Monday, 22 February 2016

The Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 2

In the second of his four blog posts, Jeff Berry investigates the practice of removing illuminations from manuscripts.

It is easy to think that, once the early craze for reusing manuscripts in bindings had passed, these manuscripts were treated with more respect. While that might be true (then again, it might not), different problems ensued for the manuscripts. Chief among these was the tendency to view them as objets d'art rather than historical records. This resulted in many illuminated manuscripts being cut up to be sold as leaves, such as the famous 'Otto Ege Portfolios' where some fifty illuminates manuscripts were systematically broken down and recompiled into portfolios; each manuscript less useful or valuable as a whole than as a collection of parts. In some other cases, only the illuminations themselves were removed to be admired in isolation while the text, thought to be less interesting or attractive, was left behind.

From the Stainton Parish Library collection,
York Minster Library, printed Cologne 1539
Consider this pastedown from a thirteenth-century Bible.

Judges, chapter 1, verse 1 reads, in Latin: 'Post mortem Iosue consuluerunt filii Israhel Dominum dicentes quis ascendet ante nos contra Chananeum et erit dux belli.'

In a deluxe production, the start of a new book of the Bible would often have a large illuminated capital. This seems to be the case here, where a space clearly in the shape of the letter 'P' has been relatively carefully cut out, leaving the remainder of the page in situ. This poor Bible was mutilated twice, several hundred years apart - first by the bookbinder and then by a collector of illuminations.

Bibles, while often beautiful, were also a text that was often reproduced in the Middle Ages. Documents, on the other hand, are often relatively simple, undecorated manuscripts, but they may be more interesting since they often represent the only surviving instance of the underlying text. Three books in the Minster Library collection are a case in point. The books are roughly of a size, and can be traced to the same bookbinder. Each has a large page, front and back, from the same manuscript. The pages are from an account book, tentatively dated to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.

From the York Minster Library incunables, printed Lyon c1498-1500

All photography by Paul Shields.

Minster Library - Fragments of the Past: Part 1

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