Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Medieval Leaf as Christmas Card

French Missal Leaf, with musical notation. 
It's always a delightful day when the mail carrier brings me a medieval manuscript leaf or fragment. Last week, I was lucky enough to have this fine leaf brought my way. It is an attractive late-medieval missal leaf, about nine inches in height, and the musical setting you can see in the middle of the page is from the Song of Songs, which may suggest that the leaf is from a Cistercian missal, though my knowledge of the liturgy is probably less complete than it ought to be. The musical passage includes the Latin "stipate me malis," which has been beautifully, if somewhat freely, rendered as "Comfort me with apples."

The script is a solid Gothic Northern Textualis, though with some early erasures and corrections (two in the line immediately above the first musical stave in the middle of the page). A date between 1400 and 1450 seems possible, and France is at least a possible location.

In the second to last line, I hope readers can see that there is a little hole in the vellum that the original scribe has avoided in the act of writing: a hole so small was clearly not seen as reason to discard the whole leaf, even in a book as nice as this one.

I was especially eager to get this leaf, though, since I have always been interested in the various ways in which medieval manuscripts have been recycled. 
Leaf, Mat, and Frame

I've cropped the image above in such a way that you can look mostly at the leaf; in its frame, it has a different effect.

The mat surrounding the leaf has a printed text, identifying it as "An Original Manuscript Leaf from a 15th Century Missal" and giving its place of origin as France. Strikingly, the mat has been seriously browned in several places by what appears to be an acidic cardboard backing board. The outline of both the leaf and the pieces of tape holding the leaf to the mat are easily visible, these things coming between the backing board and the mat, and thus hindering the discoloration. 

Text on Reverse of Frame
The original paper backing on the frame is still present and it (fortunately) retains another printed description of this item, headed "A Leaf From a [15th C]entury Missal," the nail-head upon which it was hung having destroyed the letters in the middle (the hanging wire and its shadow are visible in my image). At the very bottom of the text are the words "Christmas 1953" and "Ross R. DeVean". 

DeVean seems to have been a Southern California art collector and dealer, best known, apparently, for dealing in prints. But in 1953, he must have had at least a few of these leaves, printed up the mats and descriptions, and had these framed leaves made up as gifts, either for friends or customers. 

Cleveland Ohio's Otto Ege, of course, is well known today as a dealer who broke up medieval manuscripts and sold individual leaves. But he was not the only one to do so in the middle twentieth century. Ross R DeVean is a less known figure, but a leaf like this one, in its "original" frame, gives us a valuable picture of the uses to which a medieval manuscript book might be put in that time. DeVean, like Ege, no doubt also thought of himself as a connoisseur, not a destroyer.

I worry, of course, that the acidic backing board that has so browned the mat has possibly also browned the side of the leaf it touches; but I also think it's important to preserve this frame and its printed texts as an important twentieth-century context for this medieval leaf. 

In its way, it is as revealing of the historical variations in how books were valued as is the recycling of other leaves for binding materials. And I find it just as fascinating.

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