Class Notes: Tolkien, Middle Earth, and Medieval Manuscripts in Special Collections

A few weeks back, we shared on this blog the story of our recent acquisition of a rare Tolkien book. A few days later, curator Molly Schwartzburg received an e-mail from English Department graduate student Caitlin Hamilton, who had just begun teaching her own semester-long undergraduate course, Exploring Middle-Earth: Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition. Caitlin was hoping we could show the recently acquired volume to her class.

Well, we could do more than that, right? Molly and Caitlin decided to put together a broader presentation introducing students to items in Special Collections that would help them to understand the kind of cultural artifacts Tolkien studied as a scholar, and which he often imitates or alludes to in his Middle-Earth novels.From objects printed with text–such as cuneiform tablets and runestones–to medieval manuscripts and early maps, the session was jam-packed with items that would spark the intellectual imagination of any Tolkien scholar (and perhaps a few budding medievalists).

Setting up

Curator Molly Schwartzburg puts the finishing touches on the display before the students arrive. Don’t miss the tiny cuneiform tablets and facsimile runestone at the front right of the picture, just behind the massive choirbook. These were of great use in discussing the tenth-century Exeter Book Riddles and the inscribed ring in Tolkien’s trilogy.

Molly leading class

Curator Molly Schwartzburg starts off the class with the story of acquiring Songs for the Philologists. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

A student feels a piece of parchment. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Much of the session was about medieval books, so we passed around sample pieces of parchment for students to handle. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Curator Molly points out detail of ? for students to examine. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Molly points out tiny illuminated dragons decorating a fragmentary manuscript. The students had just finished reading the greatest monster story of all, “Beowulf,” and Tolkien’s 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In relation to this (and of course, to Tolkien’s own creature creation Smaug) Caitlin hoped to show them some medieval iconography of dragons or other magical creatures. Happy to oblige! (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Students take a close look at our medieval manuscripts, featuring the legend of St. Margaret. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Students take a close look at two illuminated  medieval manuscripts featuring the legend of St. Margaret, who was swallowed by a dragon. (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

One of the images students viewed was this page from the Verse life of St. Margaret from a Picardy Book of Hours, ca 1325. Image by UVA Library Digital Services.

One of the items students viewed was this page from the verse life of St. Margaret from a Picardy Book of Hours, ca 1325 (MSS 12455). Image by UVA Library Digital Services.

Caitlyn? shows her class a facsimile of ? (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

Caitlin (center) uses a facsimile of an early map of the world to show students how changing norms of map orientations can be confusing. Turn this map sideways, and suddenly Britain is recognizable. Students viewed a number of map facsimiles and originals in the class visit in preparation for an upcoming assignment on Tolkien and cartography.   (Photograph by Petrina Jackson)

In conclusion: what more could we ask for from a gift such as the Tolkien book that inspired this visit? It is wonderful how one item in our collection can open new pedagogical opportunities. Now, if only someone would donate us some beautiful first editions of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

This Just In: Breaking Bad

No, not that “Breaking Bad”!  In fact, this writer confesses to having never seen the television series. Rather, this post concerns the practice of “breaking,” that is, disbinding a book or manuscript and dispersing the individual leaves, plates, or sections. The breaker believes that, at least in some instances, a book or manuscript is worth more broken up than intact.  Breaking up a book or manuscript may increase its monetary value, enhance its pedagogical utility, result in irreparable harm to the cultural record, or paradoxically, all of the above.  The question is a complex and controversial one, and opinions run the gamut from a willingness to break up anything for any expedient reason to the view expressed in the latest edition of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors: “Breaking up books, whether for filthy lucre or from higher motives, is wrong.”

Disjecta membra: disbound, but not dispersed.

Disjecta membra: disbound, but not dispersed. Six recently acquired leaves from a mid-14th century manuscript of Giordano Ruffo’s De Medicina Equorum.  (MSS 15703)

It has long been, and remains, a frequent practice among book and print dealers to break up color plate books—especially imperfect copies—and sell the plates individually, with the text often discarded. Although this practice has effectively placed John James Audubon’s spectacular double elephant folio Birds of America on the endangered editions list, how else could one hope to possess one of its hand-colored engravings? Some might cast a kinder eye on the bookseller Gabriel Wells, who in 1921 broke up a modestly imperfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible, selling the nearly six hundred leaves individually or in sections, tipped into a specially published “leaf book.” Thanks to Wells, dozens of educational institutions worldwide have been able to acquire Gutenberg leaves for instruction and exhibition (U.Va. owns two at present). And by breaking up dozens of imperfect copies, some significant and valuable, U.Va.’s Rare Book School has created an extraordinary teaching resource for the history of book illustration and typography that has been used by several thousand students to date.

Perhaps nowhere has the practice of breaking been more fraught than in the realm of medieval manuscripts. In the last century alone, hundreds of medieval codices (especially Books of Hours) have been broken up, with the illuminated and more highly decorated leaves sold as works of art, some of the remaining leaves repurposed as specimens in paleography study collections (such as Special Collections’ Rosenthal Medieval Manuscript Collection), and others turned into collectibles or simply discarded.

The manuscript leaves are finely rubricated in red and blue with incipits, paragraph marks, chapter numbers in the outer margin, and fine initial letters with penwork embellishments in red or purple.

The manuscript leaves are finely rubricated in red and blue with incipits, paragraph marks, chapter numbers in the outer margin, and fine initial letters with penwork extensions in red or purple.  (MSS 15703)

Consider Special Collections’ most recent medieval manuscript acquisition: six finely rubricated vellum leaves from a mid-14th century Latin manuscript, written in Italy, of Giordano Ruffo’s De Medicina Equorum, a treatise on the care of horses originally composed in the 13th century. Secular manuscripts on such topics from the medieval period are of great rarity—indeed, a survey conducted fifty years ago located only 21 manuscript copies of Ruffo’s text, all in European libraries—and we jumped at the opportunity to add these leaves to our Marion duPont Scott Sporting Collection.

Here is what we know about their provenance. In December 2011, 21 leaves from an imperfect copy of Ruffo’s manuscript were offered at a Sotheby’s auction in London. The leaves went unsold but were bought privately following the auction. This past fall we learned of the manuscript when an American bookseller’s catalog, in which eight of the leaves were offered, arrived in the mail. We promptly placed an order for all eight leaves, but two had already been sold. The bookseller subsequently reported that he had originally acquired 11 of the 21 leaves, three of which were sold to two different American research libraries, and two to private collectors in the U.S. and Europe, before U.Va. bought the remaining six. Eleven leaves, five new owners on two continents, with ten leaves still unaccounted for. U.Va.’s interest is primarily in the text, given our extensive holdings on the horse and equestrian sports, though the leaves will also be quite useful for research and instruction in the medieval book, paleography, &c. The other institutional and private collectors presumably were more interested in the leaves as paleographical specimens.

Verso of the manuscript leaf shown above. the chapters concern treatments for certain equine ailments.  (MSS 15703)

Verso of the manuscript leaf shown above. the chapters concern treatments for certain equine ailments. (MSS 15703)

All parties have benefited from these transactions: the booksellers made money, and the five new owners have acquired useful materials for their collections. But what of the manuscript itself? Any attempt to study the text and its relation to other exemplars has been seriously, perhaps fatally, compromised. (Fortunately, the bookseller kindly sent us study images of the five leaves we missed.) This is a chronic dilemma for any researcher using medieval manuscripts as primary sources. Various efforts are under way to reunite dispersed manuscripts virtually—Manuscriptlink (to which U.Va. intends to contribute its six Ruffo leaves), a project based at the University of South Carolina, is but one example. But these initiatives are unlikely to redress more than a small fraction of the losses already sustained, and still to come. And digital images—it bears constant repeating—can never supersede access to the original artifact.

Class Notes Goes on the Road: Medieval Manuscripts in South Carolina

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post from Anne Causey, Public Services Assistant for the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

When I joined the Small Special Collections Library eight years ago, I realized how much I loved medieval manuscripts: books from before the emergence of printing (ca. 1450), which are often artfully decorated in vibrant natural colors, and sometimes gold leaf. Mostly I loved them because they are so beautiful (and so old), and amazingly enough, all done by hand!

I am always searching for opportunities to learn more about these gems, so in March I attended “Understanding Medieval Manuscripts,” a two-day seminar at the University of South Carolina. The class was hosted by USC and Scott Gwara, USC professor of English and comparative literature, along with guest lecturer Professor Eric J. Johnson, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Ohio State University, who brought along 8 codices (books) and 40 fragments from his institution for study. In the class, I discovered that beyond the beauty of these illuminated books, there is much to learn–even from a single page of text.

Professors Scott Gwara and Eric Johnson show fragments of medieval manuscripts to the class. (Photograph by Anne Causey)

The Basics

Professor Johnson started us off with a discussion of parchment. Parchment (or, “vellum”) is treated animal skin, and was the dominant surface for writing from the fourth century C. E. to the fourteenth century C. E.

Making parchment was a planned process – “not an afterthought,” he said. It could take eight to 16 weeks.  One has to kill the animal, drain the blood, soak it in water and lime; set the skin on a herse (frame) and with a curved blade and gloves strip away the flesh side and “pull off as much hair and gunk as possible.” The uneven sheet that is left can be cut into regular pieces

You’ll see lots of imperfections in the skin, Johnson pointed out.  The hair and flesh side are easy to distinguish: the hair side has lots of follicles and is rougher. There may be sewing holes that were elongated and repaired on the herse, or round holes that came from a wound or insect bite. “The saggy bits,” such as the neck, shoulders and belly, become translucent and are sometimes wrinkled.

You can determine man-made damage such as cuts and scrapes, or ink that burned through from the letters, or there may be elemental damage – extreme temperatures can cause parchment to be brittle and brown.

There are other things to look for as well. What kind of quill did the scribe use – small bird or large? What is the pricking and ruling like? What kind of ink ? Was it lampblack (not as good for parchment) or was it oak gall mixed with sap? Are visible differences due to a change in the ink or the introduction of a different scribe? Are there scribal errors and corrections – eye skip errors, erasures, insertions?

“This is text under the text – every last bit of manuscript has gone through a craft process,” Johnson said. By studying a manuscript’s physical characteristics and comparing it to other examples, we learned, you can determine how and when it was produced.   He suggested that when teaching to undergraduates, you might even pair fragments with incunables (the earliest printed books, from about 1450 to 1501) as well as books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Unexpected Beauty of Fragments

In the class, we discussed and reviewed Bibles, books of hours, breviaries and psalters. We had ample time for hands-on examination, which we did in pairs. Surprisingly, the category Eric Johnson is most excited about? Fragments! And not even the “prettiest” fragments at that.

The dirtier they are, the better – it means they have been used a lot and they have a lot to say—undergrads have a huge opportunity to access them.

Look at your manuscripts – fragments with many hands [multiple scribes] and imperfections. They are really great places to learn. You can pass them around and give students a chance for the tactile experience.

Professor Johnson talks to the class about a fragment of a medieval manuscript.

Students from South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, Michigan, and Virginia study fragments of medieval manuscripts during class. (Photograph by Anne Causey)

Sometimes fragments come about because someone has broken apart a medieval manuscript. Breaking books is a problem for many reasons – including the fact that pages lose their context. People often want the decorated pieces to frame as artwork and don’t care about the text or meaning. However, the undecorated fragments have much to say to us, Johnson said:

Studying them is not so much about coming up with the right answer but coming up with answers to help us interact with a book.

Returning Home, Energized!

Afterward the course ended, I wanted to rush back to the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library and immediately begin examining our fragments! Besides our thirty  more-or-less complete medieval manuscript codices, there are 235 fragments in the Rosenthal Medieval Manuscript Collection alone. These date from the ninth century C. E. on, and some of the fragments are unidentified and undated. Just what I needed!

Unidentified fragment from the Rosenthal Medieval Manuscripts Collection. (MSS 9772. Photograph by Anne Causey)

The Rosenthal manuscripts were purchased in 1972. The collection contains no pre-800 manuscripts because they are so rare and expensive; interestingly, a note in the collection indicates that just one of these earlier fragments would have cost almost as much as the entire collection. Most of the fragments are vellum, though some later leaves are paper; many were reused as covers for archival bundles or book bindings and show traces of use such as fading, stains, cut edges, remains of glue, and pen and ink scrawls.

There is nothing identifying the fragment, so we must examine it for clues. You will notice the black ink written in the middle–down the “spine.” That was likely added later when the fragment was used to rebind a book. On the right side of the fragment, there is a wrinkled pattern, and it is slightly translucent–probably what Professor Johnson referred to as the “saggy bits,” either from a shoulder or neck of the animal. On the far right edge, you can see holes that were probably prickings made to help rule the page for the scribe. (MSS 9772. Photograph by Anne Causey)

The Rosenthal Collection is not the only place to find medieval fragments at the Small Special Collections Library. There are 20+ manuscript fragments in the Atcheson Hench Collection.

I look forward to using all I learned regularly in my job, whether it’s assisting researchers and students in the reading room or teaching undergraduates how to start understanding these beautiful artifacts.

This amazing course was FREE, underwritten by sponsors in South Carolina, including The Humanities Council of South Carolina, Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of English at USC.  Also, Scott James Gwara, professor of English and comparative literature at USC, was a most generous host who added his knowledge of Latin and medieval manuscripts to the class.

This Just In: First Cat in Space?

Now that we have your attention, in this post we feature a miscellany of recent book acquisitions.

An account of two balloon ascensions made in Valencia, Spain on March 12 and 15, 1784. The first was unmanned; the second carried “un gato grande.”  (Photo by David Whitesell)

Before the rise of newspapers, news was often disseminated in the form of inexpensive pamphlets sold in bookshops and hawked on the street.  We recently acquired the second recorded copy of a most unusual relación printed in Valencia, Spain and dated March 24, 1784.  Its unnamed author describes what are perhaps Spain’s earliest balloon ascensions, undertaken only nine months after the Montgolfier brothers first launched their hot air balloon.  The Spanish balloon, constructed primarily of paper and measuring 18 x 12 feet (1103 cubic feet), was smaller than the first Montgolfier balloon.  Its six-panelled blue surface was lavishly decorated with the arms of Valencia and King Carlos III, an inscription from Homer, and other decorations appropriate for a pioneering aerial billboard.  At 5:15 p.m. on March 12, 1784, the balloon ascended from an orchard just outside Valencia’s city wall, soon disappearing into the clouds before landing one league distant from the city.  After some repairs, the balloon was relaunched from the same site on March 15, this time with “una jaula de alambre con un gato grande dentro de ella” (a wire cage with a large cat inside) suspended beneath.  The balloon rose to a height of approximately 3,000 feet, then hovered motionless for ten minutes before making a gentle five-minute descent.  Presumably the cat had much to say upon landing but, because it immediately clawed its way free and fled, its feelings about having been “el primer viajante aëreo de su especie” (the first aeronaut of its species) have been lost to posterity.  We have found reference to a cat being sent aloft in a French balloon exactly one month earlier, on February 15, 1784, but it did not survive the flight, so the Spanish gato may well have been the first successful feline aeronaut.  This relación joins the Small Special Collections Library’s extensive aeronautical history collection.

Original printed front cover to The Philosophy of Kissing, Anatomically and Physiologically Explained. New York: R.H. Elton, 1841. (Photo by David Whitesell)

The second quarter of the 19th century saw a profusion of popular works devoted to courtship and marriage.  Most were issued in a small, portable format and, to make them suitable for gift giving, dressed in attractive bindings.  The Philosophy of Kissing, Anatomically and Physiologically Explained  (New York, 1841), is one of the more unusual.  The book’s perspective is stated up front: “Even Sir Isaac Newton, great philosopher as he doubtless was, kissed, and was kissed, though by no means to a remarkable extent, yet never enquired the WHY–never discovered the WHEREFORE. It was reserved for a later era and a more philosophical age … He ascertained existing phenomena, but found not the cause.”  Perhaps so, but one might well add, tongue in cheek, that Newton fully understood the principle of gravitational attraction.  The book might have been more successful—only one edition was published—if it had focused more on the how than on the why.  This copy retains its original illustrated covers and contains a number of illustrations, including phrenological charts of the brain’s amatory regions.

First page of Specimens of Type in the Journal-Democrat Printing House (Warrensburg, Mo., ca. 1885), showing the smallest text types available in this printing shop. The textual snippets selected for typesetting are fascinating in their own right.  (Photo by David Whitesell)

The Small Special Collections Library boasts a large collection of type specimen books dating back to the 18th century.  These can be either specimens issued by typefoundries, alerting printers to the typefaces, ornaments, and vignettes available for purchase; or specimens issued by printers, showing potential customers what resources were on hand for their book and job printing needs.  Type specimens range in format from simple broadsides to massive, finely printed trade catalogs. Because most soon became outdated and were discarded, today many type specimens are rare.  Although particularly useful to the bibliographer and printing historian, type specimens are valuable sources for investigating the nexus between print and society.  One recent acquisition is the only known copy of a type specimen issued ca. 1885 by a rural Missouri printer: Specimens of Type in the Journal-Democrat Printing House.  The Journal-Democrat was published out of Warrenton, Missouri and, like many newspapers of the time, also printed pamphlets, the occasional book, and especially all manner of jobbing work: blank forms, letterheads, posters, fliers and the like.

Two pages of stock cuts useful for a wide range of job printing.  (Photo by David Whitesell)

This specimen book begins with 18 pages of typefaces in various sizes and decorative styles, most far more suited for jobbing work than for books.  Following are 60 pages of ornaments and stock cuts akin to today’s clip art, which provide a unique window into what a frontier printing shop thought appropriate for its clientele.

Spine and front cover of the Mäzmurä Dawit, an early 19th-century Ethiopic manuscript of the Book of Psalms.  (Photo by David Whitesell)

Our collection of medieval manuscript codices, fragments, and single leaves on vellum, parchment, and paper, receives constant use from U.Va. classes, Rare Book School courses, and scholarly researchers.  The manuscripts are valuable for any number of reasons, including their texts, what they reveal about the materials and methods of medieval book production, manuscript illumination, and paleographical studies of the various scripts employed by medieval scribes.  We recently acquired a manuscript codex which, we hope, will prove useful in the classroom for placing the medieval book in broader perspective.

Folio 1 recto, with decorative headpiece and first lines of text. (Photo by David Whitesell)

This finely preserved manuscript of the Mäzmurä Dawit, or Book of Psalms, is written in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.  It dates to the early 19th century but looks centuries older.  Indeed, it wonderfully demonstrates the close ties between the Western European manuscript tradition and the earlier, and more persistent, Christian tradition from which it sprang.  In appearance its blind-tooled goatskin binding over thick wooden boards resembles a 14th-century European binding.  Its parchment leaves were prepared and written using traditional methods that Europe had largely abandoned three centuries earlier as it embraced the printed book.  And in terms of illumination and binding construction, it is uniquely Ethiopian.

Two pages from Netter & Eisig’s Bucheinbandstoffe sample book (Göppingen, ca. 1912), with mounted cloth samples showing the range of colors in which this particular fabric was available. (Photo by David Whitesell)

From the 1820s onward, many books have been issued in “publisher’s cloth bindings,” i.e. bound in decorative  cloth bindings prior to public sale.  Bibliographers, booksellers, collectors, and library catalogers have traditionally described these in simple terms: “bound in publisher’s red cloth, gilt.”  Recently bookbinding historians have come to understand that, by consulting sample books distributed to commercial binderies by bookbinding cloth manufacturers, it is possible to describe publisher’s bindings far more precisely.  Such sample books are of legendary rarity, in part because the bookbinding cloth market was dominated by a handful of firms, who typically demanded the return of old sample books before new ones were sent.  Hence we were delighted to acquire a fine, complete, and previously unrecorded copy of the Bucheinbandstoffe sample book issued ca. 1912 by Netter & Eisig of Göppingen, Germany.  Included are 585 mounted samples of some 45 different fabrics showing the range of colors, qualities, and grains available.  The first three pages provide samples of 48 different specialty grains which could be embossed into most cloth rolls prior to shipment.  These cloths can be found on tens of thousands of publisher’s bindings for early 20th-century continental European imprints.