This deluxe manuscript is the most lavishly illuminated copy known of the Livre de Sydrac, an enormously popular work of science and natural philosophy in the Middle Ages. As one of the oldest surviving copies of Sydrac, it also bears critical witness to the early circulation and reception of this work. Its generous cycle of illuminations, painted by the Master of BnF MS lat. 1328 and two associates, also sheds new light on the vibrant book trade in Arras at its zenith.  In excellent condition the miniatures sparkle with highly burnished gold leaf. Unseen for over a century in the Russian Imperial Library and later in illustrious Private Collections, this jewel of the Sydrac corpus has generated tremendous interest among scholars, and its rediscovery greatly enriches the history of medieval art and science.

ii (modern paper) + 151 + ii (modern paper) folios on parchment, foliated sporadically in pencil top right and/or bottom center, complete, (collation: i6, ii6+1 (7th leaf a singleton, fol. 13), iii8+1 (4th leaf a singleton, fol. 17), iv-xiv8 , xv8+1 (3rd leaf a singleton, fol. 113), xvi-xvii8, xviii8-1 (3rd leaf misbound in next quire), xix8+1 (2nd leaf belongs in previous quire; the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 9th leaves, fols. 144, 146, 149, and 151 are singletons), misplaced leaf which should follow fol. 137 is foliated as ‘138’ and follows fol. 144, catchwords in most quires and leaf signatures surviving sporadically, prickings often survive at the fore-edge margin, and usually in the other three margins, ruled in leadpoint for 30 lines of text per page (justification 225 × 165 mm), in two columns, generously spaced c. 25 mm apart, written in brown ink in gothic script, with rubrics in red, the table of chapters with one-line initials alternately burnished gold with blue penwork flourishing, or blue with red penwork, two-line GOLD INITIALS THROUGHOUT, USUALLY WITH AT LEAST TWO PER PAGE, the gold edged with black, infilled with blue with white ornament, on a ground of red-brown with white ornament, this white ornament often figurative or representing for example a castle, a spread eagle, a king’s head, a fleur-de-lis, a peacock, etc., each miniature accompanied by a similar but more elaborate initial usually four lines high (four of them are five-line, and five are three-line), more elaborate versions of the two-line initials, with TWENTY-SEVEN LARGE MINIATURES ON HIGHLY BURNISHED GOLD GROUNDS, framed usually in blue and/or reddish brown, a contrasting color or gold at each corner, with white ornament, the parchment generally very good but of somewhat variable quality, with natural flaws, rarely within the text area, and some water staining, some marginal inscriptions slightly cropped, but the presence of prickings suggests that the book retains almost its full original dimensions, fols. 138, 146, and 149 are made up of two sheets of parchment joined horizontally and similarly fol. 11 has the outer margin formed of an extra strip of parchment, some miniatures partially rubbed, and some have flaking pigments or gold, showing general signs of use and handling. Sewn on five bands, and bound in French 18th-century dark blue Morocco over pasteboards, the covers with a gilt border and turn-ins, the binding generally in good condition except for an area of damage in the center of the lower cover, two paper flyleaves each at front and back, the pastedowns and conjoint endpapers marbled, the spine with acanthus and floral ornaments in each compartment except the second, which is lettered in gilt “LIVRE / DES SCIENC[ES] / DE SYDRAC”, in a fitted blue Morocco slip-case.c. Dimensions 295 × 225 mm


1. The manuscript was likely made in Arras, to judge from the Picard spellings used by the scribe and from the other known works by the same artist the Master of BnF MS lat. 1328. An unidentified supplicant kneeling below a miniature of the Creation of Eve on folio 1, may represent the commissioner of the manuscript. Undoubtably, this lavishly illustrated work was created for a patron of considerable rank, like the Countess Mahaut d’Artois who purchased liberally from the Arras book market at this time (Richard, Une petite-nièce de Saint Louis: Mahaut, comtesse d’Artois et de Bourgogne (1302–1329), 1887, 99–106; Stones 1999, 24). It may also relate to the numerous “Sydracs” mentioned in royal and princely libraries in later centuries, many of which remain unidentified. Inventories conducted in the library of Charles V of France between 1380 and 1411, for instance, record seven copies, including one “enluminé,” all of which are presently unaccounted for (Deslile 1907, Recherches sur la librairie de Charles V, II, 77–79; Weisel 1993, 63). The lists of kings, princes, and dukes who owned multiple copies of Sydrac leave no doubt that the present manuscript—the most lavishly illuminated of all copies known to us—must have been commissioned by someone of equal wealth and stature. Further research may enable it to be identified as one of the copies recorded in the inventory of a royal or princely library.

2. The present manuscript was still in France in the eighteenth century, when it received its present binding. An oval blind-stamped owner’s mark in the top right-hand corner of folio1r, imperfectly stamped, faint, and difficult to read, appears to include the words “... DU PRINCE ...”.

3. The Imperial Library of the Russian Czars. Shelf mark Fr.F.v.III no. 5 in the collections of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (Fr=French, F=Folio, v=parchment, III=Philosophy; see: A. de Laborde, Les principaux manuscrits à peintures conservés dans l’ancienne Bibliothèque lmpériale Publique de Saint-Pétersbourg, 1936–1938, p. xii). A note in the margins of f. 151v from Sergej Ushakov, librarian at the Imperial Library, reads: “Въ этой рукописи сто пятьдесятъ три (I и II бумажн., вложены въ началѣ р-си, + 15/ пергам) листа. Ноября, 29го дня, 1927 г. Сер. Ушаковъ” (in this manuscript there are 153 leaves [I and II paper leaves inserted in the beginning of the manuscript + 151 parchment leaves]. 29 November 1927. Sergej Ushakov 317/925.”). As the manuscript has not been identified as part of the Załuski collection (see The Inventory of Manuscripts from the Załuski Library in the Imperial Public Library, ed. Olga N. Bleskina et al, 2013) it was likely acquired by Pyotr Dubrovsky (1754–1815), Czar Alexander I (1801–1825), or another Russian collector in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Facing a financial crisis in the early 1930s, the Soviet Government liquidated many illuminated manuscripts from Russian imperial libraries. These were offered at auction in Lucerne (1932 and 1933) and by private treaty with Ushakov creating the pre-sale inventory. The Maggs Brothers and Sotheby’s were instrumental in negotiating a number of sales, including the present book, which was one of two sold to Marcel Jeanson (1885–1942); the other being the Gaston Phébus, now Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. 27.

4. Marcel Jeanson (1885-1942), Paris, France, his bookplate, marked MS. 2, on front endleaf.  Successful industrialist and one of the most important bibliophiles of the 20th century, Marcel Jeanson assembled one of the finest collections of books on hunting and ornithology, among many other manuscripts and printed books (sale, Sotheby’s, Monaco, 1987, Part I); the present volume sold London, Sotheby’s, 5 December 2000, lot 50 (cover of the catalogue).

5. Private Collection; sold by the heirs.


f. 1, [prologue 1] Cest li liures de Sydrac et lastrenomien le philosophe qui est dis liures de toutes sienches; incipit: “La pourueance nostre segnor le pere tout poissant a este du com[m]encement du monde ...; explicit: “par le conoissanre  de coses qui on este devant nous et par lart de lastronomie.”;

f. 3, [table of questions], incipit: “[D?]u diex tous iours et sera, i; Se diex puet estre ueus, ii; Se diex est en tous liens, iii …”; explicit: “Quans fiex ot eve dadam, VIxxxii; Qui est mors et ne fu nes, VIxxxiii; En quell non baptiherent li apostre premiers, VIxxxiiii”;

f. 14, [prologue 2], Chi com[m]ence li liures le roi boctus quil fist escrire des sciences de Sydrac. Et limist non le liure de Sydrac de toutes sciences; incipit: “Au tens dou roi toi boctus au levuant roi dune grant prouuince. Qui est entre inde et p[er]sse qui sapele boctoriens…”; explicit: et [com]mencha ademanter les questio[n]s et les capitles auant no[m]me au [com]mencement.”;

f. 20v, [Dialectic between Sydrac and Boctus], Chi [com]mencent les capitres q[ue]stions de cest liure que li rois boctus requist a Sydrac le philosople le prophete li rois demand fu tous iou dir et sera. Sydrac r.; incipit: “Diex not onques [com]mencement ne fin naura. il fist ciel et terre et avant quil les feist il soit bie[n] qui les de voit et les angles avant quil feist et des homes…”; explicit: cis liure est diex par sa grande pite li dorst valour et bon te et lame limere emparadis amen  amen ensi soit il.”    

The Livre de Sydrac, a work that is not well known in modern times, was once a highly popular text written in French by an unknown author in the last quarter of the thirteenth century (certainly after 1268). It defies classification by genre, containing elements of a romance, encyclopedia, and almanac. It has been summarized as “a catechism of medieval science” (Ward 1961, 903) an “ordinary man’s” handbook to the natural world (Holler 1975) and a “dialectical encyclopedia” (Ruhe 2011) among other characterizations. The volume is known by several titles, and is represented by over seventy manuscripts, with translations into numerous vernaculars. It was especially popular among aristocratic patrons and can be found in inventories from some of the most notable libraries of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries including, Jean, Duc de Berry (1340–1416), Charles V (1338–1380) and Charles VI (1368–1422) of France, and the Dukes of Bourgogne (1415). Extent manuscripts can be generally classified into two main groups ‒ long and short versions of the text – with significant variation among them. The present manuscript, one of the earliest of the known Sydrac corpus, contains the short version with a total of 634 questions.

More than seventy manuscripts containing complete and partial redactions and at least two groups of fragments are presently known, and the book was quickly adopted into print, published in seventeen editions between 1486 and 1535 (Weisel 1993; Ruhe 2011; see also Online Resources). In addition, there are two complete English recensions, as well as translations into German, Dutch, Catalan, Italian, and even Danish all by the end of the fifteenth century. Most of these extant manuscripts are in institutional ownership, but a handful of manuscripts, including the present copy and a fragment of seven leaves in a private collection, published by Connochie-Bourgne (2006) are also accounted for.

The work narrates the tale of King Boctus, the ruler of a great province between India and Persia, who lived 1200 years before the birth of Christ. The prologue relates how Boctus, at war with his neighbor King Gharab of India, attempts to build a mighty tower on the border of their two territories, but each night the construction work of the previous day is magically demolished. After consulting in vain with his court philosophers, Boctus sends for Sydrac, an astronomer to King Tractabar and descendant of Noah’s son Japhet who possessed an inherited book of wisdom dictated to Noah by an angel. Sydrac explains that the land where the king is trying to build the tower is cursed, but the spell can be broken with herbs which grow on the Green Mountain of the Raven and are guarded by dog-headed men. Eventually Boctus succeeds in obtaining the herbs, and the tower can be built. Boctus then orders his court, including Sydrac, to sacrifice to pagan gods in thanksgiving, but Sydrac, a follower of the Christian god, refuses, incurring the King’s wrath. Boctus, however, is converted by Sydrac to the Trinitarian faith when the King receives a vision of the Trinity in a fountain, a scene that invokes the alternate title of the work, Livre de la fontaine de toutes sciences (Ruhe 2011). It is then revealed to the reader that Sydrac takes his name from the Old Testament figure Shadrach, who with his companions, Meshach and Abed-nego, refused to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s idols and subsequently converted that ruler to Judaism.

The text is in four main parts: a prologue followed by a table of questions, a second prologue, and finally the text proper in the form of a dialogue between Sydrac and Boctus, in which the latter asks a long series of questions, and the former provides answers. The first prologue contains a long, complicated, and largely embellished history of the book. The second prologue begins with the account of the text’s translation into French at Toledo in 1243, likewise a dubious story, and then narrates the story of Sydrac and Boctus. The fourth portion of the text, the dialectic between Sydrac and Boctus, varies from redaction to redaction, with “short” versions typically containing over 600 questions and “long” versions of well over 1,000. While there has been considerable debate about the form of the original text, it is universally agreed that the short versions are the earliest. The expansion of the text in the long version is the product of later editors who subdivided certain questions into two or more (Minervini 1977) or added additional information to update the text’s scientific currency (Ruhe 2011).  Events listed in the work do allow the composition of the text to be determined with some precision. In one Question the text mentions the capture of Antioch in 1268, so it must have been written after that date. An allusion in the following Question to the defense of the Latin East, and events leading up to it, can very plausibly be interpreted as referring to the fall of the Crusader fortress of Acre in May 1291 (Ruhe 2011, 323; Stones 2013, 243). If this interpretation is correct, the present manuscript would have been completed a mere ten years after the original composition, making it one of the earliest known works of the Sydrac corpus.

The main body of the text is composed of hundreds of questions posed by Boctus to Sydrac, and Sydrac’s learned answers, arranged in a vast and meandering survey of early scientific subjects as diverse as obstetrics, geography, meteorology, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, medicine, demonology, sexuality, fashion, and natural history. A sample from the present manuscript include: Where does fire go when it is extinguished? (fol. 29v); Do birds, animals, and fish have souls? (fol. 38v); How big is the world? (fol. 52v); How do birds fly? (fol. 52v); Why is the sea salty? (fol. 53v); Where does wind come from? (fol. 54r); Where does lightning come from, and how is it made? (fol. 54r) How many stars are there in the sky? (fol. 61r); Why is the sun hot and the moon cold? (fol. 61v); How are the sun, moon, and stars held up in the sky? (fol. 71r), and so forth. The text provides a basic overview of medieval scientific knowledge, interwoven with contemporary debates in theology and ontology. For example, the book addresses the existence of purgatory, Aquinas’s doctrine of Transubstantiation, and the filioque clause (i.e.., whether the Holy Spirit “proceeds” from the Father alone or from both the Father and the Son), all of which were burning issues at the Council of Lyons in 1274 (Ruhe 2011).

The Livre de Sydrac draws from a variety of literary sources, especially the vernacular encyclopedia tradition of the later Middle Ages. Probably its most significant influence was the French encyclopedia of Brunetto Latini, Le livre dou Tresor, itself based on Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum majus (c. 1260), the most ambitious Latin encyclopedia of the High Middle Ages. Our author also drew on a variety of French and Latin texts (some with Arabic origins), principally Gautier de Metz, Image du monde, the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum, the Elucidarium of Honorius of Autun (1080–1154), the Philosophia mundi of William of Conches (c. 1090-post 1154), the Introductorium in astronomiam by Albumasar (d. 886; the Persian astronomer and early transmitter of the ideas of Aristotle on Natural History; Latin translations of his work by John of Seville in 1133 and Herman of Carinthia in 1140), and the Somme le roi of Frère Laurent, a moral compendium compiled in 1279 for King Philip III of France.

While drawing much of its information from these sources, the text of Sydrac differs significantly in its form, structure, and epistemology. Its simple language and question-and-answer format render it accessible to a wide audience, which undoubtably accounted for its popularity. This difference coupled with the seeming naïveté of the questions and disorganization of the text provoked much scorn from its earliest literary scholars who unfairly colored the book’s reputation. Langlois (1911, 199), for instance, decried it as “a confused and detestable logorrhea of a man without instinct and without literary culture, which catechizes illiterates.” Modern scholarship has fortunately revived the work’s importance within the fields of medieval science and literature. Ruhe (2007; 2011), in particular, has analyzed the text’s structure, finding close parallels to contemporary literary works such as the Livre de Merlin, which features the fabled English magician as a young philosophe in a question-and-answer dialogue with a king. In Ruhe’s analysis, however, Sydrac is not portrayed as a philosopher but a prophet akin to his namesake Shadrach and, more closely, Daniel who served as counselor to another Eastern Emperor Darius the Mede. Like Daniel, the source of Sydrac’s knowledge is divine rather than academic, and the text’s loose composition reflects this point. Discarding the logocentric structure typical of the scholastic encyclopedia, the Livre de Sydrac, conceives the natural world as a “fontaine de toutes sciences” in which mingling streams of knowledge collectively, if disjointedly, reveal the creator.  


With twenty-seven miniatures, this manuscript is by far the most lavish copy of the Livre de Sydrac in existence. Of the seventy-some known copies, few are illustrated, and these typically range between five to ten illuminations each (Stones 2013, 245–46). Twenty-five of the miniatures have been attributed by Alison Stones to the Master of BnF 1328, an artist related to the Cholet group and first identified by Francois Avril (1998), while the remaining two illuminations have been recognized as the work of associates also known from related manuscripts (Stones 2013, 244). Each of the twenty-seven miniatures is the width of a column of text, about 70 mm, and most are between 75 and 85 mm tall: a few occur at the bottom of a column and are thus somewhat shorter, others are taller, up to 105 mm.  They are in perfect condition with highly burnished gold grounds.

The subjects of the miniatures, their approximate dimensions, and the passages of text they accompany, are as follows:

Fol. 1r, in two compartments. Above: Christ creates Eve from the side of the sleeping Adam; a tree (the Tree of Knowledge?) in the background. Below: a kneeling figure, apparently supplicating the figure of Christ in the upper compartment. 90 × 70 mm. “Ceste Ii livres de Sydrac et l’astronomien le philosophe qui est dis livres de toutes sienches.”

Fol. 14r, King Boctus, crowned and holding a glove, speaking to Sydrach, who holds an open book before him. 105 × 70 mm. “Chi fenissent les chapitres du Livre de Sydrac les ques li rois Boctus requist. Chi co mmence li livres le roi Boctus qu’il fist escrire des sciences de Sydrac. Et li mist non le livre de Sydrac de toutes sciences. Au tens du roi roi [sic] Boctus au levant roi d’une grant province. Qui est entre Inde et Persse....”

Fol. 16v, King Boctus and Sydrach stand together pointing at the ruins of the tower that Boctus has been trying to build. 80 × 70 mm. [No rubric] “Boctus le roi estoit mescreans. Et ne creoit pas en son creatour....”

Fol. 20v, King Boctus and Sydrach stand either side of the Ascension of Christ, whose feet are seen disappearing heavenward. 55 × 70 mm. “Chi co mmencent les capictres [et les] questions de ceste livre qui li rois Boctus requist a Sydrac le philosophe et le prophete. Li rois demande: fu tous iours di[eu]x et sera?” (Question 1).

Fol. 22v, Christ creates Adam in the foreground, Boctus and Sydrach converse behind them. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande fist dieux l’ome a ses mains?” (Question 10).

Fol: 24v, King Boctus converses with Sydrach. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande quel c[h]ose toli Adam dieu? Et co mment li devoit rendre?” (Question 14).

Fol. 25v, King Boctus and Sydrach converse next to a naked corpse. 75 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande pourcoi est nomée la mors mors, et quantes mors sont?’’ (Question 19).

Fol. 29r, King Boctus and Sydrach converse and point at a dead soldier at their feet, who bleeds from a dagger in his chest. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande le sanc. Que devient quant li cors muert?” (Question 31).

Fol. 32r, King Boctus and Sydrach sit together conversing, either side of a soul being lifted to heaven by angels. 80 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande la quele est La plus laide c[h]ose qui soit, et la plus p[e]rilleuse, et la plus malvaise, et la plus paourouse? La ame est la plus laide cose que diex fist….” (Question 44).

Fol. 34r, King Boctus and Sydrach converse and look at a man warming his hands by a fire. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande coment fait froit Quant il est cler tans?” (Question 54).

Fol. 36r, King Boctus and Sydrach converse. 90 × 65 mm. “Li rois demande co mment puet Ii enffes issir du ventre femere Quant il est en son cors Qui est plains dos?” (Question 62).

Fol. 42v, King Boctus and Sydrach converse. 80 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande Qui vant miex l’amour de fame ou Ii haine?” (Question 85).

Fol. 45v, King Boctus and Sydrach converse, and point to a sitting man counting money on a square table-top. 90 × 70 mm “Li rois demande Quant li riches hom pert sa riqueche vant il mains. Et quant li pouvres devient rices vant il plus pour cou?” (Question 94).

Fol. 48r, King Boctus and Sydrach converse behind a bier. 80 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande puet nus eschaper de le mort?” (Question 105).

Fol. 52r, King Boctus and Sydrach stand either side of a globe representing the earth, with an upright man standing at the top of the northern hemisphere, and an upside-down man standing in the southern hemisphere. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande a il autres gens desous nous qui la clarte du siecle voient? Pour la reondece du monde il ia autres gens desous nous ...” (Question 118).

Fol. 55r, Noah lifting an animal into the ark, a dog and a lion at his feet. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande quant Noe entra en l’arche et prist de cascune beste et oisiaus et bestes quel estier avoit il des autres malvaises bestes metre en l’arche escorpions, serpens, tarentes et autres mauvaises bestes?” (Question 136).

Fol. 60r, A simple landscape with three trees on the horizon, and four differently colored springs of water in the foreground. 75 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande quantes manieres de [gens- crossed through] aiges sont? Il ia pluisours manieres de aiges sont par le monde. Premierement la meres qui est salée. Dont toutes autres manieres de aigues sont ...” (Question 151).

Fol. 65r, A man (Sydrach?) and woman in conversation. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande a quantes manieres de gent doit on port’ honnour en cest siecle?” (Question 178).

Fol. 72r, Two men, each stabbing the other with a sword held in one hand, and striking each other with their other hand. 85 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande aura tous iours guerre au monde?” (Question 204).

Fol. 84v, King Boctus and Sydrach in conversation. 75 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande doit len a honter sa feme quant ele forfeit?” (Question 266).

Fol. 90r, Two angels hold up a naked soul in a white sheet. 75 × 70 mm “Li rois demande. Pour quoi ne se puet veoir l’ame? Lame si est l’esperis. Et l’esperis si est l’ame ...” (Question 293).

Fol. 92r, King Boctus and Sydrach converse and point at a man sowing seed. 85 × 70 mm.

“Li rois demande nuist il as gens quant il sont de mauvais pere ou de mauvaise mere?” (Question 304).

Fol. 96r, A big red devil carrying a hapless soul into the gaping maws of hell, in which another soul stands amid flames. 80 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande quel cose est infers. Et co mment i vont les ames?” (Question 327).

Fol. 99v, Noah unloads a rather worried-looking rabbit from the ark onto dry land where a dog awaits, Noah’s wife is behind him. 70 × 70 mm. “Li roi demande ou sasist l’arche de Noe quant le deluge se retraist?” (Question 339).

Fol. 102r, Two knights on horseback, in helmets and chainmail, fight each other. 75 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande co mment aucune fois uns hom conquerroit d’armes. Ou de valour. Iii. homes ou. Iiij.  Ou aucune fois seroit vaincus seroit vaincre d’un sueil?’ (Question 351).

Fol. 121v, A balding man points down at a spring of water in the ground, and looks at a gold orb in the sky, another man holds his face in a gesture of dismay; this perhaps represents two of the Magi and the Star of Bethlehem. 80 × 70 mm. “Li rois demande la naisance del fill de dieu quant sera.” (Question 471)

Fol. 130r, A wheel with twelve spokes, in each compartment of which is a sign of the zodiac, with Aquarius at the top, Pisces next, to the right, and so on. 60 × 70 mm. “Cest chi li roe des vii planets et li point seur eles. Cest chi li abeches et li point des vii planetes loz [?] l’experiment?” The miniature is followed by a table with letters of the alphabet, names of the seven planets, and signs of the zodiac.

This copy of Livre de Sydrac was created during the zenith of the Arras book trade by one of its principal artists, the so-called Master of BnF MS lat. 1328. In the decades around 1300, more illuminated manuscripts of all kinds – liturgical, devotional, and secular – survive than from earlier or later centuries, suggesting that Arras maintained a sizable luxury industry that employed artists, decorators, and scribes (Stones 1999, 22–29). Books produced in Arras bear distinctive decorative features and characteristics, but are stylistically related to those made in Amiens, Boulognc, Saint-Omer, Toumai, and Cambrai, suggesting that Arras artisans may have trained in these towns. Patrons in Arras and the surrounding regions were active in buying and commissioning from local artists. These include the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Vaast, the Augustinian house of Mont-Saint-Eloi, and the Cathedral of Arras as well as Countess Mahaut of Artois (1268–1329) who is documented making purchases from Arras booksellers in this period (Stones 1999, 24).

The principal artist for these miniatures has been identified as the Master of BnF. lat. 1328, named for a Psalter-Hours for the Use of Arras, first exhibited at a major exhibition in Paris (see Avril 1998, no. 207). Avril identified the core of this artist’s work in four manuscripts (London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15; Paris, BnF, MS Latin 1328; Paris, BnF MS fr. 1109; Geneva, Bibliothèque de Genève, Comites Latentes 144; and New York, Morgan Library, MS G. 59), and the artist’s oeuvre was further expanded by Stones (1999) who attributes some of the decoration in a work of Philippe de Remi (Paris, BnF MS fr. 1588) to this artist. Two other artists also contributed miniatures to the present manuscript; their work is clearly distinguished on folios 1r and 84v. Stones attributes the miniature on folio 1r of Christ and the Creation of Eve to the painter of Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 3516; while 84v, King Boctus and Sydrach in conversation, was painted by the second hand in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 192.

Because tax rolls and other archival documents from Arras from this time are rather thin, the identity of the Master of BnF 1328 and his associates unfortunately remains anonymous. Still, much can be gleaned from their body of work. The Master seems to have been most prolific around 1300 or just before (Avril 1998). Of the known liturgical manuscripts executed by the Master, none include the feast of Saint Louis (August 25) who was canonized in 1297, suggesting they were created before this date (Stones 1999, 34). Only one work of the Master is dated, a miscellany created in 1310 containing the encyclopedia of Brunetto Latini (Paris, BnF, MS fr. 1109), which shows that the artist’s career extended into the fourteenth century. Stones also identifies a Missal of Arras (Arras BM, MS 303 [960]) created in the 1270s as a potential early work of the Master of BnF 1328; the historiated initials seeming to anticipate their later style. Close resemblances between the Arras Missal and a group of Psalters produced for Amiens, however, make it more likely that the Missal was completed by a different artist, with whom Stones suggests the Master of BnF 1328 may have trained in Amiens before establishing his business in Arras (Stones 1999, 38–39).

Though working primarily in Arras, the Master was clearly aware of work produced in Paris, notably the Cholet group discussed by Avril (1998). The decor is rather homogeneous and is characterized by its generous gold backgrounds and elegant palette of blues and lilac pinks. Miniatures and foliage are outlined with a green border and marginal plant aerials are populated with birds or quadrupeds clearly derived from works of the Cholet group such as the Chansonnier de Montpellier (fig. 1; Montpellier, Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire, Section Médecine, H196). The artist’s predilection for diapered decorations, applied on large surfaces, also finds antecedents in Parisian illumination such as the Evangeliary of Sainte-Chapelle (Paris, BnF, MS lat. 17326). These influences, Avril suggests, may have been transmitted by an intermediary from Arras of the previous generation like the Maitre du Lancelot.

The Livre de Sydrac compares closely to the other major works of the Master of BnF 1328 identified by Avril. Its tall, slender figures with white, lightly modeled faces, and cheeks touched with red are easily recognizable in the manuscript of the master’s namesake (BnF, MS fr. 1328) and elsewhere (fig. 2; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 17v). The palette of pale salmon-pink, blue-grey, reddish-brown, and deep dark blue, offset by a bright vibrant orange is also consistent elsewhere (fig. 3; BnF, MS fr. 1109, f. 8). Draperies have major folds delineated in black, and lesser ones modeled in subtle tones of the underlying color. A very characteristic detail of the draperies is the black line used to suggest the curve of the calf muscle and the crook at the back of the knee of the forward leg, of almost all standing figures (fig. 4; New York, Morgan Library, MS G.59, f. 45v.) Backgrounds are typically made of very highly burnished gold although the artist also executed diapered patterns. Frequently figures step over their surrounding frames to create an impression of spatial depth (fig. 5; British Library, Yates Thompson MS 15, f. 96).

It is unclear what models the Master of BnF 1328 may have had at their disposal. The manuscript predates all known, illustrated copies of Sydrac and may well represent the earliest illustrated copy made. Its number of miniatures also extends well beyond any other known copies and only four of the twenty-seven images – the collapsing tower (fol. 16v), scenes of Noah and the Ark (fols. 55v and 99v), and the zodiac diagram (fol. 130) – are consistently found in these other manuscripts. Even these miniatures, however, seem to have limited relation to paintings in other Sydrac manuscripts. For example, a slightly later redaction of Sydrac, produced in Artois in the mid-fourteenth century (London, British Library, MS Harley 4417) does replicate many of the stylistic elements found in the present manuscript – simple, boxed frames alternating in blue and red with white fillagree, gold ground, warm palette dominated by pinks and oranges, “artichoke” trees, etc. – but its image cycle is highly divergent. The only overlapping scene between the two manuscripts, that of Botctus and Sydrac standing before the collapsed tower, are distinct. The Harley manuscript pictures the figures before a stable, church-like structure, while the present manuscript shows a collapsed tower, its ruin indicated by triangular wedges of missing stone (figs. 6 and 7).

Much of the imagery found throughout the manuscript illustrates theological topics and utilizes conventional religious iconography, such as the creation of Eve (fol. 1) and Adam (fol. 22), Ascension of Christ (fol. 20), Soul Being Lifted to Heaven (fol. 32), and a Hell Mouth (fol. 96). Four scenes (fols. 34r, 36r, 42v, and 45v) also repeat a rather generic composition of Sydrac and Boctus in dialogue. This could suggest that the artist did not work from a specific exemplar but rather designed an illustration cycle centered on images familiar to their repertoire. Other scenes, however, are clearly taken from scientific illustrations. The scene of Boctus and Sydrac conversing next to the sphere of the earth (fig. 8; f. 52v), for example, is probably copied from illustrations found in contemporary astronomical works such as Gossuin de Metz, Image du monde (fig. 9; Paris, BnF, MS fr. 25344, f. 39r). The image demonstrates how if two men set off in opposite directions, they will eventually meet each other again on the opposite side of the earth with feet “antipodal” or inverse to their former position. The number of figures in the Sydrac miniature has been reduced to two and the composition inserted between the figures of Sydrac and Boctus, yet it clearly draws from the Image du monde tradition with figures positioned at opposing ends of the earth, illustrating antipodal effects.

More research is needed to identify the various image recensions within the Sydrac tradition as well as the specific sources utilized by the Master of BnF 1328 here. What is certain, however, is that this manuscript is the finest known copy of any Livre de Sydrac, a shining star of a work avidly collected by royal and aristocratic patrons. Its early date sheds new light on the initial circulation of this unique text, while its twenty-seven luminous miniatures also tell us more about the vibrant community of illuminators in Arras led by the Master of BnF 1328.

Online Resources

For a partial list manuscripts of the Livre de Sydrac see:


The above list does not include a number of manuscripts held in Private Collections, including:

1-2. Sotheby’s, 10 June 1901 (Ashburnham sale), lot 370 (a short extract only);

4. Hotel Drouot, 12 June 1953 (Hachette sale), lot 38 (with nine miniatures);

5. Sotheby’s, 29 November 1966 (Phillipps sale, part II), lot 74 (in Italian; with no miniatures);

6. Sotheby’s, 25 November 1969 (Phillipps sale, part V), lot 458 (with one small and one large miniature); resold at Sotheby’s, 10 December 1980, lot 87 (now in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, Amsterdam);

7. Sotheby’s, 2 May 1979 (Honeyman sale, part III), lot 1098 (in Dutch, on paper; with no miniatures);

8. Les Enluminures, Flowering of Medieval French Literature (Catalogue 18), Chicago, New, 2014, p. 256 (now European Private Collection).



Ruhe, Ernstpeter. “Les livres de Sydrac: L’évolution d’un dialogue encyclopédique,” Romania 129 (2011), pp. 321–39. On pages 338–39.

Stones, Alison. Gothic Manuscripts, 1260–1320, 2 vols., London, 2013, pp. 244–46.

Further Reading:

Avril, François, ed. L’art au temps des rois maudits: Philippe le Bel et ses fils, 1285–1328, Paris, 1998, no. 207.

Connochie-Bourgne, Chantal, “La tour de Boctus le bon roi dans le Livre de Sydrach,” “Furent les merveilles pruvees et les aventures truvees,” in Hommage à Francis Dubost, ed. Francis Gingras, et al., Paris, 2005, pp. 163 –76.

Holler, William. “The ordinary man’s concept of Nature as reflected in the thirteenth-century French Book of Sydrac,” French Review, 49 (1975), pp. 526–38.

Langlois, C. V. La connaissance de la nature et du monde au moyen âge, Paris, 1911, pp. 180–264; revised as vol. III of La vie en France au moyen âge, Paris, 1927, pp. 198–275.

Renan, Ernest and Gaston Paris, “La fontaine des routes sciences du philosophe Sidrach,” Histoire littéraire de la France, 31 (1893), pp. 285–318.

Marichal, Robert, “Les traductions provençales du Livre de Sidrach, précédées d’un classement des manuscrits français,” Thesis de l’École des Chartes, Paris, 1927, pp. 79–82.

Minevini, Vincenzo. “Schede sulla tradizione manoscritta del “Livre de Sidrach,” Annali dell’Istituto Universitario Orientale 19, no. 2 (1977), pp. 339–57.

Ruhe, Ernstpeter, “La légitimation du savoir: Le dialogue encyclopédique et Le livre de Sydrac,” in Encyclopédire: Formes de l’ambition encyclopédique dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen Âge, ed. Arnaud Zucker, Turnhout, 2013, pp. 415–27.

Ruhe, Ernstpeter, “L’invention d’un prophète: Le livre de Sidrac,” in Moult obscures paroles: Études sur la prophétie médiévale, ed. Richard Trachsler, et al., Paris, 2007, pp. 65–78.

Stones, Alison. “The Manuscript Paris BnF fr. 1588 and Its Illustrations,” in Philippe de Remi: Le Roman de Manekine, ed. and trans Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, Amsterdam, 1999, p. 2–39.

Sylvie-Marie Steiner, Un témoignange de la diffusion encyclopédique au XIIIe siècle: La livre de Sidrach, Paris, 1994.

Weisel, Brigitte, “Die Überlieferung des Livre de Sidrac in Handschriften und Drucken,” in Wissensliteratur im Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit: Bedingungen, Typen, Publikum, Sprache, ed. Horst Brunner and Norbert Richard Wolf, Wiesbaden, 1993, p. 53–66.

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