Medieval and early modern manuscript acquisitions: A bumper crop for 2017
by Nicholas Herman, Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS
Penn Libraries and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies are delighted to announce the acquisition of several fascinating medieval and early modern manuscripts over the past year, including an important late-fifteenth-century compendium of astronomical treatises illustrated with numerous diagrams, rotating volvelles, and tables. These new arrivals complement our existing holdings, and provide new and exciting opportunities for original research by students, curators, faculty, and visiting scholars alike. The material encompasses a wide array of subjects, and is especially topical as the new undergraduate minor in Global Medieval Studies launches this academic year. We also look forward to showcasing these and other treasures to a broad audience as Penn prepares to host the Medieval Academy of America annual conference in March of 2019.
What follows is the second in a series of four blog posts
announcing these new acquisitions to the world.
A medieval prayer book rescued by a devoted antiquarian (Ms. Codex 1869 and 1870)
In addition to the acquisition of a fascinating astronomical treatise (see the previous post in this series), Penn Libraries has also been able to purchase other items of significance to medievalists and historians of the material text more generally. Among these is a mid-to-late-fifteenth-century Book of Hours of the Use of Bourges, which, while certainly not in pristine condition, is of interest precisely on account of its colorful later history: exceptionally for a medieval manuscript, it is accompanied by a companion volume hand-written by its early-twentieth-century owner, a certain Docteur A. Rérolle of Autun, Burgundy. This individual is undoubtedly identifiable as Antoine Joseph Rérolle (1850–1924), a notary and amateur antiquarian in Autun who served as the Secrétaire perpétuel of the Société éduenne, a local scholarly society of the sort that blossomed in Third Republic France, and which survives to this day. Rérolle published several articles in the société’s journal, and an obituary in the same publication informs us of the salient details of his life (and also includes a portrait).1 Much later in the twentieth century, our Book of Hours and its companion volume were purchased by a Dutch collector from an Autun-based antiques dealer named Simone Comode, confirming its modern association with this historic town.2
Book of hours, Use of Bourges, c. 1450, end of the calendar for the month of December and beginning of the Gospel Lesson reading for John. Note the faint image of Saint John on Patmos in the lower right margin. Ms. Codex 1869, pp. xxxii-1.
Photograph of Joseph Rérolle, savior of our Book of Hours. From Anatole de Charmasse, “Joseph Rérolle: secrétaire perpétuel de Société eduenne: Notice biographie,” Mémoires de la société eduenne 45 (1927): 198. Source: Gallica.
In his accompanying, hand-written commentary volume, Rérolle details the amusing story of the recovery of the manuscript from a dowager in the village of Outremécourt in the Haute-Marne region, who had ostensibly found the manuscript at the nearby castle of La-Mothe-en-Bassigny. Apparently, the old woman had allowed the book to flounder in a deplorable state while local village girls cut up its illuminated initials to paste into their breviaries. Rérolle’s account is so colorful that it deserves to be quoted (and translated) in full:
A good number of years ago, I discovered a manuscript from La Mothe in Outremécourt, and I bought it from an elderly woman whose ancestors were from that ruined town. This manuscript, a prayer book in Latin, was in a deplorable state: relegated to the top of an armoire, it was lying in the dust amongst all kinds of junk; disbound, soiled, without title page nor endpapers, having served as a toy for children; village girls had cut out initials of their names to glue them into their own prayer books; mouldy pages were falling to shreds; most of the folios had been nibbled by mice and rats.3
As the antiquarian-minded Rérolle further narrates, he then had the manuscript re-bound in its correct order:
This is what compelled me to have the book re-bound and its edges trimmed, after having re-ordered its pages as best as possible. I added the pagination, then, gathering together from printed books the same prayers found in the manuscript, I produced the present volume which corresponds to it page-by-page: this is why I have named it the Counterpart to the Manuscript.4
Astonishingly, Rérolle indeed proceeded to re-copy the entire contents of the book in his own hand in the accompanying volume, occasionally pasting in snippets of text from a modern printed breviary to supplement his handwriting. The use, abuse, and subsequent recovery of manuscripts in modern times are frequently discussed,5 but we rely on a few famous anecdotes to tell the story (especially John Ruskin’s notorious diary entry, “cut missal up in evening; hard work”). With this new acquisition, a humble yet fascinating eyewitness account of creative biblioclasm comes to the fore, just as Dr. Rérolle’s heroic efforts are rescued from obscurity.
Penn’s new Book of Hours connects with our recent focus on the history of collecting and the engagement of later owners with manuscripts in creative ways. Reactions: Medieval/Modern, the 2016 Schoenberg Symposium and accompanying exhibition and publication spearheaded by SIMS curator Dot Porter, dealt precisely with the way in which diverse audiences react to medieval books. Emily Shartrand, our 2017–2018 SIMS Graduate Student fellow, is working on an ambitious project to study and catalog the John Frederick Lewis collection of manuscript fragments at the Free Library of Philadelphia—among the largest in the world—in order to integrate them into the ambitious new Fragmentarium.ms web platform, which is being developed by a team at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. Faculty members are also passionate about putting together the pieces, so to speak: Assistant Professor Whitney Trettien’s current research project deals with the cut-and-paste gospels created at the religious settlement of Little Gidding in the seventeenth century (for an overview, see this article in Slate). Dr. Rérolle could not have imagined an audience more appreciative of his bibliophilic labor of love.
Curator of Manuscripts, SIMS
(with the assistance of Amey Hutchins, Mitch Fraas, and Will Noel)
1 Anatole de Charmasse, “Joseph Rérolle: secrétaire perpétuel de Société eduenne: Notice biographie,” Mémoires de la société eduenne 45 (1927): 199–230. Available via Gallica
2 Several objects formerly in Comode’s possession, including a 15th-century statue of Saint Claude, can now be found in the Musée Rolin, Autun’s municipal museum, which was founded by the Société éduenne.
3 “Il y a de cela bon nombre d’années, je découvris à Outremécourt, un manuscrit de Lamothe et l’achetai d’une femme déjà âgée dont les ancêtres étoient de cette ville ruinée. Ce manuscrit, qui est un livre de prières en latin, était dans un état déplorable ; relégué sur le haut d’une armoire, il gisoit dans la poussière parmi toute sorte de tracas ; décousu, souillé, sans titre ni finis ; ayant servi de jouet aux enfans ; des filles du village avoient coupé des initiales de leur nom pour les coller dans leurs livres de prières ; des pages moisies tomboient en lambeaux, la plupart des feuillets rongés des souris et des rats.” Ms. Codex 1870, fol. 3r.
4 “C’est ce qui m’a obligé de le faire relier et ronger, après avoir rangé des feuillets le mieux possible. J’y ajoutai une pagination ; puis rassemblant, d’après les livres imprimés, les prières contenues dans le Manuscrit, j’en fournis le présent volume qui y correspond page par page, c’est pourquoi je le nomme Contrepartie du Manuscrit.” Ms. Codex 1870, fols. 3r–3v.
5 On this topic, see the excellent exhibition catalogue by Sandra Hindman, Michael Camille, Nina Rowe, and Rowan Watson, Manuscript Illumination in the Modern Age: Recovery and Reconstruction (Evanston, IL: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 2001).