Thursday, December 23, 2010

Illumination for the Masses

by Cokie Anderson

In recent weeks, my Booktryst colleagues have shown you an illuminated manuscript worth millions of dollars, and choir book leaves from special collections. When most people think of "illuminated medieval manuscripts", they think of such priceless treasures, available only to the best libraries and museums and the wealthiest collectors--and for good reason: a finely decorated, complete Book of Hours, like the 15th century French specimen pictured above, would run you over $100K. However, it is possible to own your own little piece of the Middle Ages for under $100. Seriously. How, you ask? Well, think about it: for every complete manuscript that survived the centuries intact, dozens more made their way down to us in bits and pieces.

When you think of the famine, disease, war, and political upheavals that have wracked Europe over the past six or seven centuries, it is amazing that any of these books survived at all. Add to that the fact that early printers and binders saw manuscripts as a format that had been made worthless and obsolete (sound famliar?) and decided to recycle the leaves of text or music as binding materials. Manuscripts used in this way were generally scholarly or theological works or sheets of music without any decoration, illustrations, or bright gold, but it is still possible to find VERY early manuscripts (pre-12th century) in the pastedowns of incunabula bindings.

A very early manuscript leaf recovered from a binding

Books of hours were most vulnerable to having their miniatures and fine historiated initials removed, leaving pages of text that often had very pretty penwork and gold letters. After the "good stuff" was removed, the remainder of the book was discarded. These fragments are the source of affordable individual leaves, whose prices are based on age, decoration, quality of workmanship, and condition. [Please note: a reputable dealer in manuscripts would NEVER take a complete manuscript apart to sell the leaves individually. Such an act is sacrilege.]

The leaves pictured above and below, from a French 15th century book of hours, are priced in the $50 (below) - $100 (above) range, depending on decoration and condition. The one with the most initial and line fillers in colors and burnished gold is the most expensive, while those with fewer decorative elements or with imperfections such as darker vellum or small tears are less costly.

Vellum was made from the hide of calves or sheep, and the "hair" side was usually darker, with the grain of the hair often visible. The lighter side is was the inside of the skin, and is whiter or "brighter", as we say in the trade. (Nota bene: Medieval manuscript leaves do not make good gifts for vegans.) The vellum of the leaves shown above is also not completely flat; it is "rumpled" (which sounds much sexier than wrinkled, does it not?). This imperfection is another reason for the lower cost. The decoration is also fairly simple--initials and line fillers in burnished gold, but no decorative borders or pictures, as in the costly manuscript at the top of this post.

The leaves above range in price from $60-$500. The least expensive is, as you have guessed, the one in the upper left-hand corner with plain text. Its neighbor, with gold initials and line fillers is $100, while the leaves with panel borders cost $325-500.

An illuminated choir leaf with historiated initial

Another type of book that is seldom found complete and is thus a good source of individual leaves is the antiphonary, or choir book. These books contained the music to be sung by church or monastic choirs at services, and they had to be large enough to be seen by everyone, as individual hymnals would have been an unjustifiable extravagance. Very expensive and grand antiphonaries might have "historiated" initials that contained a small scene in the open space of a "D" or "O." In the grisly example above, we see five Franciscan martyrs with scimitars buried in their heads.

Other antiphonaries were more modestly, but still beautifully decorated with penwork initials in red and blue ink. The examples below are from Spain, and the design reflect the Morrish influence in that country. While without the visual and emotional impact of a historiated initial, these delicate penwork designs were the product of considerable talent and many long and tedious hours of meticulous work. Leaves with very large initials will cost around $1,500, but their simpler brethren may be had for $95-200.

An ABAA book fair is great place to learn more about collecting manuscript leaves and to find individual leaves for purchase. The California fair will be held in San Francisco on February 11-13, 2011, and the New York book fair on April 8-10, 2011.

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