, and a number of other important and rare historical texts including accounts and assessments of medieval Islam and the Near-East


The manuscript is clearly of monastic origin, and was probably produced by a member of the Augustinian canons of the priory of Breamore in Hampshire from manuscripts in the library of Glastonbury Abbey. Breamore had been founded in the twelfth century by Baldwin de Redvers, 1st Earl of Devon (d. 1155), and his uncle Hugh de Redvers, who were among the first to rebel against King Stephen, and were the only high ranking magnates to never accept him as king. The house had become delapidated by 1501, and had incurred substantial debts. In the gathering tension of the 1530s the last prior, named Finch, wrote to Thomas Cromwell twice asking if there was anything in the holdings of the priory which Cromwell desired and offering such items as a gift as well as a guarantee of faithful service in exchange for Cromwell's support. However, the priory was not large (and had an annual income of only £200 5s. 1½d., together with two pounds of pepper), and so was closed on 10 July 1536 during the first wave of dissolutions. In November of the same year the priory and its possessions were leased to Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon and Marquess of Exeter for an annual rent of £16, 15s., 1½d. The earl abstracted many land grants from the treasury of the monastery before demolishing the building, and most probably took the present manuscript from the library at the same time; perhaps its Near- and Far-Eastern history appealed to him as his family had a rich crusading history, and an ancestor, Pierre I de Courtenay (1126-83), had held office as emperor of Constantinople, Edessa and Jerusalem, and as ruler of the Turkish Empire during the Crusades. The manuscript remained in the family home of Powderham Castle for centuries, and has passed by descent to its present owner, the 18th Earl of Devon.

Thus, the manuscript almost certainly has an unbroken line of provenance since the fourteenth century, and has never been sold since the day it was written.

Catalogue Note


The manuscript contains a compendium of historical accounts, most probably assembled by a single monk in order to furnish his house with a volume containing a comprehensive outline of all history he thought important. It is split into three distinct parts, each marked off from each other by blank leaves: the first concerns British history, the second Near- and Far-Eastern affairs, and to this has been appended a collection of prophecies.

The section on British history

The most important texts in this section are the Encomium Emmae Reginae, an anonymous laudatory biography of Emma, the wife of the Danish invader King Cnut (1016-35), and Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).

The Encomium (here pp. 189-209) was composed soon after the death of Cnut, most probably c.1040, and is among the most important sources for late Anglo-Saxon history. It was edited by A. Campbell in 1949, and his parallel text and translation was republished with an additional introduction by S. Keynes in 1998. There Keynes notes that "the sole surviving medieval manuscript" of the text is British Library, Additional 33,241, which was produced in Normandy (and most probably in St. Omer), in the third quarter of the eleventh century. That witness is missing some leaves and has at least one substantial erasure. Keynes also notes that there is evidence for another medieval manuscript of the text in an early sixteenth-century transcript, which belonged to William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley (1520-98). That transcript, now Paris BnF., ms.lat. 6235, indicates that its text was adapted to respect the changed circumstances of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-66). The supposedly "lost" medieval manuscript of this recension is known to have included Gildas's text (like the present volume), and the variant readings provided by the Burghley transcripts agree exactly with those of the present manuscript on pp. 208-09 (with the present manuscript adding another 9 lines to the colophon). It is simplest to economise on the number of lost manuscripts of this exceedingly rare account and conclude that this is the long-lost medieval manuscript used by the scribe of the Burghley transcripts, which has lain forgotten and undetected for the last 500 years.

It is most likely that the present manuscript was copied from manuscripts in the library of Glastonbury Abbey - now almost completely lost or destroyed. In the mid sixteenth-century John Bale made a short list of books he had seen there, ending with a volume described as De Canuto Anglorum et Dacorum Rege. Cambridge University Library MS. Dd.i.17, an English manuscript of c.1400, contains a number of rare texts also in the present manuscript (but crucially not the Encomium), often under the same distinctibe running-titles. It is clear that they are sister-codices, and each represents part of a single collection of historical accounts. The Cambridge manuscript was evidently used by John Josselyn (the secretary of Archbishop Matthew Parker) in his edition of Gildas, and there he records that it was from Glastonbury. The volume described by Bale as De Canuto may have been the eleventh-century copy of the text adapted for Edward the Confessor, and the present manuscript would appear to be the most complete record of it.

Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (here pp. 133-89) is a similarly rare and important historical text. Its author is one of the best-documented figures of the Christian church in the British Isles during the sixth century, whose piety and learning earned him the designation Gildas Sapiens ('the Wise'),  as well as a canonisation. The present manuscript contains a complete copy of all three parts of his principal work, a brief narrative of Roman Britain from its conquest to the time of the author, explaining their downfall under the hand of the Anglo-Saxons as a punishment for their corruption. It is almost the only surviving source written by a near-contemporary of British events in the fifth and sixth centuries, and narrates the few known details of the lives of the early British rulers Constantine of Dumnonia, Aurelius Caninus, and Vortiporius of the Demetae (now Dyfed). It includes what is perhaps the first description of Hadrian's Wall, and it was used extensively as a source by Bede. Moreover, the present manuscript is an important early witness to the text. T. Mommsen in his edition of 1894 for MGH listed only four extant manuscripts of the complete text (British Library, Cotton Vitell.A.VI, eleventh century; Avranches, bibl. municipale, ms. 162, twelfth century; Cambridge University Library Ff.I.27, thirteenth century; and ibid. Dd.I.17, fourteenth century).

This section also includes one of the most popular pseudo-histories of the Middle Ages, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), here pp. 17-132. It narrates a fantastical and heavily romanticised narrative of the history of Britain, from the reign of Brutus, a supposed descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, to Cadwallader in the seventh century, via Julius Caesar's invasions, the reigns of the mythical kings Leir and Cymbeline (both later immortalised by Shakespeare) and most importantly King Arthur. Geoffrey's text (which he claims to have translated it from an ancient book in Welsh) contains one of the earliest developed narratives of Arthur, and this work established the popularity of the Arthurian canon in the medieval world. Perhaps reflecting Geoffrey's tracing of the origins of the British kings in the Trojans, the work is prefaced by a text on the Trojan Wars, the Daretis Phrygii de Exicidio Trojae Historia (pp. 1-16). It opens with a short introductory letter, the Epistola Corneli (supposedly from the 1st century BC. Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos to the historian Sallust), and is of doubtful authenticity.

The section on Near- and Far-Eastern history

This section opens with the epic travel account of Marco Polo (d. 1324-5), the most famous and popular of all mediaeval Western travellers to the East (pp. 211-90). The manuscript contains all three books of his wide travels, in the Latin translation of Francesco Pipino (translated in the last years of Polo's life, from Polo's own Italian version of his work, now lost). The introduction and and opening chapters describe the voyage in 1252 of Marco's father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, to the court of the grand emperor Kublai Khan, and their return with a letter for the pope requesting 100 educated people to come and teach Christianity and oil from the lamp of the Holy Sepulchre. The remainder of book  I narrates Marco's journey to the East on behalf of the pope in answer to this request. The account reads like a travel log, describing each step of the vast journey, city by city and region by region, with occasional asides on points of interest. He begins by travelling through the regions of the Near-East including minore armenia (Lesser Armenia), Turcie (Turcomanie), and armenia maiora (Greater Armenia), where the author notes that Noah's ark rests on a mountain in the centre of the country. In the Nestorian Christian kingdom of Mosul the author initially encounters the people called arabes qui machometum adorant (arabs who worship Mohammed), and from here he moves through into the great province of Persia, and through the desert that leads to the Kingdom of the Assassins. Here the author stops to describe this fascinating kingdom, previously ruled over by a tyrannical overlord, known in the West as the senex de montanis (old man of the mountains), and in whose time the country was filled with an abundance of wonderful trees, plants and fruit as well as the most beautiful women in the world (pp. 221-3). From here he moves through a range of dazzling cities to the great and noble city of Samarkand (pp. 225-6), and from there eastwards through many other settlements and regions to the first city of the Mongol Empire, Corocaram (Caracorom, pp. 230-1). This forms a backdrop for a discussion of the emergence of the Mongol people under their great ruler Chinichis (Genghis/Chinggis Khan), and the descent of his line to the current emperor, Cublay (Kublai Khan, p. 231). The author devotes much space to the customs of the Mongol people here, and includes an account of the burial customs of the khans describing how no matter where they die in the empire their bodies must be returned in a vast procession to the Altai mountains, executing all people met on the way so that they might accompany the khan into the afterlife. There are also more mundane descriptions here of the Mongol's nomadic way of life, made possible by their ability to move their small felt houses on four-wheeled carts, and their polygamous marriages and worship of idols of a god of the land called Natygay (p. 232). From here the author presses on across the plains of Bargu, and through the kingdoms of Egrigaya and Tenduch (Tenduc, pp. 234-5), 'which in the West is known as Gog and Magog, but in their tongue Ung and Mongul', and eastwards to the seat of Kublai Khan's government, the fabled city of Ciandu (Xanadu, p. 236), with its opulent gilded pleasure palace and herds of pure white mares and cows bred solely for the khan's dinner table. The second book starts on p. 237, and describes in detail the lands of the Mongols and the rule of Kublai Khan, noting the great feasts that are held for 12,000 lords on the khan's birthday and at the beginning of each year, and the hunting parties using trained lions, leopards and lynxes. Among the numerous things described with great fascination by the author is the Mongol empire's use of paper money (p. 248, almost certainly the earliest mention of paper money by a Western European). He notes in surprise that they cannot weigh the same as the equivalent value in gold or silver, and yet they are trusted as they bear the authorising mark of the khan. From here the author describes the civilisation of China, dividing it into a northern part Cathay and a southern part Mangi, and attachs discussions of 42 cities and provinces including the spectacularly wealthy city of Quinsay (p.267). The third book, on India, Indonesia and the eastern coast of Africa, begins on p. 271, and includes accounts of the island of Zipangu, inhabited by cannibals (p. 273), the island of Java (p. 275), the land of Sumatra (p. 276), and eventually the island of Zanzibar (p. 286).

A journey and account of such global magnitude is staggering by its very breadth, and much modern scholarship has questioned its accuracy and even whether Marco Polo existed at all. However, a Tibetan monk and confidant of Kublai Khan, Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (1235-1280) does mention the presence of a foreign friend of the khan in 1271 who could be Marco Polo, and  archaeology has shown that an Italian community did reside in the commercial city of Yangzhou throughout the fourteenth century. Furthermore, as L. Bergreen writes in Marco Polo From Venice to Xanadu, 2007, "it would have been a more amazing feat to amass so much accurate information about Asia without actually going there, than to have made the trip and write about it". Either way the account is the single greatest travel account of the medieval world, and its descriptions governed the majority of the Western world's perceptions of the Middle East and Asia until the last few centuries.

Polo's account is closely followed by two shorter related accounts, that of Orderic of Pordenone's Tractatus de Ritibus Orientalium Regionum (Account of the Rites of the Eastern Regions, pp. 291-315), and the strange account of Peter, archbishop of Russia, named the Tractatus de Ortu Tartarorum (Account of the Origin of the Tartars/Mongols, pp. 315-18). Orderic was a Franciscan friar who was sent into Asia c.1316, where he travelled widely for over a decade, reaching China in 1323 as well as India, Sumatra and Java. On his return to a Franciscan house in Padua, he dictated his account to another friar, William of Solagna, and died a few months later. His account spread quickly in Italy, and seventy-three other manuscripts are known (H. Cordier, Les voyages en Asie au XIVe siècle du bienheureux frère Odoric de Pordenone, 1891, p. cxvi). It secured him popular fame in Padua, and veneration as a local saint. The account attributed to a Peter, archbishop of Russia, descends from the visit to the Council of Lyons in 1245 of a character who called himself Peter and identifed himself as an archbishop. Strangely, he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew, but with some difficulty a translator was found and, to the assembly gripped by fear of the Mongol threat on the eastern borders of Europe, he gave an account of the origin, mode of dress, rites, way of life, strength and numbers, intentions, and diplomatic protocols of the invaders. The identification of him as from Russia is probably due to a misunderstanding by Matthew Paris, and this account here must stem from that author's Chronica Majora (with the account of Peter in H.R. Luard's edition of 1872-84, iv, pp. 386-9).

These are followed by three exceedingly rare accounts of the medieval Near-East and its Islamic inhabitants. The most important is that of William of Tripoli, his Tractatus de Statu Saracenorum & Machometo (Account of the State of the Saracens and Mohammedans, pp. 361-81). The author was a Christian native of Tripoli in Lebanon, who could speak and read Arabic. He took up orders in the Dominican convent of Acre c.1250. He was most probably the friar who accompanied Marco Polo in 1271, turning back before Marco went on to Central Asia and China. In this lengthy work he included tolerant and objective accounts of the life of the Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim capture of Gaza, Damascus and Jerusalem, the dominion of the Caliphate, and the rule of the Arabs over the 'barbarians' of North Africa (p. 367, and here he is probably the first medieval Westerner to discuss Africa in detail). While he cannot agree with its teachings in their entirety, he does give an account of the writing of the Koran and its contents which is free from the standard invective of medieval Christians of this text (p. 373). His Dominican training shows, however, when he turns to consider the Jews of the region, and there are chapters on their part in the death of Christ, and their views on this death (which are somewhat in variance to his). The text stands quite apart from the passionate, near xenophobic accounts intended to incite Crusade against the infidel, and fit within the context of the mature period of Christian settlement in the Holy land, when Christians and Muslims peacefully cohabited in the region. It survives in only a handful of manuscripts (see P. Engels, William of Tripoli, Notitia de Machometo, De statu Sarracenorum, 1992, for a complete list), of which only three (Cambridge, Gonville and Caius Coll. MS.162/83, c.1300; BnF. Fonds latin 5510, early fourteenth century; BnF. Fonds latin 7470, first half fourteenth century) definately predate the present manuscript, and four others are contemporary with it (British Library, Royal MS. 13.c.vi, fourteenth century; Oxford, Brasenose Coll. D.12, c. 1400; Cambridge University Library Dd.i.17, c. 1400; Paris, Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève ms.1654, fourteenth century).

Two other accounts relevant to that of William of Tripoli are found in the volume: Peter Tudebode's account of the First Crusade in 1096 (here pp. 319-60, under the title Tractatus de Ortu progressu & actibus Machometi), and an anonymous tract entitled De Machometo (pp. 379-81, here called Tractatus quomodo Machometus decepit Saracenus secundum diversas opiniones). The first was written by a Poitevin priest who lived from 1058 to 1127, and who took part in the Crusade. His text includes a valuable eyewitness account of the siege of Antioch. It survives in a number of manuscripts and was edited by Migne, PL. 155, cols. 821-4, and more recently translated by J.H. Hill and L.L. Hill, Historia de Hierosolymitano itinere, 1974. The second account is more typically polemic and is part of the common medieval Christian theme of Mohammed's supposed trickery of the inhabitants of the Near-East. It is listed in the In Principio database from a single manuscript, that of Kosice, Bisk. Kn., MS. R3.33, fols. 345-53, which is dated 1467 (J. Sopho, Codices Latini Medii Aevi Bib. Slovaciae, 1981). Thus the present manuscript may well be the oldest copy of the text.

Such texts are of extreme rarity on the market. Marco Polo's account was extremely popular in the medieval world, and A. C. Moule and Paul Pelliot, The Description of the World, 1938, I, pp. 509-16, list 119 manuscripts (of which by their admission "some ... are imperfect and some mere fragments"), but almost all of these are in institutional collections. Only six manuscripts of the text have been publicly sold in the last century or so, and to the best of our knowledge none has appeared in a public auction since 1930: (1) that sold in our rooms 15 April 1930, which later appeared in the possession of Chamonal of Paris; a copy from the Phillipps collection, MS. 7378, sold in our rooms 19 May 1897, lot 499; (2) that from the library of Luigi Canonici  and from him to Walter Sneyd in 1836, and in his sale in our rooms in 1903; (3) that in the sale of the library of the Château de la Roche-Guyon on 2 July 1927, purchased for 250,000 francs by Quaritch for  J.P. Morgan, and now in the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York; (4) that sold by Maggs in 1929 to Mr George Plimpton of New York, and after his death given to the Library of Columbia University; (5) that from the collection of Sir Francis Sharp Powell, sold in our rooms 16 December 1929, lot 766, and now in Bloomington, Indiana University, Lilly Library Allen MS. 7; and (6) that sold in our rooms 14 April 1930, lot 300, later in the Boise Penrose collection. To these might be added a fragmentary manuscript in the Earl of Powis sale, 20 March 1923, lot 211, and from there to the collection of John Garrett, Baltimore (De Ricci, Census, I, p. 897, item 157). The account of William of Tripoli is even rarer, and to the best of our knowledge none has ever appeared before in a public sale.

The present manuscript is an exceedingly rare witness to the circulation of these texts in England. Of the 119 Marco Polo manuscripts listed by Moule and Pelliot, only four appear to be of English origin (Bodleian, MS. 264, part iii, c. 1400; Cambridge University Library Dd.i.17, probably Glastonbury, c. 1400; that from the Earl of Powis collection sold in our rooms 20 March 1923, lot 211; and an early sixteenth-century copy from Westminster which sold in our rooms 14 April 1930, lot 300).

The section of prophecies

A final section (pp. 385-438) contains 23 separate accounts of visions and prophecies in prose and verse. Most, such as the heretical anti-papal writings of the Franciscan mystic Johannes de Rupe Scissa (Cutclif, Devon), the Processus ffr[at]ris Nich[ola]i Wysebech de unxione Reg[is] Angl[ie], and the Visio b[ea]ti thome Cant[uariensis] in exitio suo, are of English origin or interest. Others, such as a Sybillic text on the nativity and the p[ro]ph[ec]ia de albo dracone et leop[ar]do (the white dragon and the leopard) may be from further afield. Two of these texts are recorded in the contents list of the Cambridge manuscript, but the relevant leaves have been excised. Most probably the present manuscript contains the only substantial record of the collection of prophetic texts once in the library of Glastonbury Abbey.