Collecting Histories
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Collecting Histories

In the fall of 2014, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies convened the Seventh Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age to consider the question: what can the study of collecting habits and provenance tell us about manuscript culture?1 Sometimes considered niche areas of interest, the history of collecting and provenance studies have broad implications for how we understand and interpret the manuscript book today. In the symposium, which we called “Collecting Histories,” our aim was to tease out some of those implications and provoke further thought on how examining patterns of collecting confirms or confounds assumptions about readership and the interpretation of texts and contexts of the premodern manuscript.

This issue of Manuscript Studies highlights the results of the “Collecting Histories” symposium and continues the conversations started during the event. As the contributions in this issue reveal, the life of a manuscript book only begins when a scribe puts down his or her pen. What happens from that moment to the present day can reveal a wealth of information about readership and reception across time. [End Page 161]

Patterns of collecting can shed light on the cultural and intellectual values of societies, institutions, and the individuals who create, conserve, and disperse manuscript collections for a variety of reasons. At a fundamental level, these patterns can tell us about the changing role of manuscripts across time, from simple vehicles of textual transmission to revered objects of collectors’ desires. For example, Megan L. Cook’s essay highlights an early instance of how a manuscript copy of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (now Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.4.27) represented for its early sixteenth-century collector a better witness, and therefore more authoritative version, of Chaucer’s original work than contemporary printed editions due to its perceived proximity to Chaucer’s own time and to the author himself. Lisa Fagin Davis also considers how collectors’ relationships to past ideals inform collecting habits in her exploration of the journey of an illuminated breviary made for a church in France in the fifteenth century that ended up in the library of a Hollywood movie star-turned-missionary in the middle of the twentieth century.

Other essays reveal how trends in scholarship as well as in the trade both reflect and shape the interpretive frameworks that motivate collectors to focus on certain types or groupings of manuscripts over others. For example, William P. Stoneman considers the effect that two key scholarly exhibitions in mid-nineteenth century England had on the dispersal of one man’s collection and on the acquisition of another’s. Similarly, in her essay on the motivations of Isabella Stuart Gardner, the great collector of the golden age of Venetian painting, Anne Marie-Eze argues that Gardner began to acquire Venetian illuminated manuscripts, which were otherwise largely overlooked by other North American collectors at the time, under the direct influence of her teacher and early historian of Venetian art Charles Eliot Norton, who also happened to be a dealer.

As was the case with Gardner, the forces that propelled the buying and selling of manuscripts could have a protective effect upon the books that passed through the trade. Gardner was determined to preserve her precious manuscripts intact for future generations to study and to appreciate as intended by the culture that created them. Other essays and contributions to this volume expose the deleterious effects that the trade can have on these books when they are taken, frequently by theft, from personal and [End Page 162] institutional libraries or broken up and sold as fragments or individual leaves for greater profit. Julia Verkholantsev tracks, for instance, the provenance of a fragment of a Greek New Testament now in the University of California’s Young Research Library’s Special Collections back to the renowned library of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai. She makes the strong case that it was stolen in the nineteenth century likely by a biblical scholar who may have wanted the fragment for his own study, or possibly for his own profit, as it appeared on the market relatively soon after its last appearance in a...