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

Medieval World: Trivium > Page 3

Latin Grammar

Manuscript book on parchment Northern Italy, third quarter of the 15th century

Plimpton MS 144

This Latin grammar was owned by Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) and sold at the Phillipps sale, Sotheby’s, 21 March 1895, where it was bought by the firm of Bernard Quaritch. It was acquired by George A. Plimpton by 1933. The text seems to be an abbreviated form of the work of Priscian.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


De verborum copia

Manuscript book on paper Italy, third quarter of the 15th century

Plimpton MS 115

Complications of paganity and christianity, properly rhetorical texts and treatises of morality prevented the Middle Ages, and even today’s scholars until the 1980s from sorting out this text. The confusion started with Seneca: was he a pagan? was he an extraordinarily moral pagan? was he (therefore?) a christian? The answer to all this seemed to be yes, because there is (apocryphal) correspondence between Seneca and St. Paul: in Letter IX, Seneca, having chastised St. Paul for his poor rhetorical style in Greek, offers to send to Paul a text that he, Seneca, has written: De verborum copia.

The mix-up now passes to a text of Martin of Braga, usually known as the Formula vitae honestae; but every so often, Martin’s (real) text is entitled with the same name as Seneca’s (imaginary) text. Since Seneca (apparently) wrote the treatise for a Formula for An Honest Life, it’s natural that excerpts from another (authentic) work of Seneca’s become attached to the end of (Martin’s) Honest Life. Thus: Martin of Braga, Formula vitae honestae + Seneca, excerpts from his Epistulae ad Lucilium = Pseudo Seneca, De verborum copia.

The final ten leaves of this codex appear almost as chaotic to a modern reader as the main text: these leaves contain a jumble of medical, cosmetic and technical recipes in Italian. You can learn how to make pills helpful against hemorrhoids, the plague, scrofula; you can learn how to temper iron (7 ways); you can make a lotion so that you will always seem “giovene e bella e polita” and another so that you will conceive a child; you can produce medications for hangover, for sunburn, for nosebleed. And there is a medicine with “infinite virtù.”

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

Myrrour of the Worlde

[Westminster: William Caxton, 1481]

Incunabula Goff M-883

This leaf from the Myrrour of the Worlde serves many purposes. First, it was printed by William Caxton, the first printer in England and the first English retailer of printed books. Second, this leaf shows school boys at their lessons. Finally, it was given by George A. Plimpton’s daughter-in-law, Pauline Ames Plimpton, in honor of the opening of the new Butler Library home of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1985.

Gift of Mrs. Francis T. P. Plimpton in Honor of The Opening of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library


De disciplina scholarium

Strasbourg: [Printer of the 1483 Jordanus de Quedlinburg (Georg Husner), February 1, 1491

Incunabula Goff B-822

The 13th-century pedagogical treatise known as De disciplina scholarium, attributed to Pseudo-Boethius, was possibly composed by the Dominican friar, author of the encyclopedia De naturis rerum, Thomas de Cantimpré.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


Regulae grammaticales

Florence: [Francesco Bonaccorsi], for Piero Pacini, March 15, 1496

Incunabula Goff G-538 Bound with Plimpton MS 135

Before joining Mr. Plimpton’s library, this volume of manuscript and printed works belonged to Ernst Boekel, director of the Gymnasium at Heidelberg. Folio 26 of the incunable text, shown here, contains the hand-colored woodcut of a teacher and students in a classroom. The manuscripts in the volume include a work on the Roman calendar, and Latin grammars and metrical treatises. The binding contains a fragment of an 11th century Italian manuscript with a portion of the collects for Good Friday.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

CICERO, 106–43 B.C.E.

De amicitia, De senectute, Tusculan disputations

Manuscript book on parchment Northern Italy, end of the 15th century

Plimpton MS 098

The two first texts in this codex circulated together through much of their manuscript lives: Cicero’s treatises, De amicitia (On friendship) and his De senectute (On old age) are both relatively short (pp. 34 and pp. 28 in this copy) and are easily viewed as companion pieces. Both were known to the Carolingians, perhaps the De amicitia somewhat less so given the rate of survival, but both were immensely popular in the 14th and 15th centuries: of the ca. 400 extant manuscripts all but about 50 date from this late period.

The transmission of the third text in this volume, Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, on the other hand, has been pushed back to an archetype of the 6th or early 7th century; it mainly argues matters of Platonic cosmology, and therefore served as a school text.

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