There are several important things to know about Rhode Island besides the fact that it is the smallest state in the union. No. 1, it is not an island. No. 2, it was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 on the principle of religious freedom for all. It also happens to be home to some very interesting medieval manuscripts tucked away in some very surprising places.
We begin in Newport, a seaside enclave that was once the summer playground of America’s wealthiest elite. Families such as the Vanderbilts constructed palatial mansions in the late nineteenth century, most of which are now open to the public through The Preservation Society of Newport County. If you find yourself in New England, Newport and its Mansions are well worth a visit.
While in Newport, be sure to visit the Redwood Museum and Athenaeum, where you will find a lovely mid-15th-century Book of Hours from Belgium attributed to the group of artists known collectively as the Masters of the Gold Scrolls. Take a look as these swirly gold backgrounds and you’ll see where the name comes from (with thanks to Peter Kidd for the images):
For more on this manuscript, see S. Gwara, “Medieval Manuscripts from Newport, R.I.” in Manuscripts LXIV (2012), pp. 5-13.
Our last stop in Newport is St. George’s School, a small boarding school that happens to own a stunning and heavily illustrated late fifteenth-century Book of Hours. The calendar suggests Use of Lyon (calendar notices of St. Photinus (2 June), Bonitus (23 June), and Elpidius (2 September), for example), and the manuscript may have been produced in that region of France. An inscription on the first flyleaf records that it was purchased by Charles, Count of Ambois, in 1808; he was in exile in London at the time but was called back to France in 1824 to take the throne as King Charles X. The codex later belonged to the famed collector Ambroise Firmin-Didot (1790-1876), his sale by Pawlowski & Paul, 11 June 1883, lot 21. The manuscript was given to St. George’s by an alumnus named Boies Penrose II, evidenced by his attached bookplate and undated donation inscription. Penrose’s father, Boies Penrose Sr., was himself a collector of note, although this manuscript is not among his collection as described in the Census (II:1995-1999) or the Supplement (pp. 436-441). Once again, I thank Peter Kidd for these images:
We have a few stops to make in the state capital of Providence. There are very few public municipal collections in the U.S. that house pre-1600 manuscripts, but the Providence Public Library is one of them. Recently, the manuscripts at the Public Library were made available through Digital Scriptorium. In addition to a few Ege leaves, the collection includes a codex that is extremely rare, one of only five of its kind: Wetmore MS 1. This late fifteenth-century Bible was written in Germany using a rebus-like system of mnemonic symbols and images. This is a fascinating manuscript, worthy of significant study, with mysterious iconographic treatments and delightful miniatures throughout. It’s like a medieval comic book.
This opening illustrates much of Genesis. The days of Creation can be seen at the top of folio 7v, Noah’s Ark at the center right on the same page, with the dove in the lower left corner.
Each panel of this opening illustrates an entire Psalm, here showing Psalms 11 (Salvum me fac) through 30 (In te domine speravi). It is not always obvious how the illustration relates to the Psalm. In the center of the left-hand page, for example, a hand reaches out holding a bag of money. This is presumably a man lending money to the poor without interest, as exemplified in Psalm 15. In the lower left corner of that page, we see the tent pitched in the Heavens for the sun, from Psalm 19. Psalm 20 tells us that “Some trust in chariots and some in horses,” as illustrated in the lower central panel of the lefthand page.
According to Susanne Rischpler in Biblia Sacra figuris expressa: Mnemotechnische Bilderbibln des 15. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden 2001), there are only five known medieval manuscripts that present the Bible in this way (this manuscript is described on pp. 187-190). This is a rare bird indeed.
The manuscript has a long and fascinating history. It was owned in the early seventeenth century by Henry, Prince of Wales (1594 – 1612) (son of King James I), supposedly given to him by his sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia (1596-1662). Later, the manuscript was owned by Henry Thomas Watson (1720-79). From Thomas Pennant (1726-98), the manuscript passed by inheritance to Rudolph (1823-92), Earl of Denbigh. It was sold with his collection at Christie’s, 7 July 1938, lot 12 to Stonehill. Soon thereafter, it was acquired by Edith Wetmore (1870-1966), who gave it to the Providence Public Library in 1955. Edith Wetmore, by the way, held her 1889 debutante ball at her family’s Newport “cottage,” Chateau-sur-Mer.
The Public Library also owns a very fine late fifteenth-century Dutch Book of Hours, Wetmore MS 2.
The Rhode Island School of Design owns a very nice cache of Ege leaves as well as a gorgeous early sixteenth-century Book of Hours, and Rhode Island College has two framed leaves of its own.
At Providence College, we’ll find the Leonardus de Utonio manuscript (Erfurt, 1445) that formerly belonged to Father William Bonniwell (Census II:133; I thank Phil Weimerskirch, emeritus Curator of Special Collections at the Providence Public Library, for bringing this manuscript and others to my attention).
Our last stop in Providence is my alma mater, Brown University. Founded in 1764, Brown has had plenty of time to accumulate the largest collection of pre-1600 manuscripts in the state. Most, however, were acquired in the twentieth century, several with the acquisition of the Annmary Brown Memorial Library in 1948, and others through gift or purchase. The very first manuscript I ever studied was Brown’s late fifteenth-century anonymous French translation of Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi.
The John Hay Library at Brown is in the process of digitizing and cataloguing its collection of several dozen early manuscripts. Many of the manuscripts are described in the de Ricci Census and its Supplement, and an increasing number of MARC records can be found in the University’s JOSIAH database using an Advanced Search for “Ms. Latin“, “Ms. Dutch,” “Ms. Spanish,” “Ms. Italian,” “Ms. French,” or “Ms. German” in the “Other Brown Call No.” field.
Many of the pre-1600 manuscripts formerly belonging to the John Carter Brown Library (an independent institution on the Brown campus) were de-accessioned at Sotheby’s on 18 May 1981, although there are still a few early manuscripts in the collection. For details on the de-accessioned manuscripts, see pp. 133-134 of the Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings.
Brown University’s online catalogue is named after Josiah S. Carberry, a legendary Brown Professor of Psychoceramics (the study of cracked pots) who has been reliably cancelling lectures since 1929.
February 29 and every Friday the 13th are “Carberry Days” at Brown. Contributions to the cracked pots that mysteriously appear around campus on those days are given to the Brown University Library’s Carberry Fund, which is used to purchase “such books as Professor Carberry might or might not approve of.” Carberry regularly cancels scheduled campus appearances, unaccompanied by his wife Laura, daughters Lois and Patricia, and his assistant Truman Grayson, who has a habit of being bitten by animals that begin with the letter [A].
While preparing this post, I made an appointment to meet with Prof. Carberry at the John Hay Library. I was particularly looking forward to hearing about a medieval treatise he claims to have found buried beneath University Hall that categorizes 9th-century Viking pottery shards by color, shape, and density. The esteemed Professor was forced to cancel when Grayson was unexpectedly attacked by an aardvark.