Monthly Archives: October 2013

Manuscript Road Trip: The Land of Lincoln

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

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

Blog map

New feature! Click on the map to see where we’ve been…

It should not surprise you to learn that Chicago ranks with New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, New Haven and Boston among the U.S. cities with the most medieval manuscripts, with just over 900 leaves and codices in eight public collections, at last count. The manuscripts can be found all over the city, in the following institutions: The Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Chicago History Museum, Chicago Theological Seminary, DePaul University, The Newberry Library, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University (technically in Evanston, I know, but close enough to count). Let’s take a closer look at a few of these collections.

Medieval Manuscripts in Chicago Collections (click for interactive map)

Medieval Manuscripts in Chicago Collections (click for interactive map)

Some of the manuscripts and leaves belonging to the Art Institute of Chicago have been digitized; you can find them here. Because the search engine doesn’t allow for filtering by date, however, this set includes post-medieval leaves and cuttings. A few of the cuttings are catalogued as “14th century or modern,” and in fact without seeing the cuttings in person it’s hard to tell it they are modern reproductions or original medieval initials. Judge for yourself:

Fourteenth-century or a modern reproduction? (Art Institute of Chicago, acc. 1925.63)

Fourteenth-century or a modern reproduction? (Art Institute of Chicago, acc. 1925.63)

Nothing about this initial looks particularly suspicious to me (the green and yellow are a little atypical, but not too alarming, especially if the original manuscript had been illuminated in England), but I’d want to examine the initial in person before rendering an opinion. In particular, I’d want to look at how the gilt was laid down (according to medieval or modern techniques), see what’s on the dorse of the initial (if it’s blank, that would suggest a modern reproduction), examine the quality and preparation of the parchment (if it’s particularly white and smooth, that might also suggest a modern origin), and study how the pigment has affected the parchment (sometimes green can bleed through after a few centuries to be visible from the other side). It was quite common in the early twentieth century for artists to reproduce medieval initials, not necessarily to pass off as original (there certainly were forgers about, the most infamous being The Spanish Forger, who we will get to in a few weeks). There is a notorious example of just such a forgery at the University of Chicago.

The Archaic Mark (Univ. of Chicago, MS 972, f. 2)

The Archaic Mark (Univ. of Chicago, MS 972, f. 2)

The U. Chicago manuscript known as The Archaic Mark (a.k.a. MS 972) was until recently thought to be a fourteenth-century manuscript preserving ancient readings of the Gospel, which had made it an important exemplar for critical editions of the Greek text. When it was digitized and made available to scholars worldwide in 2006, however, irregularities in the script and illustrations led some scholars to question its authenticity. The University commissioned a detailed scientific analysis of the pigments, ink and support to be undertaken in part by Abigail Quandt (of the Walters Art Museum and the primary conservator who worked on the Archimedes Palimpsest). The study concluded decisively that the manuscript was a forgery: carbon-dating established that the parchment dated to the 15th-17th centuries, while pigment analyses –  of the zinc white and a “cream” tone in particular – proved that the manuscript had to have been written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Often there is no way to know if an inauthentic manuscript was created as an homage or as a deliberate forgery, although the intentional aging of the Archaic Mark suggests that in this case the deception was deliberate. These videos explain the analyses and conclusions: (the short explanation) (the long and more technical explanation)

Of course, the University’s collection includes many examples of beautiful and utterly authentic pre-1600 manuscripts. I would direct you to the Goodspeed Manuscript Collection of Biblical history in particular. Also of note are two fourteenth-century manuscripts – of Le Roman de la Rose and Le Jeu des échecs moralisé – that were originally bound together, were separated soon afterwards, and have been reunited in Chicago.
Prayerbook of Anne of Brittany (Florence, 1499) (Chicago, Newberry Library,  MS 83)

King David at Prayer, Prayerbook of Anne of Brittany (Florence, 1499) (Chicago, Newberry Library, MS 83)

Let’s head to the The Newberry Library, where we will find more than 250 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, images of some of which can be found in the digital exhibition French Renaissance Gems. The manuscripts have been thoroughly  catalogued in print by Paul Saenger (A Catalogue of the Pre-1500 Western Manuscript Books at the Newberry Library (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989)), and many are reproduced in the recent monograph, An Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Ray Clemens and Timothy Graham. One of the highlights of the collection is this prayerbook created for Anne of Brittany, Queen of France with Louis XII, in 1499. In the image at left, the opening of the Penitential Psalms, King David is shown at prayer within the letter [D] (for “Domine ne in furore,” the beginning of Psalm 6). Above, two putti hold a medallion with the Greek letters “I∑ X∑” (abbreviating “Ihesus Christus”). The margins illustrate the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel at the left addressing the Virgin Mary seated at the right. The arms and monogram in the lower margin are not Anne’s, having been added by a  sixteenth-century owner. There are several extant manuscripts known to have been commissioned for Louis and Anne, and they are all, like this one, sumptuous masterpieces. 

Le Roman de la Rose (U. Illinois at urbana-Champaign, Special Collections, MS 81, f. 1)

Le Roman de la Rose (UIUC MS 81, f. 1)

Although Chicago gets a lot of attention as far as medieval manuscripts in Illinois are concerned, I want to make a few non-Chicago stops before we leave the state. The  University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign has a significant collection of 96 codices and 88 leaves, most of which have been catalogued but not yet digitized (note that the library uses 1650 as their early-manuscript cutoff date, while I prefer 1600). The exceptions are UIUC MS 81, a fourteenth-century manuscript of Le Roman de la Rose, and UIUC MS 65, a fifteenth-century English translation of Bonaventure’s Vita Christi, both of which are available online.

Meditations of the Life of Jesus Christ (UIUC MS 65)

Meditations on the Life of Jesus Christ (UIUC MS 65, f. 3)

And finally, I will keep my promise to point out manuscripts in unexpected places. Here’s one: a document signed by John Chisull, Bishop of London, in 1274 that belongs to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. It’s item #44 in this handlist. I was disappointed, however, to learn that the document was never owned by the 16th President of the United States. It was part of an autograph collection compiled by Jesse Jay Ricks, a Chicago lawyer who died in 1944.

Abraham_LincolnNext week, Wisconsin!


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: “Gilding the Lilly”

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

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

Blog mapAs we leave Detroit, we’re going to head south on I-69 into Indiana, passing through Indianapolis to reach Indiana University in Bloomington, just south of the state capital. Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Among a generally splendid collection of pre-1600 manuscripts, The Lilly Library at Indiana  University happens to also own several of the oldest medieval manuscript leaves in the United States. One hundred of their manuscripts were recently catalogued for exhibition by Christopher de Hamel, and his catalogue, Gilding the Lilly, is definitely worth owning. In addition, most of the manuscripts have been at least partially digitized and are accessible through Digital Scriptorium. The collection is so varied that you could teach an entire semester on the history of the development of Latin script and manuscript illumination from the seventh through the fifteenth century without ever leaving the library, physically or virtually. There are only a handful of libraries in the nation for which that statement is true. Here’s a sample of some of the really early – and really rare – leaves that gild this Lilly:

Lilly poole-65

Bloomington, Lilly Library at Indiana University, Poole 65

I want to start with this tiny cutting from a late-7th/early-8th-century manuscript of the Gospels written in Italy, because it is one of the oldest examples of the Latin Bible in the United States (see de Hamel, pp. 10-11). It’s just a scrap  about two inches square, preserving a few lines of the Gospel of St. Luke from an otherwise unknown manuscript. This little scrap has a noble provenance, however, having once belonged to the great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), in whose massive collection this fragment was MS 22229 (the fact that the shelfmark has five digits should tell you something about just how massive the collection was). The script is a broad and beautiful example of uncial bookhand, with clearly defined ascenders (the [L] on line 3) and descenders (the [F] on the same line). Strokes that rise above and sink below the line of writing are something we take for granted in modern handwriting and typeface (the font I’m using right now is full of them), but in the pre-Caroline era this was a major development that eventually allowed for a clear distinction between majuscule letter forms and minuscule, which led to the standardization of capital letters and their use at the beginning of a sentence. The round [d] (line 2) and the lambda-shaped [a] (line 1), the round-topped [m] and the descending [g] are all innovations of this script that have stuck around for 1,500 years so far.

Lilly medieval-and-renaissance-2-00001B

Bloomington, Lilly Library at Indiana University, Medieval and Renaissance 2

Next, we’re going to jump to early eleventh-century England. This is a very rare example of Anglo-Saxon script, a fragment cut from a copy of Ælfric’s Excerptiones de arte grammatica written in Anglo-Saxon and Latin (full description here and de Hamel pp. 30-31). In the detail you can clearly see the alternate letter-forms used in Old English: thorn [þ] (line 3) and eth [ð] (line 4). Also present is the a-e ligature [æ] (line 3).Lilly medieval-and-renaissance-2-detail

The letter thorn [þ] survives today in attempts by barkeeps to sound antique by naming pubs something along the lines of “Ye Olde Tavern” – “Ye” should really be [þe], or, in other words, “the.” As for the [ae] ligature, it is also used in Latin, where it has a long and happy life before falling out of favor and being replaced by [ę] (in which the cedilla is really just a vestige of the loop on the [a]) and eventually just [e]; for example, “mariæ” becomes “marię” becomes “marie,” which those of you with some Latin will realize is kind of a problem as far as grammatical clarity is concerned. The final letter form worth noting is the [g] (four lines from the bottom in the main image), which has that open insular form that today’s calligraphers associate with Gaelic or Irish script.

Bloomington, Lilly Library at Indiana University,  Poole 19

Bloomington, Lilly Library at Indiana University, Poole 19

Now down to Italy for a prime example of early twelfth-century Beneventan, a localized Italian script that developed alongside pre-Caroline minuscules but survived well into the romanesque period, as represented by this Psalter. Recognizable by its distinctive square character, the script is easy to identify but can be tricky to read.

Lilly poole-19-detailIn particular, the letters [a] and [t] are almost indistinguishable from one another. At the beginning of the third line of the detail below, for example, we find the end of the word “ambu/labit” that started on the previous line. The second letter of the line is an [a], the fifth a [t]. You have to look hard to find the difference – the stroke at the upper right corner of the letter. For the [a], the stroke breaks downward; for the [t], it runs straight across. Another letter form worth noting is the [e] (see “ego” near the end of line 5). It looks like the number 8 but is really essentially what we think of as a capital [E]. This hand also includes a graceful and distinctive [ri] ligature that looks like triangle standing on one point (see “honoris” on the last line of the main image).

Lilly poole-30-00003B

Bloomington, Lilly Library at Indiana University, Poole 30

Finally, I want to share with you a mid-ninth-century leaf that I am going to add to my paleography lectures, as it is a stunning and perfect example of the use of multiple scripts in hierarchy to help readers orient themselves on the page, another important Caroline innovation that has survived in book design to this day (full description here and de Hamel pp. 20-21).

Lilly poole-30-detailThe detail below begins with a heading in epigraphic display capitals introducing the preface to the Gospel of John. Next comes the beautiful and enlarged initial [H] (note the Celtic influence in the scrollwork that fills the body of the letter), followed by nine lines of uncial (the same script we saw in the first example above) and then, at last, the primary Caroline minuscule script. The column ends with a line of rustic capitals, a slightly more hurried and less-formal majuscule.

This leaf comes from one of the great Tours Bibles, which exemplify not only the major innovations in script and layout that characterize Carolingian manuscripts but also demonstrate the savvy of King Charles the Great himself. Charlemagne inherited a smallish kingdom in 768 and found himself running a largish empire in the year 800. One of the problems facing the Emperor was that different parts of the Holy Roman Empire used different letter-forms to write the Roman alphabet, some of which were illegible to readers elsewhere (Google images of “Luxeuil script” and you’ll see what I mean). Under the leadership of the scholar-abbot Alcuin, a  standardized script developed at Tours (in the Loire Valley) was disseminated intentionally to monastic scriptoria throughout the Holy Roman Empire in the first decades of the ninth century, in part by the transmission of massive Bibles such as the present example which were then copied by monks learning the new letter forms. It was one of the ways that Charlemagne managed to unite his vast empire.

On our way out of Indiana, I’d like to make one more stop and share with you some of the great work being done in the Rare Book Room at the University of Notre Dame.

If you’ve been following me on this virtual road trip for even a just the last few weeks, you will probably have noticed that I am more than just a little bit interested in fragments of manuscripts, those that have been cut up for binding use or broken up for sale. In addition to early-stage projects aiming to reconstruct as many manuscripts as possible, there are several projects underway to reconstruct single manuscripts: David Gura, Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts (among other things!) at the University of Notre Dame, has made significant headway in literally reuniting some of those scattered leaves. As David explains in this blog post, he is systematically acquiring leaves from a beautiful Book of Hours written in Brittany around 1435 that was whole as recently as 2011, when it was sold at auction as part of Joseph Pope’s Bergendal Collection (Sotheby’s 5 July 2011, lot 113; formerly Bergendal MS 8). A dealer who bought the manuscript broke it up and started selling the leaves one by one. Gura decided to buy as many as he could find in an attempt to literally put the manuscript back together; he has already acquired 86 of the manuscript’s 129 leaves on behalf of the Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame. Keep your eyes out for these leaves and let him know if you find any for sale (you can reach him at The artist’s treatment of grassy hillsides and plains is particularly distinctive; take a look at the hillside behind St. Francis in the miniature reproduced here and you will clearly see the symmetrical tufts and swirls that characterize the artist’s work.

St. Francis receiving the Stagmata (Univ. of Notre Dame, Hesbergh Library, Frag. III 1, f. 48 recto)

St. Francis receiving the Stigmata (Univ. of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, Frag. III 1, f. 48 recto)

MSS_Frag_III_1_075r 001

Univ. of Notre Dame, Hesburgh Library, Frag. III 1, f. 75 verso

In honor of Halloween, I leave you with the Bergendal/Notre Dame Hours illustration of The Three Living and The Three Dead, with the famous epitaph that sometimes accompanies this subject:

Quod estis fuimus; quod sumus eritis

What you are, we once were. What we are, you will be.

The rest of the Notre Dame collection is also available on Digital Scriptorium. Check it out, then meet me in Illinois!


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Manuscript Road Trip: Dragons in Detroit

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

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

Blog mapMichigan is Great Lakes country, its Upper and Lower peninsulas lapped by four of the five inland seas. It’s also the site of a major annual pilgrimage. Every year in May, thousands of medievalists from around the world descend on Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the planet’s largest gathering of students, faculty, scholars and fans of the Middle Ages, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Scholarly plenaries, informative general sessions, lively round-table discussions, and pedagogical workshops are supplemented by musical performances and film screenings and demonstrations of medieval brewing techniques (always a favorite). If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it.

It being October, however, we’re not heading for Kalamazoo on this trip. Instead, we’ll take I-75 along the western shore of Lake Erie to reach the oft-maligned city of Detroit.DetroitSkyline

As many of my U.S. readers will know, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on 18 July 2013, and the months since have seen workers furloughed, municipal services shuttered, and rumors flying about the inevitable sale of City-owned assets such as the Airport and public parkland. One of the most alarming rumors was the impending liquidation of works of art belonging to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Institute argued that its holdings were not legally eligible for sale (a series of statements from the DIA can be found here), but it was reported that Christie’s auction house had been contacted about possible sales anyway. The worldwide community of art historians and art lovers has been called into action, and a widely-circulated petition authored by Harvard University’s Prof. Jeffrey Hamburger has garnered more than 5,000 signatures as of this writing. It now seems clear that the law is on the side of the DIA and that the deaccessions are unlikely to take place, but I urge all of you to keep an eye on this situation as no definitive resolution will be reached until sometime in 2014.

These works of art are much more than assets or investments to be liquidated as a short-term solution to the City’s fiscal crisis. They represent the patrimony of the City, the State and the Country, important examples of the artistic, cultural and historic heritage of all Americans, whatever their origin. And in case you were wondering, that artistic, cultural and historic heritage preserved at the DIA includes medieval manuscripts.

The Institute holds many Arabic and Persian manuscripts and manuscript fragments, outside the scope of this blog. There are only a few examples of Western medieval manuscript illumination, but what there is, is really outstanding. Let’s start with this extraordinary initial from late fourteenth-century Florence, a scene of Pentecost within the letter S:

Pentecost in the letter S, from Florence, Santa Maria Nuova, before 1405 (Detroit Institute of Arts, 37.133.A)

Pentecost in the letter S, from Florence, Santa Maria Nuova, before 1405 (Detroit Institute of Arts, 37.133.A)

This initial is very large, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches. It was probably cut from a giant choirbook, most likely a gradual (a book containing choir music for mass), in which case it would have been the opening initial of the Introit for the Pentecost Mass, “Spiritus domini replevit.” In the upper compartment of the letter [S] we find the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Apostles, with the Holy Spirit, in the form of rays of golden light, descending from above. Two women attempt to peek in through the door below, and the whole scene is surrounded by a decorative border that includes the busts of eight women looking towards the central scene.

There are a few others leaves as well, but the real treasures of the Institute’s medieval manuscript holdings are these two late-thirteenth-century illustrations of the Apocalypse:

The Dragon waging War, from a manuscript of The Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, recto)

The Dragon Waging War, from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, recto)

The Beast of the Sea, from a manuscript of The Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, verso)

The Beast of the Sea Encounters the Dragon, from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse , France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, verso)

These fearsome miniatures appear back-to-back, on recto and verso of a single sheet. This is the top half of the leaf; originally, there was text below each miniature (look carefully at the bottom margin of The Dragon Waging War and you’ll see a tiny sliver of the top line of text).  On the recto is an illustration of Apocalypse 12:17, showing the battle of the seven-headed dragon against the descendents of the Woman Clothed in the Sun (“The dragon went to make war with the rest of the woman’s seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus”). On the verso, illustrating Apocalypse 13:2-3, the dragon gives a scepter of authority to the seven-headed monster from the sea (“And the beast which I saw was like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority”). This manuscript falls into the great tradition of illustrating the Apocalypse in medieval manuscripts – the ethereal and terrifying visions described by St. John easily lend themselves to fantastical outpourings of creativity and visualization, and medieval artists let their imaginations run wild. Google “medieval manuscripts” and “Apocalypse” and you’ll see what I mean. Better yet, find yourself a copy of Richard Emmerson and Bernard McGinn’s The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages.

The manuscript from which these miniatures were cut is known as the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, named for an early owner, Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt (1759-1819) of Basel. The title is misleading, however, as the manuscript has never been known to scholarship as a complete codex. Peter Birmann, a Swiss painter and dealer, likely cut up the manuscript in hopes of selling the miniatures off piecemeal, but instead he mounted seventy-seven of the miniatures in an album (the original manuscript apparently consisted of eighty-eight illustrations on fifty leaves; eleven miniatures are lost) and sold them en masse to Burckhardt-Wildt in 1796. The album stayed in the possession of his descendants until the miniatures were sold as separate lots at Sotheby’s London on 25 April 1983, lots 31-68. The DIA cutting was lot 52 and was originally folio 26 of the manuscript, according to the reconstruction undertaken by Sotheby’s at the time of the sale. After that sale, the miniatures were scattered across the globe and can now be found at institutions such as the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Several have made their way back onto the market in recent years (here’s one that was offered by Les Enluminures in 2004). There are even two cuttings (i.e. four miniatures) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a site we visited just last week. Much has been written about this manuscript (see the DIA site for some of the most important references, although that list is not entirely up-to-date); all agree that these miniatures are important examples of late thirteenth-century French illumination and, it can be argued, fill gaps in the art historical tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts. They’re also hypnotically beautiful, and the people of Detroit are fortunate to have access to them.

While researching the medieval manuscripts belonging to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I encountered Loren D. Estleman’s novel, The Hours of the Virgin, a murder mystery that revolves around a fictional sixteenth-century Book of Hours stolen from the DIA. The blurb reads, “Detroit is no place for virgins, or gentlemen. Walker, who is neither, follows the 50-year-old trail of a stolen manuscript across the bleak landscape of a dead city, coming face to face with the man who murdered his partner 20 years ago.” Bleak and dead? On the contrary, based on the response to the threat of deaccession, I would say Detroit is actually alive and well where it really matters.

Next week, we’ll stop in South Bend, Indiana, to see what’s happening at the University of Notre Dame before heading down to Bloomington.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: In Otto Ege’s Footsteps

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

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

Ohio is one of the areas of the country richest in medieval manuscripts, with more than 2200 codices and 2400 leaves in at least thirty-three collections. In fact, once you leave the East coast, Ohio has the largest number of medieval manuscripts per person and per square mile in the United States. If you only count manuscript leaves, Ohio does even better, beating the East Coast states of New York and New Jersey in the per-square-mile calculation. These manuscripts are scattered in thirty-three collections (at last count) across nineteen different cities and towns, in public libraries, museums, seminaries and universities. working mapThe sheer diversity is noteworthy, as Ohio ranks fourth (tying Massachusetts) in the number of collections with pre-1600 manuscript holdings.

In the first few weeks of this Manuscript Road Trip, I’ve focused on particular collections or manuscripts in each state. But because Ohio is such a standout, I have set up a self-guided Ohio Manuscript Roadtrip to all of the collections of which I am aware. Click on the map below to get started (or just click here). Happy hunting! Particularly noteworthy are the holdings of Oberlin College, which have been completely digitized and are accessible through Digital Scriptorium. One of the Oberlin codices, known as The Artz Hours, has been fully digitized here. The holdings at the Cleveland Museum of Art have also been digitized, and there are some stunning examples of manuscript illumination to be found there.


That Ohio is such a rich area for the study of medieval manuscripts can be partially explained by the number of institutions of higher learning in the state. If you’ve been following my blog for the last few weeks, however, you can probably guess why Ohio is so full of manuscript leaves: it’s all because of Otto F. Ege.

I won’t retread ground that’s been marched over already, but here’s the short version. Otto Ege was a professor and bookdealer who made a lot of money breaking apart manuscripts and early printed books in the 1930s and 1940s, selling them leaf by leaf at a massive profit. He wasn’t the first to do this; dealers figured out a long time ago that economies of scale worked in their favor if they sold 250 leaves to 250 buyers instead of one manuscript to one buyer. Ege assembled sets of leaves, with one leaf from one manuscript, one leaf from another, one leaf from a third, and so on, creating what were essentially decks of manuscript leaves that he sold in custom mattes and boxes. The fifth leaf in one box, for example, would have come from the same manuscript as the fifth leaf in another. Several of the Ege sets in Ohio have been digitized: Case WesternCincinnati Public LibraryCleveland Public LibraryDenison UniversityKent State UniversityLima Public Library; and Ohio State University. Fred Porcheddu’s site at Denison University is a great introduction to Otto Ege and his impact on manuscript collections in the Ohio River Valley, focusing on the most well-known boxed set titled “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts.” Scott Gwara’s forthcoming study will provide more details about the economics of Ege’s bookbreaking as well as a comprehensive list of manuscripts that passed through his hands.


Otto F. Ege, “I am a Biblioclast,” Avocations vol. I (March, 1938), pp. 516-18. The far-right manuscript in the header image is the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that was destined to become Leaf 3 in the “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” set. The manuscript is open to the page that now belongs to the Cleveland Public Library (

Ege defended his “biblioclasm” with what he considered the noble goal of putting a little bit of the Middle Ages within the economic grasp of even the humblest collector or smallest institution. In a 1938 article in the “hobbyist” journal Avocations, Ege explained: “Book-tearers have been cursed and condemned, but have they ever been praised or justified?  I present for your consideration:

  1. Never to take apart a ‘museum piece’ book or a unique copy if it is complete.
  2. To search for and make available to schools, libraries, collections, and individuals single leaves or units of mediaeval manuscripts, incunabula works, and fine presses.
  3. To circulate leaf exhibits, supplemented with outlines, lectures, and slides, to organizations so as to engender an interest in fine books, past and present.
  4. To encourage and inspire by these fragments the amateur calligrapher and private press devotee not to imitate the deeds of the masters of the book, but to think as they did to meet present day problems.
  5. To build up a personal collection of books and important fragments to illustrate the History of the Book from the days of Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets to the work of Updike and Rogers.

“…Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments.  Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.” Ege’s strategy, however misguided, was effective – the proof is in the massive number of leaves in the region owned by small collections – but at the same time this slaughter has dealt our patrimony a great blow. My favorite Ege manuscript, the Beauvais Missal, will serve as an example of just great a loss is incurred when a manuscript is dismembered and its leaves scattered.

Beauvais Missal leaf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Beauvais Missal leaf, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (acc. 1992.238)

The Beauvais Missal is among the most well-known of the Ege manuscripts. It is a beauty, its numerous gilt initials with graceful, colorful tendrils extending into the margins easily recognizable. In the Ege set titled “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts,” folios of the Beauvais Missal are Number 15, but many “orphan” leaves have been identified as well. At least 40 leaves are known to survive in scattered collections. I know of six within an hour’s drive of my office in Cambridge, Mass.; at least a dozen survive in Ohio alone. The manuscript has yet to be digitally reconstructed, a project that is definitely worth undertaking.

The Beauvais Missal was written in or near Beauvais, France around 1285 and was used early on at the cathedral there. We know this because of an inscription on a lost leaf, transcribed in a 1926 Sotheby’s auction catalogue. The catalogue records that the blank recto of the first leaf of the calendar included a fourteenth-century inscription according to which one Canon Robert de Hangest left the Missal to the cathedral of Beauvais upon his death on 3 November, year unspecified. Nothing further of Robert de Hangest is known, and nothing certain is known of the missal until it surfaced, still intact, in a 1926 auction at Sotheby’s London  (4 May 1926, lot 161). The manuscript had been part of the collection of Henri Auguste Brölemann, a commercial broker in Lyons in the early nineteenth century. It is thought that he  purchased the manuscript in Lyons in 1834; after his death, the manuscript passed to his great-granddaughter and heiress, Madame Etienne Mallet. It was purchased at the Sotheby’s auction by a dealer named Permain and eventually made its way to Ege. As the manuscript is not listed as part of Ege’s collection in the de Ricci Census, it was probably acquired after 1935. It is worth noting that the entire manuscript sold at auction in 1926 for £970; today, a single leaf of the Beauvais Missal can easily fetch several times that amount.

Various Beauvais Missal leaves from various collections; note the varying image quality, a definite barrier to inter-institutional collaboration.

Digital images of seven Beauvais Missal leaves from seven different collections; note the varying image quality and lack of color consistency, definite barriers to inter-institutional digital collaboration.

In its complete state, the manuscript had 309 leaves, thirty-five large gilt decorative initials, numerous smaller initials, and four historiated initials. Two of the four historiated leaves are in Ohio: one at Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and the other at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Beauvais Missal leaf at the Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. 1982.141)

Beauvais Missal leaf, Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. 1982.141)

Unfortunately, in the process of dismemberment the leaf that preserved the early donation inscription from Hangest to Beauvais was lost, along with most of the liturgical calendar and many other leaves. If the inscription – a critical piece of evidence for the manuscript’s early history – had not been transcribed in the 1926 Sotheby’s catalogue, we would not even know it had existed. Important information regarding the manuscript’s origins could have been gleaned from the liturgical calendar, most of which is lost (I only know of one calendar page, at Harvard’s Houghton Library), especially when combined with an analysis of the liturgical contents of the manuscript. Art historians bemoan the loss of context for the historiated initials. You can see why taking manuscripts apart can be so devastating to scholars and booklovers alike: art historical and textual evidence may be lost forever along with armorial bindings, marginalia, inscriptions or bookplates that preserve evidence of the manuscript’s origins and early ownership.

The Beauvais Missal is easy to recognize, so when leaves do come on the market they are always identified and are always costly. I have seen several leaves for sale in 2013 alone (here and here). Other Ege leaves are more affordable and sometimes slip through the market unidentified or at a relatively low cost (here’s one on eBay). To spot more obscure Ege manuscripts, there are several characteristics to watch out for:

Letterpress Ege label, this for the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that became Leaf 3 in the "Fifty Original Leaves" set.

Letterpress Ege label, this for the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that became Leaf 3 in the “Fifty Original Leaves” set.

Originally, each Ege leaf was housed in a distinctive matte with red filigree ruling and a letterpress label. The mattes are not acid-free and the leaves were adhered with scotch or masking tape, so if you find a leaf still in its Ege matte, please have it removed by a professional conservator but SAVE THE MATTE! The mattes are an important part of the provenance of these leaves and even though they are not healthy homes they should be retained as evidence of the leaves’ history. So much has already been lost…let’s not lose any more.

Ege leaf in its distinctive matte (from the collection at Rutgers University; the leaf has since been removed from the matte)

Ege leaf in its distinctive matte (from the collection at Rutgers University; the leaf has since been removed from the matte)

After you’ve finished exploring manuscripts in Ohio, make your way north on I-75 and meet me in Michigan. And keep an eye out for Ege leaves!


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: A 12th-Century Find in 21st-Century Pittsburgh

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 we leave Buffalo, we’re going to head south into Western Pennsylvania, a part of the United States best known for its Amish communities. We’re not shopping for an artisan quilt today (maybe later); we’re going to “Steel City” to visit the University of Pittsburgh.Blog map

One of the best ways to get to know medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States is by exploring Digital Scriptorium, an ever-growing database of manuscripts in American collections. Currently, DS includes forty collections, a total of nearly 4,000 manuscripts. (here comes a sidenote for librarians only…the rest of you can skip to the next paragraph) Unlike MARC format, which was created for the electronic cataloguing of printed books and has been adapted for use with manuscripts and archives, the Digital Scriptorium database was developed specifically for use with pre-1600 manuscript material. In all of the ways that MARC struggles to capture the implicit inexactitude of some manuscript metadata (for example, there’s no way to input a searchable date of “s. XII med” into MARC), DS succeeds admirably (in the case of an uncertain date by allowing the record creator to input both an inexact date and a date range, both of which are searchable). And if you’ve ever tried to create a MARC record for a composite manuscript, you will really appreciate how the nested-table structure of DS allows for multiple searchable authors and titles in a single manuscript. All contributors agree to conform to a set of imaging as well as metadata standards, resulting in a lovely set of consistent and retrievable data, images and authorities. If you want to know more about the structure of data in Digital Scriptorium, you can read all about it here.

U Pittsburgh MS 9

Noted Missal, Germany/Austria, ca. 1175 (Unversity of Pittsburgh, Ms 9, recto)

OK, back to the University of Pittsburgh. The University has digitized the twenty-nine manuscript leaves in its collection and catalogued them through Digital Scriptorium; you can see the full list here. For my money, the most interesting of the bunch is this twelfth-century fragment of a noted missal, from Germany or Austria. I  love twelfth-century manuscripts, and I really love manuscript fragments, and I really really love twelfth-century manuscript fragments from Germany/Austria (seriously, this is true), so for me this leaf is a real treat, a great example of why manuscript fragments are so interesting and what they have to tell us about music, liturgy, material culture, and the paths manuscripts sometimes take to get from there to here.

First, its origins. The script is a late romanesque hand, not yet a true Gothic but far removed from the Caroline bookhands of the tenth and early eleventh centuries. I would date it around 1175 in part because of the mixed use of round- and tall-s.  It couldn’t be too much later than that because the top line of writing rests on the top line of the ruling, instead of sitting below it (the latter would suggest a date pushing into the thirteenth century). The musical notation – unheightened neumes of the St. Gall style – is typical of the twelfth century and is of the type used primarily in German-speaking lands. The manuscript is a missal, preserving text and music for Mass (as opposed to a breviary, which preserves text and music for the Divine Office). In this case, the leaf preserves choir music and priestly readings for Palm Sunday Mass: the antiphons for the Procession of Palms on the front, and the Gospel reading from Matthew narrating Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:10-25) on the back. The manuscript was originally written in two columns; a tiny bit of text written in the upper margin of the second column is visible in the extreme upper right-hand corner of the recto (front) side of the leaf. The above image can be identified as the recto because of the original binding holes (in this case three slits) visible along the darkened left edge, which would have been the gutter of the book.

U Pittsburgh MS 9v

Noted Missal, Germany/Austria, ca. 1175 (University of Pittsburgh, MS 9, verso)

Unlike the leaves we’ve seen in previous posts that came from the Terence manuscript and other Ege-related books, this manuscript was not cut up to be sold as a work of art, but was rather the victim of an early kind of recycling. Most medieval manuscripts are written on prepared animal skin, or parchment, which was expensive and time-consuming to produce. Often, as liturgical norms became outdated and were replaced in the later Middle Ages, earlier manuscripts would be cut up to be used as structural components of a binding: a free flyleaf, a paste-down inside the cover holding the leather turn-ins in place, a spine-liner, gutter support, or even an entire wrap-around cover. This leaf appears to have been used as a pastedown inside a bookcover; you can clearly see damage left by paste on the verso. Along the outer edge (the right edge of the recto, the left edge of the verso), you can see a crease where the leaf was folded to be sewn into the binding. On the damaged verso (shown here), you can also see two rectangular parchment patches – one in the upper left corner and one on the lower edge – that probably covered the protruding nail-ends used to attached hardware such as bosses or clasps to the cover. Somewhere there is a book or manuscript with a mirror-image offset of this leaf inside the cover, an offset left when traces of the ink on the verso stayed behind as the leaf was pulled off to be sold separately. When (if!) that book is found, we will know much more about the history of this little vagabond. As it now stands, all we know is that the leaf was given to the University of Pittsburgh in 1972 along with the other leaves in the collection by Theodore M. Finney (1902-1978), a musicologist and collector of music manuscripts. It is worth noting that this fragment is reproduced and receives special notice in James P. Cassaro’s 2007 biographical essay, “The Discrete Charm of the Musical First Edition: Theodore M. Finney as Scholar, Collector and Librarian” in Music, Libraries and the Academy: Essays in Honor of Lenore Coral, pp. 105-117 (see pp. 109-110, fig. 2), where it is said to have a “St. Gall provenance.” The Benedictine abbey of St. Gall was an extremely important Swiss center of manuscript production and liturgical innovation, and a St.-Gall origin for this leaf would be spectacularly interesting if it could be substantiated; unfortunately, it can’t (and the script doesn’t look Swiss to me anyway). But this little wanderer needs no such honors to serve as a fascinating specimen.

Now we turn due west, cruising through Amish country on I-80 to get to one of the regions of the United States richest in pre-1600 manuscript holdings: the great state of Ohio!


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts