Manuscript Road Trip: Day 1

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

There has been increasing interest in recent years in identifying, classifying and cataloguing medieval manuscripts in North American collections. With my friend and colleague Melissa Conway (Head of Special Collections at UC-Riverside), I have been working for nearly twenty years on this very topic. Our preliminary Directory of collections in the United States and Canada with pre-1600 manuscript holdings is available as a searchable PDF through the Bibliographical Society of America, at  It’s a great place to start if you’re looking for manuscripts in North American collections.

Over the course of our work, Melissa and I (with the help of more than 200 contributing curators and scholars) have identified 20,000 codices and 25,000 leaves in nearly 500 collections. Many of these have not been catalogued in any significant way; students, take note, there is a lot of cataloguing work to be done! On the other hand, an increasing number of collections have put their holdings online for all to see (notably the Walter Art Museum in Baltimore, the University of Pennsylvania, and the collections contributing to Digital Scriptorium).

On this blog, I’ll be taking readers on a state-by-state tour of manuscripts in the lower 48 (I’ll get to Canada eventually, I promise!), focusing on less-well-known collections, some in very surprising locations. We begin at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine…

The curator of Special Collections aBlog mapt this small New England college of 1,800 students reported to us in 2005 that the collection has seven pre-1600 codices, five leaves, and two archival documents. Among them is a beautiful Book of Hours created for a member of the Medici family around the year 1520.

The library’s website provides the following information about this stunning manuscript (Spec. Coll. BX2080.M43 1530 vlt):

“Vellum, ca. 1520, 152 ff., 18×13 cm. Italy. Roman use. Information from the Parke-Bernet sale catalogue, N.Y.C. auction of December 5-6, 1949: 18 long lines to the full page written in gothic lettering apparently by more than one hand. Embellished with a decorative title-page displaying the gilt lettered title within an ornamental tabernacle frame and seventeen large miniature paintings within interesting frames of different designs and eight small miniatures with its text within bold tabernacle frames, burnished gold, blue, and red lettering in calendar, numerous illuminated borders and initial letters in liquid gold and colors throughout.”

Bowdoin detailA coat of arms identified as belonging to Marie de Medici appears in the margin of one of the miniatures (the Annunciation on f. 20), identifying the manuscript as having been created for her use (it’s not clear from the online catalogue which Marie de Medici we’re talking about, but based on the date it is likely the Marie who was mother to Cosimo I de Medici). It is not at all uncommon, by the way, for a Book of Hours to have been made for the use of a woman, especially a woman of noble birth, most of whom were literate and learned during the later Middle Ages and Renaissance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an image of the Annunciation miniature with the coat of arms, but at left is a miniature from the manuscript of St. Luke, accompanied by his attribute of the bull, painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary. Note the sophisticated use of perspective, the trompe l’oeil effect of the pillar and architectural frame, the realistic figures, the clearly identified directional light source. This manuscript is a beauty.

One of the most interesting facets of medieval manuscripts in U.S. collections is their provenance, the journey every medieval manuscript in North America has taken to get from where it was to where it is. So how did this manuscript get from sixteenth-century Italy to twenty-first century Maine? Before answering that question, I want to take a minute to introduce you to a very useful online resource for studying the history of manuscripts in general, the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts. Using this database of several hundred thousand sales records, one can trace manuscript owners, prices, the manuscripts themselves, and entire collections over the course of hundreds of years.

From an inscription inside the front cover of the manuscript, we know that it was owned at one point by a French collector who identified himself as the “Prince de Conty.” A quick search of the Schoenberg Database uncovers three additional sales of this manuscript, all in London in the early twentieth century: database record 22396 (a sale at Sotheby’s in 1909), 22264 (Sotheby’s sale of the collection J.S. Burra in 1911), and 22173 (Sotheby’s, 1912). These are sales that have not previously been associated with the Bowdoin manuscript, although details in the sales records such as the number of leaves, the dimensions, provenance and binding confirm that they do indeed all represent sales of Bowdoin’s Hours. The manuscript sold in 1909 for $500, presumably to its next owner, one J. S. Burra, from whose collection it was sold in 1911 for a mere $300 (a loss for his estate, alas). The next owner sold it in 1912 at a profit, for $750.  The manuscript then disappeared into a private collection. It resurfaced, again at Sotheby’s, in 1949, when it was bought by a Bowdoin alum named Roscoe Hupper (class of 1907) who gave the codex to his alma mater in memory of a classmate named Felix Arnold Burton.

This exquisite Italian Book of Hours, a masterpiece of Renaissance illumination, has found a fitting home in the mountains of Maine, where it beautifully fulfills the promise made to Bowdoin’s students in 1906 by College President William DeWitt Hyde:

To be at home in all lands and all ages;
to count Nature a familiar acquaintance,
and Art an intimate friend;
to carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket,
and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake;
to make hosts of friends…who are to be leaders in all walks of life;
to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends –
this is the offer of the college for the best four years of your life.

Next week, we head due west to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

– Lisa Fagin Davis


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

18 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: Day 1

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    First in a new series by Lisa Fagin Davis, introducing collections of medieval manuscripts from across the United States.

  2. Melissa Conway

    What a great idea for a blog, LIsa! I’ll look forward to each entry.

  3. derepalaeographica

    Reblogueó esto en derepalaeographicay comentado:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  4. Elizabeth McAulay

    This is fantastic! Thank you so much for writing about these collections. I particularly like the provenance history.

  5. It’ll be a long drive to California, but I’m looking forward to the journey. What exquisite illustrations in the Bowdoin Book of Hours!

  6. Really great blog. I look forward to exploring American collections along with you!

  7. Lisa,
    Great idea; I’ve bookmarked your blog and will check back regularly.

  8. Merci Lisa pour cette magnifique et érudite “ballade” ! Nous allons
    régulièrement vous suivre sur
    jean luc deuffic

  9. Go Lisa! I Tweeted your blog so I hope the word spreads. Cheers!

  10. This is a very interesting project. Thank you and Good luck!

  11. Anne D. Hedeman

    Lisa–you should come to Kansas! University of Kansas (now on Digital Scriptorium) has more than you know–including a roll (though not your text)!

  12. Grover Zinn

    Hi Lisa,
    Found your wonderful blog via RB Toth and Will Noel. I’ll be checking regularly. What a super idea to do this. Many, many thanks.
    Grover Zinn, Oberlin

  13. Bob Streeter

    As co-owner of That Bookstore in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, in 2002 I handled the consignment to Christie’s of a Medieval manuscript of the writings of Peter Aureol and of Aristotle. It came from a private home in Derby, VT.

  14. Max

    I would like to know, if by any chance, this problem has already been solved:

    Maybe you have heard of any traces. Thank you very much. Best regards,

    • Thanks for posting this. Unfortunately, I am not familiar with this manuscript, and it doesn’t appear in the Schoenberg Database. Melissa Conway and I do know of several dozen public US collections that own medieval manuscripts; if you explore our Directory ( using a keyword search “Public Library,” you will find them. Perhaps the manuscript is still in southern California? Blog readers: please let me or Max know if you hear anything about this manuscript.

      • Max

        Thank you for your answer.
        Yes, I have already checked your document, but I am not sure if this manuscript is already listed in an opac, as the sale happened quite recently.

  15. We love your work and will be featuring you later on our page today. Please hit “like” and join in the comments. We have scholars from around the world sharing. Thanks and all the best

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