Back in 2014, I wrote about a lovely Book of Hours from late-fifteenth-century France that was dismembered by Otto Ege in the 1940s and whose leaves became number 48 in his “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” portfolios. I demonstrated how the contents of that manuscript identified it as having been made for the liturgical use of Châlons-sur-Marne (now Châlons-en-Champagne), near Reims in Northeast France, in the Champagne-Ardenne region. The manuscript included a lengthy versified Life of St. Margaret, patron of pregnant women, suggesting that it had been made for a woman. Today, I’m revisiting that manuscript to show you what she looked like.
As many of you will know by now, Ege and his wife Louise assembled forty “Fifty Original Leaves” (FOL) portfolios in the late 1940s (Louise continued the project after Otto’s death in 1951). Each portfolio contains fifty leaves, one from each of the same group of fifty manuscripts. Leaf 1 in one portfolio, for example, always comes from the same manuscript as Leaf 1 in every other portfolio of that name. Of the original forty, only twenty-eight have been found. Until now.
A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a gentleman from Ohio who had found my name and email address after searching online for information about Otto Ege. He was writing with very exciting news; in cleaning out his recently-deceased uncle’s home, he had found a box in a basement closet with a label reading “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” and Otto Ege’s name inside. Given the state of his uncle’s home (left), it’s somewhat of a miracle that the box was recovered at all!
This portfolio was Set no. 1, long declared missing and never-before studied. His uncle had purchased it in the 1970s from dealer Bruce Ferrini, but its location since then had been unknown. I was, as you can imagine, stunned. Not only a previously-unknown Beauvais Missal leaf (no. 15 in the box), but an entirely unknown “Fifty Original Leaves” set! Fifty “new” leaves to examine, to add to the corpus of Ege leaves, to contribute to burgeoning scholarship on these manuscripts.
I spoke with the owner several times by phone, and he was quite happy to share images with me and other fragmentologists. It had been his uncle’s wish that his collection not be hidden away but be used for scholarship and teaching, and I am exceedingly grateful for his generosity.
The images arrived by mail a few days ago and I eagerly opened the thumbdrive and began looking through the scans. I’ve now shared images of particular leaves with scholars working on those manuscripts (as detailed here) and have added the new Beauvais Missal leaf to my own website and to my Fragmentarium-based reconstruction. I’ll be adding the new leaves of no. 29 and no. 30 to the Fragmentarium reconstructions of those manuscripts, projects undertaken by my students at the Simmons School of Library and Information Science over the past few years. My Simmons students reconstructed and studied FOL.48 in 2016 using Omeka, before Fragmentarium was up and running; their work can be found here.
No. 48 in the new portfolio is something particularly special. I’ve noted before that these portfolios almost always contain only text pages, not miniatures, because they were assembled as paleographical specimens. Ege and his sometime-partner Philip Duschnes would have sold the miniatures from these manuscripts separately. But set no. 1 is unusual, perhaps because it is in fact the first set; in this box, leaf 48 is a miniature.
And what a miniature! Originally found at the beginning of the Office of the Dead, this painting shows a woman in a maroon gown, with gold highlights illuminating the draped folds, standing before an arched facade (perhaps a church). She holds her left hand up in a defensive posture, because she is under attack. Death, as a decomposing corpse, has pulled a lengthy arrow from his quiver and is about to stab her in the heart. Death, we learn, comes for us all.
She is, almost certainly, the original owner of this Book of Hours.
The other identified miniature from this manuscript (currently in a private collection in New Zealand) is female-centered as well. Together, they would have served the same function as most miniatures in Books of Hours during this period: inspiring contemplation and prayer, piety and humility.
The other miniature (at right), illustrates the French verse Life of St. Margaret known as “Apres la sainte passion.” St. Margaret is shown in her standard iconographical setting, bursting from the belly of a dragon, crucifix in hand and her gown trailing from the dragon’s mouth. It is no wonder that she was the patroness of pregnant women. 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.” Imagine the emotional impact of these miniatures upon the pregnant reader: Death a terror, St. Margaret a comfort.
We may never know who this woman was. There simply isn’t enough evidence in the recovered part of the manuscript to identify her. But we know this much; she was a woman of child-bearing age who lived near Châlons-sur-Marne in the late 1400s.
And we know that she owned a book.