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

25 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: In Otto Ege’s Footsteps

  1. Peter Kidd

    Some more about the provenance of the Beauvias missal can be found in a recent Christie’s catalogue description:
    “The parent volume of 309 leaves had an undated inscription recording that it was given to Beauvais Cathedral by a former canon, the late Robert de Hangest, so that his death would be commemorated every year on November 3. We learn the date of Robert’s death from later transcripts of medieval Beauvais registers, which recorded that ‘en septembre Robert de Hangest, chanoine, nous donne son Missel, en 3 volumes, à la charge d’un obit, 1356’ (see H. Omont, ‘Recherches sur la bibliothèque de l’église cathédrale de Beauvais’, Mémoires de l’Institut national de France, 40, 1916, at p.5); presumably Robert made the gift in September, knowing he was close to death, and died on November 3. The Missal was still at Beauvais in the 17th century, recorded as ‘Missale Roberti Hangesto; en beau vélin et belles miniatures’ (Omont, p.52 no.70), but the library was dispersed at the Revolution, and a group of manuscripts had found their way to Lyon by 1933, when several were bought by the Biblothéque nationale from the collection of M. Gay. The parent manuscript of the present leaves was in the collection of Henri-Auguste Brölemann (1775-1854), also of Lyon …”

  2. Grover Zinn

    Very nice blog post, Lisa. Glad to have the details on the Beauvais Missal. Interesting to read more about Ege and to have the Dennison link. As you may know, Ege also put together collections of pages of early printed books. Oberlin has two:
    (1) _A group of eleven original leaves showing the evolution of humanistic book hands and Roman types from Jenson to Rogers_. Prepared by Otto Ege. (This has one manuscript page also) (2) _Original leaves from famous Bibles_. Grover

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  4. Nancy M. Pike

    I am a retired librarian and I would be interested in trying to put together a digital copy of the Beauvais missal. Who should I talk to?

  5. Reblogged this on Filologia cyfrowa :: Mediewistyka 2.0 and commented:
    Kolejna część z cyklu Manuscript Road Trip autorstwa Lisy Fagin Davis. Polecam gorąco!

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Great series you’ve got going here! I just wanted to point out that our collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts at The Ohio State University (both complete codices and documents, as well as fragments of all types and vintages) has been growing at a very rapid clip over the past few years. We’ve gone from about 15 codices to over 40 pieces (codices and other substantial complete items) since late-2009, and our fragment collection has blossomed as well (we’ve probably added close to 100 new pieces, ranging from deluxe illuminated pages to interesting fragments recycled as early binding materials–including an 11th-century Beneventan fragment and other late-11th/early-12th century pieces). Additionally, we’ve added a family archive of northern French land-tenure documents spanning about 150 years between 1413-1570, a 13th-century English tally stick, and a number of later-medieval manuscript related artifacts (a leather Bible bag and tools used in the parchment creation process). We’ll be digitizing our entire collection (as well as more things as they come in) over the next year. Needless to say, we’ll let the manuscript studies community know when our digital library of MSS is ready!

    Thanks for preparing and sharing this series. It’s wonderful! And, before I go, I’d like to encourage any readers to contact me for more information about Ohio State’s expanding manuscript collection. Many of our new manuscripts can be seen on our department Facebook page here:

    Just browse through our photo albums for a range of images and descriptions of what’s been arriving over the past 18-24 months.

  7. One more thing your readers might be interested in: Ohio State is also home to the Hilandar Research Library, an amazing collection of medieval Slavic manuscripts on microfilm, as well as a number of original manuscripts. You can find more information about Hilandar here:

    and here:

  8. Great idea for a blog series! I look forward to reading more as your road trip continues. I hope you have a plan to head south to Indiana University. The Lilly Library has content in the Digital Scriptorium that might be of interest. I also noticed in your “Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings” the bibliography for the Lilly Library could be updated to include the 2010 publication, “Gilding the Lilly : a hundred Medieval and illuminated manuscripts in the Lilly Library” by Christopher De Hamel,

  9. Andy Foster

    Your image of the unmatched Beauvais Missal digital images speaks eloquently about the challenge of “recreating digitally” all the detached codices out there. How can a thousand of libraries upload matching images in terms of focus, size, color balance, and color saturation? Perhaps the “virtual road trip” will evolve some day into a real life road adventure by an itinerant photo crew charged with taking quality scans and photos from all the small institutions on the list, assuring that the same camera, lighting, and file standards are used in the task. Or perhaps we can wait for a future camera technology that will make the scanning task easier to distribute.

  10. Robert Lodge

    You missed one in OH. I have a leaf cut by Egge from the BM. It’s framed and hangs in my study.

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