Manuscript Road Trip: Autumn in the Berkshires

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

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

Heading south on I-91, we leave the Green Mountains behind and find ourselves in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, a really lovely place to be in mid-September. The leaves are just starting to turn, and within a few weeks the highways will be clogged with “leaf-peeping” tourists. the-berkshires-fallBut the season is just getting started, and we have the road to ourselves as we head towards The Five Colleges: Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. These five institutions (all but U. Mass. small liberal arts colleges) are in close proximity to one another and students at any can cross-register for classes at all.

Blog mapThe same collective consciousness applies to the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in these collections; they are joining forces for a Mellon-funded cataloguing and digitization project that is just getting underway. In the meantime, the provisional handlist and catalogue can be found as a PDF here.

The twenty-four codices at Amherst College (all of which are listed in the 1935 de Ricci Census) are primarily from late-fifteenth- or sixteenth-century Italy. As such, the collection is almost a microcosm of the classical renaissance (lower-case [r]) during the Renaissance (upper-case [R]), including manuscripts of Horace, Lucan, Cicero, Frontinus, and Persius. Several of these manuscripts have rather esteemed provenance: the Lucan (Amherst, B 3.13) was owned in the eighteenth century by Cardinal Giovanni Braschi (as of 1775 better known as Pope Pius VI), and the Horace (Amherst B 3.21) was owned ca. 1520 by Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci. The Persius and Horace (Amherst, B 3.22 and 3.23 respectively) each bear a colophon identifying the scribe, a rarity before the 1400s; they were both written in the last decade of the fifteenth century by one Lodovico Reggio Corneli, a scribe whose work is not known elsewhere, at least as far as I can tell.

Students visiting the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College. Purists may be alarmed by the sight of all of these hands on the parchment, but take note, they're only touching the parchment, not the ink.

Students visiting the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College.

The eleven codices and numerous leaves preserved in the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College, on the other hand, allow students to see a different side of medieval and Renaissance books: in contrast to the Italian humanistic examples at Amherst, the Smith collection is almost entirely medieval and Catholic in origin, with examples from Bibles, Books of Hours, and liturgical manuscripts ranging from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.

Seal matrix impression, Smith MS 240. The murder of Thomas Becket, perhaps? Anyone have any suggestions?

Seal matrix impression, Smith MS 240, f. 25v. The murder of Thomas Becket, perhaps? Anyone have any suggestions? I couldn’t find a match in the British database of small metal finds, the “Portable Antiquities Scheme.”
[photo by Brittany Osborn]

A thirteenth-century Parisian Bible (Smith MS 240), while unillustrated, includes a fascinating record left by an early owner, an impression of what appears to be a seal matrix made on a blank leaf preceding the Book of Proverbs. The collection also includes an illuminated thirteenth-century Psalter from France (Smith MS 291), a relative rarity in American collections. Three sets of single leaves assembled by Otto Ege, when combined with the Ege leaf set at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, include (if complete) a total of more than than 150 leaves. Finally, the collection at Mt. Holyoke includes the detailed records of a Venetian fraternal organization of sailors dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of all who plough the seas. Mt. Holyoke also houses papyri from the great Oxyrhyncus trove as well as other non-European manuscripts, outside the scope of this blog (and as far as I know, there are no pre-1600 European manuscripts at the final institution that makes up the Five Colleges, Hampshire College).

King David playing hanging bells (Smith College, MS 291, f. 7)

King David playing hanging bells, in the letter [B] (for “Beatus vir,” the beginning of Psalm 1) (Smith College, MS 291, f. 7) [photo by Martin Antonetti]

Each of these collections has its own strengths. Together, they already provide students and faculty access to a spectacular, and relatively unknown, treasure trove of text and illumination, original bindings and illustrious histories, all tucked away in a truly beautiful area of New England (when you go, by the way, be sure to make dinner reservations at The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge). It is a great boon to scholarship that these collections will soon be available online.

 As we leave the Berkshires, we’ll turn west and cross the Hudson River into New York. Instead of turning left at Albany and heading for New York City, however, we’re going to keep going west, straight for Niagara.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

13 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: Autumn in the Berkshires

  1. Donald Farren

    Anything in Williamstown, at Williams College or Clark museum?

    • Definitely! Chapin Library has about forty pre-1600 manuscripts, many of which are recorded in the Census and the Supplement (Census I:1081-1086, II:2309; Supplement pp. 285-287). If anyone knows of any pre-1600 manuscripts or leaves at the Clark Museum, please let me know!

      • Phil Weimerskirch


        I have seen one or two medieval MSS on display in the Clark Museum,
        but I don’t know what they are.

  2. The King David at Smith College is just lovely and charming. The foliage is nice, too!

  3. Melissa Conway

    Lisa, could the impression in Smith MS 240, f. 25v. be from a pilgrim’s badge? I have worked with a few manuscripts that had such impressions, including one in a private collection that had several impressions from pilgrim’s badges that had been sewn onto to a blank vellum flyleaf, and I’ve been told there are a handful of manuscripts in which the actual badges survive, although I’ve never seen one of those myself.

  4. derepalaeographica

    Reblogueó esto en derepalaeographicay comentado:
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  5. Lisa,
    Here is the link to my blog article about my own observations of the impression from MS 240. I hope something might prove useful!

  6. Thank you so much for this, Brittany! I think you’re absolutely right about the seal shifting over time.

  7. Pingback: Sneak Preview: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Amherst College | The Consecrated Eminence

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