Last month at an auction house in Germany, a single page from a medieval manuscript went up for sale. Among those who were trying to buy it was David Gura, the Curator of Ancient and Medieval Manuscripts at the University of Notre Dame. It was another chance for him to save part of a 15th century Book of Hours, which only a few years earlier had been broken up. He is now in a race to find the remaining the pages of this manuscript before they disappear.
Medieval manuscripts have extraordinary beauty – even those with no images can be a delight to look at. It is not a surprise that since the 19th century there has been a strong trade in centuries-old manuscripts. However, it did not take sellers long to realize that it was more profitable to sell individual pages from the manuscripts than it was to sell the entire book.
The practice of breaking books has been thriving since then. Although it is not illegal to split up a book and sell the pages individually, the industry falls into a grey-zone – and those who take part in it generally keep a low profile. While these businesses remain profitable, they also need to get their hands on medieval manuscripts to create new pages. Therefore they keep their eyes on these items when they come for sale, which led to one of them buying a 15th century Book of Hours in 2011.
The manuscript had been made in the early 15th-century in the French region of Brittany, in or near the town of Vannes. It had probably been created for a noble woman in the area, and also contained in its 129 leaves a calendar of months, details about local saints, and the Office of the Dead. Many of the pages included little illustrations, such as this image of The Three Living and Three Dead:
In 1981 the manuscript was purchased by Joseph Pope, a Canadian financier with a passion for medieval books. He had collected hundreds of manuscripts and spent much of his free time researching them. The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies at the University of Toronto even awarded him on a honourary doctorate for his contributions to the field.
When he passed away in 2010, it was expected that his collection would have been donated to the University of Toronto. However, his descendants had other ideas, and most of his medieval manuscripts were sold to the highest bidder.
On July 5, 2011, the Book of Hours was sold at Sotheby’s Auction House in London for £25,000 – you can still see the record of the sale and manuscript details on the Sotheby’s website – to an unknown buyer. That day saw dozens of manuscripts sold, some reaching prices hundreds of thousands of pounds. Most have now disappeared into private collections.
About seven months later David Gura went on Ebay.com hoping to find some examples of a medieval calendar that he could make use of when teaching medieval palaeography at the University of Notre Dame. The popular e-commerce website is one of the best places to find pages of medieval manuscripts. Here you can find all sorts of pages, selling from anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand dollars per folio.
Gura was able to find the pages he was looking for. The seller provided details about the manuscript, which proved to be fabricated information, but soon Gura was able to figure out where these pages had come from. He also found that other portions of the manuscript was for sale, and was able to start purchasing them.
“The primary motivation was preservation of the manuscript,” Gura explains. “There are so few witnesses which contain a calendar for the use of Vannes in a book of hours, that I felt it was important to study its relationship to the rest of the manuscript. I did not think I would be able to recover many leaves at all – the fact that the calendar was intact was beyond my normal expectations.”
Over the next few months he was able to locate more pages of the Book of Hours and purchased them for the university. Gura even started contacting other people who had bought parts of the manuscript on eBay, asking if they would be interested in giving the pages so he could restore the manuscript. Some never responded, while others agreed to hand over the pages – for a price.
At the same time, Gura was able to find other pages of the manuscript in the hands of dealers, auction houses and other private collectors. The university was the highest bidder at last month’s auction in Germany, bringing it’s collection to 92 of the 129 pages from the Book of Hours.
Another leaf recovered! Miniature count 22/30, total 92/129 fols. http://t.co/rjv0Nw9jBd @medievalpecia @lisafdavis pic.twitter.com/W7TbFlgt5Z
— David T. Gura (@d_gura) April 6, 2015
Gura concedes that he will probably not be able to find all the pages of this Book of Hours, but he occasionally gets a new lead on where they might be. He explains how important this project has been: “Since no new medieval manuscripts can be made, it is of vast importance to preserve the ones which do exist and make them available for study. This manuscript reveals much. On a larger scale, it shows the richness of Breton culture and Catholic devotional practices in the Vannetais during the 15th century, but it also makes a specific contribution: we now know that books of hours from Vannes contain the use of Nantes and Rennes, where it was thought previously that the use of Nantes occurred exclusively. None of this would be accessible if the pages of the manuscript remained fragmented in private hands.”
To help bring more awareness to the project and the issues related to the breaking of medieval manuscripts, an exhibition was held at the Snite Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. In this video, David Gura spoke at the exhibition:
You can learn more about this Book of Hours and the project to save it at:
Our thanks to David Gura, who you can follow Twitter @d_gura and the Snite Museum of Art – @SniteMuseum – for their help in creating this article.