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A MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPT OF BATTLE PLANS

MANY MEDIEVAL MANUSCRIPTS were liturgical, but there were exceptions. The fifteenth-century Visconti Semideus, as described in Christopher De Hamel’s Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts, is an artful collection of battle plans. Semideus is Latin for “half-god,” giving any military commander consulting it a significant promotion.

Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts, by Christopher De Hamel, Penguin Press, 2017. Other appearances of this book here at SimanaitisSays include “Hugo Pictor’s Selfie.”

The Visconti Semideus has been quite the mobile manuscript, originating in Italy, residing in France as spoils of war, and ending up in St. Petersburg, Russia. What’s more, De Hamel had hilarious encounters in the manuscript’s current post-Soviet home. 

A Gift to a Count. The Semideus was initially a gift to Filippo Maria Visconti, 1412-1447. Visconti was the Count of Pavia, Duke of Milan, and a medieval warrior blessed and protected by his patron saint, the Virgin Mary.

Filippo Maria, The Count of Pavia, on his trusty steed. This and other images of the Visconti Semideus are from Meeting with Remarkable Manuscripts.

Visconti’s life was not of long duration. Nor was the Italian residence of his Semideus manuscript. Under the command of King Louis XII, the French took over portions of Northern Italy, including Milan and Pavia. 

“As was the custom,” De Hamel writes, “conquered cites were pillaged. As was also the fashion, Renaissance rulers were often book collectors. In 1499, or more probably 1500, while many jubilant French soldiers were doubtless in the city taverns or ravishing Italian maidens, the agents of Louis XII were upstairs in the library of Pavia, clearing the shelves and packing up the books.”

French Residence Until 1789. The Visconti Semideus was a prize in Paris’s royal abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés until an enterprising Russian diplomat came along during the 1789 French Revolution.

Piotr Dubrowsky, 1754–1816, Russian diplomat and opportunistic collector of medieval manuscripts.

During the turmoil of the French Revolution, the Visconti Semideus and other manuscripts ended up in Dubrowsky’s hands. De Hamel notes, “Whether he had stolen them, as many believe, or had bought them unwittingly, or some ambiguous combination of the two, is not entirely clear.”

Back home in 1800, Dubrowsky may have tried to sell his collection to English interests. However, Count Alexander Strogonov (his family, possibly of recipe fame) intervened and the entire collection was bought for the newly formed imperial public library in St. Petersburg. During Soviet times, the place was Leningrad’s Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library. Since 1992, it’s the Российская Hациональная Библиотека, the National Library of Russia.

Sneak attack at night. Soldiers stealthily move through a defensive ring to ambush the enemy.

De Hamel’s Visit. Think again if you believe a researcher of medieval manuscripts leads a dull life. Christopher De Hamel recounts his day at the National Library in a post-Soviet St. Petersburg, Russia:

“Behind a counter on the left is a woman resembling the late Mrs Khrushchev. I ventured, slowly and distinctly, ‘I have come to see a manuscript.’ She barked in Russian and disappeared. Soon afterwards, a much younger assistant materialized, with excellent English, emerging from what looked like two wooden cupboards opposite.” 

“ ‘Sit please a moment,’ she said, ‘Passport, please.’ ” 

“Lots of rubber stamps were in evidence…. She directed me to a computer screen on the right and I realized she was about to take my photograph. ‘You may smile, if you like,’ she said.” 

“ ‘Not very Russian,’ I suggested; no response.”

Later, De Hamel is Befriended. The National Library protocol was unlike the typically highly antiseptic examination of medieval works. “There were no supports for cradling bindings (and most certainly no white gloves) and I noticed that all other readers of manuscripts were using pens.”

“The invigilator, a kind-hearted middle-aged woman wearing outsized glasses, evidently realizing that I had missed lunch, started bringing me whisky-flavoured Russian chocolates to eat at my desk.”

“I do not know her name and she spoke no English, but I declare her a saint among manuscript librarians. I sat unwrapping and eating them while turning the pages (carefully) of one of the most perfect and beautiful Italian Renaissance manuscripts in existence.”

One Hundred-Forty Pages of Dense Latin and Wonderful Illos. “Let us follow the narrative by looking at the wonderful pictures, which are the greatest feature of this princely manuscript, and which I shall for ever associate with the smell and taste of slightly sticky Russian chocolate on a warm summer afternoon.”  

Enemy ships in a river being attacked with firebombs and venomous snakes in bottles and by swimming below the water lever to drill holes in the wooden hulls.

The Adder Attack. De Hamel writes, “Here are some useful techniques if you are ever at battle at sea. Put venomous adders into bottles and toss them over the railings of the enemy’s ships where they smash onto the deck, and the snakes can rush out and bite your opponents.”

Advisory. Don’t try this at home, kids. Those medieval warriors were half-gods. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

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