THE scribe of Oxford, BodL, MS Digby 86 sometimes expressed himself in pictures as well as in whatever French, English and Latin works he selected for new combinations and purposes in his idiosyncratic making of a household book. The result of his overall effort across 207 folios is a medieval manuscript utterly singular in its ‘extravagantly heterogeneous’ nature. In it, his occasional drawings are frequently labelled with tags, almost as if they are designed for pedagogy in reading Latin: ‘femina’ (woman) beside a woman's head with free-flowing locks (fol. 80r), ‘homo’ (man) beside a man's head in a pointed hood (fol. 79v), ‘bibo’ (I drink) beside a similarly hooded man sipping from a goblet (fol. 34v), ‘ipocras’ (Hippocrates) beside the head of a bearded man of wise countenance (fol. 8v) – this last example being an author-portrait designed to accompany the medical treatise Letter of Hippocrates.
In the bottom margin of fol. 205v, the last folio of the scribe's original book, the scribe signs off his large production with a self-portrait, another cartoonishly sketched head, now in a close-fitted hood, with a manicule pointing at this head as if to say ‘look, it's me’, and with an inscription: ‘scripsi librum in anno et iii mensibus’ (I wrote the book in a year and three months). According to one scholar, this inscription ‘surely’ displays ‘an amateur's expression of pride in having completed a long and arduous task which would doubtless have been accomplished much more quickly by a professional’. This statement typifies how the Digby scribe has been viewed as something of an amateur at scrivening even though his hand bears likeness to that of other scribes from the period. By all indications, however, what was most new for him was the activity of making an anthology, and in many of matters of codicology and design his novice skills show.
And yet the final product is one of the most important miscellanies to survive from medieval England – a trilingual marvel of a compilation, with quirky combinations of content that range from religion, to science, to literature of a decidedly secular cast.