If you’ve ever tried to drive across Maine from east to west, you’ll understand when I tell you that this virtual road trip will be taking some liberties with the U.S. highway system. But nonetheless, heading west from Brunswick, Maine, we now find ourselves crossing the White Mountains of New Hampshire and driving up to the main green of Dartmouth College in Hanover.
The green is dominated by the spire of Baker Library, to the right of which you will find the new Rauner Special Collections Library.
Dartmouth College is the smallest of the Ivy League institutions, an idyllic New England campus that occupies a special place in the hearts of its graduates. It is also the largest repository of pre-1600 manuscripts in New Hampshire, with nearly 150 codices and two dozen leaves. Most of the manuscripts have been digitized and catalogued, and are available online here. It’s a terrific teaching collection, with codices and leaves scattered across the chronological and geographic spectrum.
Particularly close to my heart, however, is the fragmentary scroll acquired by Dartmouth just a few years ago, MS 461940. This manuscript, written in Paris around the year 1460, is a 1.2-meter-long piece of what was originally a much longer scroll, a manuscript of the Chronique Anonyme Universelle. The Chronique tells the history of the world from Creation to the fifteenth century, taking the reader on a journey that includes the Bible, the ancient world, the Roman and Holy Roman empires, and the histories of the Papacy, France, and England, with a brief detour into the Crusades. The text is accompanied by numerous medallion illuminations and a detailed family tree of humanity that runs unbroken from Adam to King Louis XI.
Along the way, we encounter such figures as Esther, Nebuchadnezzar, Lear and Arthur, although not necessarily in their familiar contexts. Did you know, for example, that Nebuchadnezzar was exhumed by his son Evilmerodach, cut up into three hundred pieces and fed to three hundred birds so that he could never return from the dead and retake the throne? Or that, at least according to the Chronique, the kings of France and England trace their lineage and legitimacy to Aeneas and the survivors of the siege of Troy? (full disclosure: read my forthcoming study of the Chronique if you want to know more)
There are twenty-eight known manuscripts of this text, several of them fragmentary. The section preserved at Dartmouth includes illustrations of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, Godfrey de Bouillon as King of Jerusalem, and St. Louis onboard a ship (detailed description here). I know of one other piece of this particular scroll, housed in France at the Centre Jean d’Arc in Orléans. Dartmouth’s piece of the puzzle was purchased from bookdealer Les Enluminures, who found it on eBay (it’s true – search “Medieval Manuscripts” on eBay and you never know what you might find!). It isn’t the finest illumination you’ll see at Dartmouth – it’s rather humble in fact – but the text offers a fascinating glimpse into the medieval conception of world and national history.
I’m going to keep heading west now, moving away from the East Coast so that I can focus on manuscripts in lesser-known collections. When we finally circle back around to the East we’ll visit major collections in DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, and my hometown of Boston, but in the meantime, let’s cross the Connecticut River and head north on I-89. See you in Vermont!