Library acquires 14th century Provençal manuscript

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Northwestern’s Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections has joined with Chicago’s Newberry Library to acquire a rare fourteenth-century book that offers modern readers remarkable insight into the daily life of a thriving medieval Provençal town and into medieval European commerce, linguistics, and philology.

Written in Provençal, the language of medieval troubadours, the hand-written manuscript is a register of toll charges levied by a municipality along the Rhône River in the late 1300s—almost certainly the thriving port town of Tarascon. As such, it records in great detail the occupation and social status of travelers and merchants moving up and down along the river, among them local citizens, but also Spaniards, English, Germans, and Lombards—even a Saracen slave of unknown gender (aussi un sarrazin esclau o esclaua). These men and women made their living transporting and selling merchandise and wares: oils, oranges, skins and furs, as well as the single most vital commodity for food preservation and seasoning in the Middle Ages: salt. At frequent intervals, all shipments along the river were taxed—salt most of all. The Provençal word for toll was "pezatge" or "peatge," which like the modern French "péage," from the Latin “pediaticum,” means, literally, the “right to set foot.” Péage was the feudal tax levied in exchange for the right to circulate, to use a road, navigate a river, cross a bridge, or to pass through a city gate. The manuscript showcases the whole rich vocabulary of medieval commerce, including weights and measures, textiles, botany, produce, and livestock. There is also contemporary fiscal, monetary, and trade terminology.

The text of the “Registre del peage de Tarascon” was published in 1891 by Edouard Bondurand of Nîmes. However, Bondurand did not have access to the present manuscript and therefore based his critical edition on a much reduced and altered text of a later date preserved in the municipal archives of Tarascon.

Consisting of 16 leaves of parchment in its original binding, inscribed in brown ink in a rounded Gothic hand, the Tarascon Manuscript is perhaps the only original medieval Provençal manuscript book in the greater Chicago area, and one of very few in this hemisphere. It promises to become an important resource for students and scholars researching life and language in Europe 650 years ago, according to Northwestern French professor William Paden. "The joint acquisition of this manuscript by Northwestern and the Newberry exemplifies the best kind of cooperation between great institutions," Paden says, "and has made it possible to bring to Chicago a resource that would otherwise have gone elsewhere. The Tarascon manuscript will prove invaluable for students of the physical book in this time and place, as well as scholars in the history of Provençal language and culture and historians of transportation, commerce, and society."

"We are delighted to partner with Northwestern University, and very grateful for its efforts to bring this important manuscript to the Midwest," says Paul Saenger, the Newberry Library's George A. Pool III Curator of Rare Books. "Over the past 15 years, the Newberry's joint-acquisition program has brought more than 30 manuscripts and printed books to Midwestern universities, adding important material to the resources available to area scholars."