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>  News Releases >   2006 >   May

Dartmouth College Library Special Collections offers first public look at ancient manuscript

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 05/11/06 • Genevieve Haas (603) 646-3661

The Brut Chronicle
The nearly-600-year-old volume has never before been available to public study.

Close up of the Brut Chronicle.

Dean of the Libraries Jeffrey Horrell (left) and Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield examine the Brut Chronicle. (Photos by Sarah Benelli)

The Brut Chronicle, believed to be the earliest prose account of the creation and early history of England, was reproduced by hand for hundreds of years before the printing press was invented. Currently, only 181 known Brut manuscripts survive and each manuscript contains unique material in the margins that is of great interest to medieval literature and history scholars. Less than a dozen of the remaining Brut manuscripts are housed in the United States and the newest Brut to be available to U.S. scholars has been acquired by Dartmouth's Rauner Special Collection Library. The ancient parchment manuscript, handwritten around 1430, has never before been available to the public and the original material as well as the prose itself will serve as an educational tool and a draw to visiting scholars.

The Chronicle recounts the story of Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, who was exiled from Italy after accidentally killing his father. He eventually made his way to the island of Albion, renamed it Britain, and became known as its first king. The manuscript is a mixture of legend and history and was significant in helping solidify the foundation myth of Britain, explained Special Collections Librarian Jay Satterfield. "It was one of the most popular secular literary pieces of medieval England," says Dean of Libraries and Librarian of the College Jeffrey Horrell. Probably written by a hired scribe for a nobleman, the text was designed to be read aloud to groups of English knights in order to excite their loyalty to the homeland.

Written in Middle English on 121 folios of parchment, the illuminated volume is contained in a deteriorating leather binding. The pages of text, however, have endured the centuries in good condition and Horrell and Satterfield believe the document will prove to be an invaluable teaching tool. Not only is the text itself valuable to literary scholars, but the marginalia, known as "glossing," will be of great scholarly interest. The extensive annotations were by different hands at different times and have never been studied before. While the basic text was standardized, the annotations are all different, requiring unique study for each edition. Dartmouth's Brut Chronicle, once decoded, will contribute entirely new knowledge to the world of historical scholarship. Even the book's materials and binding techniques will be of use to students and scholars investigating early manufacture and distribution of texts.

The acquisition of the famous Chronicle augments Dartmouth's current manuscript holdings by offering faculty and students an opportunity to work with a literary document, as opposed to a religious or legal one. "It is important for students to be able to see these traditional forms of writing and how they were transmitted before the advent of the printing press," says Horrell. "We have a strong manuscript collection," added Satterfield, "but we needed an example of an English literary manuscript."

The acquisition of The Brut Chronicle, purchased with the help of a private dealer, was made possible by the newly created William L. Bryant Foundation Library Fund, established by William J. Bryant, Class of 1925.

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