What is the first thing you see, what is your eye drawn to, color and shape resplendent in this digitization? It is a face. Let us examine the face, and what this face is the watcher of, and the adorner of. Why is he here, this face?
Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 292, fol. 4r
This poor musician, seeking escape from the swirls of uncertainty above, is locked, locked into this R of patchwork blues. The face to me appears to be a man, although we can never be sure; I will take the risk here of assigning this figure a pronoun; forgive me, musician, if I am wrong. He seems to crawl, his head beneath twisted lines, caught where the curve of the R bends in and then out again, an affirmation to the persistence of graphemes. At his lips two gemshorns, rural instruments, organic sound-makers, made from goat or cow horns. They are turned to send sound into different directions, the one on the left pushing its way past sharp-edged leaves and a triple-petaled bloom. The gemshorns are decorated, prized possessions, heirloom objets, perhaps? Material history from the lives of the long-ago eaten or milked animal, warm and nourishing.
In the atelier of this resplendent R, feathered and dashed with silver, in this R with tassels of leaf and fruit, desultory dots make breasts of all shapes, squeezed or held by fingers unseen, or left alone, connected by elegant wires. Confined to stasis chambers—the double lines of emphasis or the no-passing zone—they float, daring the looker to gaze upon them—a male gaze to be sure, given the history of this volume. Which brings us, yes, to the history of this manuscript.
When I first saw the name attached to this item, I almost closed the tab. I read “Torquemada” and leapt to the most famous of his name: Tomás Torquemada: a self-hating Jew, a man descended from a conversa whose life’s work was the destruction of Iberian Jewry. But no: I had jumped a generation. This Torquemada--spelled in some records “Turrecremata”—is Iohannes, or Juan (1388-1468 CE), uncle of the notorious Tomás. Does “cremata” foretell his nephew’s fires, his merciless burnings of the living? Perhaps? But where Tomás sought expulsions and executions, Juan defended the conversos of Toledo and wrote an important work on the topic, his Tractatus contra Madianitas et Ismaelitas: defensa de los judíos conversos, arguing that Jewish converts were included in St. Paul’s vision of the ultimate Christian church. This text, with its worried musician and disembodied breasts adorning an R, is a lesser work, his Commentary on Regula S. Benedicti. Nonetheless, the page begins with a shout: Reverendissimo—Most Revered. Do the gemshorns bleat? Do they sound a fanfare for two voices, played by a single mouth? Do the breasts swell with joy or pride? Do the tassels and feathers and fruits wave and dance, as the curls on the back of the R unfurl in excitement?
The commentary seems to address efforts of reform that originated in the Councils of Basle and Constance. It is long, rewritten here by German monks with even hands on parchment, bound in calfskin, the skin of that same animal whose horns have become here instruments of godly sound. No other embellished letter contains a captive; the musician is alone with these words and his instruments. Breathe, worried musician, breathe and let your eyebrows uncrease. Your face is open to the world. Let scholars and children look on you and hear your music, beating a drumline for you across time, translating and unraveling the words you herald, seeking the braver, better Torquemada, one seeming to have compassion. Blow, horns, and call to your breasts readers.
Kendra Preston Leonard is a poet, lyricist, librettist, and musicologist based in Texas. Her novella in verse about the Greek gorgons in the modern world, Protectress, is forthcoming January 2021 from Unsolicited Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @K_Leonard_Phd.
Comparator manuscript: The Medingen Psalter in the Bodleian Library MS. Don. e. 248, fol. 145v for Psalm 80, Exultate deo
There the instrument is clearly meant to depict the ‘tuba’ which is meant to be blown ‘in the new moon’, i.e. the Jewish shofar.
Exultate deo adiutori nostro: iubilate deo Iacob
Sumite psalmum et date tympanum: psalterium iucundum cum cithara
Buccinate in neomenia tuba: in insigni die solemnitatis vestre