Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Broken Book II: From a Book of Hours to a Book of Bits

In 2010, Christie’s sold a beautiful, de luxe Book of Hours that had been made in Northern France in about 1460. It was listed here: The book went under the hammer for £25,000 + auction fees and was sold to a trade buyer. Christie’s description demonstrated the significance of the book. It’s important for all kinds of reasons: its artistic qualities are outstanding, as so many extant Books of Hours demonstrate. Foliate decoration embellished with gold leaf enhanced multiple pages; the regularity of the script suggested an accomplished and experienced scribe. Written into the last opening is a set of unpublished fifteenth-century French prayers. Seventeen full-page illuminations will have provided meditative image-space for users of the book. 

Thus, notwithstanding the guesstimated 10,600 surviving Books of Hours, it is a unique and rich witness to private devotional book production at the apogee of the manuscript age. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, when so many antiquarians meddled with manuscripts in ways that varied from vandalistic to fetishistic, this manuscript seems to have been touched up by none other than Caleb William Wing, a famous intervener, who worked for well-known book collectors, such as John Boykett Jarman. Thus, this manuscript, significantly, has quite a bit of its post-facture history and provenance intact, and is a fascinating case study of a book’s life.

And death.

I now own the ‘book’. Or at least, I might be said to own the ‘book’, since I possess the nineteenth-century binding, the pink silk flyleaves with the book’s distinguished provenance, and eleven folios of the original medieval core, including the French prayers. 

The remains of manuscript 615
But I do not possess the book and will never be able to reconstruct it. Why? Because it has, since 2010 (the year two thousand and ten), been broken up deliberately and sold (mostly via EBay, I think) piecemeal in an act of shocking and greedy vandalism that I have uncovered in the last two weeks. I should say, too, that I bought the binding and intact leaves from a trusted American book-seller, purchased specifically for teaching and assuming the codex had been fragmented decades ago. He, in turn, had bought the book-shell from a German dealer.

This shattered shell of a book has proven improbably easy to trace. 

It was owned in the nineteenth century by a well-known collector, Edward Arnold, whose ex libris is still in situ on the front, pink endleaf. Edward Arnold’s very substantial collection was sold at major auctions in the 1920s and 1930s. In the Catalogue of Manuscripts Belonging to Edward Arnold (, this book is his number 615, as recorded in pencil on the verso of the second flyleaf.

615. B. M. v., cum Calendario, illuminated MS, on vellum, 252 11. [Flemish 15th century], 17 full-page illuminated miniatures with designed and floriated borders, decorated with angels, birds, fruit, and grotesque figures, over 250 of the pages having beautiful painted leafy borders heightened with gold, with many hundreds of illuminated initial letters, stout small 8vo, modern black morocco extra, with metal clasps, gauffred gilt edges Saec. XV

I don’t yet know who bought this book during these auctions, but the book clearly made its way to Christie’s for their sale in November 2010. Currently, the individual leaves or individual bifolia are being sold on Ebay by the ‘International Art and Antique Gallery’, a shop in Leipzig, owned by ‘kunsthandel’ Chidsanucha Walter e.K (see

This seller has individual leaves listed on EBay in a variety of languages and with no meaningful context provided at all. The miniatures are selling for $2,300 or so; individual leaves for up to $150; bifolia for about $400, depending on the extent of gold leaf or foliate decoration. I am screen-grabbing every folio as it appears in an effort to record 'the book'. And in a crisis mode, I bought two bifolia from the Calendar, plus one leaf with foliate marginal ornamentation, that came up for sale in the week beginning November 11th, so that I can show students how this book would have looked (would have looked, just three years ago). I realize that by purchasing these leaves I am directly contributing to the appalling trade in dismembered books, but these are the only leaves I will buy, despite trying to deal with a feeling of desperation as I watch this book literally fragment online into irrecoverable bits. Buying these leaves has also given me the opportunity to comment publicly on EBay about this particular Leipzig-based seller, so I shall simply be saying that it's a curious thing he has so many leaves from this recently dismembered codex.

I have alerted Christie’s to the history of this book, since they sold it whole. Christie's (and all the rest of the auction-houses) have, I believe, a major responsibility to sell only to those who demonstrate best practice in antiquarian book-dealing (which wouldn't include mutilation or fragementation). I have also spoken to colleagues in the antiquarian book trade. There is more that can be done, I suspect, to stop this myopic and destructive profiteering. I calculate that the person selling the body parts of this book won’t make much more than $20,000 in profit. Is biblioclasm of this scale really worth that?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Broken Book I: Getty Exhibition 'Canterbury and St. Albans: Treasures from Church and Cloister'

At the exhibition of the St Albans Psalter and Canterbury stained glass, hosted by the Getty Museum from September 20, 2013 to February 2, 2014 (, the curators claim that ‘By uniting the intimate art of book illumination with monumental glass painting, this exhibition explores how specific texts, prayers and environments shaped the medieval viewer’s understanding of these pictures during the period of artistic renewal following the Norman Conquest of England’ (blurb on board at entrance wall). Pace the facts that 'prayers' are 'texts', that it was more than England that the Normans conquered, and there was never a diminution of English artistic achievement such that ‘renewal’ was required, the focus on ‘these pictures’ should have been a warning of what was coming as I turned the end of the wall to face the first room. First, though, I had to pass another board that mistakenly claimed: ‘[In 1066] Latin replaced English as the written language used in government and religious life’. First, Latin had always been used in government and religious life; secondly, it did not replace English, especially in ‘religious life’; thirdly, why do the curators feel it necessary to ameliorate their exhibit by diminishing social and cultural accuracy? Why not reflect a more nuanced historical reality?  

Front Steps of The Getty

What is really missing at the exhibition, though, is that which claims to be present: the St Albans Psalter itself (or, indeed, complete stained glass). In a provocative display, the curators choose to maximize the literal spread of the codex by utilizing its current disbound state to disperse bifolia through the four large, high-ceiled rooms, dimly lit and ideologically impelled. Most curious is the decision to show bifolia in separate wooden frames, categorized in sections by various labels like ‘Text Page’ (containing the Alexis Quire, as if only those folios have ‘text’). These exhibited bifolia are obviously conjugate pairs of leaves, but since many are outer bifolia, this means that only very rarely does one observe what would be an actual opening in the properly assembled and bound book. Successive folios representing what a medieval viewer might have seen are infrequent and the book is thus turned into a dismembered spectacle, displayed in component parts (like the Calendar, which is shown out of monthly order). The book is made extensive, but its functional extensity is utterly elided. 
            This is understandable in some respects, since spread-out like this, many folios are available for viewing by many viewers simultaneously. A touchscreen reproduction of one opening, which is itself encased adjacently, allows the reader to move around the virtual page with a cursor, with a neat function to allow simultaneous translation of the Latin. A facsimile of the St Albans Psalter sits on a lectern against a sidewall for the assiduous attendee, but there is otherwise little left of the bookness of the book. Moreover, unhelpful juxtapositions mislead or make convenient connections that cannot be chronologically, generically or thematically justified. Thus, for instance, for no apparent reason, two leaves of the Eadwine Psalter’s prefatory cycle (owned now by the Pierpont Morgan, though more properly belonging with the unmentioned Cambridge, Trinity College R. 17. 1) appear at the exhibit’s margins, marginalized, against separate walls with little connection made between these and St Albans’ deconstructed quires.
            The first three of the large rooms are deliberately made to emulate sacred space; the stained glass (with two black-and-white supply panels) overlooks the fragmented Psalter, but does not connect with it in any meaningful way. Situated in front of the glass are long benches, like church pews, and this ecclesiastical setting is continued in oversized pictures (a cloister photograph covers the end wall in the second room, for example; and Canterbury Cathedral’s East End sits to the right of the stained glass). 

Digital Image from
Why did this seem like a good idea? Why is this hyperreal immersion, this pretend churchi-ness, appropriate? The third room—loosely about saints and Thomas Becket—proffers more forced connections: manuscripts with tentative links to Becket or showing the same artist as one of those in the St Albans Psalter are juxtaposed with a pilgrim badge, a Limoges reliquary, another reliquary casket and a liturgical comb carved with Henry II and Becket. Perhaps I didn’t read carefully enough in this room, but the theme of saints’ cults is oddly attached to two sets of texts (the Psalter and the windows) that are concerned with saints in far more complex ways than are suggested here. A more obvious connection might have been salvation.
            The final room is explicatory and by far the clearest part of the exhibit. Cases demonstrate how medieval illumination was produced and how stained glass is made. It’s a good final reminder that in this exhibition we are dealing with real objects that have multiple functions. The Psalter and the stained glass are not just pictures. There is so little emphasis on word-text in the case of the Psalter that one would be forgiven for forgetting the Book of Psalms is all about the text (said, sung, read, memorized). The real object is displayed at The Getty, ironically, as if it were digital—chopped up into its consistent parts, browsable in no defined order. And while it is a wonderful opportunity to see up close the details of the manuscript’s folios, one wonders what impression modern viewers are left with of this rather lovely, but here entirely decontextualised, set of materials.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Public Space as Text: Stanford University

Stanford was founded 128 years ago today, I just discovered, which is how long it's seemed since my last blog. This quarter, I'm teaching Text Technologies again, and we have the whole of Stanford to roam around. Stanford's campus, or the oldest parts of it, is famous for its stunning architecture, always photographed against aquamarine skies, like this: It is a strangely public private institution. In 2011, Lisa Lapin, the Associate Vice-President for Communications, cautioned against the burgeoning of photography by visitors at Stanford: "The Main Quad is not a public park", she said ( It may not be a park, but it is a very public space, overflowing with busloads of tourists every single day of the year; teeming with potential applicants and their parents; and spotted with students and employees going about their business.

My Text Technologies group was taken on a tour by one of our own students: a meta-textual experience. The tour made apparent the highlights considered appropriate for visitors: the age and tradition of the institution; the sandstone and red tile, reminiscent of Californian mission architecture; the non-denominational Memorial Church at the core of the original campus, surrounded by the vast, unfilled (but not unpeopled) space of the Main Quad:

As one of our group pointed out, no human eye can take in the entire vista of the Quad at once: it takes more than one look, emphasizing its size, its scale, and the wealth of the institution. It is particularly about wealth, because this is predominantly empty space: so much space we own! Large circles of plants serve to maintain traffic flow, but do not interrupt the panorama. Fan palm trees visually echo the cross at the apex of the church and repeat the theme of the main approach to the university down Palm Drive.

Like the palm-strewn triumphant journey into Jerusalem, the visitor approaching campus sees before them the palms, the gates, the church, the Stanford-owned hills behind: the whole vista of this public, yet private place.

Wth its oddly catholic architecture, peculiarly Californian, but deliberately traditional, national and authoritative (Richardsonian Romanesque), Stanford is simultaneously local and international, medieval and modern. It is at once monastic and ascetic, a bastion of learning, redolent of privilege and prestige, yet open to a world that enters through the gateless gatehouses and gazes at the buildings' symmetry, the declaration of presence and belonging.