Conference Presentation: Manuscript Leaf Collections

Last month I gave a presentation at the Society of American Archivist (Indiana University Chapter) on medieval manuscript leaf collections. The paper represented, at least in part, my reflections on what I had learned through cataloging work on manuscript leaves at Western Michigan University’s Special Collections and the Harry Ransom Center from 2009-2010.  Below you will find that paper as well as its accompanying powerpoint. My apologies if the style seems a bit “breezy”–it was intended to be read aloud, not submitted for publication!


In the late 1940s, the art historian and book-collector Otto F. Ege did something that would have a huge impact on medieval manuscript leaf collecting in the United States. He selected fifty medieval manuscripts from his personal collection and removed several dozen individual leaves from each one.  He mounted these leaves, along with descriptive labels, onto large paper mats and place each mounted leaf into a portfolio box. The final result was forty boxed sets containing fifty manuscript leaves each. Eventually these portfolios entitled “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” were offered for sale to university and public libraries around North America.[1] Although this act of biblioclasty (or, “book-breaking”) may seem shocking and even abhorrent to most librarians, archivists, and bibliophiles, his behavior was simply not extraordinary. While the removal of a whole medieval manuscript leaf for collectable reasons did not become popular until around the late 19th century, people have been cutting up manuscript books to re-use the parchment going all the way back to the origin of the codex. For at least a thousand years Europeans re-used vellum from older manuscripts as flyleaves, sewing guards, wrappers and to strengthen bindings. Manuscript cuttings have been pressed into service over the centuries for a surprising variety of domestic tasks such as jam jar covers, wallpaper, candlesticks, and lampshades just to name a few.[2]

The removal of individual illuminations from manuscripts goes back at least to the fourteenth century when some bookmakers would remove miniatures and decorated initials to ornament their new manuscripts. Antiquarians, like the famous Sir Robert Cotton, were cutting out fragments as specimens of ancient handwriting or decoration in the seventeenth century.[3] Such acts were generally not done for commercial reasons but rather out of the desire to collect mere curiosities or souvenirs. By the mid 19th century we see the beginnings of an interest in whole leaves—decoration or not.[4] The practice of creating “Leaf Books” or removing an original leaf from a significant manuscript and publishing it with an essay written by a prominent author can be traced to at least 1841.[5]

The interest in collecting single leaves began to increase dramatically in the early 1900s. Robert Forrer of Strassburg, published a catalogue of his collection in 1913 containing 38 whole manuscript leaves—a large number for the time. But by 1956 collectors like Erik Von Scherling of Leiden issued catalogues containing nearly 2600 whole leaves—many of which he sold in the United States.[6]

Disdain for the cutting up of manuscripts is surely as old as the practice itself. Individuals expressed reservations towards such activity in the 1800s. For example, James Dennistoun, a Scottish antiquary and art collector called Napoleon’s French troops “boors” for cutting up manuscripts, which he had subsequently “saved” in Italy around 1838.[7] In 1860 H. M. Lucien[8] supposedly became the first person to refer to collectors who cut up manuscripts as “vandals.”[9] The well-known eighth edition of ABC for Book Collectors, by John Carter and Nicolas Barker, states that biblioclasty should be discouraged even if done with good intentions. Despite such spirited dissension towards cutting up books, Ege’s deed was simply one in a very well established tradition of such behavior.

To be fair, his inclination was primarily an altruistic one.  Otto Ege’s tenure at the library school of Western Reserve and the Cleveland Institute of Art, his devotion to teaching the book arts to the general public, and his passion for medieval book decoration led him to believe that such objects could act as a source of inspiration to modern–day bookmakers. He authored dozens of articles on this subject in art education journals and loaned materials to public book exhibits regularly.  Therefore, his “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts” portfolios were a logical part of his fervent commitment to populist art education in America. However, his secondary intention for making these sets was to profit financially from many years of book collecting. Although Ege died before he was able to sell the portfolios, his widow Louise, continued with the plan and began dispersing the boxed sets to individuals and institutions for $750 each.[10] All told, Ege probably sold hundreds upon hundreds of modestly priced single manuscript leaves in his lifetime.[11]

Recently, thanks largely to the efforts of Greta Smith (Miami University) and Fred Porcheddu (Denison University), thirty of Ege’s forty specimen sets of medieval manuscript leaves have been located, nearly all of them in libraries in the U.S. and Canada.  Smith and Porcheddu have produced an excellent website which serves as a single location where images, descriptions, and other information about Otto Ege and his leaves can be gathered and shared. The ultimate goal is to transfer the information on the site to XSLT language so that the leaves and their transcriptions and translations will be even more searchable. This attempt to “virtually” reconstruct the component manuscripts of Ege’s portfolios is an admirable one and I hope that institutions and individuals will continue to participate in the ongoing project.

I begin with the story of Ege and his dismembered manuscripts partly because no-one can talk about leaves and fragments of medieval books without at least mentioning him and partly because I believe the above work of Smith and Porcheddu and others on the Ege leaves is, at least for now, more of an anomaly than the standard. Hundreds if not thousands of manuscript leaves in archives and special collections have been forgotten at best, inadequately arranged and inconsistently described at worst. To date, I am not aware that anyone has tried to produce a census of leaves and fragments held in institutions in the United States. Some scholars have speculated about the probable number of leaf books and portfolios of leaves like Ege’s that are in existence[12] but likely, we will never really know how many excised leaves are out there. Indeed those estimates don’t include the thousands of individual leaves and fragments that have been acquired over the years by various institutions and individuals. Furthermore, the sale in manuscript leaves seems to be going strong, despite criticism. Thanks to online sites such as E-Bay, the trade flourishes, with many dealers using the age-old justification that such items were already excised from manuscripts before coming into their possession. In 2003 individuals at the Institute for the Study of Illuminated Manuscripts in Denmark (CHD) began attempting to track and catalog manuscript leaves as they were sold through E-Bay—an admirable effort to be sure, but they have not updated their website since 2007.[13] Regardless of the situation, I would argue that our real focus should continue to be on how to best digitize, arrange, and describe such objects in our archives or special collections regardless of how they came to be there.

One of the advantages that leaves have over full codices is their potential to serve as pedagogical tools. Although full manuscripts hold more information, physical access to them is often more restricted—especially for students and the beginning scholar. For example, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas is now beginning to restrict physical access to bound codices as they are digitized. But any student can still personally handle and examine items from the leaf collection. Given the now fragile or deteriorated condition of many medieval codices, I imagine this situation will likewise increase at other institutions. Accordingly, if leaves and fragments are the primary way that many will be able to physically study medieval artistic and textual culture, it is all the more imperative that we put forth an effort to more usefully organize and describe them, and thus increase access to them.

The history of what we would call “modern” cataloging of medieval manuscripts in the English speaking world dates back to the early 1600s with Thomas Jame’s catalog of medieval manuscripts at Oxford and Cambridge.[14] This early effort stimulated subsequent catalogs in Britain with increasing breadth and depth, culminating finally in the 19th century with the work of M.R. James[15] and then in the 20th with Neil R. Ker’s Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries.[16]

But the first, and so far only, attempt to produce a printed union catalog of all the medieval and Renaissance manuscripts in the United States and Canada began with Seymour De Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts (published in 1937) [17] and Faye and Bond’s Supplement (published in 1962).[18] This ambitious project undoubtedly brought numerous unknown manuscripts to general attention. But in many ways De Ricci’s work discouraged more detailed cataloging at individual institutions and it recorded very few manuscript leaves or fragments.

Massive cataloging projects sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG)[19] in the 1950s, together with the example provided by Ker’s work in Britain inspired renewed efforts in the 80s to produce printed catalogs in the United States. The efforts of such major institutions as the Beinecke in 1984,[20] the Claremont in 1986,[21] and the Newberry Library[22] and Huntington in 1989 [23] represented the “coming of age” of pre-modern manuscript cataloging in the U.S.[24] Most appropriated the methodology developed by N. R. Ker in Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. By organizing their catalogs along these lines, they provided a much higher level of detail than De Ricci’s Census and established the basis for subsequent efforts in electronic cataloging projects.

At a number of international conferences, beginning with one held in 1989 at Munich, scholars collectively debated how best to reduce medieval manuscripts to an electronic, machine-readable, and searchable form. There was particular disagreement concerning the adaptability of MARC 21 for the task.[25] At that time, if an institution wanted to try and catalog their medieval manuscripts using MARC 21 they would likely use Archives and Manuscript Control (AMC) format with Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts (APPM) specialized rules.[26] Yet these separate format rules were essentially designed for collections of unpublished modern or early modern papers and documents.

For example, with “certain pre-1600 manuscripts” and for “book-like manuscripts,” APPM refers the reader back to AACR2R, chapter 4,[27] which provides a few extra tips for how to record certain special features. But because pre-modern manuscripts lack the usual identifying marks of authorship and publication that distinguished printed books, AACR2R lumps them together with all manuscripts as a single cataloging format according to the general principle that they are all “unpublished materials.”[28]

In 1996, The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University collaborated with the Vatican Film Library at Saint Louis University to begin a project entitled Electronic Access to Medieval Manuscripts (EAMMS).  This effort was funded along with Digital Scriptorium by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. An international body of specialists came together to participate in the project with the goal of increasing access to medieval manuscript-related records and information.[29] In 2002, these guidelines were taken up, refined and then approved by the Bibliographic Standards Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the association of College and Research Libraries. The final product, released as a supplement to AACR2 was entitled Descriptive Cataloging of Ancient Medieval Renaissance and Early Modern Manuscripts or AMREMM. These new guidelines had a number of advantages over APPM including a new treatment of the supplied title and the order of its elements, special guidelines for dealing with manuscripts containing multiple works, new provisions for recording layout, musical works, and binding to name a few. [30]

Interestingly, although AMREMM represents a major improvement over previous guidelines, many institutions are using discrete databases with localized standards. Some repositories like the Morgan Library and Museum cataloged their medieval and Renaissance manuscripts using MARC 21 before the development of AMREMM. The Head of Cataloging and Database Maintenance at the Morgan admits that their records do not conform to a number of AMREMM guidelines. Because “unlike most library collections, the Morgan treats these items primarily as art objects with an emphasis on the artistic quality of their illustrations as opposed to the various texts in the manuscripts.” [31]

This raises the question of whether AMREMM is too “text-focused” in its guidelines. It does of course provide rules for dealing with decoration and illumination[32] along with six accompanying examples. But it avoids specifying any controlled vocabulary for their description, instead pointing to a variety of different works (many of which do not entirely agree with one another) for “technical terminology.”[33] And the examples of MARC 21 records provided in the appendix do seem favor textual over artistic issues. As the medievalist Rowan Watson once aptly stated, “it is the role of the cataloger to recognize the various questions on which a fragment can provide evidence and not solely to mention its textual importance.”[34]

In my own experience, AMREMM seems generally well suited to cataloging full codices with multiple texts, but it provides rather less clear guidance for individual leaves and fragments. The guidelines for cataloging charters and papal bulls are also somewhat wanting—and the reference works it points to are old and overly specialized. There is no example of a MARC 21 record for a leaf in the appendix and it is unclear whether or not one should transcribe any part of a single leaf if it technically has no incipit or explicit.[35] [slide19—click again] I personally chose to transcribe the first and sometimes last words of text on a leaf regardless of whether they were technically incipits are explicits. This allows for the possibility of identifying what kind or what portion of a manuscript a leaf comes from. In cases where there may not be enough time or money to digitize leaves, this also opens the possibility for researchers to find sister leaves in the same or other institutions with conjugate texts.

It also came to my attention during research, somewhat obviously, that the bulk of medieval manuscript leaves and fragments in the United States originates from the 15th and 16th centuries. And although there are examples of fragments of rare and historically significant texts out there, the vast majority have been excised from rather more common liturgical books and Books of Hours. Accordingly, there is a need for newer related resources in English. One of the few comprehensive printed reference works for this very subject, Hughes’ Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office,[36] is so dense and complex that some scholars have called it more of a disservice than an aid.  Recent works like Clemens’ and Graham’s Introduction to Manuscripts Studies, are a good place to start, but right now a couple of websites created by industrious scholars for researching Books of Hours and liturgical books are probably the best resources for the cataloger lacking specialized knowledge.[37]

One of the most obvious values of leaves and fragments is their service as specimens of medieval handwriting. In Europe some archives have used fragment collections to produced noteworthy paleographic albums illustrating the history of medieval scripts.[38] The proper identification of scripts is one of the best ways to localize and date individual leaves. But resources that many catalogers depend on for controlled vocabulary like the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus lack the necessary level of detail to provide sufficient analysis for late medieval scripts. Many different systems of nomenclature have been proposed and used over the years, but the recent work of scholar Albert Derolez [39] may be helpful in creating a more standardized nomenclature. Currently I am working on developing a resource based on his work for local use at the Harry Ransom Center. Possibly, with the assistance of other scholars, the ultimate goal would be to expand the controlled vocabularies for medieval scripts of the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus.


In this brief paper I have attempted to situate the cataloging of pre-modern manuscript leaves within the discourse of descriptive standards for medieval codices. The practice of cutting leaves and fragments out of bound codices has a long and venerable tradition, and despite opposition, continues to this day. Regardless of how we feel about this, archives and special collections need to make an effort to increase access to their own leaf collections. Because they are isolated from their larger context, leaves and fragments are often viewed as meager novelties—not useful for real scholarship. But such objects can and should be fully exploited as teaching tools within a variety of disciplines. Take the all too common example of a single decorated antiphonary leaf used as wrappers for an early-modern printed book; such an object presents a number of opportunities for research and teaching–from codicological, paleographic or musicological disciplines to the study of historical book structures. Manuscript leaves used as binding fragments provide a rich cultural context to their accompanying books and can serve as potential evidence in determining where and when a book was made or re-bound.

Fully bound medieval manuscripts justifiably receive the lion’s share of attention in description and digitization, but most institutions in the U.S. likely hold larger collections of medieval manuscript leaves and fragments than bound codices. One of the great potentials of the internet and current digital technologies is the possibility of reuniting excised and dis-bound objects online—as individuals like Smith and Porcheddu have done and continue to do with the Ege portfolios.  Although this may be complicated by the differing needs of user communities and the variety of goals of individual institutions, we can still strive to present such objects according to the most intellectually rigorous standards. As new descriptive guidelines are developed for cataloging pre-modern manuscripts in various formats we should keep in mind that the archivist or cataloger does not need to provide an exhaustive study of every fragment they come across, but they should attempt to provide enough information to at least help the researcher know if the object deserves a more in-depth examination.

We should also make an effort to connect our metadata in online-searchable databases to larger scholarly sources of information such as WorldCat. The MARC 21 format has its limitations and AMREMM is perhaps not as thorough as it should be, but by making manuscript leaf records available in a library’s on-line public access catalog we increase the “possibility of there one day existing an electronic union catalog for medieval manuscripts that would encompass the holdings of North American libraries and those of other countries as well.”[40] Finally, in situations where a library or archive lacks the specialized knowledge required to properly catalog medieval leaves, they should consider the possibilities presented by crowdsourcing the work through online communities and image hosting sites like Flickr.

Describing medieval manuscript leaves is a particularly specialized skill—one that ultimately depends in part on interpretation. The problem is aptly summarized by Gregory Pass, the editor of AMREMM, who states that the cataloger’s role in transcribing a manuscript text is “best conceived as interpretive” and the final representation is “necessarily a subjective matter.”[41] I would argue that this very interpretive process is something that any individual examining leaves and fragments can greatly benefit from. Such objects represent a treasure trove of information about the medieval world, even as isolated pages. It is my hope that archives and special collections will begin to more fully consider the range of opportunities for learning that this underappreciated resource presents—just as (heaven forbid!) Ege would have wanted.

[1] Greta Smith and Fred Porcheddu, “The Ege Manuscript Leaf Portfolios,” homepage in Otto F. Ege Collection Home (Denison University, 2008), (accessed February 20, 2011).

[2] Christopher De Hamel, “Cutting Up Manuscripts for Pleasure and Profit,”  in Terry Berlanger, ed., The Rare Book School 1995 Yearbook (Charlottesville, VA.: Book Arts Press, 1996), 12-14.

[3] Rowan Watson, “Medieval Manuscript Fragments,” Archives 13:58 (Autumn 1977): 71.

[4] De Hamel, “Cutting Up Manuscripts,” 11.

[5] Joel Silver, “Beyond the Basics: Leaf Books,” in Fine Books and Collections, (2005), (accessed February 21, 2006)

[6] De Hamel, “Cutting Up Manuscripts,” 15-16.

[7] Ibid, 13-14.

[8] Henry Montanell Lucien

[9] De Hamel, 14

[10] Smith and Porcheddu, “The Ege Manuscript Leaf Portfolios,” homepage.

[11] De Hamel, 17.

[12]Joel Silver, of the Lilly Library estimated that the number of “leaf books” and portfolios of leaves like Ege’s that have been produced over the years probably exceeds 250. See Joel Silver, “Beyond the Basics.”

[13] Erik Drigsdahl, “Dismembered Manuscripts”in The Center for Håndskriftstudier i Danmark,(2007) (accessed February 21, 2011)

[14] Thomas James, Ecloga Oxonia-Cantabrigiensis (1600); see also “Thomas James’ Ecloga Oxonio-Cantabrigiensis: An Early Printed Union Catalog.” Journal of Library History 22 (1987): 1-22.

[15] M. R. James, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1895).

[16] N. R. Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, 4 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-1992).

[17] Seymour De Ricci’s Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1935-40)

[18] Faye, C. U., and Bond, W. H,  Supplement to the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada (New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1962).

[19] B. Wagner, “Cataloging of medieval manuscripts in German libraries: The role of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DDG) as a funding agency” Rare Books and Manuscripts 5.1 (2004), 38-51.

[20] Barbara Shailor, Catalog of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 3 vols. (Binghampton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1984).

[21] C. W. Dutschke and R. H. Rouse, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Claremont Libraries, Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in California Libraries, 1, University of California Publications: Catalogs and Bibliographies, 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

[22] Paul Saenger, Catalog of Pre-1500 Western Manuscripts in the Newberry Library (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

[23] C. W. Dutschke, Guide to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Huntington Library, 2 vols. (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1989).

[24] Richard W. Clement, “Cataloging Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts: A Review Article,” The Library Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3  (Jul., 1985): 326.

[25] The proceedings of these conferences are collected and summarized in two publications: Menso Folkerts and Andreas Kuhne, eds., The Use of Computers in Cataloging Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts: Papers from International Workshop in Munich, 10-12 August 1989, 4 (Munchen: Institut fur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften, 1990); Hope Mayo, ed., Bibliographic Access to Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts: A Survey of Computerized Data Bases and Information Services (New York: Hawthorn Press, 1992).

[26] Steven Henson, Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual For Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1983). APPM provided examples for physical descriptions such as “20 leaves: vellum” (APPM 1.5C1), or “1 item (1 leaf): parchment; 35 x 66 cm. folded to 10 x 19 cm.” (APPM 1.5D2)

[27] APPM, 9. See also AACR2, rule 4.7B23.

[28] Gregory Pass, Descriptive Cataloging of Ancient Medieval Renaissance and Early Modern Manuscripts (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2002): xii.

[29] See “What is EAMMS?” in Electronic Access to Medieval Manuscripts: A Proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (2000),  (accessed February 23, 2011)

[30] See rules 1B2, 7B5.4, 7B8, 7B11, and 7B12 respectively.

[31] Maria Ogdal, E-mail correspondence with Micah Erwin, November 11, 2009.

[32] See rules 5C2 and 7B10

[33] Pass, Descriptive Cataloging, 64 (rule 7B10).

[34] Watson, “Medieval Manuscript Fragments”, 63.

[35] In cataloging the  terms “incipit” and “explicit” refer to the opening and closing words of a textual unit. Incipit is derived from the Latin verb incipere (to begin) and explicit is derived from Latin verb explicitus (unrolled). It is standard practice to transcribe the opening and closing words from the discrete texts in a full manuscript codex in order to aid in identifying those texts.

[36] Andrew Hughes, Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to Their Organization and Terminology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982).

[37] See Glen Gunhouse, Hypertext Book of Hours (date unknown)  (accessed February 21, 2011); Erik Drigsdahl, “About CHD” in The Center for Håndskriftstudier i Danmark,(December 3, 2007) (accessed February 21, 2011)

[38] Rowan, “Medieval Manuscript Fragments”, 71.

[39] Albert Derolez, The Paleography of Gothic Manuscript Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[40] Gregory Pass, Descriptive Cataloging, xiii.

[41] Ibid., 7.


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