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

Medieval World: Trivium > Page 4


Ars minor

[Augsburg: Johann Schönsperger, circa 1502]

Incunabula Goff D-341

As noted elsewhere in this exhibition, Donatus’s Ars minor was one of the first texts to be printed in Europe. The fragment of this work printed with the same type as the 36-line Bible was one of Mr. Plimpton’s greatest treasures. The book continued to be printed throughout the incunable period and beyond, as it was the most widespread text used for teaching elementary Latin in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

CICERO, 106–43 B.C.E.

Commentarius in Ciceronis orationem pro Milone

Manuscript book on paper Germany, early 16th century

Plimpton MS 104

The unprepossessing pages of notes by a student of centuries ago attest to the fascination over the ages with this, the most perfect of Cicero’s speeches. Cicero found himself as the defending attorney in the trial of his friend, Titus Annius Milo, accused of killing his political rival, Publius Clodius. It was a lurid tale of ambush and murder on the dark stretch of the Via Appia as it leaves Rome and heads south, and the trial provoked riots so extreme that the trial venue was under armed protection.

During the course of his peroration, since Roman law did not differentiate between premeditated murder and homicide in self-defense, and in an attempt to justify Milo’s killing of Clodius, Cicero proclaimed as principle, “Inter arma enim, silent leges,” “In time of conflict in fact, the laws fall silent.” Since Clodius had ambushed Milo, it was entirely fair that Milo defend himself, even to the death of Clodius, and even if the laws forbid homicide.

The maxim has been used to justify the erosion of civil liberties during wartime. It was however refuted by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2004: “Many think it not only inevitable but entirely proper that liberty give way to security in times of national crisis—that, at the extremes of military exigency, inter arma silent leges.

Whatever the general merits of the view that war silences law or modulates its voice, that view has no place in the interpretation and application of a Constitution designed precisely to confront war and, in a manner that accords with democratic principles, to accommodate it.” The judges in Milo’s trial evidently thought so, too: he was convicted by a vote of 38 against him to 13 in his favor, and he was deported in exile to Marseille.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton


De Rhetorica seu de Arte dicendi libri tres

London: Edward Griffin, 1619

Bound with:


De Poetica Liber, Latine Conversus, et Analytica Methode Illustratus

London: Thomas Snodham, 1623

Plimpton 880 1619 (STC 766)

This copy of Aristotle’s three books on rhetoric contains Ben Jonson’s motto “tanquam explorator” and ownership inscription “Sum: Ben Jonsonii Liber” partially obliterated. As a man of modest means, Jonson would read and then often sell his books.

Gift of George Arthur Plimpton

Student Notes on Aristotle’s Logical Works

Manuscript book on paper

Douai, France, first half of the 17th century

Plimpton MS 022 While not one of Plimpton’s most elegant manuscripts, this volume would have had an important place in his collection, as it contains the notes of a student, one John Grant or Gradellus, presumably the writer. It was later owned by Richard Towneley (as of 1702), and was sold at the sale of Col. John Towneley (Sotheby’s, 27 June 1883, n. 36).

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