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

4 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: A 12th-Century Find in 21st-Century Pittsburgh

  1. Very interesting example!

  2. Very nice series, Lisa; I am really enjoying it. One small error, there is no reason why “s. XII med” would not be searchable in a MARC record. If it were recorded in the 260$c, it could easily be retrieved by a keyword search as a phrase (something we have in our “advanced search” in our Voyager catalog. The date range could be expressed in the same subfield or in the fixed field. Composite mss. are a problem in MARC because the structure does not handle hierarchy well, as you know. But there are linking fields that can be used. DS, of course, does what it wants to do very well. In any case, both MARC and SGML-based systems will be accommodated in the Bibframe that is being worked on as a successor to MARC.
    I hope you will include some early medieval mss in your discussions.

    • Thanks for this, Larry. The problem with using a keyword search for an approximate date range is that your users need to know the exact format you’ve used: “s. xii med.” vs. “s. XII med” vs. “s.XII med” etc. A search on one won’t find them all. It is a workaround, as you say, but I don’t find it entirely satisfactory. I am definitely looking forward to the launch of Bibframe; it will be interesting to see how it can better accommodate this kind of material. As for early manuscripts…unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of them in the US that are much earlier than the 12th century. There are early fragments here and there, but not many codices. When I spot anything Caroline or Pre-Caroline I will definitely highlight it.

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