Manuscript Road Trip: The Nation’s Capital

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

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

Welcome to Washington, DC, home to cherry blossoms, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Congress, and more than 7,000 pre-1600 European manuscripts in sixteen collections. At only ten square miles, DC has without question the highest density of manuscripts-per-square-mile of any city in the U.S. Today, we’ll join the tourists and take a tour of DC that starts in Georgetown and takes us across the Mall before we head up to Northeast DC on our way out of town.

Just a few of the place where you'll find medieval manuscripts in the District of Columbia.

Just a few of the place where you’ll find medieval manuscripts in the District of Columbia.

Dumbarton Oaks (photo by John Weiss)

Dumbarton Oaks (photo by John Weiss)

Dumbarton Oaks, an institute for Byzantine Studies affiliated with Harvard University and set among exquisite gardens at the north end of Georgetown, owns several important and early Byzantine manuscripts. Some have been digitized and can be found in Harvard’s HOLLIS catalogue by searching ‘author:”Dumbarton Oaks, owner”‘. There you’ll find links to several digitized Byzantine manuscripts, including an eleventh-century lectionary and a Psalter from the same era.working mapNext we’ll head south on Wisconsin Ave. towards the river to reach Georgetown University. Georgetown’s manuscript collection includes more than a dozen codices, several of which have been digitized. Among those available online is a lovely early fifteenth-century French Book of Hours. The manuscript is heavily illustrated, with four Evangelist portraits, a Marian cycle, a handsome portrait of King David at prayer (below) and a complete Passion cycle. It is said to be for the Use of Amiens, but as the Hours of the Virgin do not support that localization (for those of you who care about such things, the Prime antiphon is Quando natus, the Prime chapter is Ab initio et ante, the None antiphon is Pulchra es, and the None chapter is Sicut cynamomum; this combination doesn’t appear in Madan or in Erik Drigsdahl’s more detailed list), the determination of Use was probably based on the calendar.

King David at Prayer (Penitential Psalms, Georgetown Univ. MS 11, p. 179)

King David at Prayer (Penitential Psalms, Georgetown Univ. MS 11, p. 179)

The Litany, however, suggests Langres, in Burgundy. The manuscript includes a lengthy and unusually formatted Litany, with two different texts given side-by-side in parallel columns: the standard litany of Saints in the right-hand column and the litanic poem “Deus unitas superna” in the left. The longer-than-usual litany includes St. Altigianus and several other saints of special siginificance in Burgundy.

If the weather’s nice, we can walk along the Mall all the way from the Lincoln Memorial past the Washington Monument towards the Capitol. The last museum on the left is the National Gallery of Art, our next stop.

National-Mall-11

By searching the National Gallery’s collections database for the keyword “vellum” and then limiting the results with the date range “before 1300” – 1500, I found records for 113 0bjects, 78 of which have been digitized, mostly single leaves and cuttings. One of the highlights has to be the miniature of St. Christopher carrying the Christ-child across a river (below left), removed from an early fifteenth-century Book of Hours. The miniature has been recently attributed to the Limbourg Brothers, the early fifteenth-century master painters responsible for some of the most well-known examples of manuscript illumination, the early miniatures in the “Très Riches Heures” of Duke Jean de Berry (1340 – 1416). The miniature, with its distinctive fantastical, craggy landscape and rich gradiated sky, compares favorably to, for example, the miniature at right, Angels carrying the body St. Katherine to Mt. Sinai, from another manuscript commissioned from the Limbourgs by the Duke de Berry, the “Belles Heures” belonging to The Cloisters in New York.

Limbourg Brothers, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child, Netherlandish, active 1406 - 1416, c. 1409, miniature on vellum, Rosenwald Collection

Limbourg Brothers, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child, Netherlandish, active 1406 – 1416, c. 1409, miniature on vellum, Rosenwald Collection

Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duc of Berry, 1405–1408/9 Herman, Paul, and Jean Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1)

Belles Heures of Jean of France, Duc of Berry, 1405–1408/9
Herman, Paul, and Jean Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France, by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum
9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1)

On the other side of the Mall is the Freer Gallery of Art. There are several early Byzantine manuscripts in the Gallery’s Biblical Manuscript Collection, including two extremely early and important Greek Gospel fragments from the 4th and 5th centuries.

This next stop is for those of you who love your Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library owns the largest collection of Shakespearean material in the world, but the library also holds many other types of material, including several manuscripts that pre-date the Bard. You can find some of these by searching their Luna digital database for “manuscripts — 15th century” or “manuscripts — 16th century.” One of the most important of these early codices is manuscript V.a.354, a codex known as The Macro Manuscript that contains several examples of medieval drama. The manuscript includes a well-known drawing of a theater-in-the-round with a castle tower in the center, illustrating the setting of the fifteenth-century English morality play “The Castle of Perseverance.” On the ditch encircling the castle are written instructions for the players and the audience, for example, that the viewers are not to cross the ditch during the performance.

The Castle of Perseverance (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.354)

The Castle of Perseverance (Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.a.354)

In addition to early printed editions of Shakespeare’s works, the Folger also has several documents that add to our knowledge of his life, such as a document from London’s Court of Common Pleas recording the settlement of a 1602 disagreement between Shakespeare and one Hercules Underhill, and the Deed of Sale for his purchase of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse in 1613.

Next up, the Library of Congress. Early manuscripts can be found in the LC Map Collection, Law Library, and Music Collection, but the vast majority belong to the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. This from their website:

“The Rare Book and Special Collections Division traces its beginnings to Thomas Jefferson’s wish to create a library for statesmen and for the people of the new nation. After the British burned the Capitol and its library in 1814, Jefferson offered to sell his book collection to Congress. Congress appropriated money for the purchase, and Jefferson’s collection served as the foundation for the new Library of Congress in 1815. Jefferson’s books–in several languages and covering a great variety of subjects–today form the nucleus of the division.”

Job on the Dungheap (The Office of the Dead) (Library of Congress, RBSC Division, Rosenwald MS 10, ff. 79v/80r). Note the date "1524" hanging from the top of the image.

Job on the Dungheap (The Office of the Dead) (Library of Congress, RBSC Division, Rosenwald MS 10, ff. 79v/80r). Note the date “1524” hanging from the top of the image.

Nine manuscripts from the Library’s Rosenwald Collection are online here, including this stunning Book of Hours dated 1524 (Rosenwald MS 10). In addition to the “wow” factor of the illumination, the manuscript has a lengthy and well-established provenance, with owners including (among others): Parisian printer and graphic designer Geoffroy Tory (approx. 1480 – 1533); Guillaume-François de Bure (1731 – 1782); William Beckford (1760 – 1844); François Gustave Adolphe Guyot de Villeneuve (1825 – 1898); Robert Hoe (1839 – 1909); Cortlandt F. Bishop (1870 – 1935) and Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891 – 1979). The last three names, in particular, are well-known to manuscript studies, especially in the United States. The 1911 Anderson sale of the Hoe collection brought many important manuscripts into the market; the same firm sold Cortlandt Field Bishop’s collection in 1938/9, another important collection of more than 65 manuscripts that is recorded in both the Census and the Supplement (this manuscript is Bishop No. 9, Census II:1656); and Lessing J. Rosenwald was yet another great collector whose donations to the Library of Congress and to the National Gallery comprise some of the most important early manuscripts in the District. G-F de Bure, who owned the manuscript in the mid-eighteenth century, included it in a 1763 catalogue titled Bibliographie Instructive (p. 197-8, no. 219), where he described it as “un des plus beaux livres de ce genre.” Go through it page by page and you will certainly agree.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the technical services team at The Catholic University of America, because their MARC cataloguers have done exactly what needs to be done to make MARC records for pre-1600 manuscripts discoverable in a local OPAC; by simply establishing and consistently using the subject heading “Manuscripts, Latin (Medieval and modern)–Washington (D.C.)” as a local 650 subject field (for those of you who are MARC-literate), they have made it incredibly easy for users to filter their manuscript records. I cannot recommend this strategy vehemently enough; without establishing such a local subject heading, it may be extremely difficult for your end-users to find the records, no matter how carefully you’ve formatted your metadata. And what’s the point of a record if no one can find it? 

Next time, we’ll visit one of the birthplaces of open-access data. See you in Maryland!

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