At long last, it’s time to get back on the virtual road, embarking on a tour of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in collections north of the 45th parallel.
And so begins the Manuscript Road Trip: Canadian Edition!
In our road trip around the U.S., we’ve encountered pre-modern European manuscripts in 47 of the lower 48 states, plus Hawaii and Puerto Rico. There are some nice visualizations of the data compiled by myself and Melissa Conway here. We are still waiting to learn about even one manuscript in one public collection in North Dakota and/or Alaska!
Given the ubiquitous nature of early manuscripts in the southern half of North America, it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of early manuscripts in Canada, from Halifax all the way to Vancouver. And they’ve been there a long time.
According to McGill University curator Richard Virr, one of the first medieval manuscripts to have arrived in Canada was McGill MS 3, a Benedictional from Amiens. It was brought to Québec by Christopher Reiffenstein (ca. 1779 – 1840), a militia officer and businessman. After the end of what began as the War of 1812, Reiffenstein went into business as a retail merchant and, eventually, an auctioneer. He began by selling surplus war goods, but eventually transitioned to include art and books, mostly purchased in England.
Reiffenstein’s Benedictional was one of a handful of manuscripts included in an 1877 exhibit in Montreal, by which time it was part of the collection of George F. C. Smith (see Virr, 1992, p. 14). Smith loaned three ex-Reiffenstein volumes to the exhibit: the Benedictional was the earliest (Dunn-Lardeau/Virr, 2014, p. 159).
The exhibit was part of an international celebration commemorating the 400th anniversary of Caxton’s first printing. It opened with fifteen manuscripts from Canadian collections chosen as examples of book culture before printing. The catalogue, A Condensed Catalogue of Manuscripts, Books and Engravings on Exhibition at the Caxton Celebration (Montreal, 1877) is online here; the manuscripts are described on page 1 without any indication of their owners:
Missals and MSS Prior to the Invention of Printing.
1. New Testament, In Latin, 8vo, double columns…circa 1250. This elaborate and beautiful specimen of calligraphy is done in colors, by a German scribe, in gothic character, on fine prepared vellum, and is undoubtedly of the period stated.
2. MS. on vellum, Benedictiones Dominicales…13th century. Highly illuminated in gold and colors.
3. Missal on vellum…(copied in 1746)…15th century
4. Elegantiarum, Laurentii Valle…circa 1430. A remarkably interesting and excessively rare work, entirely manuscript, Colored Initial letters. On vellum and paper.
5. Fragments of Illuminated Kalendar, on parchment,…circa. 15th century
6. A thin roll of Egyptian Papyrus
7. Leaves of a Tamil School Book of Palmetto leaf
8. Two Burmese MSS
9. An illuminated MS of the Koran in Arabic
10. A copic MS of the Gospel of St. John
11. Latin Breviary MS on vellum…circa 1350. An extremely rare and beautiful specimen.
12. Book of Hours, MS on vellum, in Latin and Dutch…1412
13. Page of a Breviary, on vellum…circa 1450
14. MS Book on Vellum, Illuminated…Liege 1501
15. Capitals from a Missal…16th century
The weekly Canadian Illustrated News reported extensively on the show (see Virr, 1992, note 17):
There were specimens of missals and manuscripts anterior to the invention of printing, such as a new Testament in Latin, of the date 1250, an elaborate and beautiful specimen of caligraphy done in colors, by a German scribe, on fine vellum, and undoubtedly of the age stated; of 1430 a remarkable interested and excessively rare manuscript, with colored initial letters, and on vellum and paper; a roll of Egyptian papyrus, a Tamil school book of palmetto, leaf, Burmese MSS, Captic and Arabic MSS, etc. (Canadian Illustrated News, 14 July 1877, p. 18)
Only two of the fifteen manuscripts have been positively identified: no. 2 (the Reiffenstein/Smith Benedictional, now McGill MS 3) and no. 3 (also at McGill). No. 4 (Lorenzo Valla’s Elegantiarum) was loaned by the University of Toronto but was destroyed by fire in 1890 (see comment from Scott Gwara below). The Benedictional was reproduced by the Canadian illustrated News on 28 July alongside manuscript no. 1, the thirteenth-century Bible described above:At some point after the close of the exhibit, Smith donated all three volumes to the Diocesan Seminary of Montreal. From there, the Benedictional made its way to the library of the McGill University School of Theology before finally coming to rest in McGill’s Department of Special Collections (see Dunn-Lardeau/Virr, p. 159).
When Seymour de Ricci published his Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (Bibliographical Society of America, 1935-40), he counted around eighty codices in six public Canadian collections (II:2201-2238): Edmonton, Alberta: St. Stephen’s College (one Greek codex); Halifax, Nova Scotia: King’s College (six codices and a legal scroll); Montreal, Québec: McGill University (around fifty codices and several dozen documents, leaves, and cuttings); Toronto, Ontario: Academy of Medicine (one fragmentary codex); Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology (eighteen codices and around two dozen leaves and cuttings); and the University of Toronto (five codices).The 1962 Faye & Bond Supplement added the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, which at the time held one codex and two dozen leaves.
Today, according to the Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings (co-authored by myself and Melissa Conway), there are nearly 1,400 codices, leaves, and early documents in eighteen Canadian collections, scattered across Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Québec, and Saskatchewan:
Manuscripts in Canada will be the subject of a one-day symposium on 18 March 2016 at the University of Victoria, a gathering I are very sorry to have to miss. I hope that anyone in attendance will let Melissa and myself know of collections of which we are not aware. In particular, we would very much like to know of any collections in the provinces and territories missing from the list above: New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon.
Next time, we’ll catch a ferry to Nova Scotia to start our tour.
A Condensed Catalogue of Manuscripts, Books and Engravings on Exhibition at the Caxton Celebration (Montreal, 1877)
Richard Virr, “Behold this treasury of glorious things: the Montreal Caxton Exhibition of 1877,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 30 (1992), 7-20.
Dunn-Lardeau, Brenda and RichardVirr, “La redécouverte d’un exemplaire des heures enluminées de 1516 imprimées par Gilles Hardouin.” (Gutenberg-Jahrbuch, 2014), 144-170.