Friday, December 4, 2015

Fugitive Leaves (another "Post-Academic" post about medievalists and manuscript leaves)

Fragment purchased in 2014, showing a passage from Psalm 50.
It was my great pleasure again this past month to purchase some manuscript fragments online and to discover, quite by surprise, that I already owned another fragment from the same medieval book. The fragments I bought most recently were offered in two separate auctions; the lone piece I had before looks to have had similar use in a similar binding. As always, I will make sure that these fragments all stay together while I own them, and if I ever sell them, I will do my best to find a buyer who will also value them more together than separately.

12 more fragments, apparently from the same twelfth-century manuscript,
purchased last month as two auction lots. These stack together to make two
full leaves, the left recording Psalm 108vv2-22, and the right running from
Psalm 58v13 to the end of Psalm 59.
But beyond the excitement of putting these fugitive fragments together once more (and keeping them together when they might so easily have been further separated), a couple of incidents in the last couple of months have prompted me to write once more about manuscript leaves. (I’ve done so before, here.) The first of these incidents, which happened at SEMA, the annual conference of the Southeastern Medieval Association, was actually a series of short conversations, where various people expressed anxiety of one sort or another about the ownership of individual manuscript leaves. “I see them framed and hanging on the wall of a friend’s house” said one acquaintance, “and I just cringe inside.”

In a conversation with another friend at SEMA, I pointed out how I had sometimes done real good for old manuscript leaves, bringing them together like the fragments I just bought, even leaves long separated but never used in bindings. This person had more or less naturally assumed that any participation in the market for such leaves must actively contribute to the breaking of books in the present day. In a third conversation, a new acquaintance asked how close I was to the “grey market” in rare books (or antiquities?)—the connection, at least as I imagined it, was that dealing with medieval manuscript leaves and fragments was perhaps linked in this person’s mind to illegal, or at least problematic, activity.

But the truth is, from my perspective, the part of the market I inhabit, where manuscript leaves frequently sell for under a hundred dollars, is not really lucrative enough to support a black (or even grey) market, I think. And I hope, in the case of each of these conversations, that I managed to convey that the market in leaves need not necessarily be the object of academic medievalists’ scorn, though it often is. That message—that it is sometimes acceptable, even right, to own, treasure, and preserve for the future even a single manuscript leaf—is a message of outreach I am likely to be called upon to make, here on this blog and in meetings in person, for the foreseeable future. It is part of what I do now.

The second thing that has prompted this post was an email from a young academic friend who had received a manuscript leaf as a gift. This person asked me if I could offer any reassurance that the person who had purchased the leaf had not contributed to the modern breaking up of its manuscript. According to this person’s description, the dealer who had sold it worked in maps and prints, but didn’t seem to have a batch of similar leaves for sale. I suggested that dealers in maps and prints must occasionally come by such leaves naturally, in the course of acquiring collectors’ collections, and that this particular purchase didn’t seem to have any obvious ethical concerns attached, as a result. (On the other hand, it is easy enough, I should note, to find online dealers who do offer—as separate items—multiple leaves that clearly come from the same book; these dealers may be a different matter).

In the course of my correspondence with this young friend, however, I drew an analogy that I found both revealing and perhaps a bit troubling: these fugitive leaves (as they have long been called) are refugees. The etymological root of both words, after all, is the same. By calling them refugees, I have no wish at all to minimize or diminish the real pain and plight of human victims of violence and displacement: they are all too real, and too difficult for me to imagine, insulated as I have been from much violence in my own fortunate life. But I do want to acknowledge that the medieval manuscript leaf (or incunabula leaf, or other early printed leaf, or, indeed, many a map or print) that is cut from its book has also suffered from a kind of violence and displacement.

The person who sees a framed leaf on a friend’s wall and cringes in response, of course, is cringing in awareness of the violence done and the resulting separation and displacement. But it seems to me to be incredibly important to note that the violence is not the fault of the leaf, and the leaf should not be blamed. Likewise, the owner who has taken the fugitive leaf in, and cherished it, and given it a place of prominence in his or her home, is not necessarily to be blamed for the violence either. Owning such a leaf does not mean one condones book-breaking, any more than taking in Syrian refugees (to name only the most prominent of too many recent examples) should be taken as supporting the perpetrators of the violence that displaced them.

For the foreseeable future, my own dealings in medieval material will likely remain focused on binding fragments, on charters and documents, and not on leaves cut from books. But I, too, will almost certainly come across cut leaves naturally, as a part of my own work of doing business. I cannot take them all in: no one possibly could. But I can harbor some of them for a time, and I can try to find homes that will take them in with as much sympathy for their fugitive status as can be. When their lonely, separated existence is neither their fault nor mine, I shall do my best to do them what little good I can by keeping them and transmitting them—as tiny pieces of our shared cultural heritage—to the next generation. Should anyone, really, be ashamed to take such a refugee in?

1 comment:

  1. Often the scraps such as you show were cut up in the Middle Ages, for use in binding other books (as you note), not part of modern depredations at all. I have one such myself. One does wonder what happened to some of the prettier, more-whole leaves that float about on their own, but it is entirely possible that the medieval disbinders used them as bookmarks or similar. Framed and cherished leaves do not greatly distress me, but I'll tell you what does: W. R. Hearst's lampshades made of dismembered choir books, at Hearst Castle. I know that choir books were about as ubiquitous as 13th-c Paris bibles, but all the same, lampshades seem so very unsavory (I suppose not so much in the 1920s).