Fragmented Beauty: Reasons for Fragmentation
Manuscripts have been fragmented for a variety of reasons. Common justifications for fragmentation include reuse, financial benefit, and access. Such considerations are diametrically opposed to maintaining the integrity of an entire manuscript.
While some manuscripts in this exhibition, particularly obsolete liturgical texts, were cut for use as book bindings, other, more beautiful manuscripts were cut into individual leaves because the separated leaves could be sold at a higher cumulative price. Sometimes parchment manuscripts were washed or scraped clean to be re-written on as palimpsests.
Otto Ege (1888-1951), perhaps the best-known ‘book-breaker’ of medieval manuscripts, cut apart dozens of manuscripts before gathering leaves from multiple manuscripts into new volumes. Ege defended his actions, saying, “Surely to allow a thousand people 'to have and to hold' an original manuscript leaf…is justification enough for the scattering of fragments.” Efforts are underway by scholars to digitally reconstruct the original manuscripts Ege cut apart.
Of the items in this exhibition that demonstrate the different reasons for fragmenting manuscripts, the leaf from the Llangattock Breviary is particularly beautiful.
Celebrating the Mass a thousand years ago
Introits from the Mass, early 11th century or earlier. Manuscript on parchment, binding fragment, 19.7 x 31 cm
Saint John’s Rare Books, SJU Ms. Frag. 1
Two leaves (bifolium) from a Mass book, dated between the 9th and early 11th centuries and possibly from the Benedictine monastery at St. Gall or Reichenau. The fragment includes musical notation and text from the introits (opening prayers) of the Mass for several Sundays, as well as for the Mass for the Dead. This codex was later cut up and used for binding in another book—thus the odd “castle shape.” This is the earliest Latin writing in the Saint John’s collections.
15th to 19th to 20th century
Leaf from the Llangattock Breviary
Manuscript on parchment, fragment, 20.4 x 26.9 cm. Arca Artium Collection, s.n. (aap2271)
Created as a luxury manuscript in the mid-15th century, the Llangattock Breviary lost many illuminated initials in the 19th century and then was divided into individual leaves by a Boston book dealer in the mid-20th century. Today the leaves are scattered across North America. Recently scholars have begun the task of reassembling the manuscript digitally. The leaf at Saint John’s contains prayers for the Octave of Corpus Christi.
Check out the web reconstruction of this manuscript at: https://brokenbooks.omeka.net/
A fragment of a fragment
Leaf from a 15th-century Missal, with an initial excised. Manuscript on parchment, fragment, 34.3 x 27.3 cm. Arca Artium Collection, Arca Frag. 20 (aap1278)
Apparently the decorated initial (“H”) on this page from a manuscript Missal was too good to resist. The original text refers to Jesus Christ humbling himself to death on the Cross. The decoration points to the special character of this copy—with decorated initials, floriate borders containing strawberries, butterflies and birds. The book formerly belonged to the abbey of St. Lambert (probably the Abbaye du Val-Saint-Lambert) near Liège, Belgium.
A nice book cover
Latin manuscript fragment used as binding waste, 12th/13th century. Manuscript on parchment, binding fragment, 33 x 22.2 cm. Saint John’s Rare Books, Ms. Frag 3
This fragment contains an unidentified Latin text, described as the Distinctiones verborum latinorum. Unlike the Llangattock Breviary, this manuscript was not prized for its art and beauty, but became one of the countless “recycled” manuscripts from the Middle Ages. One can clearly see the outline of the book for which this served as a cover. For the binding, the leaf was rotated 90o from the direction of the text, which means that this originally came from one larger leaf.