The criteria for dating presented here have been developed progressively in the systematic pan-European effort to identify dated and datable manuscripts, an enterprise that began in the mid-twentieth century. The project, known under the generic name of the Catalogue of Dated Manuscripts, intends to offer a solid footing for studies in paleography and the history of texts, indeed, for history in general, by creating a repertory of dated and datable manuscripts that provide reliable chronological and geographic benchmarks. For five decades the enterprise has moved forward without interruption, library by library, methodically if somewhat irregularly, depending upon the country and problems that arise with such publications. (1) The long duration of the work has given time to refine methods step by step, so that today it is relatively easy to give a broad view of the principle indications for dating that can be found in medieval manuscripts.
Chemists and physicists have not yet provided practical, nondestructive, or reliable tests for dating manuscripts. We thus depend on two types of indicator: explicit indicators, which must be treated critically, and implicit indicators, which have to be flushed out.
First among the explicit indicators is the colophon. The luckiest case for the researcher is obviously one where the scribe is charitable when he finishes his work. He himself informs us of his name, the date, the place where he is writing, and while he is at it, supplies a bit of information on the time it took and the circumstances surrounding his work. This type of indication is utterly exceptional before the tenth century. In most cases, only the name of the scribe or the patron is mentioned, and it is by cross-referencing this information with other indicators that we manage to date the volume. In these cases we speak of a "subscription." We reserve the term "colophon" for mentions that give fuller information, including the date and the place.
One of the best-known examples of a subscription is in the Maurdramnus Bible, one of our earliest witness to the new Caroline minuscule in the late eighth century: "Ego Maurdramnus abbas propter Dei amorem et propter conpendium legentium hoc volumen fieri jussi" (I, Maurdramnus, abbot, had this volume made for the love of God and for the benefit of the readers). (2) It is known that Maurdramnus was abbot of Corbie from 772 to 780. The Bible can thus be dated with a precision that is unusual for this period.
The use of colophons remains rare until the thirteenth century. They are a bit more frequent at the end of the Middle Ages but are not found in all or even most manuscripts. At Laon, the last library to be studied for the Catalogue of Dated Manuscripts in France, (3) colophons appear in one fifth of the manuscripts from the fifteenth century and in a third of those from the sixteenth century.
A manuscript at Soissons (4) (figure 1) has a dated colophon representing the rare ideal case where the scribe gives his name and the date but also the place of transcription: "Ce livre est a Jehan Thoulouse bouttiller en la viconte de l'eaue de Rouen escript l'an mil quatre cent soysante et quatre" (This book belongs to Jehan Thoulouse, cup-bearer in the viscounty of the waterways (5) of Rouen, written in the year 1464).
Of course, a colophon is not necessarily reliable out of hand. Two examples suffice to show that one has to be a bit cautious before rejoicing at having fallen upon an explicitly dated manuscript. In another manuscript at Soissons (6) (figure 2), the colophon reads:
Fuit hic liber compilatus et completus Rome, anno Incarnationis
dominice millesimo quadringentesimo quadragesimo sexto, VII kal.
Marcii [23 February 1447 n. st.] pontificatus domini Nicolai pape
quinti [Nicolas V, 1447-1455] anno primo, per reverendum patrem
dominum Bernardum de Rosergio, prepositum Tholosanum (This book was
compiled and finished in Rome, in the year of the Incarnation of
our Lord, 1446 [old style], on the seventh kalends of March [23
February], in the first year of the papacy of Pope Nicolas the
fifth, by Lord Bernard de Rosergue, provost of Toulouse). …