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A Descriptive Handlist of Breton Manuscripts, c. AD 780–1100 (DHBM)

by Jacopo Bisagni (with contributions by Sarah Corrigan)

1. What is a Breton manuscript?

This Handlist is the result of work carried out throughout 2020 and in early 2021 in the context of the research project Ireland and Carolingian Brittany: Texts and Transmission (IrCaBriTT, 2018–2022), funded by the Laureate Awards scheme of the Irish Research Council and based in the Discipline of Classics at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

At face value, the title of this online resource may seem sufficiently self-explanatory, but in fact some aspects of it need to be defined. Indeed, what is an early medieval Breton manuscript? Naturally, one may be tempted to give to this deceptively simple question a simplistic answer, such as: ‘a manuscript written in early medieval Brittany’. However, this answer only displaces the problem, as it leads inevitably to another difficult question: what is early medieval Brittany?

One approach to this last question could be to try and define first of all the boundaries of political Brittany in the Early Middle Ages; the problem, though, is that the political configuration of Brittany and the Breton Marches was notoriously unstable during the period in question. For example, should one proceed on the basis of territorial arrangements before or after the victory gained by the Bretons over Charles the Bald’s army on the battlefield of Jengland in AD 851 (SMITH 1992: 99–101)? And what about the vast new territories acquired during the long reign of King Salomon, especially through the Treaty of Entrammes of AD 863 (SMITH 1992: 105)? Clearly, such an approach is fraught with difficulties.

Another way of defining Brittany is to rely on language, and in particular on the historical distribution of Breton place-names. After all, the Breton language has always been one of the most important markers of Breton ethnic identity—if not the most important—and it seems probable that this was the case also during the Carolingian period. However, it is not easy to determine precisely what the linguistic boundary of Celtic-speaking Brittany may have been during, say, the ninth or the tenth century. In fact, it is most likely that a strict linguistic border never existed; instead, fully Breton-speaking areas probably transitioned, moving eastwards, into areas of less high density and, eventually, into a broad frontier where Breton and Romance speakers coexisted in a context of widespread bilingualism (FLEURIOT 1982: 87–97; CASSARD 2002: 90–7).

In the end, it seems wiser to adopt a pragmatic approach by taking the river Vilaine as a rough political and linguistic boundary, while accepting at the same time that things were undoubtedly more complex and variable ‘on the ground’, especially in the area on both sides of an imaginary line going from the mouth of the Loire to the west of Rennes, and then up to the coastal region between Dol and Mont-Saint-Michel.

In a way, though, as far as Breton manuscripts are concerned, the controversial geographical and political definition of Brittany is not as crucial as it may seem prima facie. After all, as one can easily see by browsing through the 225 manuscripts included in the present Handlist, a specific Breton scriptorium of origin can be specified for only a handful of them, and such attributions are anyway dominated by the two famous monasteries of Landévennec and Redon—respectively at the western and eastern ends of Brittany. Since no-one, I think, would have any qualms in labelling Landévennec and Redon as ‘Breton monasteries’, for those few items at least we seem to stand on firm ground: a manuscript written at Landévennec or Redon can be legitimately called ‘a Breton manuscript’.

For the other manuscripts—the far more numerous ones that cannot be assigned to a specific scriptorium1—things are much less straightforward. In those cases, the adjective ‘Breton’ shall necessarily mean different things, depending on the particular angle from which each of those manuscripts has been studied by modern scholars. For example, philologists and linguists have typically considered a manuscript to be ‘Breton’ if it preserves Old Breton glosses or other traces of this Celtic vernacular. For art historians, the study of iconography has led to the attribution of some codices—especially Gospel-books—to a ‘Breton’ artistic tradition. For palaeographers, the use of a form of Caroline minuscule heavily influenced by insular scribal practices, or the use of certain abbreviations, can be seen as distinctive signs of ‘Breton’ origin. Several other perspectives could be mentioned here, but the main point is that, when it comes to manuscripts, the use of the label ‘Breton’ does not always refer to, and depend on, the same underlying evidence. In other words, ‘Breton’ does not mean the same thing to everyone.

2. Which manuscripts are included in the DHBM?

This diversity of approaches in the identification of Breton manuscripts is precisely what guided us in the selection of the manuscripts to be included in this Handlist. Here, the reader will find all manuscripts written between c. AD 780 and 1100 to which scholars have applied—rightly or wrongly—the label ‘Breton’. For each manuscript, the merits of such attributions have been discussed in the NOTES section by referring as explicitly as possible to the kind of evidence that stands behind (or appears to stand behind) each scholar’s claim (and this is the reason why these NOTES are often longer and more ‘narrative’ than is customary in handlists and catalogues of this kind). After all, the usefulness of the present Handlist for the retrieval of quantitative and qualitative information about manuscript production in early medieval Brittany as a whole depends heavily on the trustworthiness of the minutest and most basic data concerning every single codex. Since the quality and the quantity of available information and previous scholarly engagement vary considerably from manuscript to manuscript, we felt it was essential to carry out for each item both an extensive literature review and, whenever possible, a fresh assessment of the evidence, especially in order to identify the codices about which we do not know enough yet and, consequently, the most pressing desiderata.

In some cases, thankfully, the evidence for a manuscript’s geographical origin is abundant and strong. Here is a particularly clear example: in addition to containing a heterogeneous compilation of cosmological and computistical texts, the first codicological unit of Paris, BnF, Lat. 7418A presents what is probably a Breton personal name, Etnoc, at fol. 1v, as well as numerous Breton saints in the calendar at fols 2r–7v—in primis Winwaloe of Landévennec—, several textual matches with other manuscripts having strong Breton affiliations, and a computistical argumentum explicitly pointing to AD 1042, a date referred to as ‘the second year after the death of Alan, King of Brittany, son of Geoffrey’ (secundo anno post mortem Alani regis Britanniae filii Ioffredi). One cannot ask for more, really.

On the other hand, in many instances the evidence is flimsy, to say the least. A particularly delicate case is the substantial number of manuscripts for which the only ‘evidence’ of Breton origin is Bernhard Bischoff’s (often tentative) palaeographical attribution to this country (or to an area ‘near Brittany’, or to a Breton scribe, etc.) in his Katalog der festländischen Handschriften des neunten Jahrhunderts (BISCHOFF 1998–2004; for some examples, see the entries for Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS A 92.15; Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 9850-9852; Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, MS BPL 25 {B}; Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm 14387). In light of Bischoff’s well-known expertise, his views should of course be taken very seriously. However, good science cannot rely solely on auctoritas: while I do not doubt that in many cases the rationale for such attributions may be found in Bischoff’s unpublished notes, at the same time this cannot simply be taken for granted, particularly in the absence of (1) a full assessment of this great scholar’s extensive Nachlass2 and (2) a systematic study of early medieval Breton palaeography. Indeed, as Ganz has rightly pointed out in relation to the third volume of the Katalog (left unfinished by Bischoff, and prepared for publication by Birgit Ebersperger on the basis of the author’s notes), ‘the form of most of the entries in this volume is primarily an invitation to explore further’ (GANZ 2015: 254).

In summary, when dealing with the Breton manuscript production of the Early Middle Ages we face a triad of challenges: (1) the ever-morphing contours of early medieval Brittany, (2) the extremely diverse forms of evidence that have been used to argue for the Breton origin of several manuscripts, and (3) the great uncertainties that still surround any ascription to Breton scribes and scriptoria based purely on palaeography, or even solely on the terse verdicts formulated in Bischoff’s Katalog. Clearly, a single fit-all solution simply won’t work on such a difficult terrain. For this reason, the creation of the present Handlist required to proceed on a case-by-case basis, adopting a flexible and maximally inclusive approach to the whole question of the ‘Bretonness’ of these manuscripts. Such an approach is the main motivation behind the wide variety of descriptors used in the section CONNECTION WITH BRITTANY, to be found in each entry of the Handlist: rather than offering a mere yes-or-no answer, this section expresses a multiplicity of nuances, each of which is meant to represent a distillation of the details discussed in the NOTES. Thus, a manuscript may have been ‘possibly / probably / certainly (not) written in / near Brittany’. Alternatively, some evidence could indicate that a particular manuscript was ‘possibly / probably / certainly written by Breton scribes’ (or even by a single specific Breton scribe), although there may not be sufficient proof to place the production of that same codex in Brittany.3 Moreover, while many Breton manuscripts were undoubtedly lost to the destructive forces of history and time, it is sometimes possible to argue that at least some of the contents of a number of extant codices ‘possibly / probably / certainly derive from a Breton exemplar or archetype’.

Additional forms of Breton connection are likewise highlighted in other sections of the Handlist; these include the presence of Old Breton materials,4 the listing of Breton saints in ecclesiastical calendars, the mention of scribes, owners or donors bearing recognisably Breton names, etc. In a nutshell, each manuscript has a different story to tell, and for this reason each manuscript deserves a tailored narrative.

3. The dating of Breton manuscripts and other features of the DHBM

An approach similar to the one outlined above has been applied to yet another controversial aspect: dating. Whenever a manuscript offered sufficient elements to assign it to a specific year or chronological range, such indications have been discussed in detail in the NOTES. However, just like for the establishment of places of origin, in most instances all we can rely upon is a broad and tentative dating based on the palaeographical evidence: in such cases, we have normally adopted the dates suggested by Bischoff in his Katalog, unless there were specific reasons to think otherwise. As for tenth- and eleventh-century manuscripts (normally not included in the Katalog), it has been necessary to assess each case individually (with the evidence and main arguments usually made explicit in the NOTES), and in a few instances we have proposed a new dating (see for example the entries for Angers, BM, 476, and Paris, BnF, Lat. 6400B).

As for the chronological boundaries of the Handlist as a whole, the terminus post quem of c. AD 780 is dictated by the approximate date of what is probably the oldest Breton manuscript, namely the Gospel-book of Saint-Gatien (Paris, BnF, NAL 1587), which may well have been written towards the end of the eighth century. The terminus ante quem is less strictly defined; however, there is no doubt that the decades immediately before and after AD 1100 saw the increase of Breton involvement in Norman, French and English politics, as well as the simultaneous gradual disappearance of the traditional forms of learning that had prevailed in Breton ecclesiastical foundations during the Carolingian and post-Carolingian periods. Indeed, the fact that the practice of glossing Latin texts in Old Breton declined sharply after AD 1000, and was completely abandoned by the end of the eleventh century (with the single exception of glosses copied from earlier exemplars), is one of the clearest signs of this cultural transformation.

Users of the Handlist will notice that each entry contains a section named IRISH / HIBERNO-LATIN MATERIALS. The rationale behind this section is related to the very raison d’être of the IrCaBriTT project, whose main aim is to define the cultural relationship between Early Medieval Ireland and Brittany. This section is constituted by a simple series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers (sometimes accompanied by a question mark). If there is a ‘no’, then that particular manuscript exhibits no connection with Ireland whatsoever. If on the contrary there is a ‘yes’, then the details of that Irish connection shall be found in the NOTES. Here the guiding principle was total inclusivity: the presence of any kind of link with Ireland in a manuscript included in the Handlist automatically triggered a ‘yes’. In this context, by ‘Irish connection’ we generally mean one of the following possibilities: the occurrence of words or phrases in Old Irish; the transmission of a text (or a recension of a text) of certain / probable / possible Hiberno-Latin origin (including texts in ‘Hisperic’ Latin); the presence of Irish orthographical, palaeographical or iconographical features; the mention of Irish saints in a calendar.

A few words should be said also about the ESSENTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY. As the word ‘essential’ indicates, the bibliographic references given in this section are selective rather than exhaustive, and this is especially true in the case of manuscripts for which complete and sufficiently up-to-date bibliographies can be found elsewhere (for example, this applies to the manuscripts listed in GNEUSS and LAPIDGE 2014). Nonetheless, enough references were provided to allow users to trace the development of the scholarly views on each particular manuscript, from the beginnings of modern Breton philology—Henry Bradshaw’s and Whitley Stokes’s pioneer work in the late nineteenth century—down to the present day. As one shall easily see, a few manuscripts have attracted a great deal of attention (e.g., Angers, BM, 477; Bern, Burgerbibliothek, 167; Leiden, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, Voss. Lat. F 96 A; New York, Public Library, De Ricci 115; Orléans, Médiathèque, 221; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Auct. D.2.16 and Auct. F.4.32; Paris, BnF, Lat. 3182, Lat. 10290, Lat. 12021, and NAL 1587; Rome (Città del Vaticano), BAV, Reg.lat.49 and Reg.lat.296, etc.). Many more, though, have not been so well explored, and some are still nearly terra incognita (e.g., Brussels, Bibl. Royale, 9850-9852; Oslo, Schøyen Collection, 2036; Paris, BnF, Lat. 12957, fols 96r–100v, Lat. 13346, fols 113r–132v, and Lat. 13957, fols 9r–46v; Rome (Città del Vaticano), BAV, Reg.lat.516; etc.).

4. The study of early medieval Breton manuscripts: the past and the future

This Handlist would not have been possible without the fundamental contribution of the many scholars who have been identifying, describing and discussing early medieval Breton manuscripts over the past 150 years or so: in particular, we would like to mention here (in rough chronological order) Henry Bradshaw, Whitley Stokes, W. M. Lindsay, François-Marie Duine, Bernhard Bischoff, Léon Fleuriot, Michel Huglo, Hubert Guillotel, François Kerlouégan, Jonathan Alexander, Pierre-Yves Lambert, Louis Lemoine, Gwénaël Le Duc, David Dumville, Wendy Davies, Julia Smith, Marco Mostert, Caroline Brett, Helen Simpson McKee, Dominique Barbet-Massin, Joseph-Claude Poulin, Roy Flechner and Bernhard Bauer.

But there is no doubt that we owe a particularly large debt to Jean-Luc Deuffic, who published in 1985 a pioneer handlist of Breton manuscripts (DEUFFIC 1985b). Deuffic’s handlist and his more recent Inventaire des livres liturgiques de Bretagne (DEUFFIC 2014) were the solid foundations without which our own edifice could have never been built.

We hope that this Handlist will contribute to reigniting the interest in the manuscript production of Early Medieval Brittany, a domain in which much work remains to be done, and which would greatly benefit from a concerted effort of historians, philologists, art historians and palaeographers. Si quis habet aures audiendi, audiat.


  1. It is important to stress that this problem is not specific to Brittany only: as has been observed by David Ganz, ‘the vast majority [of Carolingian manuscripts] can be assigned only to a region’ (Ganz 2007b: 147). 

  2. For example, Bischoff’s Nachlass at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich includes an item B,III,11,35, described as ‘Bretonische und bretonische beeinflußte Hss./Formeln des Buchwesens u.ä.’ in the typescript list of these materials prepared by Monika Köstlin, which is available online (cf. also items B,III,5,12, ‘Bretonische Glossen’; B,III,11,34, ‘Liber Commonei’). On Bischoff’s Nachlass, see also Krämer 2007. We have recently received a copy of Mentzel-Reuters 1997, which is accompanied by scans of nearly 8,000 pages of notes (mostly handwritten) from Bischoff’s Nachlass; however, the evaluation of these incredibly large and rich materials will take a long time. 

  3. The famous Angers, BM, 477 is a case in point. While containing the largest corpus of Old Breton glosses ever discovered, Dominique Barbet-Massin has recently argued that the bulk of this manuscript was actually written by a Breton scribe working in the area of Laon/Soissons or Amiens/Corbie at the end of the ninth century, although it was later completed in Brittany, probably in the Léon area (Barbet-Massin 2017). Should Barbet-Massin’s view be correct, Angers 477 would still be a ‘Breton manuscript’, but in a manner rather different from those codices for which an origin in Brittany can be firmly established (take for example Paris, BnF, Lat. 7418A, already discussed above). 

  4. In each entry of the Handlist, the section OLD BRETON MATERIALS contains a ‘yes’ (or, on a few occasions, ‘yes?’) if that particular manuscript contains any kind of linguistic form that can be reasonably assigned to the Old Breton language. This includes not only glosses or phrases embedded in the main text, but also personal names (with the single exception of the names of traditional Breton saints mentioned in ecclesiastical calendars).