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Long Distance Relationships: Getting to Know BnF MS lat. 17332

The best part of manuscript studies (arguably) is getting to look at amazing writing and painting that was produced a long, long time ago. The artwork is often shiny and colorful and interesting to look at, and the words are scrunched together and fun to try to read. It is fun to experience these things in person, but this fun can also be had online. Many libraries are choosing to digitize their books, and those facsimiles can be accessed anywhere. However, even this format is sometimes limiting when trying to find out about the conditions of bindings, or to look at very specific details.

So what happens if all of a sudden, none of that is available?

This was my fate with Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS lat. 17332. This semester, I have been continuing some of the work I did on René d’Anjou, a fifteenth century French duke that I introduced here. Through this research, I learned that René had four Books of Hours that survive today, and I knew I wanted to explore them. Accessing the first three was easy enough because all are fully digitized online, but Book of Hours Number Four was nowhere to be found. This book, BnF MS lat. 17332, is held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, but unlike many of its other books, MS lat. 17332 is not fully digitized on Gallica, the BnF’s online digital repository. I decided not to panic, and was eventually able to locate this great list of René d’Anjou’s books. Here, I was directed to some images that the BnF has of the manuscript, but again, the whole book was not available. The pictures further enticed me to find the book, because the art inside is quite unusual.

A page of BnF MS latin 17332 with a large initial containing the intertwined letters R and I. A partial border shows numerous entangled strings.
BnF MS lat. 17332 fol. 52r

This is just one of the pages (of seven) that are available online to view. The decoration on this page is attributed to Berthelemy d’Eyck, a painter who worked personally for René for many years and painted some of the miniatures in René’s other books. As the manuscript description suggests, this book was probably from the end of René’s life, sometime between 1450-1475, because it features a tree stump. This symbol was adopted by René in his later years to show his determination to continue growing despite his losses. This growth is shown in the branches that form the ‘D’ on this page. The ‘R’ in the middle of the ‘D’ is actually wrapped around an ‘I,’ which is representative of the initials of René and his wife (aw). What is less obvious is which wife, as the first was Isabella and the second was Jeanne, which would be written with an ‘I’ as well. The ambiguity of the ‘I’ could have been intentional, and had both meanings. However, most sources conclude it stands for Jeanne, René’s young and, at that time, living wife. The string? tentacle? tassel? motif on the border of the page is less straightforward, and was something I wanted to investigate moving forward.  

Without the ability to zoom in close to the images, and without the luxury of having access to all of the pages, I was pretty stumped at this point (Get it? Because there’s a stump?) and I wanted to try to find out more. Dr. Camp was extremely helpful in aiding the search, and I even got in contact with two of UGA’s subject librarians, Patrick Reidenbaugh and Emily Luken, who helped me try to find this manuscript. It seemed like everyone was searching for this book online, but nothing existed except the seven pictures and the consultation entry on the BnF website.

At this point, it was important to try to gather as many outside sources as possible, so I started with catalogues and other reference works. Dr. Camp found a great catalogue entry by Guillaume Debure II, an eighteenth century researcher who saw the manuscript in person. He describes the entwined initials and some calendar notes about René’s family (in French that she kindly translated). These notes were important, because similar notes can be found in the calendar of René’s other Book of Hours, BnF MS lat. 1156A. Debure also says that BnF MS lat 17332 was probably made in honor of, or even for, Jeanne, after they were married  in 1454 (98-103).

This was a great start, and it told me that this manuscript might have some things in common with René’s other books. My next plan of attack was to look at the Leroquais entry for this manuscript.Victor Leroquais was an early twentieth century scholar who catalogued every Book of Hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This resource is great for textual information because many books about books of hours focus on the artwork inside instead of their contents, which is not always helpful for all types of research. In Leroquais, I found that one of the added prayers from British Library Egerton MS 1070 is also in BnF MS lat. 17332 (Leroquais 171-174). Another connection! Leroquais is also great for finding specific texts in manuscripts, because the index contains the incipits for every prayer in every book of hours in the BnF, making it easier to find specific prayers in different books of hours.

Leroquais gave me a general overview of what was inside of this book, and Debure gave me an idea of what some of the important symbols were and why they might have been included. These sources are invaluable, because the actual contents of the book have not changed since these accounts. These earlier works can be less reliable, as things like dates and production information are updated with new research over time. My next step in exploring this manuscript was to translate the relevant sections of the French book Splendeur de l’enluminure: Le roi René et les livres, which outlines many of René’s books in detail. Published in 2009, it brings together all the modern scholarship on Rene’s books, providing us with the most up to date knowledge about the symbols and their relationship to Rene’s life. Here, the calendar notes are discussed, as well as the numerous symbols that are present in the manuscript. It explains that the ‘tentacles’ are actually pieces of a rope being made, and it still suggests that the ‘R’ and ‘I’ could be a reference to either of Rene’s wives. The detail was helpful when looking at elements of the manuscript that were not as easily understood, like the rope decoration. This reference also contains a detailed manuscript description and scholarly sources. With the help of all of my sources, I feel like I understand this manuscript, even if it is thousands of miles away. But what if there is something else? The danger of using only secondary sources is that they could be leaving out any number of important details, and without a firsthand look at the manuscript, I would have no way of knowing.

So, do you need to see a manuscript to study it? Short answer: not necessarily. Secondary sources can give you loads of relevant information. Checking the manuscript description, if it is available, is a great first step, as well as searching your library for sources. If a source seems too old, it could still contain useful information about the contents of a manuscript, or at least give you an idea of what it looks like. Also, the best book for your research could be in French, which can be daunting. Information can come from unlikely or confusing places, and it is important to consider every possible angle.

Despite having so many sources and descriptions, it is good to remember that something could be left out. Every author has their own interests, and those will be highlighted in their work, even if they don’t mean for them to be. No matter how many books I consult, there is always that nagging feeling that there could be something else, and it really makes me want to see this book in person. It seems absence really does make the heart grow fonder.


  1. “BnF MS lat. 1156A.” Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, Gallica.
  2. “BnF MS lat. 17332” Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.
  3. Debure, Guillaume II.  Catalogue des livres de la Bibliothèque de feu M. le duc de La Valliere. Paris, 1783. vol. 1.
  4. “Egerton MS 1070.” British Library, Digitised Manuscripts.
  5. Gautier, Marc-Édouard, et al. Splendeur De L’enluminure: Le Roi René Et Les Livres. [Angers] : Ville D’Angers ; Arles : Actes Sud, 2009.
  6. Leroquais, Victor. Les Bréviaires Manuscrits De Bibliothèques Publiques De France. Protat Frères, 1934. 2 vols.

Featured image is from the full page miniature painted by Bertholomy d’Eyck, BnF MS 17332 f. 15v.