Manuscript Road Trip: A New Year in New Haven

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

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

The history of medieval manuscripts in the United States begins in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University. Beinecke MS 27 is not only the  first medieval manuscript recorded in the Yale collection but is thought to have been the first illuminated manuscript brought to the New World. The manuscript – an illustrated copy of Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum humanae salvationis – was given to Yale in 1714 by none other than Eli Yale himself. In the three centuries since, the Yale collection has grown into one of the largest in the U.S. Today, the luminous Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds more than 1,500 pre-1600 manuscripts in four main collections: the Beinecke MS series (a growing collection currently comprising 1,162 manuscripts) and the Marston, Mellon, and Osborn collections (three private collections that were later acquired by the library). In addition, Japanese collector Toshiyuki Takamiya has recently deposited his important collection of Middle English manuscripts at the Beinecke. Keep an eye on curator Ray Clemens’ blog for news and updates.

working map

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, from the outside...

The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, from the outside…

Many of the Beinecke manuscripts are described in detail in the four-volume Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University (Binghamton, N.Y. : Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984-2004) by Barbara Shailor et al. Shailor’s work has served as a model for manuscript scholars world-wide. In much the same way, the Beinecke’s electronic records are models for institutions seeking to make their collections available in a digital format.

There are three access points for each manuscript on the Yale site, all of which are linked to one another:

...and inside.

…and inside.

1) Descriptions: Shailor’s descriptions can be keyword-searched here.

2) Digital surrogates: Complete digital surrogates can be accessed here and downloaded as PDFs.

3) MARC records: a complete list of MARC records for early manuscripts can be retrieved in ORBIS, Yale’s library database, by using the subject heading “Manuscripts, Medieval–Connecticut–New Haven.

Finally, most of the manuscripts can be found in Digital Scriptorium, with more being added to the database regularly.

A note about the MARC records (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if MARC-speak puts you to sleep). If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that I have strong opinions about how best to use MARC for early manuscripts, and how NOT to. In my virtual travels around the country, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring local OPACs and have learned a lot about best-practices. Yale’s MARC records have been carefully crafted by database specialists, MARC technicians, and manuscript scholars working together to design modified AMREMM records that are clear, thorough, discoverable, and exportable. The 650 field “|a Manuscripts, Medieval  |z Connecticut  |z New Haven,” a custom field whose use in this way may be anathema to some MARC cataloguers, is in fact the key to discoverability, as it allows users to easily retrieve a complete list of early manuscripts. I highly recommend using something similar for your own records.

At the same time, Yale’s MARC records have been designed to cross-walk smoothly into Digital Scriptorium’s hierarchically-structured database, allowing Yale (and others following this model) to export records to Digital Scriptorium with minimal re-keying. In addition to a 1-to-1 relationship between certain MARC and DS fields (e.g. MARC 245 = DS “Title”), the real key to this process is the consistent use and formatting of MARC’s catch-all 500 fields. Working with Digital Scriptorium, Yale’s database gurus have established a closed set of trigger-words (Binding, Watermark, Ownership, Script, etc.) that, when used in a 500 field and immediately followed by a colon, tell the Digital Scriptorium cross-walk algorithm what to do with the metadata that follows. If you are interested in learning more about synching your MARC records and images with the DS database and becoming part of Digital Scriptorium, read these guidelines and contact Digital Scriptorium Executive Director Consuelo Dutschke.

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University

Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University

But back to New Haven. It wouldn’t be right to sing the praises of the Beinecke’s collection without sharing some of its treasures. I was a graduate student at Yale from 1988 – 1993 in the Medieval Studies program and worked for several years as the Assistant to the Curator of Pre-1600 Manuscripts, at the time Robert G. Babcock. This is where I developed my love for manuscript fragments, as I was given the job of cataloguing and conserving several hundred of these little wanderers. The project turned into Volume IV of the Beinecke Catalogue and led to the discovery with Dr. Babcock that many of the leaves in the collection had originally come from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Kilian in Lambach, Austria.

Lambach Abbey

Lambach Abbey

This discovery provided me with a dissertation topic as well as the opportunity to assist with an exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. Needless to say, I feel very fortunate to have had such a splendid introduction to the world of medieval manuscripts. The Beinecke collection is varied and extraordinary, with ancient fragments perfect for teaching paleography, mysterious codices whose secrets are yet to be unraveled, important and rare literary exempla, and stunning works of art.

BRBL MS 404, f. 7r

BRBL MS 404, f. 7r

Here are a few highlights from the Beinecke collection. I have to lead with MS 404, otherwise known as The Rothschild Canticles.

BRBL MS 404, f. 44r

BRBL MS 404, f. 44r

This spectacular manuscript, written in France at the turn of the fourteenth century, illustrates the Song of Songs and other texts with mystical and complex full-page illustrations. It has been reproduced in facsimile and studied by several scholars, most notably Jeffrey Hamburger.

Another notable late thirteenth-century French manuscript is BRBL MS 229, an Arthurian romance in Old French. In the detail below, we see Sir Lancelot riding off with “The Damsel” in the upper compartment of the miniature, while the Knights of the Round Table do battle below.

BRBL MS 299, f. 75r

BRBL MS 229, f. 75r

BRBL 229 f. 75 detail

Lancelot and the damsel leave the hermitage; the knights of the Round Table in battle with the knights of Baudemagus (BRBL MS 229, f. 75 detail)

MS 425 is a gorgeously illustrated Missal from France, ca. 1470. It was illuminated, at least in part, by the great Jean Colombe and three other artists. After the calendar, the manuscript opens with the Masses for Advent, illustrated by a half-page miniature of The Entry into Jerusalem with smaller miniatures in the margins depicting a priest saying Mass and various scenes from the life of Christ.

BRBL MS 425, f. 6r

BRBL MS 425, f. 6r

MS 375, an early sixteenth-century Book of Hours, is also sumptuously illustrated, with full gilt borders on every page, fifteen full-page miniatures, and twelve calendrical illustrations. The letters E, F and G appear in the margins throughout, presumably initials related to the original (and still unidentified) owner. The manuscript has a noble provenance, having passed through the hands of Marie-Caroline de Bourbon, Duchesse de Berry (1798-1870) as well as Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845 – 1934). 

BRBL MS 375, f. 51v/52

BRBL MS 375, f. 51v/52

The Beinecke also holds hundreds of single leaves and fragments. I’ve written quite a lot in this blog about the practice of twentieth-century American bookdealers breaking manuscripts apart to increase their profit margins. But thousands of manuscripts were broken up centuries ago in Europe, not for resale but for reuse. Parchment was a valuable resource, requiring the slaughter of livestock and the subsequent loss of future income and resources. When possible, bookbinders would repurpose old, obsolete, or imperfect manuscripts by taking them apart to use their leaves as binding structures (palimpsests as well, but that’s another story). These stowaways traveled across the Atlantic tucked safely inside their new homes. Many of these binding fragments were later removed to be preserved as worthy collectibles in their own right. Untold numbers are still hiding in early bindings.

The story of Beinecke MS 481.51 and its journey to the United States is the story of North American manuscript fragments in microcosm. These seventeen leaves belong to the Gottschalk Antiphonal, the subject of my dissertation. Gottschalk, whom we met a few weeks ago at Princeton, wrote and illustrated his eponymous antiphonal at the Lambach abbey in the fourth quarter of the twelfth century. By the fifteenth century, the musical notation and liturgy were centuries out-of-date, and, along with many other manuscripts, the obsolete antiphonal was dismembered to be used as binding scrap. During World War II, the monks found themselves in need of a new wood lathe. To raise money for the purchase, they removed the antiphonal leaves and dozens of other fragments from the later bindings in which they had been repurposed, and sold them.

The Gottschalk Antiphonal (BRBL MS 481.51 8r, detail)

The Gottschalk Antiphonal (BRBL MS 481.51 8r, detail)

The fragments made their way en masse via a Swiss bookdealer to the New York firm of Hans P. Kraus, and from there to Yale in 1965. By the time the leaves had been acquired by Kraus, however, the original provenance of the group had been lost. Fortunately, a scholar by the name of Kurt Holter had studied and described the fragments in situ at Lambach before the war. It was thanks to his published descriptions of the leaves that Babcock and I were able to identify the Beinecke collection as having originated at Lambach. In addition to the seventeen Gottschalk Antiphonal leaves at Yale, there are two at Harvard’s Houghton Library (MS Typ 704 5 and 704 6). We have already seen the leaf that toured the midwestern United States in an aluminum trailer before settling down at the St. Louis Public Library, and a few others leaves can be found in Austrian collections. Altogether, I know of about two dozen leaves of the Gottschalk Antiphonal.

But the story doesn’t end there. Currently, Liz Hebbard, a PhD student at Yale, is working at the Beinecke conducting a survey of its incunable binding fragments. She has already found dozens of early leaves being used as covers, pastedowns, and binding stays. Other bindings show evidence of early leaves having been  removed, as in the image below from incunable Zi +1525 in which a leaf was pasted inside the back cover to secure the leather cover’s turn-ins. The leaf was peeled off at a later date, leaving behind an upside-down inverted offset. Based on my recent examination of the offset, I have identified the missing fragment as a previously unknown (and currently untraced) leaf of the Gottschalk Antiphonal. It is an extraordinary co-incidence that this incunable should have once housed a paste-down Antiphonal leaf, as it arrived at Yale by a completely different path than did the other leaves.

BRBL Zi +1525 (inner back cover)

BRBL Zi +1525 (inner back cover)

The same image, inverted and rotated

Detail. Compare this script with Gottschalk's, above.

Detail, inverted and rotated. Compare this script with Gottschalk’s, above.

Those of you who are familiar with the Beinecke collection may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned what is perhaps the most (in)famous manuscript of all. Just wait ’til next week…

voynich detail

See you next time…



Filed under Medieval Manuscripts, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Manuscript Road Trip: A New Year in New Haven

  1. No one who uses Library of Congress Subject Headings should be offended by the 650 used to collocate the Beinecke Mss records. The last time I checked in the Subject Cataloging Manual that provides authoritative instructions on using LCSH, catalogers were supposed to assign a heading of that sort to for records on individual mss or facsimiles of them. Now one might use a 655 tag for a form heading. I am always glad to see that someone is making use of AMREMM. A lot of work went into that, even though it is undoubtedly not perfect.

    • I agree with you completely, although I have had pushback against this local 650 tag from some MARC cataloguers who feel that it could be interpreted as indicating the origin of the manuscript in question rather than its location. Given that we’re talking specifically about European manuscripts in American collections, such confusion seems unlikely!

  2. The origin vs repository issue is not unique to mss. It also occurs with Prisoners of War, where one makes one heading for the country of origin of the POW and another for the location of the place where the POWs are held. Sometimes one has to live with some ambiguity.


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