As you may have noticed, the Newberry Library tends to highlight rich and visually stunning medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. The brilliantly illuminated books of hours that accompany and illustrate the “Core Collections” home page and “Manuscripts and Archives” collection description are some of the finest examples of the lavish painting for which medieval manuscripts are known. These manuscripts are eye-catching, and serve as important reminders that early objects can be beautiful and technically marvelous, too.
Some of the most exciting objects in the Newberry’s collections, however, are a little more subdued. Newberry manuscript fragment Case MS Medieval Fragment 1, is one such case. [Fig. 1] From one point of view, this c. 700 C.E. fragment, written in the script of Luxeuil, a monastery in the Burgundy region of France, is a little boring. The decorator used just three or four colors, and, like a student in a long lecture, merely filled in the letters with basic abstract patterns. There are no people or scenes, no vine-encrusted borders, and no gold-leaf to accompany the fading pigments. The curvy letters are neither horrifyingly indistinguishable nor exemplary letter-forms. Even the text itself offers little of interest: the words come from one of the minor prophets in the Old Testament, about what one would expect from an early medieval manuscript.
But when put in its proper context, the Luxeuil fragment is stunning. The monastery of Luxeuil was barbarian Gaul’s first great writing center, and the early date of this fragment means that it is related chronologically to the most important manuscripts produced at that center. The decorated letters, especially the E’s, [Fig. 2] are different enough from the standard Luxeuil “display script” that they seem designed to give the artist room to fill in the created shapes with lively combinations of red, yellow, and green paint. That the manuscript is decorated at all is astounding; this and the few other surviving objects from the same era document the birth of manuscript illumination in continental Europe. The geometric forms used here hint at the birds and fish that dominate other Frankish manuscripts. The way the artist segmented the most prominent “E” and the curve of the “h” in the initial “haec” [Fig. 3] match almost exactly the designs of fish in other manuscripts, and this kind of abstraction would lead some scholars in the early nineteenth century to see Islamic influences in this early European art.
The other capitals that start each line—like this Q, [Fig. 4] with the extra decoration added to the tail—mix well with the playful, curving Luxeuil script, Europe’s first formalized cursive miniscule. These letterforms spread throughout France, and monasteries in other cities founded by monks from Luxeuil, called daughter-houses, would become the foremost centers of writing and learning in the subsequent centuries. Even the fact that the Newberry’s fragment is made of vellum is interesting in a way that manuscripts being on vellum is usually not. The latest extant papyrus manuscript in Western Europe comes from Luxeuil just a generation before.
In addition to its art historical and paleographic significance, objects like this are extremely rare. Just 22 fragments and manuscripts survive from the scriptorium (where books were copied by monks, usually in a particular style associated with that monastery) at Luxeuil, and only six of those are in American collections. While it is exciting for scholars to have even this many fragments from such a distinctive early literary center, it is a minor miracle that so many do exist, because the monastery was sacked by Vandals in 731 C.E. and its archives destroyed.
Most importantly, the Luxeuil fragment is at home in the Newberry in a way that many of the more prominently displayed manuscripts are not. The most impressive illustrations come from books of hours, which guided their wealthy owners through their daily prayers. As elite objects of private devotion, these books are divorced from their original contexts when placed in a large library where almost anyone can come to study them as a historical artifact—as valuable as that service may be.
In contrast, the fragment here, or at least the text from which it was copied, did come from a library. Monasteries exchanged books that they had copied as gifts, and sold the works produced in their scriptoria for wealthy patrons. But they also had their own collections of books that the monks could use, by asking the monastery’s librarian to borrow certain texts. The librarian would take his key, unlock the chest filled with precious, expensive books, and give one to the monk to read. For some, the book received was an object of study, the contents of which were to be interpreted, analyzed, and explained, in a way that should be familiar to anyone who has had the chance to use the Newberry’s collections.
Posted by Jake Purcell, Summer Intern, Center for Renaissance Studies
Call Number: Newberry Case MS Medieval Fragment 1.
For more on this manuscript, see Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca, NY: 2007), 136-137.