Minnesota is one of the most beautiful regions of the United States, its extensive woods dotted with thousands of glacial lakes. There aren’t quite as many manuscripts as there are lakes, of course, but there are more than enough to warrant a visit. We’ll start in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota.
The department of Special Collections at UMN holds nineteen codices and sixty-three leaves, many of which have been digitized:
Ege’s Fifty Leaves portfolio: http://umedia.lib.umn.edu/taxonomy/term/735 (some of these should look familiar to you by now!)
Singles leaves: http://umedia.lib.umn.edu/taxonomy/term/736 (some of these happen to be Ege leaves…can you spot them?)
At last count, the James Ford Bell Library, also at the University of Minnesota, was home to 27 codices, 186 documents, and nine maps/atlases. The Bell Library collects works having to do with “international trade in the pre-modern era”; hence, many of the pre-1600 manuscripts are cartographic or documentary. Pre-1600 manuscripts can also be found in Minneapolis at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Bakken Museum of electricity.
That’s all just a prologue to introduce you to some of the main players in the story I really want to tell you today, a story about Vincent of Beauvais, Cistercian monks, manuscripts lost and manuscripts found. A caveat: if this were a formal publication, it would include detailed bibliography, lengthy footnotes, full shelfmarks, and catalogue references. Since it is a casual blog, I’ll relegate all that to a note at the end for those who are interested.
Our story begins in thirteenth-century Belgium. Around the year 1280, a monk named Johannes de Resbais began work on a massive project, collaborating with his Cistercian brethren in the monastic scriptorium at the abbey of Cambron. They were creating what would eventually become a set of seven volumes comprising more than 1,500 leaves, an early and important copy of the Speculum Maius of Vincent of Beauvais.
Vincent of Beauvais – the great encyclopedist of the Middle Ages – lived in France in the first half of the thirteenth century. His major work, the Speculum Maius (or Great Mirror) is nothing less than a compendium of all knowledge, in three parts: the Speculum Naturale, the Speculum Doctrinale, and the Speculum Historiale. The monks of Cambron copied the Speculum Historiale in four volumes and the Speculum Naturale in three (for my purposes, SH I-IV and SN I-III).
The result was a beautiful set of large books filled with exquisite penwork initials in a distinctive Cistercian style. Johannes signed two of the volumes (“Johannes de Resbais wrote this; pray for him, beloved brothers, men of God”), and most include the fourteenth-century ex libris “Liber sanctae mariae de camberonae” (“This book belongs to St. Mary of Cambron”). All seven volumes were still in the abbey as late as 1782, when they were recorded in a library catalogue. It is at that moment in history – during the Napoleonic Wars and the attendant closure of monasteries and confiscation of their goods – that the manuscripts began to scatter:
SH III was lost, probably destroyed.
SN III was acquired by the British Library in 1845, where it is now MS Add. 15583.
SH II/IV and SN I/II were acquired in 1836 by the great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792 – 1872) in whose collection they were collectively known as MS 8753. Phillipps already owned SH I, having purchased it from the Abbey about a decade before; it was his MS 335. Did he know that the four volumes he bought in 1836 were sisters to the volume he already owned? Your guess is as good as mine.
After Phillipps’ death in 1872, the five volumes in his collection were further divided. SH I was acquired by the Royal Library of Belgium in 1888 (it’s MS BR II.941). The four remaining Phillipps manuscripts were sold together at an 1897 auction as a single lot to dealer Bernard Quaritch.
Quaritch seems to have had a hard time selling the volumes. He offered them for sale in 1898 for £60 (here’s the catalogue) and again in 1904 for the same price (here’s that catalogue), selling them at last in 1907 to noted bibliophile Sir Sydney Cockerell (1867-1962). Cockerell sold SN I and II to his friend C. S. St. John Hornby for £40 in 1907; he kept the other two until 1956, when he sold them to New York bookdealer H. P Kraus for £500 (a whopping profit). Kraus sold them in 1957 to the John Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota, where they can still be found under the shelfmark 1280 oVi.
To recap, we have watched as two volumes (SH II and SH IV) made their way from Belgium to England to New York to Minnesota. But we’re not done yet.
Hornby kept the remaining two manuscripts (SN I and II) until 1946, when he sold them for £100 to British collector John R. Abbey (1894-1969). In 1975, the volumes were sold at auction by Sotheby’s London to a dealer named Jeremy Norman, who bought them for £4000 (another whopping profit, this time for the Abbey estate) on behalf of…The Bakken! After a journey of hundreds of years and thousands of miles, four of the seven Cambron volumes have been reunited in Minneapolis, in libraries just a few miles apart.
But enough about Cistercians, let’s talk about Benedictines. The rich history of Benedictine monasticism in Minnesota has resulted in a few medieval manuscripts winding up at institutions such as St. Olaf College in Northfield and the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. But some of the most important manuscript work this side of the Atlantic has been done by the monks at St. John’s University in Collegeville, at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
The Hill Museum and Manuscript Library was founded with the mission of preserving monastic manuscripts through imaging. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, monks from HMML fanned out across Europe photographing manuscripts in situ, producing thousands of reels of microfilm stored in multiple copies in multiple locations. If the manuscripts themselves were to ever be lost, they would at least be preserved on film. As photography has evolved, so has the monks’ technology. HMML’s mission now focuses on digitization of manuscripts beyond Europe as the monks seek to document threatened collections in areas such as Ethiopia, India and Syria. They have preserved more than 100,000 handwritten books and documents on film and in megabytes, and anyone who cares about literary heritage owes them a great debt of gratitude.
Before we turn south and head for Iowa, here are some additional details and bibliography about the Cambron volumes, for those of you interested in such things (my thanks to William P. Stoneman of Harvard’s Houghton Library for sharing his research on the Cockerell volumes):
SH 1: Bibiliothèque Royale de Bruxelles, BR II 941
SH II, IV: Minneapolis, Minnesota, Univ. of Minnesota, James Ford Bell Library, 1280 oVi
SN I, II: Minneapolis, Minnesota, Bakken Library
SN III: British Library, MS Add. 15583
Robert Plancke, Les catalogues de manuscrits de l’ancienne Abbaye de Cambron (Mons et Frameries, 1938), 60 (no. 202).
John R. Abbey sale, Sotheby’s London, 25 March 1975, lot 2948.
Alison Stones, “The Minnesota Vincent of Beauvais Manuscript and Cistercian Thirteenth-Century Book Decoration”, The James Ford Bell Lectures, 1977, No.14, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
Gregory G. Guzman, “The Cambron Manuscript of the Speculum historiale”, Manuscripta XIII (1969), 95-104, and “Another Volume of the Cambron Manuscript of Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum historiale”, Scriptorium XXXVII (1983), 112-119.
Judith A. Overmier and John Edward Senior, Books and Manuscripts of The Bakken (Metuchen, 1992), 28.
Alison Stones, “A Note on Some Re-discovered Vincent of Beauvais Volumes”, Vincent of Beauvais Newsletter XXVI (2001), 10-13.