Rare manuscript of Boccaccio’s work discovered in England

Des cas des nobles hommes et femmesA manuscript dating back to the year 1400 has been discovered at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library – it contains French translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s work ‘De casibus virorum illustrium’ (On the Fates of Famous Men).

Dr Guyda Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Italian at the University of Manchester, identified the uncatalogued manuscript, which been kept at the Library since 1963. Its existence was previously known only to a few curators, before its significance was identified by Dr Armstrong. Library staff helped her identify its provenance.


The manuscript, ‘Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes’, is a copy of a rare 1400 translation of the ‘De casibus virorum illustrium’, made by the French humanist and courtier Laurent de Premierfait.

Dr. Armstrong said, “The discovery of a completely unknown and unstudied manuscript in your specialist research area is every researcher’s dream. It’s a testament to the riches of the Rylands’ collections that works of this importance are still being discovered. 2013 is the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio’s birth, and we are absolutely thrilled to be able to showcase this major research discovery as part of our anniversary commemorations.”


Boccaccio who is famous for his works such as the Decameron, wrote De Casibus Virorum Illustrium between 1355 and 1360. It contains 56 biographies in Latin prose of famous individuals, including Adam and Eve, Hannibal of Carthage, Cleopatra and King Arthur of the Bretons.

Armstrong explains, “Boccaccio’s De casibus is a collection of biographies of famous figures from history, whose title can be translated as either ‘the fates of famous men’, or ‘the fall of famous men’. It’s a book in the ‘mirror for princes’ genre, where the horrible histories of the past are used as a political guide for rulers, and is notable for its critique of tyranny.”

Laurent de Premierfait made two versions of his translation of the De casibus, one in 1400 and another in 1409. However, Dr Armstrong says the Rylands’ manuscript is an extremely rare example of the first version, of which only a few copies survive worldwide.

The second, longer, version of the translation was much more popular, and many more copies survive. This second version was the source for John Lydgate’s fifteenth-century work Fall of Princes, a copy of which is also held in the Rylands’ collections.


The manuscript was bought by the University Library from a Parisian bookseller in 1963. When the University took over The John Rylands Library in 1972, the manuscript was transferred there, but remained dormant in the stacks until it was brought to Dr Armstrong’s attention by curators.

Rachel Beckett, Head of Special Collections at The John Rylands Library adds, “This is a truly remarkable discovery, and testament to the strength of the Library’s collections. It also demonstrates the value of close collaboration between curators and academic colleagues at The University of Manchester, helping us to reveal the riches of the Rylands.”

See also Happy 700th Birthday Boccaccio! Exhibition and conference mark anniversary of medieval author

Source: University of Manchester