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Abbot of Ten Duinen Abbey

On 11 November 1457, the monks of Ten Duinen Abbey elected their fellow monk Johannes Crabbe (ca. 1420–1488) as their new abbot. His predecessor, Everardus van Overtvelt, had been parachuted into Ten Duinen from the abbey of Boudelo in 1442 by the Burgundian rulers. After Everardus’s death, Crabbe was elected abbot, but Duke Philip the Good, and especially his wife, Isabella of Portugal, were not satisfied with his election.

Trip to Italy

Accordingly, at the beginning of his abbatiate, Crabbe traveled to Rome to plead his case. His close contacts with the Florentine Medici bank, which would play a key role in the final settlement of his abbatial appointment, also date from this time. Crabbe maintained his relationship with the Medici bank throughout his administration. Through the international banking milieu in Bruges, where Italians from various cities played a prominent role, Johannes Crabbe must have come into contact with the Italian culture of the Quattrocento.

Book collection

Crabbe’s interest in contemporary Italian humanism is especially evident in his select collection of books, of which some twenty codices are preserved, which he acquired or commissioned from 1470 onward. These manuscripts usually bear his monogram, JC with an abbatial staff and his coat of arms, which can be described as follows: in azure a cross of silver, in the upper right and lower left corners three blackbirds of gold, two and one placed, in the upper left and lower right corners a crab of gold.

Early interest in manuscripts

It was always his intention to make these manuscripts part of the abbey library, as evidenced by some of their ownership marks and colophons. Almost twenty years earlier, in 1452, he had shown an interest in his abbey’s manuscript holdings. In a manuscript of ca. 1300 containing Franciscan sermons (Bruges, Public Library, Ms. 290) he added a table of contents, having inserted his own mark of ownership.

From religious and moralizing texts …

In or shortly before 1470, he ordered an illustrated manuscript containing religious and moralizing texts by or attributed to Francesco Petrarca (Bruges, Major Seminar, Ms. 113/78) from a Bruges workshop. The following year, he ordered a manuscript containing religious works by the Parisian theologians Jean Gerson and Pierre d’Ailly (ibid., Ms. 39/174) from the same workshop. In the same year, he ordered a three-volume manuscript containing the Vita Christi by Ludolf of Saxony (ibid., Mss. 122/81, 123/82, 124/83) from the Sion cloister of Augustinian nuns in Oudenaarde.

… to classical and humanist texts

In 1472, however, he decided firmly in favour of classical and humanist texts. That year, he purchased a manuscript containing Justinus’s late Roman Compendium of the classical Latin writer Gnaeus Trogus Pompeius (Berlin, Deutsche Staatsbibliothek, Ms. Phill. 1845).

Starting in 1473, he then ordered manuscripts containing works by Cicero and Boethius (Bruges, Major Seminar, Ms. 112/111), Sallust (Brussels, KBR, hs. II 7842), Caesar (Cambridge, University Library, Nn. 3.5), Virgil (Holkham Hall, Library of the Earl of Leicester, nr. 311), and Valerius Maximus (Bruges, Major Seminar, Mss. 157/188, 158/189, 159/190, with a fragment in Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum), all classical Latin authors, with the exception of the late Roman Boethius.

Around that time he also ordered profane texts by the modern Italian humanists Francesco Petrarca (Bruges, Major Seminar, Ms. 156/115), Giovanni Boccaccio (ibid., hs. 154/44), and Guarino da Verona (now lost).

The last trace of his humanist bibliophile activity dates from 1487, one year before his death: the date of the manuscript he ordered containing works by the Greek Church Father John Chrysostom in the fifteenth-century translation by Francesco Griffolini, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici (now in Bruges, Major Seminar, Ms. 15/76).

Made in Bruges (with the help of Italians)

For the design, illumination, and binding of these manuscripts, he called upon the Bruges workshops. In all probability, the bindings of the Crabbe manuscripts were almost always the work of experienced Bruges bookbinders. Three bindings bear the signed panel stamp of the renowned Bruges bookbinder Antonius van Gavere.

Thorough research shows that some of the texts, written in a humanist ‘littera textualis,’ were copied in an Italian writing workshop that was active in Bruges around 1473. Based on comparative research, professor Gilbert Tournoy (KU Leuven) has discovered that the Florentine copyist Francesco Florio played the leading role in this workshop, which had probably been based in Bruges since 1469 and was somehow related to the Greek translator and copyist George Hermonymus.

Around the same time, Hermonymus compiled a small manuscript in this workshop for Abbot Crabbe, the Sententiae gnomicae (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms. 1139), containing just over 110 quotations translated from Greek, attributed to Church Fathers, philosophers, early Christian authors, and personalities from Greek history. It should be added that one manuscript from this group is devoted to New Testament texts and commentary on the Psalms (Tournai, Archives et Bibliothèque de la Cathédrale, B.C.T. A 18).

Luxuriously illuminated Facta et dicta memorabilia

It is also worth mentioning here that Crabbe’s monumental three-volume Facta et dicta memorabilia by Valerius Maximus, with the French translation and adaptation by Simon de Hesdin and Nicholas de Gonesse, was created under the direction of the Bruges book entrepreneur and printer Colard Mansion. Crabbe’s Valerius Maximus manuscript is closest in formatting, illumination, and illustration to the luxurious Burgundian manuscripts of the second half of the fifteenth century.

Tasteful but austere illumination in the remaining manuscripts

The illumination and illustration of the remaining Crabbe manuscripts are mostly tasteful, of a high artistic standard, and certainly not sparse. Nevertheless, the illumination is notable for its relative austerity in many codices, which may have been influenced by Italian humanist manuscripts. Remarkably, this Bruges illumination can also be found in a number of Italian incunabula, which were apparently decorated in Bruges before being sold.

Italian humanism in Bruges

Crabbe’s intellectual interests were progressive but not unique in fifteenth-century Bruges. At the Bruges book market, interested parties could purchase manuscripts and incunabula containing classical and humanist texts from the 1460s onwards. Yet few such books are known to have been ordered by inhabitants of Bruges or Flemings. This makes the corpus of Crabbe manuscripts an important witness to the spread of modern Italian culture in Bruges from about 1470 onwards.

(Noel Geirnaert, 2022)

Hero image: Hans Memling, Triptych of Jan Crabbe; Palazzo Chiericati ((c) Wikimedia).

Crabbe's manuscripts

  1. Berlijn, Staatsbibliothek, Phill. 1845: Justinus, Compendium historiarum Pompeii Trogi, Excerptum de astrologia Arati, 15th century
  2. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 15/76: Johannes Chrysostomus, Homilieën op het Johannesevangelie, 1487
  3. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 39/174: Various works by Johannes Gerson and Petrus de Alliaco, 1471
  4. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 112/111: Cicero, De officiis, and Boethius, De consolatione Philosophiae, in or shortly before 1474
  5. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 113/78: Franciscus Petrarcha e.a., Various religious and moralizing works, 1470
  6. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Mss. 122/81, 123/82, 124/83: Ludolphus de Saxonia, Vita Christi, in 3 volumes, 1472
  7. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 154: Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum, ca. 1470-1475
  8. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Ms. 156/115: Franciscus Petrarca, De gestis Cesaris, ca. 1470-1475
  9. Brugge, Grootseminarie, Mss. 157/188, 158/189 and 159/190: Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, with translations and comments by Simon de Hesdin and Nicholas de Gonesse, in 3 volumes, ca. 1475
  10. Brugge, Openbare Bibliotheek, Ms. 290: Bonaventura, Sermones de sanctis, ca. 1300
  11. Brugge, Openbare Bibliotheek, Ms. 417: Mattheus Pillaert, Speculum elevationis et exaltationis ordinis Cisterciensis, 1487
  12. Brussel, KBR, Ms. II.7842: Sallustius, De coniuratione Catilinae, De bello Jugurthino, ca. 1473
  13. Cambridge, University Library, Nn.3.5: Caesar, De bello gallico, De bellis civilibus, (shortly before?) 1474
  14. Holkham Hall (L. of the Earl of Leicester), 311 vol. I: Various works by Vergilius, with additions by Mafeo Vegio and commentary by Servius and Donatus, and glossary by Mico, 1473
  15. Holkham Hall (L. of the Earl of Leicester), 311 vol. II
  16. Parijs, BnF, Arsenal, Ms. 1139: Georgius Hermonymus, Sententiae gnomicae, ca. 1473
  17. Tournai, Archives et Bibliothèque de la Cathédrale, B.C.T. A 18: Epistolae S. Pauli, Actus Apostolorum, Epistolae Canonicae en Tractatus de Psalmis Graduum, ca. 1473

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