Martinellus (Ms. 125)

Manuscript of the dragons

Utrecht University Library owns four ‘martinelli': manuscripts in which several texts about Saint Martin are collected. Ms. 125 is one of the younger martinelli in the library, made around 1400. However, the sophisticated penwork does not focus on Saint Martin but is full of dragons – it is even the medieval manuscript containing the most Utrecht dragonsin extistence.

Liturgical use

The larger part of the martinellus consists of texts in Latin, written by Sulpicius Severus (ca. 363 - ca. 425), contemporary and admirer of Saint Martin. He wrote about the saint in three literary forms: a hagiography (Vita Sancti Martini, (1r-21r, letters/epistles (Epistolae III, 21v-27r) and dialogues (Dialogi III, 29v-76v). This martinellus probably comes from the chapter of Saint Salvator (Oudmunster), which used to be located next to the Dom Church. On the flyleaf we see a mark of ownership that has been crossed out. With the help of ultraviolet light we may distinghuish: Iste liber p(ertinet)sancti salvatoris (‘This book belongs to… Saint Salvator)’. Whether the chapter remained the owner of the manuscript is uncertain, and Koert van der Horst (1989, 5, nr. 16) suggests the Dom Church as former owner (as is the case with the older martinellus Hs. 122). Whatever the case may be, we know that the manuscript was used for the liturgy in the church. On important church holidays related to Saint Martin, his translation (removal of relics) on 4 July and the well-known holiday on 11 November, parts from the martinellus were read. The many notes in the margins of this manuscript indicate the liturgical use of this manuscript.

A part of these notes has been added in ink during or shortly after copying the main text. For instance, next to the text where the death and subsequent translation of Saint Martin begins, we find the words octava sancti martini (‘eight-day (celebration of the Feast) of Saint Martin) (fol. 27r). This indicates that text from this part was read at the celebration of the translation feast on 4 July, the day when his bones where reburied in Tours. Next we see the numbers i, ii, iii and iiii in the margin, and on fol. 29 v the note that the fifth and sixth readings (Vta et 6ta lectiones) can be found at the end of the book. Indeed, we also find on fol. 80v-81v the numbers i – vi in the margin, sometimes followed by the abbreviation l -(lectio), in the sermon by Gregory of Tours about the translation of Saint Martin.

Besides these notes in ink, we also find freehand notes that seem to have been added during the actual use of the manuscript. These are, for example, Roman numbers but also asterisks (*) or penciled lines crossing each other (X). The Roman numbers seem to be a way to structure the text and so make reading it (to others) easier, but as to the crosses and asterisks it is less clear what their function was, if they served a specific goal at all.

In addition to this kind of “reading aids”, improvements of the text are noted down in the margin (fol. 18v, 19r, 23v, 35v, etc.). After the text had been copied, these improvements were added to the text by a corrector, often a more experienced copyist.

A sophisticated martinellus

Also without adding notes in the margin, there were ways to structure the main text. In this manuscript (red) rubrics are used, simple blue and red Lombardic capitals and no fewer than eighteen large illuminated initials. The penwork that adorns initials as well as margins and type area, is one of the most striking features of this manuscript. Gisela Gerritsen-Geywitz (2009, 19) named one of the earliest Utrecht penwork styles after Ms. 125: the ‘Martinellum-style’. The Martinellum-style is characterised by the use of small balls, semi-circles and graceful long flowing lines in the colours blue, red and purple, whether or not accompanied by the ‘Utrecht dragon’. So-called J-lists, on the edge of the type area, in alternating blue and red, also belong to this style. Further decoration of the codex can be found in the second part of the manuscript: here in the main text we find simple penwork decorations which may have been added spontaneously.

Apart from Ms. 125 there are another five manuscripts and a fragment that are decorated in the Martinellum-style (Gerritsen-Geywitz 2017, 21 footnote 27). Four of them come from the Utrecht Regulierenklooster (Canons Regular) (Ms. 207 (dated 1405), and Mss. 275, 293 and 739), and one is a rhyming bible, now housed in The Hague, Dutch Royal Library, KA 18. Finally, there is a flyleaf from a bible, originating from the St. Mary’s Church with an initial in the Martinellum-style (G fol 163, see also Jaski 2018, 31 en 33).

Search the dragon

As said before, we cannot be certain where the martinellus was used, but we may safely assume that it was made in or around Utrecht. We know this from the presence of the Utrecht dragon in or around the large initials mentioned above. From the late 14th century until the beginning of the 16th century, this dragon regularly appears in the penwork of Utrecht manuscripts. The dragons and also the pen decorations to which they belong are useful tools to locate and date manuscripts: the occurrence of the dragon and the characteristic penwork in a manuscript indicates that the manuscript was made in the surroundings of Utrecht.

Divided over the larger initials and the accompanying penwork in this martinellus we find a total of 30 large and small dragons. Although the dragons sometimes remind us more of rabbits or dogs, they can often be recognized as ‘real’ dragons with scales and spines. The dragons are mostly part of floral and animal motives: for instance, they ‘spit out’ plant tendrils or form the basis of a small tree. These small animals are not always easy to find: they hide among the scribblings of the florator (the person responsible for the penwork) or they can be found curled up between the curves of the initials. No other manuscript contains so many Utrecht dragons as Ms. 125, and because of this it may be the most densely dragon-populated medieval manuscript in the world.

Cadels with heads

Besides the penwork and the dragons in the initials mentioned before, this manuscript contains other striking decorations. It involves a type of letter which often appears in the upper margin of Ms. 125, and which is called cadel letter or cadel (see also Jaski 2017, 91-93). These capitals are written in ink (black and red in this particular manuscript), consist of elegant, thick lines and can be found where there is room: in the upper or lower margins of the page. In some cases the letters are embellished by adding human faces, animals or plant motives. In this martinellus, many cadels with heads in profile appear.

The cadel plays no role in structuring the text and it also looks like they bear no relation to the content: probably these kind of decorations were added by the medieval scribe to liven up the manuscript (and to provide some amusement for himself). A manuscript from the same period that also contains a number of these cadels with heads, but is also similar as to design, type area and penwork to Ms.125, is Ms.146, an evangeliary from the Utrecht Pieterskerk.

There are many medieval manuscripts containing writings about Saint Martin, of which some are very old or beautifully decorated. Nevertheless, Ms. 125, with its notes, dragons and cadels, and with a splendid Gothic textualis as script, takes up a unique position among them.


Marloes Zeefat, May 2022; edited by Bart Jaski, September 2022

Would you like to know more about what Special Collections can do for your research and teaching? Have a look at our page about Advice and Support.