Friday, January 10, 2014

Stewardship and Medieval Manuscripts

There has been a flurry of activity across my Facebook page recently about the modern trade in medieval manuscripts, and about the complex and troubling issue of the dissection of old books, in part due to this recent New Yorker blog post.

This a subject I have a deep and powerful interest in, as a scholar of the middle ages, as a collector of medieval manuscripts and fragments, and as an occasional dealer in medieval fragments. 

While I don’t think I can offer any concrete solution to the problems and difficulties of the trade in fragments, I hope in this post to at least outline some of the practical dimensions of the issues, problems, and questions, as I see them. And because my interest is inevitably in the real, I will try to illuminate my points, where I can, with specific and concrete examples.

The problem, in the plainest terms, is that some business-people have engaged in dismembering old books, because the monetary value of the resulting fragments exceeds the monetary value of the un-dismembered books. For these business-people, it is a business decision, and since we live in a capitalistic culture, the trade is likely to continue, so long as the value of the parts is greater than the value of the whole. 

Many academics, and others, believe a different calculation of value should apply, where the continuing integrity of the books or fragments should be valued more highly than their fragmentation. 

One simple solution to the problem of dismembered books, of course, would be to intervene in the market in such a way as to ensure that the current monetary-value-hierarchy is reversed: to purchase whole books or large fragments at prices that make cutting them apart or otherwise separating them unattractive to sellers. But speaking only for myself, I don’t have that kind of money.

But let me consider an actual example here. The least I ever paid for a medieval manuscript leaf was $9.99 for two: two calendar leaves from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours, a penny less than five dollars apiece. I bought a third leaf from the same calendar for another $9.99. With shipping, all three came to my door for less than thirty dollars. 

I’ve paid more, I can admit, for some twentieth-century mass-market paperbacks (and perhaps I should point out the retail or cover price of the books I’ve written is a good bit higher as well). And some may feel that even a first edition of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters should not be worth more than a medieval manuscript page, but then some might say that the Bay Psalm Book (14.2 million) should not be worth as much as the Stonyhurst (Cuthbert) Gospels (roughly 14.3 million). Or that Action Comics No. 1 should not be worth over a million dollars, though it is certain that far fewer copies of Action Comics No. 1 survive than do medieval Books of Hours. Monetary value is a strange and tricky thing.

According to the legal definition, the $9.99 I paid for those two leaves was a fair market price: a price that a buyer and seller could, and did, agree upon. I purchased those leaves from a seller who frequently offers for sale individual leaves from manuscripts or early printed books; I do not know what has become of the rest of the calendar or the rest of the book, though the price I paid, as I hope all will agree, was not high enough to justify the breaking up of the book, and it may well have happened in this case long ago: at this point in time, who can say for sure? But I do know that for the price I paid, another buyer could have bought these three leaves, and then sold them on separately for a higher total price. But I bought them, and for as long as I own them, these three leaves will remain together. 

Say what you will about the person who pulled these three leaves apart (or the seller, who offered them in two lots, rather than one), but I will still feel that I have done these leaves a positive good by keeping them together while I can. And since I was the only bidder on these leaves, which were sold in an online auction, if I had not bought them, they might have been offered later for even less, and sold to someone with less desire to keep them together. I valued them too highly to let that happen.

And yet I hesitate to tell this story, because I know many people who say that participating in this market encourages the breaking up of old books.
1949 printed nautical tables

The Recycling of Books

It is often noted in discussions of these issues that the recycling of books for their material value is as old as books are: binding fragments survive that were first recycled over a thousand years ago. Examples from my own small collection include printed books from the sixteenth century to the twentieth that have been bound in manuscript fragments: I haven’t yet been able to afford an incunabula example. And let me say that clearly: the newest book I own that is bound in a manuscript leaf was printed in 1949, and its binding is not a conscious or ironic echoing of an earlier style of binding, but an honest example of the tradition itself. But bookbindings are not the only uses to which old manuscripts have been put.
Lampshade and Fragments
To the left, for example, is a lampshade made from manuscript leaves. The seller from whom I purchased this item said he found it in a dumpster behind a Beacon Hill mansion in Boston: of course, I have no idea whether this claim is true or not. But to me it looks like a hand-made item from the nineteenth or early twentieth century.

While William Morris, Elbert Hubbard, and the Arts and Crafts movement were busy printing books in a kind of neo-Gothic mode, actual medieval manuscripts were, in this artifact’s case, used to provide an appealingly soft Gothic glow as light shone through the leaves. 

Unfortunately, the heat from the gas or electric light providing that glow eventually caused the leaves to shrink, blacken, and fall apart. And it is still falling apart, though (for the moment at least), I am inclined to leave it just as it is: the story it tells is all the more poignant as it sits. And, of course, many of these fragmentary leaves would break further if I tried to take the thing apart.

2 bifolia and a single leaf; initials and one margin excised
These five Book of Hours leaves, too, were probably mutilated in the nineteenth century: the initial KL at the head of each calendar leaf was cut out, presumably, by someone who valued them as tiny works of art, and an initial and margin were excised from one text page.  

Again, one cannot be certain, but it seems likely these initials were cut out and pasted into a Victorian scrapbook, as was certainly done at the time.  I’ve handled enough Victorian scrapbooks to know that they were often made of the cheapest, most acidic paper available, and they are often extremely fragile as well as ephemeral. The initials from these leaves may survive somewhere, but it seems more likely to me that they have been destroyed or discarded, rather than lost: though once the colored letters were valued more highly than the leaves they were cut from, it is possible that these leaves—once dismissed as of less value than the cuttings taken from them—have ended up surviving longer.

Sewing guards: longest dimension about 10 inches

A final example, pictured above, probably dates from the fifteenth or sixteenth century and brings us back to bindings. These tiny fragments of manuscript were used as sewing guards: thin strips used, one to a gathering, in the binding of an old book. Now they are so very small as to have very little value—depending on how we value such things.

An interest in the materiality of texts has brought some new scholarly attention to such binding (and other) fragments, and they provide fascinating evidence across time of the changing values of books, texts, and the materials they are made from. 

It is crucially important, I think, to recognize that we also live at a moment where old books like medieval manuscripts are being actively recycled, and at least we can admit that the breaking of books today may do them less harm than to use them for lamp-panels, sewing guards, or scrapbook cuttings. I say that not to condone the breaking up of old books, but to help remember the practice in its historical context. 

The contemporary purpose to which individual leaves are being put most often is probably to serve as visible, and ownable, works of art. The case of medieval Latin manuscript leaves makes it most clear: such leaves are purchased for display, often enough, by those who may be unable to read their script or language, and the leaves are cherished for their age and their beauty. Again, I think it is important to acknowledge that these leaves are, in fact, often being cherished by their final (by which I mean current) owners: these leaves are a testament to how very highly even the simplest and most ubiquitous medieval textual artifacts are valued—and valued highly—inside and outside the academy. 

I say this not to celebrate the dispersal of books and leaves, but to acknowledge that the interest we rightly show towards the recycling of old books in the middle ages or the Renaissance or the nineteenth century is worth also directing towards our own times and places. To do so may remind us (as academics) not to indiscriminately demonize all the players in the market for manuscript leaves: if their buyers cherish the separate leaves for reasons different from how academics would cherish the whole books, a love and respect for medieval manuscripts lies on both sides of that divide.

I am powerfully and distressingly struck by the similarity of this dynamic to the difficult problem of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s use of ancient pots as “readymade” materials upon which or through which his own art can take place. His destruction or painting over of old pots has generated a wide range of responses, from numerous international gallery installations to accusations that it amounts to “cultural vandalism, pure and simple”.

Or perhaps we should consider instead the numerous artists who carve, reshape, and or otherwise alter (printed) books for their artistic ends.  For a spectrum of such book arts, please perform a simple Google search on “art made from old books” or glance at some of the following sites, which gather a variety of examples, such as here or here. Or indeed, see this Huffington Post slideshow and article.

We obviously live at a moment when (old) books are valued for many purposes. Perhaps a coherent or consistent response to such widely divergent acts and practices is impossible, but I must admit to having difficulty celebrating the destruction or mutilation of printed books for artistic ends and simultaneously condemning the breaking up of manuscripts for collectors’ ends. I am simply not certain that artists’ purposes must necessarily be valued more highly, or that the integrity of printed books does not deserve as much of our concern as the integrity of manuscripts. Emotions run high on all these issues, of course.

Critics of Ai Weiwei reasonably point to his destruction of older artifacts as a failure of appropriate stewardship of the survivals from the past. Ai Weiwei’s partisans, alternatively, would doubtless point out that the act of stewardship itself always also remakes old artifacts (even, often enough, via conservation) and it almost always alters their material contexts irrevocably, even while original contexts may be recorded to the best of the stewards’ ability. 

Again, the two positions are not far removed, except for an argument about what kind of stewardship is appropriate, what kind of intervention and transformation is allowable and why. But I’ve been in the game long enough to recognize that each side in such debates holds its own position to be the better one, the more morally or politically or academically or economically relevant one, the more valuable one.


At the end of the day, I, like many medievalists, am powerfully opposed to the destruction or dissociation of manuscripts (or other books) or the separation of fragments that belong together, and in my own practice (and business) I am committed not to engage in either. And I am, of course, always happy to come across others who share my opinions. 

But I am in the manuscript market, and I sometimes see that books are, indeed, being broken up, separated, sold apart. I very much worry that if I watch it happen and do nothing, or worse yet, turn away and do nothing, I contribute to the very practice that appalls me. When I was a teacher of medieval literature, I tried to encourage a love and reverence for the survivals of the medieval past: in that sense, I have always been implicated in the market for fragments. So for me, I have always tried to think as clearly and as carefully as I can about what I can do, given that my implication is, and has always been, unavoidable.

One concern I have, of course, lays not with the present, but with the future of scattered fragments and leaves, whether from books broken yesterday or five centuries ago. Had I not bought my three $9.99 calendar leaves, there is every chance they might have been split up from one another, as well as separated from their original context. Worse, they might have been purchased by someone who felt they were worth $9.99, and their future shaped or determined by a level of care and stewardship appropriate to ten-dollar items. 

Whether I am a fan of the market in manuscript leaves or not, one function of a collection is to allow a mass of items to gain a value by association that individual items might not have on their own. Because I have a collection, rather than a single leaf, I have more options for its future, whether I dispose of the collection myself or try to secure a home for it after my death. And because I am (at least a little) knowledgeable about the material and about the market, my range of action and options is even greater. Collecting can be a kind of stewardship that does good.

And let me be clear: as a collector, the last thing that one part of me wants is for there to be more collectors out there, their competition raising the prices on things I treasure. But my better side hopes for all fragments to be valued and subject to a stewardship that ensures their future.


So, in the end, I think there are good reasons for being in the manuscript market, even if others in that market act in ways that I personally am not happy about, and even if others have equally valid reasons for staying out of it. One thing I think I can do is to try to act ethically, as I see it, and to communicate my vision to others. It is in this spirit that I offer the following ideas.
  • Though I expect to continue to buy and occasionally sell books, manuscripts, and fragments, I commit to maintaining them, as much as I can, in a state of integrity. This may involve conservation, to prevent or delay further damage, or it may simply take the form of benign neglect, through the principle of “do no harm.” But I will not break up books, manuscripts, or fragments that belong together. And I will say this clearly when I offer a manuscript book or fragment for sale.
  • Destruction and disintegration are thermodynamically inevitable. All survivals from the past are fragments of the whole that once existed, and their very survival is subject to constant transformation. To the degree that the passage through time itself leads to transformation, I will recognize that stewardship and transformation need to remain in dialogue, rather than necessarily being in opposition.
  • Our cultural heritage belongs to us all, and we all should engage actively in its stewardship; we are all of us responsible for its future. I will commit to acknowledging that there may be others whose idea of stewardship or ownership of our common cultural heritage differs from my own.  These other people are my co-stewards (as I am their co-steward), and they may deserve my respect, if not my agreement.
  • Whenever possible, I will practice a “value added” form of stewardship. I will strive to use my own knowledge and understanding of the past, and my belief in the value of maintaining the integrity of all old artifacts, to contribute to the maintenance of their integrity into the future. At times, this has taken the form of “rescue buying,” in which I have tried to gather together or keep together items that another seller has been willing to split up. My knowledge can be the tool with which I add sufficient value to such fragments that otherwise might be separated to try to ensure their future integrity.
On a final, personal note, I derive a real joy from my role in the ongoing stewardship of old books and manuscripts, whether that role takes the form of scholarship, ownership, or commerce. 

For me at least, I believe my ownership of manuscripts makes me more than ever committed to their stewardship, in both general and specific terms. Indeed, it would make me sad to think that such items of medieval material culture could only be owned by institutions and by the wealthy: the fact that regular folks can own these items gives all of us regular folks a stake in these matters that is more than merely intellectual and historical. For now at least, the trade in manuscripts and fragments has all the benefits and hazards of democratic capitalism. 

2 fragments of one leaf, purchased from different sellers
And so I have been greatly delighted, on two or three remarkable and unbelievable occasions, to bring fragments once widely separated back together again: these fragments I have shored against my—and our—ruins. 

It is good work to do. They will remain together while I have them in my care, and I believe it makes a difference for me to try to bring and to keep them together. More often, I've purchased multi-page fragments that another person might have separated, and I’ve kept them together. 

Even if my failures in this area should be as spectacular as my successes, I have only achieved the successes by being willing to try.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A year of reading

Twenty years ago, in January 1994, I started keeping a record of every book I read. Only complete books, not articles or essays, not books I started but never finished. Only complete books. Most years, I've read 60 or 70; this year I seem to have finished 91: about one book every four days. I guess that tells you what life is like for a book and antique dealer. A lot of waiting around for something to sell.

But in terms of the reading I did, it was a big year for series. I wrapped up the year reading both starting to reread Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and reading nine of Dorothy Sayers's Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane mysteries, leaving a few to try to track down in 2014.

Wimsey is an interesting detective figure, and not only because he is a collector of incunabula. He cheerfully leaves all the dull leg-work of detection to Inspector Parker, his friend at Scotland Yard (and eventually his brother-in-law). As a wealthy aristocrat, he plays the role of foolish dilettante almost to the point of being annoying to the reader, but he is nevertheless constantly troubled by the clash between the delight he feels in the solving of puzzles, and the  troublesome reality that solving his cases will probably send someone to the gallows.

For most of the year, I was finishing up the long series of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries, of which I read twenty-one between February and October.

For those who haven't heard of Miss Silver, she's an ageless former governess in the Edwardian mode, and she spends the 1940s and 50s working as a private enquiry agent, called in to sort things out in the aftermath of various English village and country house murders. She knits and she listens, and people tell her things they would never tell the police, and any slip of propriety is corrected with her signature cough.

The highlight of the year, though, was probably working through C J Cherryh's Foreigner series between August 17 and September 22. It's a science fiction series that I've followed since reading the first volume when it was new (it shows up in my book on February 2, 1994), and the most recent volume (Protector) is number fourteen in the series.

The series follows Bren Cameron, lone human from an island enclave serving as diplomat to the atevi government ruling upon the mainland of the atevi planet. There's virtually always shooting, human-alien interaction, and (perhaps most surprising of all) huge amounts of dialogue and description involving the protocols of atevi culture.

But the characters have become, over the years, very familiar indeed (to Cherryh as well, one suspects), and it's only the second time in twenty years I've made the effort to read all of the series in order to read the newest one. It was like a month spent with old friends, revisiting events well known and well remembered. The fifteenth volume, I think, will probably be out before too long.

Other smaller series and individual books were, of course, also read during the year. And I am almost half-way through the blank book where I've been recording my reading. Here's to the next twenty years!