The Digest is a compendium of Roman law compiled by the order of the Emperor Justinian I (c.482-565) in the sixth century. The fifty-book Digest was separated into three volumes and represented a reduction and codification of all Roman laws up to that time: the present volume includes the Digestum vetus or ‘old’ Digest, ie. books I-XXIII.
This is a substantial manuscript in a what is evidently a remarkably early chemise cover (see S. van Leeuwun, ‘The Well-Shirted Bookbinding’ in Theatrum Orbis Librorum: Liber Amicorum presented to Nico Israel on his seventieth birthday, 1989, pp.277-305; and J.A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, 1999, pp.234-46). The chemise consists of a protective tawed-skin cover, serving the same purposes as a modern dustjacket. They are often an indication of the prestige of a book, and a number of important English administrative record books survive in chemises, most famously the indentures for the foundation of Henry VII’s chapel in 1504 (London, PRO. MS.E.33/1: Marks and Williamson, Gothic: Art for England, 2003, p.169, no.30). The traces of red dye on the overturned edges of the present binding also indicate the high status of this manuscript, as red was the most expensive of dyes used on bindings, as it was produced from kermes beetles which had to be imported at great cost.
There are no traces in the binding structures that this manuscript has been bound more than once, and the survival of the notes for the rubricator show that it is untrimmed and its original size. Certainly, the main binding appears original and in an excellent state of preservation, and where the chemise can be lifted from the front of the book the binding is clean enough to suggest it has spent little of its life open to the elements. It seems likely that the chemise is also original, or added within a few decades of the binding of the book, and if so, then this is among the very oldest chemise bindings to survive, and the oldest to come to the market in living memory. Szirmai’s survey notes twenty such bindings from the Romanesque period, of which seven are in a substantial state of preservation (p.165, and note fig.8.22, where he illustrates a thirteenth-century example with identical strap arrangements cut through the chemise as the present manuscript). All of those are in institutional ownership, and the last chemise bindings to come to the market have been of the fourteenth or fifteenth century. They are: (1) that on Gregory, Moralia in Job (Bohemia, 1397), from the collection of Helmut N. Friedlander, his sale Christie’s, New York, 23 April 2001, lot 4, for $248,000; (2) that in a near-perfect state of preservation and enclosing the Statutes of the Colville Chapel at Newton (England, mid-fifteenth century), sold in our rooms, 22 June 2004, lot 55, for £97,000 hammer; (3) that on a compendium of Anglo-Norman verse (England, fourteenth century), sold by Christie’s, 23 November 2011, lot 12, for £170,000 hammer, and now Yale, Beinecke Library, Osborn a56.
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