Manuscript Road Trip: Otto Ege, St. Margaret and Digital Fragmentology

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

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

This week, I’m going to get off the virtual superhighway to share a discovery. Digital publication seems appropriate given that most of this work was conducted using online resources and images, making this a great case study for digital humanities research and the newly-christened field of “digital fragmentology.”

I wear many hats at the moment: Acting Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America, blogger, professor of library science, and medieval manuscript consultant. In the latter role, I have for some months been cataloguing the manuscripts belonging to the Five Colleges consortium of Western Massachusetts (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts – Amherst). Smith and U. Mass. each happen to own one of the leaf collections compiled by Otto Ege titled “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts”  (if you need to be brought up to speed, take a look at my Ege post from Ohio).

These portfolios are comprised of leaves from fifty different manuscripts owned and dismembered by Otto Ege in the 1940s. You may remember that in each portfolio the leaves are numbered from 1 – 50, and Leaf 1 (for example) in one portfolio comes from the same manuscript as Leaf 1 in every other portfolio. I finished cataloguing the Smith College portfolio last month and have been working on the U. Mass. portfolio for the last few weeks. Today, we’re going to take a close look at “Fifty Original Leaves” leaf nr. 48 (a.k.a. FOL 48).

Otto Ege, "Fifty Original Leaves" portfolio, Leaf 48v (Lilly Library)

Otto Ege, “Fifty Original Leaves” portfolio, Leaf 48v (Lilly Library)

The leaves known as FOL 48 were cut from a rather innocuous Book of Hours from France, twenty lines per page, around 17 x 12 cm. In other words, fairly typical for the late fifteenth century. Books like this one were mass-produced in professional workshops, with custom features added for local use. There are, quite literally, thousands of these floating around. One of the cataloguing tasks for a leaf such as this is to identify not only the date of origin (third quarter of the fifteenth century) and general place of origin (northern France), but also the particular section of the Book of Hours from which the leaf was taken. This isn’t as difficult as it seems, especially these days when there are numerous very useful online resources for working with Books of Hours (I highly recommend the Book of Hours Tutorial and the Hypertext Book of Hours).

Using these resources, I was able to identify FOL 48 in the Smith College portfolio (at right) as having come from Matins of the Office of the Dead.

Smith College, Ege MS 48v

Smith College, Ege MS 48v

Most people who work with Books of Hours know that in order to determine the liturgical Use (the location for which the book was made) you have to locate the Antiphon and Chapter Reading for Prime and None of the Hours of the Virgin and compare the incipits to the lists originally published by Falconer Madan in 1923 and since expanded by others (here). This is an imperfect system, but it’s a start. But, as Knud Ottosen first discovered, you can also identify Use by looking at the Responsories and Versicles of the Office of the Dead (Ottosen’s work is online here).

Usually, when you only have a leaf or two to work with you’re not going to have enough text to allow a determination of liturgical Use. This is the case with Smith’s FOL 48; only one responsory is preserved on the leaf, not enough to make a determination.

Smith College, Ege 48r

Smith College, Ege MS 48r

By looking through the examples of FOL 48 siloed by Fred Porcheddu here, however, I was able to find additional Responsories from the Office of the Dead, enough to determine that the Office in this manuscript is for the Use of Chalons-sur-Marne (now Chalons-sur-Champagne), near Reims in NE France, in the Champagne-Ardenne region. This may not seem like an important piece of information, but hold on to it, because it turns out that it is.

Now let’s turn our attention to U. Mass. Amherst’s FOL 48 (below). This leaf – which comes from the very same late fifteenth-century Book of Hours as the leaf at Smith – is in Middle French verse instead of the expected Latin liturgical prose, preserving forty lines of a previously-unidentified vernacular poem: the abridged version of Wace’s French verse Life of St. Margaret known as “Apres la sainte passion.”


Returning to the online collection of Ege leaves, I found two consecutive leaves from this section of the manuscript that preserve more of the text: at Kenyon College (here and here) and at the Cleveland Institute of Art. These three leaves from FOL 48 preserve lines 25 through 159 of the 661-line poem. Wace’s text has been edited several times, and A. Joly’s edition of 1879 is available online (see pp. 99 – 118).

St. Margaret of Antioch, like most early Christian martyrs, had a difficult life. Born the daughter of a pagan priest, her mother died soon after she was born and she was nursed by a Christian woman. She converted to Christianity and vowed to remain ever a virgin, whereupon her father disowned her and she was formally adopted by her nurse. When she was a teenager, the local Roman governor (Olybrius) insisted that she renounce Christianity and marry him. She refused and was subjected to various tortures. In the midst of her suffering, she was swallowed by Satan in the guise of a dragon and used the crucifix she always carried with her to escape intact from the belly of the beast. In the end, Olybrius in his fury had her beheaded.

St. Margaret of Antioch (Toulouse? ca. 1475) (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. 2000.641)

St. Margaret of Antioch (Toulouse? ca. 1475) (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Acc. 2000.641)

The episode with the dragon evolved into the seminal iconographic episode of St. Margaret’s life, and, as one who emerged safely from the dragon’s belly, she became in the late Middle Ages the patroness of pregnant women. The inclusion of her life in this Book of Hours likely implies that the book was made for the use of a woman. Don Skemer, in his monograph Binding Words, notes that “In late medieval France, far more than in the British Isles, St. Margaret attained cult status in the popular religious imagination as a Christian martyr whose legend offered the hope of divine aid. Pregnant women sought divine aid in reading, contemplating, or hearing of her passion, and one could always place a copy on a parturient woman’s abdomen or chest to prevent difficult pregnancies, ease labor pains, and facilitate safe childbirth.” (p. 241). It is quite possible that this version of the Life of St. Margaret functioned as what Skemer calls a “textual amulet”; recitation of the poem, holding the book, even placing the book on the pregnant abdomen, was thought to facilitate a safe and easy childbirth through the intercession of the Saint. Margaret herself, in lines 535-549 of the poem, tells the pregnant reader that if she reads or listens to or even rests beneath the book in which Margaret’s life is recorded, she will deliver her child “without peril.” (Joly, p. 114) In a world where childbirth was one of the greatest threats to a woman’s life, these words would have been a powerful source of comfort.

The three leaves preserve lines 25 through 159 of the 661-line poem. With forty lines per leaf (some lines are skipped, which is why the math doesn’t work out perfectly), the  text would have taken up around seventeen leaves if it had been given in its entirety. I’ve written to every collection known to own this Ege portfolio to ask if their Leaf 48 is in French verse (or rather, I’ve written to every collection that hasn’t posted images of their Ege leaves). I’ve heard  from most of them and have identified only one additional leaf of the text: FOL 48 at the New State Library in Albany preserves lines 461-507. These high line-numbers suggest that the poem was indeed recorded in its entirety and that there are more leaves waiting to be identified.

I was particularly struck by the fact that the leaf at U. Mass. begins with line 25, as this suggested that the preceding leaf might have had the expected 20 lines on the verso and only four lines on the recto, leaving plenty of room above (3/4 of the page, in fact) for a miniature of St. Margaret. So I asked the internet to find me a leaf from a late fifteenth-century French Book of Hours with an illustration of St. Margaret and lines 1-24 of “Apres la sainte passion.” It did:

Sotheby's London, 3 December 2013, Lot 21b

SL 21b versoThis leaf, illustrated by a miniature of St. Margaret holding her crucifix as she emerges from the dragon, sold at Sotheby’s London on 3 December 2013 (lot 21b) to a private collector in New Zealand. It preserves lines 1-24 of the Vie de Sainte Marguerite, making it consecutive with the U. Mass. leaf; the dimensions are the same as Ege’s FOL 48; the script is the same; the illumination is by the same hand. Even the square  bits of white tape used to attach the leaf to a matte in years past are identical to those on the U. Mass. leaf. There can be no doubt: this miniature is from the same manuscript as FOL 48 and it was Otto Ege himself who cut out the miniature when he dismembered the manuscript and sold the leaves piecemeal, probably in the 1940s, and certainly at a massive profit. (my thanks to Sotheby’s Mara Hofmann for the images and to the owner for permission to reproduce them here)

These leaves – scattered across five collections on two continents – together preserve a beautiful miniature of St. Margaret and 200 lines of the Vie de Sainte Marguerite. That’s pretty cool in and of itself. It’s always satisfying and worthwhile to piece dismembered manuscripts back together, since the whole is so much more important and interesting than the individual parts. This is in fact the primary axiom of the newly-christened field of “Digital Fragmentology”: the book is greater than the sum of its pages. When you start to look at manuscript leaves in their original context, a deeper understanding of the parent manuscript emerges which itself adds to the corpus of knowledge about medieval texts, liturgy, literacy, and art. Last week, the leaves of FOL 48 came from just another fifteenth-century Book of Hours from northern France. Now they’re from a Book of Hours written for a woman in or near Chalons-sur-Marne that includes a French verse Life of St. Margaret. It is not hard to imagine the owner of the book, frightened and in the midst of labor, turning these pages as she looked to St. Margaret for comfort. Suddenly, the manuscript has an origin, an owner, a reader, a history.

There are two other reasons why this identification is important:

1) The leaves in the Ege portfolios do not include miniatures. The Sotheby’s leaf is the only identified miniature from this manuscript, and its identification suggests that there may be more illustrated leaves from this Book of Hours out there waiting to be recognized. Scott Gwara has posited in Otto Ege’s Manuscripts (pp. 74-5) that Ege usually bought defective Books of Hours, codices whose miniatures had already been excised, allowing him to buy the books at a discount and increase his profit margin when he sold the leaves individually. In general, the evidence supports that hypothesis. The St. Margaret miniature,  however, presents evidence to the contrary in the form of the identical squares of white tape, the same white tape used by Ege to matte leaves from other manuscripts. In this case, we can safely conclude that it was Otto Ege himself who sliced the St. Margaret miniature from the Book of Hours, selling it apart from the text leaves that became no. 48 in the “Fifty Original Leaves” portfolio.

The First Four Leaves... where are the rest?

The First Four Leaves of the Vie de Sainte Marguerite

2) This French verse Life of St. Margaret appears in numerous manuscripts, some of which are Books of Hours (Blacker believes there are more than one hundred examples of the text in various contexts; for a list of a few of these, see Blacker, p. 165 n. 43 and Keller, p. 14, type 4). Of the late fifteenth-century Books of Hours that contain the text, there seems to be a cluster made for the use of Reims or Chalons-sur-Marne (for example, here, here, and here, in addition to the present manuscript). This points to a pattern that has been hidden until now: a particular and unexplained devotion to St. Margaret and her midwifery in the Champagne-Ardenne region of NE France in the late fifteenth century.

And that is where I leave you, convinced, I hope, of the possibilities for scholarship made possible when scattered leaves are reunited. There are currently at least three Digital Fragmentology projects in the works in the United States and in Europe that are being designed and implemented by teams of programmers and scholars, some of whom have been thinking about this subject for decades (including myself). It’s thrilling to see the development of metadata standards and image platforms that will allow us to digitally reunite these membra disiecta, opening up numerous new avenues for research, teaching and scholarship.

And now, back to the highway.



J. Blacker, G. Burgess and A. Ogden, Wace: The Hagiographical Works (Brill, 2013).

E. A. Francis, “A Hitherto Unprinted Version of the Passio Sanctae Margaritae with Some Observations on Vernacular Derivatives” in Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 42 (1927), pp. 87-105.

S. Gwara, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts (De Brailes, 2013).

A. Joly, La Vie de Sainte Marguerite (Paris, 1879).

H.-E. Keller and M. A. Stones, La Vie de Sainte Marguerite (Tubingen, 1990).

D. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages (Penn. State Press, 2006).



Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

11 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: Otto Ege, St. Margaret and Digital Fragmentology

  1. Lisa, this is marvelous: both in the brilliant detective work and in its articulation of the larger historical issues. I, of course, am particularly mesmerized by the implications of this discovery for the reconstruction of the experiences of women in childbirth, which is still far too opaque for us. May I add, as additional items to the bibliography, three studies that are important for our knowledge of the use of St Margeret’s Life in childbirth (whether as a prayerbook or a talisman): Louis Carolus-Barré, “Un nouveau parchemin amulette et la légende de sainte Marguerite-patronne des femmes en couches,” Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres 123, no. 2 (1979), 256-75, available gratis at; Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, “The Apple’s Message: Some Post-Conquest Hagiographic Accounts of Textual Transmission,” in Late Medieval Religious Texts and Their Transmission: Essays in Honour of A. I. Doyle, ed. A. J. Minnis (London: D. S. Brewer, 1994), pp. 39-53; and Wendy R. Larson, “Who is the Master of this Narrative? Maternal Patronage of the Cult of St Margaret,” in Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Ithaca and London: Cornell UP, 2003), pp. 94-104.

    Splendid work. Congratulations!

  2. Reblogged this on Filologia cyfrowa :: Mediewistyka 2.0 and commented:
    Bardzo polecam ten wpis.

  3. William Stoneman

    Brava, Lisa. So important on several accounts and a vivid demonstration of digital fragmentology. I wonder how long it will be before another leaf from this manuscript surfaces. I’ll bet it won’t be long!

  4. Pingback: Digital Fragmentology and the Five Colleges | Fido ingenio

  5. Amey Hutchins

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    The latest Manuscript Road Trip post by SIMS friend Lisa Fagin Davis is a great example of bringing manuscript culture and modern technology together, as well as a fun detective story.

  6. The Middlegate Key

    Reblogged this on The Middlegate Key.

  7. When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added”
    checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?


  8. Pingback: Manuscript Road Trip: The Big Easy and the Widow Surget | Manuscript Road Trip

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