Manuscript Road Trip: Braving the Badlands

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

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

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Before we head north into South Dakota, I want to call your attention to a manuscript road trip undertaken by the great scholar Dom Jean Mabillon (1632-1707). In the late seventeenth century, Mabillon travelled throughout Europe examining manuscripts in monastic and other libraries, and his handwritten notes are now available online through Gallica, the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF MS Lat. 14187) (my thanks to @Erik_Kwakkel for tweeting this news!). On folio 16v, for example, Mabillon writes (in Latin): “[On the] 12th of August [1683] we came to Ottobeuren [in Bavaria], where there is an abbey of our Order…The church in that place is dedicated to the martyred saints Alexander and Theodore… The library has many manuscript codices.” That’s putting it mildly. Ottobeuren was a major center of manuscript production; here‘s one example of what those monks were up to in the twelfth century alone.

In the spirit of Dom Mabillon, then.

Of all the places in North America where one would NOT expect to find medieval manuscripts, the Badlands of South Dakota have got to be near the top of the list. And yet, there are a handful of medieval manuscripts just a few hours southeast of one of the most inaccessible spots in the country.

There is one pre-1600 European manuscript at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, a mid-fifteenth-century copy of the “Laus Maria” of Bernard of Clairvaux written in Italy. The manuscript was given to the University in 1976 by Herman P. Chilson as part of his massive collection of Western Americana. It is unclear why Chilson bought the manuscript in the first place; among his collection of documents and artifacts of the American West, it is a clear outlier. Chilson bought the manuscript in 1956 from New York bookdealer Hans P. Kraus, who had acquired it from the stock of Italian bookdealer Giuseppe Martini (1870-1944).

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

One hundred miles due north of Vermillion is South Dakota State University, which owns four manuscript leaves and one incunable page (scroll down the linked page a bit to find the medieval items). The leaves were given to SDSU by the estate of Morris Elmer Nellermoe, Jr. (1926-2004). According to his obituary and notes deposited at the library by his niece Diane Andresen in 2008, Nellermoe served in the Navy and traveled extensively throughout Europe. He was fluent in ten languages and worked for years as a translator at various institutions including the United Nations before spending the end of his professional career teaching foreign languages at Colorado State University. Nellermoe was an opera singer as well, with several recordings to his credit. According to his niece, he purchased the leaves from Ferdinand Roten Galleries in Baltimore, perhaps during his time working at the U.N. He brought them to South Dakota to show his family on several occasions, but as he grew older and moved into a retirement community, the leaves disappeared from his family’s view. They found them at last hidden away under a pile of clothing and newspapers in the bottom drawer of his bureau. The leaves were among his greatest treasures, along with a large collection of Bibles and his opera records. Nellermoe was not a wealthy collector like the men we have encountered in the past two weeks – Byron Reed and C. A. Hickes, or even Herman Chilson mentioned above. According to his niece, Nellermoe bought these leaves because he considered them precious relics of his faith, and as skilled linguist, he could probably read them.

Leaf from a Book of Hours given to South Dakota State University by Morris Nellermoe

Leaf from a Book of Hours given to South Dakota State University by Morris Nellermoe, recto

None of these leaves have miniatures, and some have hardly any decoration at all. Prices written by the Gallery in the lower margin indicate that each cost well under $100. But I can see the appeal of the leaf at right, for example, to a devout Latin-literate Christian. This leaf, from a mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours from France, preserves the prayer attributed to Bede that meditates on the final seven statements uttered by Jesus. The lengthy rubric promises that he who recites this prayer daily on bended knee will be safe from “the devil or wicked men” and will be ushered into the presence of the Virgin Mary. The first of the final seven utterances is found in red near the bottom of the leaf: “Pater ignosce crucifigentibus me” (“Father, forgive those who crucify me” (Luke 23:34)). The final utterance is found on the verso: “Sitio” (“I thirst”). It is a poignant meditation, and one that would certainly have appealled to a man such as Nellermoe.

When we initially compiled our Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings,  Melissa Conway and I did not find even a single leaf in North Dakota, Montana or Idaho. We didn’t find anything in South Dakota either, but because this week’s internet sleuthing uncovered the manuscripts we looked at today, I’m now scouring the internet for any signs of medieval manuscripts in the other three states. If I find any, you’ll be the first to know! If not, we’ll just take a scenic “drive” through all three states (because it wouldn’t be road trip if we didn’t visit every state) and meet up in Wyoming.

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1 Comment

Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

One response to “Manuscript Road Trip: Braving the Badlands

  1. Reblogged this on Filologia cyfrowa :: Mediewistyka 2.0 and commented:
    Kolejny odcienk Manuscript Road Trip.

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