Thursday, January 25, 2007

Medieval Manuscripts on the Move

One of the amazing things about medieval manuscripts is how they have ended up in the many places that they have, and how they have so often been preserved almost by inertia. They represent a whole new viewpoint on social history. I once had the extraordinary experience of seeing a family archive of medieval and later documents in a small semi-rural cottage outside the town of Queanbeyan in Australia, preserved in the papers of a family afflicted by changing fortunes over the centuries.
Whole libraries of amazing books have been pitched out during the course of religious change, only to be collected together again by those with antiquarian interests. Books of types once common, like Bibles, breviaries or books of hours, have been pulled apart to preserve the illustrations. Fragments of old books or documents have been used as book wrappers or bindings. I have recently encountered a case where a set of German medieval notarial deeds had been sliced up at some unknown time in history and used as bookmarks.
The internet has made it possible for people of modest means such as myself, located in remote corners of the globe (OK, I know it's round and doesn't have corners!) to acquire a few scraps of medieval manuscript, which, in this case, have been and will be used on the Medieval Writing website. What intrigues me is how these oddments have survived until today, to appear in bits and pieces among various antique dealers. Those books from which the illustrations have been pillaged must have sometimes been preserved, but by whom or why would be fascinating to know. It is distressing to see substantial fragments of books further reduced to single pages as they are scattered around the more downmarket buyers, but on the other hand the upmarket buyers are only interested in undamaged goods, and they hide them away in their bank vaults, so perhaps in an odd way it represents a form of preservation. Isolated legal documents can never tell a coherent historical story, but even archival collections are not always coherent, either in their collecting policies or their cataloguing.
Colleagues in the academic world are apt to get uptight about material which is removed from the research database, but there are so many research projects which have never been attempted on the substantial body of material now held in public institutions already, so that perhaps this is a more theoretical than actual issue. One thing is for sure, with more and bigger archives than ever before, and online catalogues, access to a whole range of medieval manuscripts has never been easier. The paradox is that there is both aggregation (in major archival collections) and dispersal (on the private market) happening at the same time. I wonder how this will ultimately affect our perception of the medieval era.


Anonymous said...

There was a trade of used parchment in Europe during medieval and modern ages. Although the content of a document could get obsolete the parchment itself remained valuable to stationers and booksellers, that generally acquire it to sell as cheap matter to use in book bidding. The diffusion of paper (a fragile support), demanded a cheap form of protection and old parchment folia and bifolia served frequently to bind notarial books, inventory or reports. Unfortunately recent interest in medieval illuminated documents is ruining some old codex. The antique book sellers don't hesitate in cut off the illuminated pages and destroy valuable texts. The demand is increasing so much, thanks to internet commerce, that i belive a great number of the specimens are frauds. PS-Keep up the good work and sorry about my poor english (portuguese).

Dianne said...

Actually I doubt that there are many fraudulent medieval manuscript leaves out there. The prices gained are not so great as to be worth the effort. However, I suspect some books are being systematically destroyed. Manuscript pages which had been re-used in the middle ages themselves as bindings or book wrappers are also to be found out there. Dianne

Anonymous said...

Wonderful journey and experience!