Monday, August 1, 2016

Family Manuscripts

My favorite picture of Rosemary as a child; Columbus, Ohio, ca. 1971 or so.
It was a truism of my mother's antiques business to acknowledge that, as she always put it, "everything is for sale someday." That is, while she and my father were always--and still are--collectors first, even items in their collections would, no doubt, be offered for sale sometime. And it is part of the nature of the antiques world: except for the very newest collectibles, everything we collect has been owned before, and passed out of someone else's collections, and none of us can take our collections with us, ultimately. The best we can do, I think, is to find homes for our treasures, after we are done with them. And one way to do that, of course, is to find someone who will buy them, their investment literally representing their own commitment to treasure these things and pass them along in turn.

Yet there are a few manuscript items in my little collection that I really plan never to sell. These are items that came not through my own collecting, but rather through family members. 

In the picture of Rosemary in her parents house above, for example, you might see, perched on the piano behind her, an even older picture of her. On the wall behind that, I can see what looks like a medieval or renaissance manuscript, with a large illuminated initial. For years, I have casually looked around her parents' house, to see if I could find that leaf, because I knew it had been there at the time of the photo. 

All I could ever find, however, was this other leaf, as shown in the image
Spanish or Italian monumental choir leaf
to the right. Without any illumination on either side, I knew this was not in the leaf pictured behind Rosemary. For years, when I first knew her family, this vellum leaf hung in the basement, in front of and (mercifully) covering a truly awful 1970s print. Eventually, when I started collecting medieval leaves and fragments myself, Rosemary's folks gave me this one, and I've been happy to keep it and hang it in my study ever since.

What became of the leaf in the picture was never clear: no one in Rosemary's family seemed to have any memory of it at all. But the last time I was in Columbus, Rosemary's mother had turned it up from somewhere in the house.
The leaf from Rosemary's picture
It had been rolled, of course, in the meantime, and probably stored in the basement. Perhaps some readers will have already noted its most important features: there are worries about the script here, which does not seem quite to work: in fact the whole thing is printed, on paper made to appear "antique," and it is printed on only one side. What I had long been able to see in the picture of Rosemary had never been a real manuscript at all. 

One can see, in the picture at the top of this blog post, that this leaf once had a dowel rod at the bottom, serving as a weight to allow it to hang flat; I am virtually certain that this dowel rod, and the one at the top, were recycled and attached to the authentic vellum leaf that I now own. Rose's father was a handy and enthusiastic recycler and saver: he must have replaced the printed leaf with a real one at some point, switched off the dowel rods onto the new leaf, and displayed the new treasure, while packing the no-longer-useful reproduction off to some out-of-sight corner.

The surprise of a vellum manuscript leaf turning up in Rosemary's family home, I have to add, was paralleled by an equally unsuspected manuscript passed on to me by my own parents a couple of years ago. In their time, my folks have collected US postage stamps, glassware, and various odds and ends that have engaged their interest, but books and manuscripts were never really in their collecting area. My dad's father had bought a few antiques (mostly furniture) around the 1950s that my dad still has, but books and manuscripts were not among them, either.

Photographic print folder, Hartford CT
So it was quite a surprise when my mother handed this little folder to me at one point. As one might able to see at the top of the folder, it reads "Page from the Koran/ E. M. H." The initials belong to Esther Mary Hirst, my father's aunt, who was, quite literally a world traveller: she was for a long time a nurse in Peru, and before that she had traveled to Europe and Turkey. If you search for her name on Google, only a few hits turn up, but one is a page from the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1929, noting that she had been selected to go to Turkey to teach English there. Presumably, the page from the Koran that is mentioned on this folder was acquired while she was there.

Esther Mary's Hirst's Arabic pages, probably
collected ca. 1930.
If you open the folder out, though, and see what is inside, you find not one, but four Arabic pages. I don't have the Arabic language or paleography skills to read or to date these pages, but presumably they all had some age around 1930, when she acquired them, though they might be as late as the 19th century, even so. All the time I was growing up, I have no memory of ever seeing these leaves.

All five of these leaves are dear to me; six if you count the printed leaf from the background of the picture of Rosemary reading. I am not, as I hope I have made clear on this blog before, in favor of the cutting up of books and fragments for the purposes of selling individual leaves. But these leaves have made their way into my own little collection by passing through the hands of family members, who bought them or collected them for reasons that had nothing to do with me. 

And it will not be long now before Esther Mary Hirst's Koran leaves (if, indeed, that is the text they derive from) will have survived as separate, individual leaves for a full century: they have passed from her, to her sister, to my father, and now to me, kept and treasured as keepsakes both during her own life and by others in the family since she died in 1958. In some ways, this family history has become important to these leaves, if only to suggest a date before which these leaves were separated from their books.

It is common among my academic medievalist colleagues to deplore the cutting up of books and the sale of cut leaves. Sometimes they seem to go so far as to deplore the people who purchase or even own such leaves. But all leaves have a story, and some cut leaves may be rightly and honorably treasured. Even by folks who are not themselves collectors of medieval manuscripts. Even professional medievalists might rightly treasure them.

Indeed, I treasure these items so much that I hope never to sell them. Far better, I think, to give them away, when the time comes.

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