Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Broken Book III: Lost Companions

Salisbury Cathedral Library, MS 150: the tenth-century Salisbury Psalter, with its twelfth-century English gloss

British Medieval manuscripts, many of which survived centuries of neglect, adaptive reuse after the emergence of print, and the trauma of the Reformation, also had to contend with the particular attentions of the scrap-booker and collector of initials until very recently. Now that many repositories are putting their collections freely online, it's possible to see some of the damage done to manuscripts that are among the most aesthetically elaborate and commercially desirable.

Missing from the Salisbury Psalter folio pictured above is an enormous, probably historiated initial I (Iubilate is the opening word of Psalm 100 [99] here). A possible reason that that initial was removed--along with many, many others in this manuscript--is that it contained a human being as its decorative design. It was most likely similar to this one that survived the knife:

Salisbury Psalter
The relatively careful removal of the single figure at Psalm 100 belies much more hurried cutting that sought to remove an initial of interest quickly, but simultaneously removed chunks of text or damaged other folios, like this, also in the Salisbury Psalter:




or this rapid cut from Lampeter, Burgess Library, MS 2 (Petrus de Capua's Distinctiones theologicae):


In Cambridge, Trinity College, B. 5. 4, a late twelfth-century Psalter, at least thirty-five individual figures of early theological authors have been excised from the margins, sometimes creating lonely bystanders, like Augustine here on the left.

  And the echoing remnant of an absent figure is attested here by just the point of his spear-like obelus (see Trinity College's superb digital repository for this and many other manuscripts):
The extraction of these initials suggests a real demand for human figures by the cutters and collectors, as well as a desire for other decorated or inhabited initials. Such demand is illustrated by volumes of cuttings now in private collections and libraries; one such example that contains the finest quality, medieval Italian initials is London, BL, Additional 39636.

Art galleries also display these partial representations of books, as if they were, in fact, discrete artefacts. In St Louis Art Gallery, for example, 



the excised initial I from the beginning of St John's Gospel is (without much comment or sense of the obvious irony) displayed in a frame adjacent to a medieval arm reliquary in a glass-case. Both exhibits represent disembodied bits, bits that are representative of a venerated, fragmented whole.

The display of excised initials draws attention to the desirability of these severed book-parts. Indeed, on EBay, reproductions of just a manuscript initial, like this one, are currently for sale:

Print reproduction of initial for sale on EBay (22.vii.15)
Such objects should most usefully also be shown with the accompaniment of a statement like that of ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. Their Code of Practice explicitly condemns the contemporary cutting-up of rare and unique books, but could, arguably, go a lot further than it does to prevent the sale or movement of discrete bits of medieval manuscripts, too.

And, just as Benjamin Albritton (Stanford), Lisa Fagin Davis (Beauvais Missal) and others are digitally reconstructing broken books, the leaves of which are scattered throughout multiple repositories, it might be possible--who knows?--to discover and recover initials on collectors' cards or sheets (as below, which was for sale on EBay in June 2015) and reunite them with their original contexts of production, their original textual companions.






5 comments:

  1. The comparison to relics is an apt one, I think; and the cutting of an initial from a book is a kind of theft. Pictures and colored initials seem to have prompted cutting apart pages or books across a remarkable span of time--a statement on the relative or comparative lack of value accorded to these books' texts (by which I mean the plainer letters and words). There seems to be something interesting here in the way a book can be a container for both text and art, and how we think about the two as separable. Print, I think, teaches us that the two kinds of things are separable, and perhaps print has taught some people that the unique parts (the art) are more important somehow than the text, which is understood (correctly or not) not to be unique in the world of print.

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  2. Thank you: these are fascinating examples, useful because they reflect such frequent activities. I know one case of a fifteenth-century volume from which initials were removed in Cambridge in the mid-sixteenth century - on the claim of purifying it of popish elements.

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