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The Burney collection of manuscripts in the British Library

Introduction Life and
character
Burney's purchases 'Membra
disiecta'
Illuminated
manuscripts
Further reading

The Burney collection of manuscripts and its catalogue

Yet, what of Burney’s manuscripts? Almost every description sees them through the filter of his larger collection, stressing their strengths in the texts of ancient Greece and Rome. Edward Miller, for example, focuses on the ‘superb collection of editions of Greek authors, both printed and in manuscript’. Arundell Esdaile goes further, stating that ‘most of his Latin, as of his Greek, texts are Italian humanist copies of the fifteenth century’. Alongside this general perception of the Burney collection of manuscripts several individual volumes are well known and repeatedly cited by different groups of scholars. For scholars of Byzantine illumination, for example, two magnificent illuminated manuscripts of the Four Gospels of the tenth and thirteenth centuries (Burney 19 and 20) are standard points of reference. Through E. A. Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores many know the fine seventh-century copy of Origen from Corbie (Burney 340). Before coming to the Library I myself knew only of the beautifully illustrated copy of Statius made at Paris early in the fifteenth century (Burney 257) and the extravagantly illustrated copy of Curtius in French translation made in Bruges in the early 1470s (Burney 169). The apparently exceptional nature of such volumes is worthy of review.

But, first let me say a little about the principal existing route into the collection, namely the catalogue published by the British Museum in 1840. Understanding the genesis of this catalogue helps to explain not only important features of the collection, but also the collection’s general underuse by researchers. In the first place the descriptions, including their detailed and tireless identifications of numerous texts, derive almost word-for-word from a catalogue begun for Burney around 1808, of which the relevant entry is repeated in the table of contents inserted by Burney in most of his manuscripts. With the notable exception of the Index, a remarkable work that amalgamates entries for the Burney manuscripts with those for the Arundel collection, almost the sole contribution made by Henry Ellis on behalf of the Museum was the description of Burney’s own notes, the addition of manuscript numbers to all the volumes, and their classified arrangement in the catalogue. For in Burney’s possession not only were his own notes unrecorded in his manuscript catalogue, his manuscripts were arranged alphabetically by author both in his catalogue and on his shelves. I shall return later to an important consequence of Burney’s arrangement of his collection.

As it was arranged at the Museum, the collection can be summarised as follows:

1-43 The Bible and commentaries on the Bible
44-58Greek Fathers and Greek liturgy
59-110 Greek authors, arranged alphabetically
111-127 Miscellaneous Greek texts, including early modern texts
128-274 Latin authors, arranged alphabetically
275 Latin miscellany
276-277 Greek and Latin fragments
278-280 Miscellaneous Latin texts
281-361 Latin Fathers and post-classical authors, including devotional texts
362-407 Letters and papers of scholars
408, 409a Greek texts omitted from earlier sequence
409b-519 Burney’s notes
520-524 Miscellaneous modern notes


Perhaps the most obvious fact that emerges from such a summary is how large a proportion the notes and modern papers form. Within 525 volumes, they account for 162 volumes or 30% of the collection. A more important fact to note is the relatively large number of Christian texts: taking only the Bibles, Biblical commentaries, works of the Fathers and Christian liturgy, we can account for no fewer than 139 volumes or just over 25% of the collection. The Latin and Greek classics total 195 volumes or 37%. Setting aside the notes and modern papers, Christian texts form just under 40% and secular just over 50%. Such a balance was entirely appropriate for the collection of such a scholar-cleric as Burney. It is on the other hand far from the common perception of it, as exemplified in the previously cited remarks of Miller and Esdaile.


Burney 19, f. 102
Gospels, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 2nd half of the 10th century, 220 x 170 mm, Illuminated Headpiece
Burney 19, f. 102


Burney 20, f. 226v
Gospels, Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), dated 1285 (colophon), 190 x 155 mm, Evangelist portrait of John
Burney 20, f. 226v


Burney 340, f. 1
Origen, Homiliae in numeri 15-19, France, N. (Corbie), last quarter of the 7th century, 310 x 225 mm, Display script
Burney 340, f. 1


Burney 257, f. 4v
Statius, Thebaid, France, Central (Paris), c. 1405, 290 x 195 mm, Statius presenting the Thebaid
Burney 257, f. 4v


Burney 169, f. 50
Quintus Curtius Rufus (translated by Vasco da Lucena), Les faiz d’Alexandre, Netherlands, S. (Bruges), c. 1470, 430 x 310 mm, Alexander confronts Darius III, illuminated by the Master of the Vienna Chroniques d'Angleterre
Burney 169, f. 50


Introduction Life and
character
Burney's purchases 'Membra
disiecta'
Illuminated
manuscripts
Further reading
print Print this page
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site search Search British Library website
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