"Our Tools of Learning" : George Arthur Plimpton's Gifts to Columbia University

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De proprietatibus rerum [in the English translation of John Trevisa]

Manuscript book on parchment England, mid 15th century

Plimpton MS 263

Bartholomaeus lectured in divinity at the University of Paris and became a Franciscan about 1225. His De proprietatibus rerum (“On the Properties of Things”) covered all of the knowledge of the day. It was extremely popular, to judge by the number of extant manuscripts of the work.

The Plimpton manuscript is distinguished in a number of ways. First by its size: this is the heaviest codex that we own, weighing well over 40 pounds. Its 776 pages or 388 leaves probably represent the skins of 194 animals. Second, by its decoration and provenance: the ample gold and colors in the border decorations and the vast empty margins demonstrate Sir Thomas Chaworth’s liberality in commissioning his book. (His arms are incorporated into the lower border of the first page of text.)

Third and most importantly, its status as copy text: within some 50 years of the book’s production, it served as printer’s copy for the first printed edition of the text, produced by Wynkyn de Worde, Westminster, ca. 1495. Probably because it was clearly so valuable a book, the printer made only the tiniest of marks as he cast off breaks in pages and quires for the printing, and probably the manuscript’s extreme value allowed it to survive once the printed book came into existence. For the approximately 29,000 known pre-1501 printed works, we only know of 37 parent-manuscripts, and this is one of them.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

BRUNETTO LATINI, CA. 1220 – 1294


Manuscript book on parchment France, first half of the 15th century

Plimpton MS 281

Some 220 color wash drawings adorn this encyclopedia compiled by the Florentine Brunetto Latini while in exile in France. In the prologue he justifies his choice of language, noting that French is “plus delitables et plus comunes a tous lingages,” (it sounds sweeter and is more readily understood).

At inception, there was no intention to illustrate this codex and the illustrations are additions in the margins and at the corners around the text. By folio 61, someone has decided that the book would be ever so much nicer with pictures, and from that point forward appropriate space is reserved within the text columns, and drawings are done to fill them.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

Chronique Universelle

Roll on parchment France, end of the 14th century

Plimpton MS 286

This roll is the perfect marriage of form and content, if you view history as an inexorably forward movement along a single axis in multiple parallel strands. Its 17 feet of parchment trace the history of the popes from Jesus to Urban VI (1378 – 1389); the Roman emperors from Julius Caesar to Louis IV of Bavaria (1282 – 1347); the kingdom of France from its beginning up to 1400 “ou environ;” and the kings of England from the time of Julius Caesar to Richard II (1377 – 1399).

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


Etymologiarum libri

Manuscript book on parchment, possibly Italy, end of the 12th century

Plimpton MS 125

Isidore’s massive encyclopedia, compiled in the early 7th century, remained western Europe’s basic reference tool throughout the Middle Ages; in it, Isidore used, although almost never cited, some 150 authors from classical Latinity and the Church’s patristic writings. The title of the work refers to its structure: each section begins with an etymology of the term, although more frequently than not, it is a folk etymology of the sort that would have “sparrow grass” as the origin of “asparagus.”

The first three of the twenty books of the Etymologiarum libri are dedicated to the trivium and the quadrivium. We begin with the definition of an academic discipline: “Discipline takes its name from discendo (or learning), whereby it may be called a science. In fact, scire (or to know) derives from discere (or to learn), because no one of us knows unless he first learns.” Owners of this manuscript prior to Plimpton included the Camadolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, from the 14th -16th centuries, and the greatest of all manuscript collectors, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872).

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 / rbml@libraries.cul.columia.edu