Manuscript Road Trip: Welcome to Lake Champlain

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

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

As you might imagine, there are not a lot of medieval manuscripts in Vermont. I know of only two repositories: Middlebury College (which reported holdings of 15 leaves and one codex) and the University of Vermont in Burlington (which reported holdings of ten codices and 26 leaves, seven of which belong to the Robert Hull Fleming Museum). As we cross the Connecticut River, leaving New Hampshire for Vermont, let’s head north on I-89 towards Burlington to visit the University of Vermont on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain

The University of Vermont has owned some of these manuscripts since the early part of the twentieth century, as eight of them are recorded in Seymour de Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (published in 1935). They’ve now been catalogued and digitized as part of the library’s Digital Initiatives Collection.

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I’ve not looked as these images before, but I recognize at least two of the leaves as belonging to a very well-known manuscript, a copy of Terence’s works that was once owned by notorious book-breaker Otto F. Ege (more about him when we get to Ohio in a few weeks!):

New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library,  Med/Ren Frag. 004

Here’s another leaf from the same manuscript, part of the collection at Columbia University in NYC, for comparison: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Med/Ren Frag. 004

The late great paleographer Albinia de la Mare attributed this beautiful humanistic bookhand to the expert scribe Giuliano di Antonio of Prato, Florence and believed it to have been written around 1460. This manuscript was still complete, its 103 leaves safely ensconced in the original binding of brown leather over wooden boards, when it was sold as lot 100 at Sotheby’s on May 28, 1934. It was bought at auction and made its way to Dawson’s Bookshop in Los Angeles; the next year, it was purchased by Otto Ege himself. It was still intact when it was described by Seymour de Ricci as Ege manuscript no. 65 in the Census of Manuscripts (II:1947). Ege dismantled the manuscript sometime after 1935 and scattered its leaves to the proverbial winds. Scott Gwara of the University of South Carolina tells me that these and other leaves were donated to the University of Vermont by Frank Teagle, a letterpress-printer who worked for Ege’s widow and who may have received at least some of these leaves as compensation for his work.

The Terence manuscript is discussed in Barbara Shailor’s seminal study of Otto Ege and in Gwara’s forthcoming Ege monograph. Ege is a character well-known to American bibliophiles, a self-proclaimed “biblioclast” active in Ohio in the 1930s and ’40s, a man whose socialist leanings (combined, ironically, with a bookdealer’s art-market savvy) trickled down even to his penchant for dismantling books and distributing/selling the resulting collections of individual leaves to small public libraries and colleges that couldn’t afford to acquire complete manuscripts. As a result of the work of scholars such as Virginia Brown, Barbara Shailor, Fred Porcheddu, and now Scott Gwara, ex-Ege leaves are becoming more and more well-known and recognizable (Melissa Conway and I have also recorded dozens of Ege leaves we’ve encountered in our travels). At least two dozen pages of the Terence manuscript have been identified in collections from Poughkeepsie to Boulder,  although many more remain to be found before the entire manuscript can be digitally reconstructed.

This fortuitous find gives me an opportunity to introduce a topic that is particularly important when thinking about medieval manuscripts in North American collections: manuscript leaves. As early as the nineteenth century, but in particular in the first half of the twentieth century, it was quite common for dealers and collectors to “break” manuscripts to be sold or given away leaf-by-leaf. For dealers, this was a way to increase their profit margin; for buyers, it was a way to own a little piece of the Middle Ages without breaking the bank. No legitimate dealer would break up a book today (or at least they would never admit to it). The result of this frenzy of dismemberment is that there are over 25,000 single leaves of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts scattered across North America, just waiting to be (digitally) reunited. Several projects that aim to do just that are already underway, and I will introduce you to some of them in the coming weeks.
Book of Hours?, 1957.17.1, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont (recto, detail)

Book of Hours?, 1957.17.1, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont (recto, detail)

In addition to the Terence leaves, I found this little creature lurking in the margins of a leaf in the Fleming Museum collection. Someone should tell the local cryptozoologists searching Lake Champlain for the sea monster known as “Champ” that they can find him swimming about in the Museum.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

11 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: Welcome to Lake Champlain

  1. Andy Foster

    The University of Vermont’s Bailey/Howe Library has a beautifully clean website that’s simple to navigate and a great asset, I’m certain, to the campus using this modern institution. Their medieval manuscripts appear to be nicely cataloged with crisply rendered digital images. Would be nice if they had whole manuscripts up on line, but what I see is fabulous.

  2. Melissa Conway

    I love the marginal hybrid you featured, Lisa. Have you considered making him the mascot of your journey, or perhaps only the Northeast since you are sure to find others of his kind along the way.

  3. Barbara A. Shailor

    What a wonderful note about this Terence manuscript! I would also add A .S.G. Edwards and Julia Boffey to those scholars who have worked on Ege (see their Medieval Manuscripts in the Norlin Library: A Summary Catalogue, Pegasus Press, 2002).

  4. Pingback: Manuscript Road Trip: Miami University (the one in Ohio, not the one in Florida!) | Manuscript Road Trip

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