Tag Archives: Middle Ages

Manuscript Road Trip: Dragons in Detroit

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

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

Blog mapMichigan is Great Lakes country, its Upper and Lower peninsulas lapped by four of the five inland seas. It’s also the site of a major annual pilgrimage. Every year in May, thousands of medievalists from around the world descend on Kalamazoo, Michigan, for the planet’s largest gathering of students, faculty, scholars and fans of the Middle Ages, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Scholarly plenaries, informative general sessions, lively round-table discussions, and pedagogical workshops are supplemented by musical performances and film screenings and demonstrations of medieval brewing techniques (always a favorite). If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it.

It being October, however, we’re not heading for Kalamazoo on this trip. Instead, we’ll take I-75 along the western shore of Lake Erie to reach the oft-maligned city of Detroit.DetroitSkyline

As many of my U.S. readers will know, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy on 18 July 2013, and the months since have seen workers furloughed, municipal services shuttered, and rumors flying about the inevitable sale of City-owned assets such as the Airport and public parkland. One of the most alarming rumors was the impending liquidation of works of art belonging to the Detroit Institute of Arts. The Institute argued that its holdings were not legally eligible for sale (a series of statements from the DIA can be found here), but it was reported that Christie’s auction house had been contacted about possible sales anyway. The worldwide community of art historians and art lovers has been called into action, and a widely-circulated petition authored by Harvard University’s Prof. Jeffrey Hamburger has garnered more than 5,000 signatures as of this writing. It now seems clear that the law is on the side of the DIA and that the deaccessions are unlikely to take place, but I urge all of you to keep an eye on this situation as no definitive resolution will be reached until sometime in 2014.

These works of art are much more than assets or investments to be liquidated as a short-term solution to the City’s fiscal crisis. They represent the patrimony of the City, the State and the Country, important examples of the artistic, cultural and historic heritage of all Americans, whatever their origin. And in case you were wondering, that artistic, cultural and historic heritage preserved at the DIA includes medieval manuscripts.

The Institute holds many Arabic and Persian manuscripts and manuscript fragments, outside the scope of this blog. There are only a few examples of Western medieval manuscript illumination, but what there is, is really outstanding. Let’s start with this extraordinary initial from late fourteenth-century Florence, a scene of Pentecost within the letter S:

Pentecost in the letter S, from Florence, Santa Maria Nuova, before 1405 (Detroit Institute of Arts, 37.133.A)

Pentecost in the letter S, from Florence, Santa Maria Nuova, before 1405 (Detroit Institute of Arts, 37.133.A)

This initial is very large, 9 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches. It was probably cut from a giant choirbook, most likely a gradual (a book containing choir music for mass), in which case it would have been the opening initial of the Introit for the Pentecost Mass, “Spiritus domini replevit.” In the upper compartment of the letter [S] we find the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Apostles, with the Holy Spirit, in the form of rays of golden light, descending from above. Two women attempt to peek in through the door below, and the whole scene is surrounded by a decorative border that includes the busts of eight women looking towards the central scene.

There are a few others leaves as well, but the real treasures of the Institute’s medieval manuscript holdings are these two late-thirteenth-century illustrations of the Apocalypse:

The Dragon waging War, from a manuscript of The Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, recto)

The Dragon Waging War, from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, recto)

The Beast of the Sea, from a manuscript of The Apocalypse, France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, verso)

The Beast of the Sea Encounters the Dragon, from the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse , France, ca. 1295 (Detroit Institute of Arts, Acc. 1983.20A, verso)

These fearsome miniatures appear back-to-back, on recto and verso of a single sheet. This is the top half of the leaf; originally, there was text below each miniature (look carefully at the bottom margin of The Dragon Waging War and you’ll see a tiny sliver of the top line of text).  On the recto is an illustration of Apocalypse 12:17, showing the battle of the seven-headed dragon against the descendents of the Woman Clothed in the Sun (“The dragon went to make war with the rest of the woman’s seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus”). On the verso, illustrating Apocalypse 13:2-3, the dragon gives a scepter of authority to the seven-headed monster from the sea (“And the beast which I saw was like a leopard, and his feet were like those of a bear, and his mouth like the mouth of a lion. And the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority”). This manuscript falls into the great tradition of illustrating the Apocalypse in medieval manuscripts – the ethereal and terrifying visions described by St. John easily lend themselves to fantastical outpourings of creativity and visualization, and medieval artists let their imaginations run wild. Google “medieval manuscripts” and “Apocalypse” and you’ll see what I mean. Better yet, find yourself a copy of Richard Emmerson and Bernard McGinn’s The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages.

The manuscript from which these miniatures were cut is known as the Burckhardt-Wildt Apocalypse, named for an early owner, Daniel Burckhardt-Wildt (1759-1819) of Basel. The title is misleading, however, as the manuscript has never been known to scholarship as a complete codex. Peter Birmann, a Swiss painter and dealer, likely cut up the manuscript in hopes of selling the miniatures off piecemeal, but instead he mounted seventy-seven of the miniatures in an album (the original manuscript apparently consisted of eighty-eight illustrations on fifty leaves; eleven miniatures are lost) and sold them en masse to Burckhardt-Wildt in 1796. The album stayed in the possession of his descendants until the miniatures were sold as separate lots at Sotheby’s London on 25 April 1983, lots 31-68. The DIA cutting was lot 52 and was originally folio 26 of the manuscript, according to the reconstruction undertaken by Sotheby’s at the time of the sale. After that sale, the miniatures were scattered across the globe and can now be found at institutions such as the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Pierpont Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Several have made their way back onto the market in recent years (here’s one that was offered by Les Enluminures in 2004). There are even two cuttings (i.e. four miniatures) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a site we visited just last week. Much has been written about this manuscript (see the DIA site for some of the most important references, although that list is not entirely up-to-date); all agree that these miniatures are important examples of late thirteenth-century French illumination and, it can be argued, fill gaps in the art historical tradition of Apocalypse manuscripts. They’re also hypnotically beautiful, and the people of Detroit are fortunate to have access to them.

While researching the medieval manuscripts belonging to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I encountered Loren D. Estleman’s novel, The Hours of the Virgin, a murder mystery that revolves around a fictional sixteenth-century Book of Hours stolen from the DIA. The blurb reads, “Detroit is no place for virgins, or gentlemen. Walker, who is neither, follows the 50-year-old trail of a stolen manuscript across the bleak landscape of a dead city, coming face to face with the man who murdered his partner 20 years ago.” Bleak and dead? On the contrary, based on the response to the threat of deaccession, I would say Detroit is actually alive and well where it really matters.

Next week, we’ll stop in South Bend, Indiana, to see what’s happening at the University of Notre Dame before heading down to Bloomington.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts

Manuscript Road Trip: In Otto Ege’s Footsteps

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

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

Ohio is one of the areas of the country richest in medieval manuscripts, with more than 2200 codices and 2400 leaves in at least thirty-three collections. In fact, once you leave the East coast, Ohio has the largest number of medieval manuscripts per person and per square mile in the United States. If you only count manuscript leaves, Ohio does even better, beating the East Coast states of New York and New Jersey in the per-square-mile calculation. These manuscripts are scattered in thirty-three collections (at last count) across nineteen different cities and towns, in public libraries, museums, seminaries and universities. working mapThe sheer diversity is noteworthy, as Ohio ranks fourth (tying Massachusetts) in the number of collections with pre-1600 manuscript holdings.

In the first few weeks of this Manuscript Road Trip, I’ve focused on particular collections or manuscripts in each state. But because Ohio is such a standout, I have set up a self-guided Ohio Manuscript Roadtrip to all of the collections of which I am aware. Click on the map below to get started (or just click here). Happy hunting! Particularly noteworthy are the holdings of Oberlin College, which have been completely digitized and are accessible through Digital Scriptorium. One of the Oberlin codices, known as The Artz Hours, has been fully digitized here. The holdings at the Cleveland Museum of Art have also been digitized, and there are some stunning examples of manuscript illumination to be found there.


That Ohio is such a rich area for the study of medieval manuscripts can be partially explained by the number of institutions of higher learning in the state. If you’ve been following my blog for the last few weeks, however, you can probably guess why Ohio is so full of manuscript leaves: it’s all because of Otto F. Ege.

I won’t retread ground that’s been marched over already, but here’s the short version. Otto Ege was a professor and bookdealer who made a lot of money breaking apart manuscripts and early printed books in the 1930s and 1940s, selling them leaf by leaf at a massive profit. He wasn’t the first to do this; dealers figured out a long time ago that economies of scale worked in their favor if they sold 250 leaves to 250 buyers instead of one manuscript to one buyer. Ege assembled sets of leaves, with one leaf from one manuscript, one leaf from another, one leaf from a third, and so on, creating what were essentially decks of manuscript leaves that he sold in custom mattes and boxes. The fifth leaf in one box, for example, would have come from the same manuscript as the fifth leaf in another. Several of the Ege sets in Ohio have been digitized: Case WesternCincinnati Public LibraryCleveland Public LibraryDenison UniversityKent State UniversityLima Public Library; and Ohio State University. Fred Porcheddu’s site at Denison University is a great introduction to Otto Ege and his impact on manuscript collections in the Ohio River Valley, focusing on the most well-known boxed set titled “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts.” Scott Gwara’s forthcoming study will provide more details about the economics of Ege’s bookbreaking as well as a comprehensive list of manuscripts that passed through his hands.


Otto F. Ege, “I am a Biblioclast,” Avocations vol. I (March, 1938), pp. 516-18. The far-right manuscript in the header image is the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that was destined to become Leaf 3 in the “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” set. The manuscript is open to the page that now belongs to the Cleveland Public Library (http://ege.denison.edu/cleveland_leaf_03.php).

Ege defended his “biblioclasm” with what he considered the noble goal of putting a little bit of the Middle Ages within the economic grasp of even the humblest collector or smallest institution. In a 1938 article in the “hobbyist” journal Avocations, Ege explained: “Book-tearers have been cursed and condemned, but have they ever been praised or justified?  I present for your consideration:

  1. Never to take apart a ‘museum piece’ book or a unique copy if it is complete.
  2. To search for and make available to schools, libraries, collections, and individuals single leaves or units of mediaeval manuscripts, incunabula works, and fine presses.
  3. To circulate leaf exhibits, supplemented with outlines, lectures, and slides, to organizations so as to engender an interest in fine books, past and present.
  4. To encourage and inspire by these fragments the amateur calligrapher and private press devotee not to imitate the deeds of the masters of the book, but to think as they did to meet present day problems.
  5. To build up a personal collection of books and important fragments to illustrate the History of the Book from the days of Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets to the work of Updike and Rogers.

“…Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments.  Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.” Ege’s strategy, however misguided, was effective – the proof is in the massive number of leaves in the region owned by small collections – but at the same time this slaughter has dealt our patrimony a great blow. My favorite Ege manuscript, the Beauvais Missal, will serve as an example of just great a loss is incurred when a manuscript is dismembered and its leaves scattered.

Beauvais Missal leaf from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Beauvais Missal leaf, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City (acc. 1992.238)

The Beauvais Missal is among the most well-known of the Ege manuscripts. It is a beauty, its numerous gilt initials with graceful, colorful tendrils extending into the margins easily recognizable. In the Ege set titled “Fifty Original Leaves of Medieval Manuscripts,” folios of the Beauvais Missal are Number 15, but many “orphan” leaves have been identified as well. At least 40 leaves are known to survive in scattered collections. I know of six within an hour’s drive of my office in Cambridge, Mass.; at least a dozen survive in Ohio alone. The manuscript has yet to be digitally reconstructed, a project that is definitely worth undertaking.

The Beauvais Missal was written in or near Beauvais, France around 1285 and was used early on at the cathedral there. We know this because of an inscription on a lost leaf, transcribed in a 1926 Sotheby’s auction catalogue. The catalogue records that the blank recto of the first leaf of the calendar included a fourteenth-century inscription according to which one Canon Robert de Hangest left the Missal to the cathedral of Beauvais upon his death on 3 November, year unspecified. Nothing further of Robert de Hangest is known, and nothing certain is known of the missal until it surfaced, still intact, in a 1926 auction at Sotheby’s London  (4 May 1926, lot 161). The manuscript had been part of the collection of Henri Auguste Brölemann, a commercial broker in Lyons in the early nineteenth century. It is thought that he  purchased the manuscript in Lyons in 1834; after his death, the manuscript passed to his great-granddaughter and heiress, Madame Etienne Mallet. It was purchased at the Sotheby’s auction by a dealer named Permain and eventually made its way to Ege. As the manuscript is not listed as part of Ege’s collection in the de Ricci Census, it was probably acquired after 1935. It is worth noting that the entire manuscript sold at auction in 1926 for £970; today, a single leaf of the Beauvais Missal can easily fetch several times that amount.

Various Beauvais Missal leaves from various collections; note the varying image quality, a definite barrier to inter-institutional collaboration.

Digital images of seven Beauvais Missal leaves from seven different collections; note the varying image quality and lack of color consistency, definite barriers to inter-institutional digital collaboration.

In its complete state, the manuscript had 309 leaves, thirty-five large gilt decorative initials, numerous smaller initials, and four historiated initials. Two of the four historiated leaves are in Ohio: one at Oberlin’s Allen Memorial Art Museum and the other at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Beauvais Missal leaf at the Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. 1982.141)

Beauvais Missal leaf, Cleveland Museum of Art (acc. 1982.141)

Unfortunately, in the process of dismemberment the leaf that preserved the early donation inscription from Hangest to Beauvais was lost, along with most of the liturgical calendar and many other leaves. If the inscription – a critical piece of evidence for the manuscript’s early history – had not been transcribed in the 1926 Sotheby’s catalogue, we would not even know it had existed. Important information regarding the manuscript’s origins could have been gleaned from the liturgical calendar, most of which is lost (I only know of one calendar page, at Harvard’s Houghton Library), especially when combined with an analysis of the liturgical contents of the manuscript. Art historians bemoan the loss of context for the historiated initials. You can see why taking manuscripts apart can be so devastating to scholars and booklovers alike: art historical and textual evidence may be lost forever along with armorial bindings, marginalia, inscriptions or bookplates that preserve evidence of the manuscript’s origins and early ownership.

The Beauvais Missal is easy to recognize, so when leaves do come on the market they are always identified and are always costly. I have seen several leaves for sale in 2013 alone (here and here). Other Ege leaves are more affordable and sometimes slip through the market unidentified or at a relatively low cost (here’s one on eBay). To spot more obscure Ege manuscripts, there are several characteristics to watch out for:

Letterpress Ege label, this for the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that became Leaf 3 in the "Fifty Original Leaves" set.

Letterpress Ege label, this for the twelfth-century Italian lectionary that became Leaf 3 in the “Fifty Original Leaves” set.

Originally, each Ege leaf was housed in a distinctive matte with red filigree ruling and a letterpress label. The mattes are not acid-free and the leaves were adhered with scotch or masking tape, so if you find a leaf still in its Ege matte, please have it removed by a professional conservator but SAVE THE MATTE! The mattes are an important part of the provenance of these leaves and even though they are not healthy homes they should be retained as evidence of the leaves’ history. So much has already been lost…let’s not lose any more.

Ege leaf in its distinctive matte (from the collection at Rutgers University; the leaf has since been removed from the matte)

Ege leaf in its distinctive matte (from the collection at Rutgers University; the leaf has since been removed from the matte)

After you’ve finished exploring manuscripts in Ohio, make your way north on I-75 and meet me in Michigan. And keep an eye out for Ege leaves!


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Manuscript Road Trip: A 12th-Century Find in 21st-Century Pittsburgh

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

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

As we leave Buffalo, we’re going to head south into Western Pennsylvania, a part of the United States best known for its Amish communities. We’re not shopping for an artisan quilt today (maybe later); we’re going to “Steel City” to visit the University of Pittsburgh.Blog map

One of the best ways to get to know medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States is by exploring Digital Scriptorium, an ever-growing database of manuscripts in American collections. Currently, DS includes forty collections, a total of nearly 4,000 manuscripts. (here comes a sidenote for librarians only…the rest of you can skip to the next paragraph) Unlike MARC format, which was created for the electronic cataloguing of printed books and has been adapted for use with manuscripts and archives, the Digital Scriptorium database was developed specifically for use with pre-1600 manuscript material. In all of the ways that MARC struggles to capture the implicit inexactitude of some manuscript metadata (for example, there’s no way to input a searchable date of “s. XII med” into MARC), DS succeeds admirably (in the case of an uncertain date by allowing the record creator to input both an inexact date and a date range, both of which are searchable). And if you’ve ever tried to create a MARC record for a composite manuscript, you will really appreciate how the nested-table structure of DS allows for multiple searchable authors and titles in a single manuscript. All contributors agree to conform to a set of imaging as well as metadata standards, resulting in a lovely set of consistent and retrievable data, images and authorities. If you want to know more about the structure of data in Digital Scriptorium, you can read all about it here.

U Pittsburgh MS 9

Noted Missal, Germany/Austria, ca. 1175 (Unversity of Pittsburgh, Ms 9, recto)

OK, back to the University of Pittsburgh. The University has digitized the twenty-nine manuscript leaves in its collection and catalogued them through Digital Scriptorium; you can see the full list here. For my money, the most interesting of the bunch is this twelfth-century fragment of a noted missal, from Germany or Austria. I  love twelfth-century manuscripts, and I really love manuscript fragments, and I really really love twelfth-century manuscript fragments from Germany/Austria (seriously, this is true), so for me this leaf is a real treat, a great example of why manuscript fragments are so interesting and what they have to tell us about music, liturgy, material culture, and the paths manuscripts sometimes take to get from there to here.

First, its origins. The script is a late romanesque hand, not yet a true Gothic but far removed from the Caroline bookhands of the tenth and early eleventh centuries. I would date it around 1175 in part because of the mixed use of round- and tall-s.  It couldn’t be too much later than that because the top line of writing rests on the top line of the ruling, instead of sitting below it (the latter would suggest a date pushing into the thirteenth century). The musical notation – unheightened neumes of the St. Gall style – is typical of the twelfth century and is of the type used primarily in German-speaking lands. The manuscript is a missal, preserving text and music for Mass (as opposed to a breviary, which preserves text and music for the Divine Office). In this case, the leaf preserves choir music and priestly readings for Palm Sunday Mass: the antiphons for the Procession of Palms on the front, and the Gospel reading from Matthew narrating Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:10-25) on the back. The manuscript was originally written in two columns; a tiny bit of text written in the upper margin of the second column is visible in the extreme upper right-hand corner of the recto (front) side of the leaf. The above image can be identified as the recto because of the original binding holes (in this case three slits) visible along the darkened left edge, which would have been the gutter of the book.

U Pittsburgh MS 9v

Noted Missal, Germany/Austria, ca. 1175 (University of Pittsburgh, MS 9, verso)

Unlike the leaves we’ve seen in previous posts that came from the Terence manuscript and other Ege-related books, this manuscript was not cut up to be sold as a work of art, but was rather the victim of an early kind of recycling. Most medieval manuscripts are written on prepared animal skin, or parchment, which was expensive and time-consuming to produce. Often, as liturgical norms became outdated and were replaced in the later Middle Ages, earlier manuscripts would be cut up to be used as structural components of a binding: a free flyleaf, a paste-down inside the cover holding the leather turn-ins in place, a spine-liner, gutter support, or even an entire wrap-around cover. This leaf appears to have been used as a pastedown inside a bookcover; you can clearly see damage left by paste on the verso. Along the outer edge (the right edge of the recto, the left edge of the verso), you can see a crease where the leaf was folded to be sewn into the binding. On the damaged verso (shown here), you can also see two rectangular parchment patches – one in the upper left corner and one on the lower edge – that probably covered the protruding nail-ends used to attached hardware such as bosses or clasps to the cover. Somewhere there is a book or manuscript with a mirror-image offset of this leaf inside the cover, an offset left when traces of the ink on the verso stayed behind as the leaf was pulled off to be sold separately. When (if!) that book is found, we will know much more about the history of this little vagabond. As it now stands, all we know is that the leaf was given to the University of Pittsburgh in 1972 along with the other leaves in the collection by Theodore M. Finney (1902-1978), a musicologist and collector of music manuscripts. It is worth noting that this fragment is reproduced and receives special notice in James P. Cassaro’s 2007 biographical essay, “The Discrete Charm of the Musical First Edition: Theodore M. Finney as Scholar, Collector and Librarian” in Music, Libraries and the Academy: Essays in Honor of Lenore Coral, pp. 105-117 (see pp. 109-110, fig. 2), where it is said to have a “St. Gall provenance.” The Benedictine abbey of St. Gall was an extremely important Swiss center of manuscript production and liturgical innovation, and a St.-Gall origin for this leaf would be spectacularly interesting if it could be substantiated; unfortunately, it can’t (and the script doesn’t look Swiss to me anyway). But this little wanderer needs no such honors to serve as a fascinating specimen.

Now we turn due west, cruising through Amish country on I-80 to get to one of the regions of the United States richest in pre-1600 manuscript holdings: the great state of Ohio!


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Manuscript Road Trip: Welcome to Lake Champlain

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

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

As you might imagine, there are not a lot of medieval manuscripts in Vermont. I know of only two repositories: Middlebury College (which reported holdings of 15 leaves and one codex) and the University of Vermont in Burlington (which reported holdings of ten codices and 26 leaves, seven of which belong to the Robert Hull Fleming Museum). As we cross the Connecticut River, leaving New Hampshire for Vermont, let’s head north on I-89 towards Burlington to visit the University of Vermont on the shores of beautiful Lake Champlain.

Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain

The University of Vermont has owned some of these manuscripts since the early part of the twentieth century, as eight of them are recorded in Seymour de Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (published in 1935). They’ve now been catalogued and digitized as part of the library’s Digital Initiatives Collection.

Blog map

I’ve not looked as these images before, but I recognize at least two of the leaves as belonging to a very well-known manuscript, a copy of Terence’s works that was once owned by notorious book-breaker Otto F. Ege (more about him when we get to Ohio in a few weeks!):

New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library,  Med/Ren Frag. 004

Here’s another leaf from the same manuscript, part of the collection at Columbia University in NYC, for comparison: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Med/Ren Frag. 004

The late great paleographer Albinia de la Mare attributed this beautiful humanistic bookhand to the expert scribe Giuliano di Antonio of Prato, Florence and believed it to have been written around 1460. This manuscript was still complete, its 103 leaves safely ensconced in the original binding of brown leather over wooden boards, when it was sold as lot 100 at Sotheby’s on May 28, 1934. It was bought at auction and made its way to Dawson’s Bookshop in Los Angeles; the next year, it was purchased by Otto Ege himself. It was still intact when it was described by Seymour de Ricci as Ege manuscript no. 65 in the Census of Manuscripts (II:1947). Ege dismantled the manuscript sometime after 1935 and scattered its leaves to the proverbial winds. Scott Gwara of the University of South Carolina tells me that these and other leaves were donated to the University of Vermont by Frank Teagle, a letterpress-printer who worked for Ege’s widow and who may have received at least some of these leaves as compensation for his work.

The Terence manuscript is discussed in Barbara Shailor’s seminal study of Otto Ege and in Gwara’s forthcoming Ege monograph. Ege is a character well-known to American bibliophiles, a self-proclaimed “biblioclast” active in Ohio in the 1930s and ’40s, a man whose socialist leanings (combined, ironically, with a bookdealer’s art-market savvy) trickled down even to his penchant for dismantling books and distributing/selling the resulting collections of individual leaves to small public libraries and colleges that couldn’t afford to acquire complete manuscripts. As a result of the work of scholars such as Virginia Brown, Barbara Shailor, Fred Porcheddu, and now Scott Gwara, ex-Ege leaves are becoming more and more well-known and recognizable (Melissa Conway and I have also recorded dozens of Ege leaves we’ve encountered in our travels). At least two dozen pages of the Terence manuscript have been identified in collections from Poughkeepsie to Boulder,  although many more remain to be found before the entire manuscript can be digitally reconstructed.

This fortuitous find gives me an opportunity to introduce a topic that is particularly important when thinking about medieval manuscripts in North American collections: manuscript leaves. As early as the nineteenth century, but in particular in the first half of the twentieth century, it was quite common for dealers and collectors to “break” manuscripts to be sold or given away leaf-by-leaf. For dealers, this was a way to increase their profit margin; for buyers, it was a way to own a little piece of the Middle Ages without breaking the bank. No legitimate dealer would break up a book today (or at least they would never admit to it). The result of this frenzy of dismemberment is that there are over 25,000 single leaves of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts scattered across North America, just waiting to be (digitally) reunited. Several projects that aim to do just that are already underway, and I will introduce you to some of them in the coming weeks.
Book of Hours?, 1957.17.1, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont (recto, detail)

Book of Hours?, 1957.17.1, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont (recto, detail)

In addition to the Terence leaves, I found this little creature lurking in the margins of a leaf in the Fleming Museum collection. Someone should tell the local cryptozoologists searching Lake Champlain for the sea monster known as “Champ” that they can find him swimming about in the Museum.


Filed under Medieval Manuscripts