Avoiding fraud in medieval book borrowing

Borrowing library books was not a casual process in the middle ages. Sometimes borrowing was simply not allowed, and chained monastic libraries are perhaps the best example of this institutional interdiction. Secular libraries, however, almost always allowed borrowing, but not as liberally as one would imagine. For instance, Richard de Bury, the greatest bibliophile of the medieval period and author of the Philobiblon, prescribed that only duplicate books may be lent to anyone not belonging to the ‘community of scholars’ at the Oxford hall he founded.

As university libraries grew, so did the need to make sure that the books which went on loan would return to the library exactly as they left. Inventories were drawn up, booklists were compiled, at first not for the purpose of tracking loans, but simply to make a record of the books held.

It seems that fraud was acknowledged from an early date. As the book trade intensified due to the rise of the universities, books began to acquire intrinsic value. It is not clear what parameters buyers and sellers of books had in mind, other than the production costs, when they set the value of a manuscript and its price on the market. What is clearer is that many thought borrowing books afforded an opportunity for gain. Volumes of lower value but matching content were substituted for the books actually borrowed. The evidence is indirect and comes from the librarians’ reaction to this practice.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century, it was at the University of Paris that a cataloguing protocol emerged whereby library books were listed according to the works they contained and, more importantly and without precedent, described using something similar to code. The description included words from a specific folio. Most often it involved the first few words on the second leaf. It helped identify the volume, because even where copies of the same text existed, it was almost impossible to find two volumes with matching words on matching folios before the age of print. These ‘words of proof’ or dicta probatoria were entered on booklists along with the donor’s name and the actual price/estimated value, as in this entry from Merton College, Oxford:

prec. dmarc.      |       Exposicio Thome de Alquino super Methaphisicam     |    de dono M. Thome Bray in secundo folio, corpora cum superioribus.

This entry tells us that the volume containing Thomas Aquinas’ Expositio super Metaphysicam, was the gift of Master Thomas Bray; it was valued or cost the donor five hundred and one marks (huge amount) and on its second folio, the first words at the top of the leaf were corpora cum superioribus. Sometimes, the location of the dicta probatoria was recorded after the formula cuius secundum folium incipit…, ‘whose second folio begins with’.

Unfortunately, the volume from Merton has not been identified, but here’s an example from a 15th-century catalogue of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where a manuscript from the 11th century was marked for dicta probatoria on the second leaf.

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Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 274, fol. 2r (s. xi, from Canterbury)

The librarian (?) entered the name of the work (‘de virginitate li[bri] i’, in this case the first book of Ambrose’s De Virginitate, as well as fo. 2 to make clear that this was the second leaf. The first two words on the folio are ‘ego quoq[ue]’. I haven’t had a chance to see the Merton catalogue entry yet, but I assume it says ‘De virginitate li i in secundo folio, ego quoque.’.

Words of proof were used to describe books on loan lists as well. An example from King’s Hall, Cambridge, now Trinity College, lists a number of books borrowed between 1386-1387. The books are described by their title and words of proof.

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Trinity College, King’s Hall Accounts II (UC33), fol. 18v


‘Cuius secundum folium incipit’. The same formula recurs in almost every loan. Sometimes it’s the second folio, sometimes the first (‘primum folium’), though it is not clear how useful first-folio incipits are for distinguishing books, as those words are actually the first words or incipit of a given work, and that almost never changed in duplicate manuscripts.

Despite all this indirect evidence for the existence of fraud amongst medieval borrowers, it is not clear how fraudsters operated. Book thievery, however, may be easier to identify, as in this example from Ely.

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Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 335, fol. 152v

The word ‘Elien[sis]’ was erased from the ex libris ‘Iste liber pertinet ecclesie’ (‘This book belongs to the church of’. It has also been claimed that a distinctive Ely mark was also ripped from the opening folio, perhaps in an attempt to conceal its provenance. Note that only the name of the abbey was erased, and not the whole ex libris, suggesting that the book may have been intended for a new religious house. If the transfer was legitimate, then why remove the press-mark? Nor was the manuscript ordinary, as it contained works related to Muhammad and Islam.

For more information about dicta probatoria, see:

  • D. Williman and K. Corsano, ‘Tracing Provenances by dictio probatoria’,
    Scriptorium 53 (1999), 124-145.
  • James Willougby, ‘The Secundo Folio and its Uses, Medieval and Modern’, Library (2011) 12 (3), 237-258.

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