Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fragments Reunited

A Book of Hours Leaf that has been in
my collection for years.
This week, I did something I’ve not done often before: I purchased a medieval manuscript fragment that I know with certainty belongs with another manuscript fragment that I bought several years ago, from an entirely different seller.

Now, my usual habit in buying medieval manuscript items is to look primarily for binding fragments or charters: items where I don’t have to even worry that I might be supporting someone who is active in cutting up manuscripts. Once in a while, though, I do buy a leaf that was never used in a binding, because the practice of cutting up books into smaller pieces is, by now, an old one, even a historical one, and when faced with damage that has been done, sometimes our best practice, it seems to me, is to do what we can to undo it.

So, while much has been made of the internet’s potential for bringing scattered leaves together again virtually, it is also true that internet sales, on occasion, allow scattered leaves to be brought together again in reality.

A bifolium I purchased recently, from the same
Book of Hours.
In the case of the bifolium I recently purchased, I bid on it on eBay because it looked to be very similar to a leaf I’ve owned for most of a decade, and I thought it was likely to be from the same book. To my surprise, when it arrived, I not only confirmed that it was part of the same manuscript, but that it had once been adjacent to the leaf I already owned. Not only did the text run on smoothly from one page to the other, but a wrinkle affecting both leaves shows clearly that they have spent a long time—centuries, literally—next to one another. My purchase has now brought them back together.

The recently purchased bifolium, as I hope the image below shows, is affixed to its garish red matting with lowly masking tape; signs of similar adhesive still remain on the single leaf as well, suggesting that it probably had been similarly mounted. I suspect that these mountings might date from between the 1970s and the 1990s: the tape is not as thoroughly dried and crackling as older examples of masking tape I’ve dealt with.  Perhaps these pages were not split up before I was born, but they were probably separated before some of my readers were born.

The two fragments now together. The word "drachones" is split across
the page boundary: "dra" on one fragment, "chones" on the other.

I have committed, as part of my own business practice, not to break up old books, even if they are already fragmentary.  And though I cannot expect it to happen often, I will go farther, and do what I can to bring items like these back together, and try to find them homes where they will be kept together, at least for the foreseeable part of the future. 

This is not something I could do, if I didn’t have a good chance of recognizing a page from a familiar book simply from a picture, and it’s not something I could do if I believed that those who buy and sell manuscript leaves must always be causing harm to old books.

It is easy enough to get on eBay and see numerous medieval leaves for sale from the same book from a single seller. And I don’t condone what those folks are doing. But books have been being broken up into individual leaves for a hundred years or so, and thus many, many leaves are out there: sometimes we can still do good for them, by buying them and gathering them back together. Why shouldn’t we, if we can?


  1. Notions of what it is appropriate to do with fragmentary manuscript books definitely change over time. In the Middle Ages, a damaged book might well be cut up for bindings; in the early modern period, used for lighting the fire; in the 1940s, Otto Ege deliberately dismembered manuscripts to make up study collections of different styles and dates. On the one hand, Ege horrifies me; on the other, I have to admire his desire to make manuscript pages available to people who used public libraries and might otherwise never, ever, have any possibility of communing with such an evocative piece of history. Ege's collections are now a thing-unto-themselves with their own historical value, though some people are working on bringing his leaves back together with their fellows, as you have done for Psalm 148. I notice that this MS was never completed: space is left for fancy initials, but they've not been drawn/colored, though the piece you just bought has some rubrication. Very interesting---thank you.

    1. Thanks for visiting, Dame Eleanor Hull! As much as I am not in favor of breaking up books in the present, you are right, I think, to note that Ege's activities have, by now, become a matter of history themselves. One hopes that occasionally bringing fragments back together can help remedy what we might think of as some of the ravages of history. For what it's worth, this fragment is quite interesting in being unfinished: the initials have not been completed, as you observe, but there is both rubrication, and (in a couple of spots) a touch of yellow color (now largely faded): it's an intriguing example for showing both the number and sequence of the various levels of finishing, with the fancy colored initials clearly being the last, and probably most time-consuming, level.