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Scattered Leaves
May 28, 2005 12:18 AM   Subscribe

Scattered Leaves In the early decades of the 20th century, a Cleveland book collector named Otto Ege removed the pages from 50 medieval manuscript books, divided the pages among 40 boxes, and sold the boxes around the world. Now the University of Saskatchewan plans to digitally remake the book.
posted by dhruva (32 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

It's a sad story that he took these manuscripts apart and dispursed them throughout the world.

Great post! Thanks!
posted by Balisong at 12:23 AM on May 28, 2005

"The words in leaves from the 1400s are spaced further apart than in the earlier texts from the 1100s. Spaces between words, familiar to us now, appeared around 1100. Before that, words ran together on the page the way they do in oral speech. This is probably because those earlier texts were intended to be read aloud, which is a relatively slow process and not dependent on spaces between words. Silent reading, not widely practiced until the 1200s, is far swifter and the eye depends on spaces between words to distinguish them at such a speed."
That's interesting.
"The pages from one box are currently being auctioned off one by one on EBay and selling for $3,000 to $5,000 each.."
That's sad.

Thanks dhruva - another very fine post.
posted by peacay at 1:08 AM on May 28, 2005

It's a sad story that he took these manuscripts apart and dispursed them throughout the world.
posted by Balisong at 12:23 AM PST on May 28

I think what he did was awesome. A calculated stab in the heart of bibliofetishist hoarders everywhere. I prefer to read books, not own them. The only reason I have for possesing copies of books and movies is so that I can easily share them with others.
posted by blasdelf at 3:25 AM on May 28, 2005

Well, I'm deeply saddened by the destruction of 50 (!) rare and precious manuscripts, that probably further deteriorated when placed in the boxes, exposed to air and mold. His feeble attempt to defend his actions ("Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.") doesn't mean a thing to my ears: Hey, few can hope to own a Picasso but that's not a reason to chop up an artwork, pack it in seperate boxes and dispersed throughout the world.

blasdelf: "I prefer to read books, not to own them."
Would you prefer to own a page of an ancient manuscript, or to access the whole book in a library/museum and to share that access with thousands of others?
posted by ruelle at 3:33 AM on May 28, 2005

blasdelf, are you trolling?
"The leaves contained in each box were created between 1100 and 1550 AD, mostly in monasteries in Europe and England. They were written by hand (the printing press was not invented until 1450) on the prepared skin of sheep and calves."
So you'd be thinking that 900 year old handwritten material should just be scattered around and left to circulate through all of society by some natural babysitting timetable? Oy vay. ruelle is 2nded.
posted by peacay at 3:47 AM on May 28, 2005

This seems to happen too often - A friend of mine met a medieval graduate student who was trying, unsucessfully, to buy a whole manuscript from someone off ebay. They had the backing of the university, and had a bunch of money to spend, so the seller would get his money, but the person still refused to sell it to him, claiming they could get so much more selling the leaves individually. Which is, sadly, probably true. There are enough people who want to own a piece of history who don't realise that by owning it, they threaten the existence of that history.

blasdelf - these books do not otherwise exist, and cannot be read in their present condition. Ege threatened exactly what you value, in exchange for pleasing those who wish to possess bits of paper. If they were in library collections, they could be read and shared. But he dismembered them.

Actually, as a history graduate student, I have mixed feelings about any private archive collections. Private collectors have saved many things over the centuries which are very important, but at the same time, collections which naturally belong together for research purposes get split up by the manuscript markets. I'm just very glad that I don't work on manuscripts of value, and can find them in the same places where they were first made.
posted by jb at 5:14 AM on May 28, 2005

In hell Otto Ege & Company are unseamed and sold to a thousand fat demons from whom they must buy back the bits with vile acts and stitch themselves together. Then the demons snip them apart again.

If it's a treasure, you shouldn't be able to cut up a book any more than you can just knock down a castle you happen to live in.

And private collectors should be encouraged (through insurance rates or tax breaks or visits from menacing strangers or something) to submit all their books for scholarly examination, archival photography, and the creation of publicly available electronic copies.
posted by pracowity at 1:44 PM on May 28, 2005

It's the book that can only continue to exist in a climate controlled box that I take the most issue with. Nobody can read it, much less look at it. A single page can be framed and looked upon.

Even the manuscripts held by public instituitions aren't viewed very regularly. At this point, we don't really read these ancient texts: we look at them, and enjoy them as art.
posted by blasdelf at 2:53 PM on May 28, 2005

blasdelf: the argument can be made that these books belong to all of us. They are part of our shared history. Thus, in a world with billions of people what is the difference between one owner and a few hundred owners? If that one owner is a museum and commited to taking care of it, on all our behalf, then I know where I want it kept.

Perhaps future scholars may be able to find something in these manuscripts that we don't even know to look for today. Carrying them forward is a present we receive from the past and pass on to the future.

Large museums like the Met have gigantic collections. What you see on display is only a small part of it. Most of their collection is stored away, occasionally made available to scholars. The Art under their care will hopefully continue to exist. Do you think they should haul it all out and disperse it into flea markets?
posted by Ariosto at 3:56 PM on May 28, 2005

I agree with blasdelf and Ege. Ege made a difficult and controversial decision. Was he right? I think so. Could I be wrong about this? Definitely. Does Ege deserve to burn in hell for this? Get real.

So long as they are not masterpieces, sole exemplars of important works, or otherwise essential to scholarship and our cultural heritage, I would prefer that the pages from these books, be put into as many hands as possible. Otherwise they would be sure to spend long and boring lives in the archives of museums and libraries that already has plenty of better and more important medieval manuscripts. If the institutions will do this then more power to them. But generally they don't. And private and public museums and libraries throughout the world have plenty of these things. I have been to quite a few exhibits of illuminated manuscripts and always found it dissapointing that every book can only be opened to two pages at a time. Ege came up with a solution for this, and though it was certainly not the ideal one, and it has ended somewhat unfortunately and counter to what he wanted, I think that his intention was a good one (respond here with something about roads and what they are paved with and where they lead).

Not all manuscripts are created equal. True, they are all unique, but so are all 18th and 19th century oils and most of them are bad, useless, and unimportant to anybody except for the private citizens who are fortunate enough to own them and take pleasure from them. Likewise, most manuscripts are not all that important except perhaps to a few paleographers and medievalists.

As I see it, the real problem is the culture of ebay and hoarding/collecting that arose after Ege's action and that he couldn't possibly have foreseen. This collecting is done by people to whom Ege's generous (though possibly misguided) actions would be baffling and confusing. If you think that art should be accessible and that our common artistic heritage should be open and available to all, you owe Ege some begrudging respect.

One other thing, I would be willing to bet that if the manuscripts rotting in the Vatican museum warehouses and scattered other church holdings were ever set loose upon the world and made more readily available for public viewing and study, we could quickly forget about Ege, and turn our ire toward a more deserving target, one that has spent centuries controlling and determining what we may or may not see.

On preview:

Ariosto I think you are largely correct and you brought up some good points, but I think your reasoning will lead to an even worse result than Ege's. Won't there always be a potential to find more in a manuscript? I think that there are many manuscripts out there that scholars can fairly well ascertain have very little use or interest to any museum or library holding except as one more fancy old book to be stored in a climate controlled box.

As to your final point, what difference does it make? Sure they are there, but who sees them? How many people know they are there?

I think that if decent art, not masterpieces, but simply good to mediocre works, were in more small local libraries and museums, not to mention classrooms and homes, then this world would have more lovers of art, and, hopefully, fewer Monet prints purchased at malls.
posted by mokujin at 5:04 PM on May 28, 2005

i'm with mokujin--it was a good solution, given that otherwise the books would have been locked away in one place.

and now that they can be reassembled digitally, it'll ensure they last, and are accessible. Not every ancient book is a masterpiece, too.
posted by amberglow at 5:27 PM on May 28, 2005

Finally, people who don't think I'm a troll for wanting to look at art rather than hoard it.
posted by blasdelf at 7:03 PM on May 28, 2005

yup, blasdelf--i'm with you--things like books and movies and art and music are meant to be seen and heard, not locked away.
posted by amberglow at 8:24 PM on May 28, 2005

A book disassembled and scattered to hundreds of different collections can't be read by anyone. Why is this better than having it somewhere complete where it can be read by at least a few people, and is less likely to be destroyed by careless handlers or greedy art dealers? Either way it's locked away in a collection and behind glass; that's not the distinction.
posted by hattifattener at 10:20 PM on May 28, 2005

But we wouldn't be able to read those books intact anyway. nor would we ever have been allowed to flip thru them. At most, as in the British Library and other places, the book would be open at a specific place and that would be it. Displaying a page in Kansas, a page in Toronto, a page in Oklahoma allowed more to see and learn from the books. And many of the books were similar to already collected and displayed books--Almost all of the 50 pages in each box are religious in content: bibles, hymnals, breviaries and missals comprise the majority of texts from which the pages were removed.

I can't believe he tore apart the best of his collection at all. He knew that the masterpieces should stay intact. In a way it's like tearing apart a penguin paperback of Dickens, i think.
posted by amberglow at 10:29 PM on May 28, 2005

I think tearing apart pages from a book is similar to fossil sellers separating bones from a fossil dinosuar and selling it separately. Lot more people will get to touch/keep the bones, but they are devoid of context.
posted by dhruva at 11:25 PM on May 28, 2005

Ariosto I think you are largely correct and you brought up some good points, but I think your reasoning will lead to an even worse result than Ege's. Won't there always be a potential to find more in a manuscript?

For one, we wouldn't have to expend all this labor that is being devoted to this project right now to remake the books and cast them into digital form because, of course, digitalization was not foreseen.

As dhruva points out, context is everything and I remain unconvinced that the small good of allowing people today to fondle these things outweighs the greater good of keeping them intact for future generations. If you are really concerned with the sheer number of people who will ever see these things, aren't you discounting all the future people?

I see this preservationist viewpoint as equivalent to an environmentalist stance - I am willing to limit access to certain areas of the world in order to preserve them.
posted by Ariosto at 11:49 PM on May 28, 2005

I fail to see how the argument that says that it is better to allow the masses to finger through 900 year old tomes stands up when the results will be chemical deterioration and no doubt earlier demise of the works and as pointed out by hattifattener, less people in the long run having had any opportunity to examine them. This is especially so in the digital age. Let it all be put on the web in high resolution, high bandwidth repositories and maybe have non-touch exhibitions of the original every year or put it on tour from time to time. The Book of Kells in Ireland is a case in point where a page is turned each day. You can still see it, but you can't get access to it or touch it to PRESERVE it for the future - that's the balance that we strike between exhibiting unique pieces and allowing for ongoing research and preserving them for posterity.

One of the pragmatic reasons to be skeptical about the efforts of Ege is that, despite their best efforts, the protagonists behind this attempt to collect the scattered pages only expect to be able to get 2 full books back from the 50-odd that were torn up and circulated.
I mean, I understand what you say Amberglow/mokujin about letting the people experience art, but there's a lot of difference between mediocre 19th century oil paintings and 900 year old animal hide texts -- the latter are highly unique and are no doubt productive of dissertations on language, typography and ink usage in historical terms. There's too much to be gained from research on this type of material.

People who like art find art anyway. And what's wrong with buying Monet posters from the mall? I fell in love with Van Gogh because a friend gave me a couple of framed posters they would have otherwise thrown out. Seeing mediocre originals isn't going to suddenly imbue me with culture.
posted by peacay at 12:46 AM on May 29, 2005

Peacay wrote: "There's too much to be gained from research on this type of material."

This is simply false. What great breakthrough is going to be made from this? Unless the work in question is a palimpsest or there is some important marginalia or it is a masterpiece of its kind, there is really very little to be gained from research on medieval churchbooks. As far as I know we are not talking about important manuscripts of Virgil or Homer, but bibles, psalters, missals and antiphonaries, the standard texts once housed in multiple in every church in Europe. Among medieval and early renaissance books, these were the most likely to survive because they were the most heavily produced, and because they were owned by an institution that did a good job of being timeless. Institutions tend to sell lesser examples of these because their research value is generally exhausted and because they can use the money that foolish collectors and speculators are willing to spend on them to buy more important things.

I predict that the adverse effects of Ege's act on research and scholarship will be completely undetectable. Scratch that. It will actually have a net positive effect because it has already given these clever canadian curators an angle to show off a collection of rather unexceptional and uninspired manuscript pages.
posted by mokujin at 8:09 AM on May 29, 2005

Also, every single person and family with money in the region had those little missals/prayerbooks--definitely the most common surviving early book.
posted by amberglow at 10:04 AM on May 29, 2005

there is really very little to be gained from research on medieval churchbooks. As far as I know we are not talking about important manuscripts of Virgil and Homer, but bibles, psalters, missals and antiphonaries, the standard texts once housed in multiple in every church in Europe.

I'm not wholly unsympathetic to this argument. It's true, a lot of medieval manuscripts are relatively unimportant in scholarly terms, and not a lot of harm is done by cutting them up and distributing the individual leaves. But the trouble is that Ege did not stop there. As well as cutting up a lot of insignificant manuscripts, he also cut up some that were highly important and irreplaceable.

I can't believe he tore apart the best of his collection, says amberglow. He knew that the masterpieces should stay intact. Well, amberglow, you'd better start believing it. Among the manuscripts dismembered by Ege was the Beauvais Missal, a superb example of early Gothic art, produced in 1285 for a canon of Beauvais named Robert de Hangest. Manuscripts that can be firmly assigned to a particular place and date, like the Beauvais Missal, are particularly important because they serve as a fixed point of comparison, enabling scholars to identify other manuscripts belonging to the same time or place. By breaking up the Beauvais Missal, Ege made this sort of comparison infinitely more difficult.

Moreover, the importance of medieval manuscripts often lies not so much in their text as in their origin and early ownership. A thirteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle, for example, may tell us little that we didn't already know about the text of Aristotle, but it may tell us a great deal about who was reading Aristotle in the thirteenth century and what use they were making of him. A scholar studying the manuscript will probably be asking questions like: who wrote it? when was it written? who commissioned it? who owned it? And it is precisely these questions that become impossible to answer when a manuscript is broken up and precious evidence of its origin -- e.g. the binding, or the ownership inscriptions on the flyleaves -- is destroyed. (Again the Beauvais Missal provides a good example: the colophon leaf, telling us that it was written for Robert de Hangest in 1285, has been lost ever since Ege broke up the manuscript.)

I would also question mokujin's assertion that 'there is really very little to be gained from research on medieval churchbooks'. For one thing, medieval liturgical books are not all the same -- there are many variations in the rubrics (depending on which local rite it belongs to, e.g. the Sarum rite in England) and in the calendars of feast-days (reflecting local cults of particular saints). (These variations often provide crucial evidence enabling scholars to identify the origin of particular manuscripts -- evidence that is often destroyed when a manuscript is broken up.) Moreover, these liturgical manuscripts are not always as common as you might expect, particularly in England, where the vast majority of them were destroyed at the Reformation.

mokujin's cheap sneer about 'the manuscripts rotting in the Vatican museum' ignores the fact that the Vatican Library was one of the pioneers in the digitisation of medieval manuscripts. Similarly, amberglow's claim that 'in the British Library and other places, the book would be open at a specific place and that would be it' ignores the BL's innovative Turning the Pages initiative which enables you to 'leaf through' digital facsimiles of some of its most famous manuscripts. (How easy would it have been to produce these digital facsimiles, one wonders, if the manuscripts had been cut up and scattered among a dozen libraries worldwide, instead of being preserved intact in a single place?)

As for amberglow's remark that cutting up a medieval missal is no worse than 'tearing apart a penguin paperback of Dickens' .. well, I don't really know what to say.
posted by verstegan at 3:24 PM on May 29, 2005 friends are writing theses on manuscripts just like these - only not chopped up.

People who think you can so easily differentiate between "important" and "unimportant" manuscripts don't really have an idea how history research is currently conducted. All manuscripts are important - just like all bits of garbage in a dig are important to an archeologist, and the context just as important as the actual artefact.

So what if these weren't "masterpieces"? Do you read masterpieces every day, and live your life buy them? I certainly don't. I read pulp fiction and watch television - which means that pulp fiction and television will be more important for future historians to understand my culture (and that of people like me) than any recent literary publications (as great as they may be). These texts were every day texts but that just makes them all the more valuable to many historians. And, as vertegan points out, not only are subtle differences in the text important, but the very history of the physical text (who owned, why did they have a text like this, etc) is very important to the study of cultural history in the period.

Moreover, this is not the same as breaking up a collection of paintings. This is like chopping up an individual painting. These books will not be enjoyed by more people - they will be enjoyed by no one.

This was an act of pure vandalism against books which do have real research value.
posted by jb at 5:17 PM on May 29, 2005

mokujin writes "What great breakthrough is going to be made from this?"
Now I have no expert knowledge and am just giving my own take on what I feel is a misguided attempt to disseminate artistic values or whatnot but I'm not so sure that the aim of all research is a great breakthrough. Most research in any area of study contributes knowledge to a body of work on particular subject matter. If getting a great breakthrough was the criteria for deciding what areas of study were to be supported then there would be a lot less in the way of academic research being undertaken at all.
posted by peacay at 5:29 PM on May 29, 2005

Also, if you really want to finger through 900 year old manucripts, you can.

UK local record offices are open to all people - you can register for free when visiting, and request to look at some really old and special stuff without any one asking why. You may be disapointed - the vast majority of medieval manuscripts were boring things like land deeds, etc, which will be in Latin and difficult to read. But they let you touch it.

Older than c. 1200 might be hard to find, but then you can always just visit museums or libraries. In New Haven, CT, the main Yale Libary currently has some cuneform tablets on display in their main entrance hall (open to the public, 9-5, Monday to Saturday, free) - much older and more impressive than medieval manuscripts, if age is really what impresses people. There is also a Gutenburg bible on display in the rare books library (also open free to the public M-F, though you may be asked to sign in).

Many local universities will have rare books libraries - there is usually a process to get access, but many allow private researchers to use collections once they register. I knew someone who went to the University of Toronto rare books library just to look at medieval manuscripts for fun - I don't know what he told them, but I don't think he was a student.

Universities, museums and libraries don't exist to lock material away - they exist to preserve and to study it. There may be some restrictions on access (I don't think I could convince them to let me play with the Gutenburg bible, even with a good excuse), but for the vast majority of materials there isn't much restriction other than registering and following the guidelines of the archive.
posted by jb at 5:31 PM on May 29, 2005

I couldn't find Ege's essay but I did find this summary of Ege's reasoning and guidelines from "I am a Biblioclast":

1. Never to take apart a "museum piece" book or a unique copy if it is complete.
2. To search for and make available to schools, libraries, collections, and individuals single leaves or units of mediaeval manuscripts, incunabula works, and fine presses.
3. To circulate as leaf exhibits, supplemented with outlines, lectures, and slides, to organizations so as to engender an interest in fine books, past and present.
4. To encourage and inspire by these fragments the amateur calligrapher and private press devotee not to imitate the deeds of the masters of the book, but to think as they did to meet present day problems.
5. To build up a personal collection of books and important fragments to illustrate the History of the Book from the days of Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets to work of Updike and Rogers.
[?] Surely to allow a thousand people ?to have and to hold? an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments. Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf (Ege 517).

I am not sure how accurately the above represents Ege's own thought, but I agree with it all wholeheartedly (actually, I could give a shit about that calligraphy part). I don't believe in dismantling books for fun and profit on Ebay, and I am not particularly happy with the outcome of his actions, but I think that what he did he did for good and admirable reasons. It is stupid to suggest that Ege should "burn in hell," and ridiculous to call this an act of "pure vandalism." Quite the opposite really.

Although I have had a chance to see some amazing manuscript exhibits at the Getty, the Met, and several European museums, I am not fortunate enough to live near a library like Toronto or Beidecke or the British Museum etc. The library here at the University of Arizona has a few interesting incunabula and some very good photographic reproductions of manuscript works like the Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Kells, Vatican Virgil and a few others. When I was a graduate student, I used to take my first and second year Latin students to view them every semester without fail. BUT one cannot look at these books, reproductions at that, without being accompanied by a library attendant and donning gloves. Those are the rules here, and I imagine you will find that similar rules are in effect at most libraries unless one is given special access as a researcher.

Now it seems to me that what many people here are really saying is that works of art that "belong to everybody" should, in America at least, be concentrated in those centers of capital along the coasts where most of them now reside anyway, and that access to them should be limited by geography and thus by wealth. If libraries and museums in less wealthy states cannot afford to buy the whole book, then that is just too bad. And anyway, you can just look at them online (another thing my Latin students used to do), nevermind that this only became imaginable in the last fifteen years. The sad reality is that, even assuming complete cooperation and access from curators and librarians, the great majority of Americans simply cannot view even a crappy medieval manuscript unless they are lucky enough to live near one of these well-endowed libraries on the coasts or they are wealthy enough to make a special trip. So much for our "shared cultural heritage."

Here is the bottom line for me. Ege owned these books and as their owner he could have done anything he wanted with them. With the possible exception of one of them, these books were not particularly impressive or unusual for their kind and offered no great interest for bibliographic knowledge or scholarship. Had he been interested in money he could have auctioned them off, and, even though the book market was less speculative at the time, he probably would have made some good money. Had he done so there is no little possibility that even now some speculator would be dismantling these books and selling them on Ebay. He could have sat on them and let his heirs fight over them in probate court. His heirs would probably then have sold them to a private collector whose heirs might now be dismantling them and, gasp, selling them on Ebay. He could have found a private collector to sell the whole lot to, in which case they would probably now be lining the office of hedgefund managers, Japanese businessmen, or Saudi Sheiks. Such a private collector facing a solvency crisis might, mehercule, then go on to dismantle these books and sell them on Ebay. He could have donated them to a large museum, in which case they would have been put in storage (euphemize as "archived") and their viewership/readership would be limited by social class and geography, not to mention the vicissitudes of boardmembers and the economics of their endowment. The museum might have decided to liquidate these assets for the building fund or to make new purchases and they would then face the possibility of, heaven no, being dismantled and sold on Ebay.

For better or for worse Ege did not do any of those things, instead he chose to make a grand romantic gesture: he scattered them to the four winds. He did not do this out of perversity or greed (as one of our contemporaries might), but to try to further education and to give as many people access to these old books as possible at a time when this unfortunately but necessarily meant dismantling them. Had he lived today and had access to the internet I imagine that he would have made a different choice, but he was, alas, not gifted with foreknowledge of future events.
posted by mokujin at 9:44 PM on May 29, 2005

For better or for worse Ege did not do any of those things, instead he chose to make a grand romantic gesture: he scattered them to the four winds. He did not do this out of perversity or greed (as one of our contemporaries might), but to try to further education and to give as many people access to these old books as possible at a time when this unfortunately but necessarily meant dismantling them. Had he lived today and had access to the internet I imagine that he would have made a different choice, but he was, alas, not gifted with foreknowledge of future events.

And according to his own rules, the Beauvais missal must have already been dismantled--what if he only had one section of it to begin with? Who says no earlier dealers broke up books to sell? Right now at many flea markets you can buy 19th century illustrations cut right out of books--it's a very common practice--will those people be cursed in 500 years too?

The digital collections online are very very recent (I'd been to the British Library a bunch of times pre-internet), and only available to people with internet connections. When Ege was doing this, there was not an inkling--there weren't even Xerox machines back then for duplicating. I'm with mokujin and the others, and i thank Ege for what he did.
posted by amberglow at 10:00 PM on May 29, 2005

Look, the last thing I guess I'd contribute to this is that having great works concentrated in seaboard repositories may be something of an obstacle for country folk, but on the other hand, exhibitions of many things go on tour all the time. And there's that other (perhaps minor) notion that people will spend energy planning trips specifically to see some items and will linger and savour them maybe moreso because of the effort that it took to get there. I can well imagine kids having life time memories about such occasions. But I suppose reality is that researchers, money and populations are concentrated around the major centres so it'd be a disruption to researchers and avid observers if major works were divided and spread around.
I think part of the argument in this discussion centres around what is regarded as unique and noteworthy and I can only be lead by experts in this regard. I react to the idea of separating 900 year old books with surprise and bewilderment basically but that's not derived from deep knowledge of the topic. I see where you are all coming from. I'll go so far as to agree that Ege's actions have been beneficial in that it raises the topic here and in academic artistic/literary forums such that there's a wider conversation about just what constitutes unique art, how specific pieces should be managed and the debate about public accessibility.
posted by peacay at 11:51 PM on May 29, 2005

and Leaf Books have a very long history.

I keep being reminded of A Canticle For Leibowitz.
posted by amberglow at 12:01 AM on May 30, 2005

Ask a medievalist about Ege, and the response will often be one of grudging admiration. He did help to spread knowledge of medieval manuscripts more widely, and there are some scholars who date their interest in medieval studies back to the moment when they were given one of Ege's fragment collections and had the chance to see and handle original manuscripts for the very first time. So to some extent I agree with mokujin -- it's ridiculous to describe Ege as a cultural vandal, as if his actions were somehow equivalent to the Nazi book-burnings.

However .. mokujin's dewy-eyed vision of Ege making a 'grand romantic gesture' by 'scattering these manuscripts to the four winds' is, I'm afraid, equally wide of the mark. Ege was not a philanthropist. He was a shrewd entrepreneur who had the foresight to realise that medieval manuscripts were undervalued in the market and that there were big profits to be made by cutting them up and selling them piecemeal.

His view of medieval manuscripts was also a very narrow and restricted one. He appreciated their artistic importance but not their textual importance, and he was less interested in them as individual artifacts than as examples of the development of book-design and illustration across the centuries. This led him to make a number of disastrous mistakes, such as the breaking-up of the Beauvais Missal, failing to realise that it was far more significant as a complete manuscript than as a collection of single leaves.

For a scholarly and balanced assessment of Ege's activities, see Barbara Shailor's article, 'Otto Ege: his Manuscript Fragment Collection and the Opportunities Presented by Electronic Technology' (PDF file linked from this page). She discusses the Beauvais Missal ('truly dazzling in appearance', she calls it, but made 'infamous' by the circumstances of its dispersal) and also the sad case of a fifteenth-century manuscript of Terence. (You see, mokujin, it wasn't just boring old 'medieval churchbooks' that Ege cut up, it was Italian humanist manuscripts of classical texts as well.) When Ege bought the Terence manuscript in 1934, it was still in its original fifteenth-century binding and contained 103 leaves. Seventy years later, after a lot of patient detective-work, scholars have managed to trace twenty of those 103 leaves, but the other eighty-odd leaves are still missing. Maybe they'll turn up one day; or maybe they won't. In Shailor's words: 'I sincerely doubt that it will ever be possible to locate all the leaves that have been scattered.'

How much more evidence will it take, mokujin, to persuade you that Ege did serious and lasting damage to the cause of medieval scholarship?
posted by verstegan at 6:08 AM on May 30, 2005

Thanks, dhruva, for a wonderful post!!
posted by codeofconduct at 9:56 PM on May 30, 2005

Verstegan, thanks for the article. I really think that we are mostly in agreement on this, as when you wrote in the first paragraph of your last comment:

"Ask a medievalist about Ege, and the response will often be one of grudging admiration. He did help to spread knowledge of medieval manuscripts more widely, and there are some scholars who date their interest in medieval studies back to the moment when they were given one of Ege's fragment collections and had the chance to see and handle original manuscripts for the very first time."

I may be dense, but I just don't see how you can reconcile that sentence with the final breathless hyperbole in the last sentence of your comment. It seems to me that by sparking interest in medieval studies and inspiring people to become scholars Ege actually did "serious and lasting good to the cause of medieval scholarship." Maybe you meant to leave out “cause of.” Either way, it all seems a bit more ambiguous than you make it out to be.

Think of all the real bibliophilic disasters of the last hundred years: losses, thefts, bombings, fires, floods, auctions, and evacuations, not to mention the more mundane ravages of mildew and decay. All those books that were destroyed or disappeared potentially forever. Now with that in mind, is Ege even a blip on the medievalist's radar? Because he really shouldn't be. I doubt that his "leaves" make up even a tiny fraction of a percentage of the manuscripts destroyed and lost over the last century (6,000 medieval manuscripts lost in the 1992 shelling of Sarajevo alone--now that is a tragedy!). I think that Ege did some good and some bad, but I think that it is just frothy-mouthed exaggeration to suggest that he did “serious harm” to anything other than the structural and geographic integrity of about fifty books.

What sort of scholarship, what sort of information do you imagine might have come from those books? Now obviously and unfortunately this is a hypothetical and somewhat unanswerable question, but what in the best case scenario might have been found written on the endpapers or hidden in the binding that was such a serious and devastating loss? Lorenzo Valla’s phonenumber? A map to the treasure of the Templars? Most likely they would have given us a few minor insights on early modern book transmission and production; maybe some data on how contemporary bindings were produced; also, they probably would have filled in some holes in various other areas of research that must otherwise be guessed at. In all likelihood, they would simply serve as further supporting data for things that we already know. All of that is important, and as much as I wish that these books were available, I have a hard time seeing their loss as "serious harm," rather than as just the sort of inconvenience that scholars face all the time. The possibility that the incidental and hypothetical loss of such information helped to garner interest in an often ignored field is a price that I am willing to bear, so long as it is done using very specific guidelines (just the sort Ege used), and with a limited scope.

I acknowledge that this is a crude and potentially dangerous calculus, but the fact that scholars won’t have access to these particular books is, in this particular case, balanced out for me by the benefits of the access given to laypeople and dilettantes like myself coupled with the knowledge that is is not an especially serious loss. Add to that the anecdotal evidence that these leaves inspired people to take an interest in something they otherwise would not have and I must say it seems like more good than bad has come of this. If given convincing proof that he did real and serious harm (obviously the harm is lasting, but I don’t think it is all that serious) to medieval studies, art history, classical studies or some other related field I would be willing to reconsider my calculations and concede the point, but it will take more than a critically unimportant manuscript of Terence for me to do that.

I will be happy to concede, as I have done all along, that the ongoing biblioclasty done for profit on ebay and elsewhere, and the hoarding of important books by investors, bibliomaniacs and others, all of which is completely unrelated to Ege, are doing lasting, serious, and continued harm not only to scholarship in a wide range of fields, but also to the souls of those involved.
posted by mokujin at 4:47 PM on May 31, 2005

And were all these books really complete and undamaged to begin with when he first acquired them? I find that hard to believe. What if half of them or more were already waterdamaged or nibbled by rats, or moldy, or crumbling, etc--i.e in horribly poor condition from being passed on and sold and resold and stored in basements, etc? How long was a 15th century book supposed to last under normal use?
posted by amberglow at 4:57 PM on May 31, 2005

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