The marginal glosses

At this point mention must be made of a manuscript feature that is used in this study to support the notion of underlying meaning. At some stage in the thirteenth century a reader recorded interpretations of the column text in the margins of a manuscript. The earliest glossed Latin manuscripts have been dated close to the time of Bartholomew’s death in about 1270. These interpretations were accepted and copied (with some anomalies) along with the rest of the work, forming an integral part of it for readers and copiers of thirteenth-century manuscripts.[28] The marginal commentary constitutes an essential aspect of the early reception of the work, dating as it might from the lifetime of the author, but even if the glosses are contemporary with Bartholomew we cannot, of course, infer authorial intentions from them. All the glosses can do is tell us something about the work’s reception by a generation of readers close to him in time.

Meyer considers that although we cannot dismiss the possibility that the glosses originated with Bartholomew, they may reflect interpretations most useful to preachers. According to Lidaka, Bartholomew ‘is cited in sermons and sermon aids more often than in any other kind of work’.[29] While we do not have an accompanying gloss for the whole work (and none, for example, in Book 15), there are sufficient to support the theory that for readers of the later thirteenth century the ‘hidden meanings’ related to the tasks of preaching and to the correct interpretations of biblical texts. Overall, the glosses strongly suggest that ‘Properties’ could be and was read by some as a vocational guide for prelates and preachers, whether within or outside the Franciscan Order, who could find in the work subject matter for sermons to strengthen orthodoxy at a time when the church was combatting heresy.

The glosses are quite dense in the Books where they have survived but elswhere we have none. The vernacular translators discarded them, effectively freeing non-clerical readers from prescribed responses to the main text. Manifestations of the text or parts of it made in later centuries demonstrate very different readings. Given the nature of the glosses as a disseminated body they must, however, be taken into account as significant for at least those readers who treated them as a necessary accompaniment to the text, whether these were early readers close to Bartholomew in time or much later readers with access to Latin manuscripts preserved in libraries. This is not to suggest that the glosses show us a ‘correct’ reading of ‘Properties’, or even the one that Bartholomew expected or intended: they do show us one possible reading, meaningful in a certain time and place. It must also be acknowledged that such a work might contain a great many allusions and nuances of meaning that are no longer available to the historian. While the glosses give us clues to the sub-textual lessons that could be construed or reinforced at the time they were written, they do not make those lessons fully explicit to us today.

The focus in subsequent chapters is upon the lively presence of ‘Properties’ in the world of English letters during the later-Plantagenet and Tudor reigns. Chapter 5 examines changes wrought upon ‘Properties’ under the patronage of noble secular bibliophiles and scholars in late-medieval England. The English translation of 1398 provides a focal point for the work’s reception in a particular cultural context — one in which ‘Properties’ retains authority while undergoing changes to its language, content and presentation. Chapter 6 uses manuscript examples to show that ‘Properties’ not only survives but increases its readership over the late Middle Ages, while re-writers invoke the compiler as ‘master’ of received knowledge about the properties of the created world. It also discusses the first English printed version of ‘Properties’. Chapter 7 examines Bartholomew’s status as a supposedly English writer, and the late-Elizabethan printed version made by Stephen Batman at a time when much new knowledge was becoming available from various sources. A sample of Batman’s responses helps us to measure the distance — long in some respects but surprisingly short in others — between his image of the world and his conception of ‘property’, and those of Bartholomew.