A glance at the Corpus Terence

The Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge owes most of its treasures to the efforts of one man: Archbishop Matthew Parker (1504-1575). However, not all of the manuscripts now housed in the Library came from his original bequest to the College; there were other additions that continued to enrich the collection. One such example is CCCC MS 231, a modest-looking copy of the comedies of Terence from the early 1100s, which came to the Library in the late sixteenth century, possibly donated by the antiquarian and book collector Daniel Rogers (c.1538-1591).

Terence was a Latin author who wrote six comedies in the second century BC, all of which appear in our manuscript. It is not a deluxe edition: the parchment is often stained and shows evident scraping marks throughout, and the style of writing is not consistent. The text was copied by several scribes, and it is possible to distinguish at least two main scribal hands: H2 and H5.

Terence, H2
CCCC MS 231, f.6v (H2)
Terence, H5
CCCC MS 231, f.99r (H5)

Two further two hands (H1 and H6) also appear momentarily on single folios to complete certain sections.

Terence, H1
CCCC MS 231, f.1r (H1)
Terence, H6
CCCC MS 231, f.105r (H6)

Whilst H5 maintains a consistent style, H2 is much less disciplined, perhaps suggesting that he was a less experienced – and by extension, perhaps a more junior – scribe. Although there is no evidence to confirm that these two scribes were collaborating as they compiled the book, both hands may certainly be dated to approximately the same period, and the possibility that they were from the same institution cannot be discarded.

Other book hands appear in the manuscript (H3 and H4), both of a later date, which traced over portions of text that had, by their time, already faded. Whilst H3 was using the manuscript not long after it was first copied (possibly at the end of the twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century), H4 is visibly of a much later period (possibly from the fifteenth or even the early sixteenth century).

Terence, H3
CCCC MS 231, f.41v (H3)
Terence, H4
CCCC MS 231, f.67r (H4)

No evidence exists to indicate what use they made of the manuscript; however, the need to make the text legible again demonstrates that the text continued to attract interest into the Renaissance period.

The manuscript was also clearly extensively used throughout the Middle Ages. Signs of readership and use can be found in the interlinear and marginal gloss, as well as other later annotations. Although H2 is the main hand responsible for the gloss (which was likely copied from an exemplar) many other hands appear in the book. Two are particularly recognisable, A1 and A2, both of which can be dated between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Terence, A1
CCCC MS 231, f.21r (A1)
Terence, A2
CCCC MS 231, f.99v (A2)

Although these annotations are often hard to read due to the rapidity of their ductus, they seem to serve a similar purpose to the glosses added by H2, which are mainly aimed at the explanation of Latin terms and grammar, rather than providing a commentary on the plays. In a few instances, H2 even includes different readings of the same passages, which seem to suggest that he had access to more than one exemplar.

Terence, exemplars
CCCC MS 231, f.38r

However, this is ultimately impossible to assess, since the provenance information about this volume does not trace it back to a specific institution. This prevents us from determining what sources the scribe may have had access to, as well as who the intended audience of the book may have been. Our knowledge is limited to the fact that it was originally made on the continent, and brought to England around the sixteenth century, as is indicated by the current binding, which is typical of that period (and of Cambridge/Oxford).

In sum, the Corpus Terence offers an intriguing portrait of the use of classical texts as reference works and study tools during the Middle Ages. Whilst it seems likely that the book was used in support of the learning of Latin grammar, it continued to be valued and consistently consulted by generations of readers from the time of its production until its arrival at the Parker Library.

Carlotta Barranu


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