Lately, as I investigate the networks along which medieval manuscripts traveled, my thoughts often turn to connections with my own books. When I look at my home library, although many of the stories remain with me, most of the books themselves are tagged for ‘donation’; and who knows where they may go? I am reminded, that just like any contemporary text, the medieval manuscript is essentially, an object, with the potential to be on the move, even today.
In my research, the focus always remains on the material aspect of the medieval book. As a physical object, it can be traded, borrowed, stolen, given away, packed in a box, dismantled, rebound, quickly stashed, mis-marked, or simply dropped and lost. Many of these manuscripts have been missing for years. Others didn’t even know they were lost. An initial instinct as a researcher is to ask when, why or even how the manuscript was moved. Yet, sometimes the most amazing stories revolve around how they are found.
In 1790, a workman demolishing a part of a wall at a location near Reading Abbey in England, discovered a 12th century cartulary containing a book list and inventory of the abbey. Whether it was hidden or forgotten, remains a mystery.
Completely submerged in a bog outside of Faddan More in Ireland, a manuscript was discovered by a bulldozer driver while he was digging peat. Identified as an early Irish Christian Psalter from the 8th century, dubbed the “Irish Dead Sea Scrolls,” it was eventually revealed to contain fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the binding.
Stored in a desk drawer of the library at Brock University Library near Niagara Falls, a 13th century English charter was uncovered during a cleaning incentive. The “Clopton Charter” as it is now known, had been misplaced for 30 years. After its recovery, the manuscript has undergone technological scrutiny to verify the dating.
50 years after its reported theft, a 16th century Dominican Processional was discovered in a storage box, shoved between various children’s magazines. The rediscovery of a previously thought stolen manuscript from Connecticut College in the United States, originally belonging to a female Dominican convent near Rouen, France, has renewed the search for the other three stolen manuscripts.
In the early 1980’s, a broken window in Tyler, Texas, United States led to the discovery of a 15th century Italian manuscript. Tucked away in an old trunk, sealed in a basement crawlspace of the old library, a 250 page parchment manuscript of Nicholaus de Tedeschi’s’ Lectura, or “Commentary on the Decretals of Gregory IX” was uncovered.
Finally, there are those discoveries that seem to be in plain sight. A twelfth century musical manuscript was discovered in the archives of Hadwick, England. Although it remained safely in the collection, it was uncataloged and therefore virtually missing to any research.
It is also well documented that many medieval manuscript fragments are found within other books. Used as reinforcements in bindings, Carolingian medieval manuscript fragments have been found as far away as New Zealand. More recently, Dr. Erik Kwakkel and a team of masters students discovered numerous medieval fragments within the bindings of books at Rolduc Abbey.
All of these manuscripts, whether fragments or whole texts, reveal the mysterious ways medieval manuscripts move and the amazing places they have been found. Discoveries can be both major and minor in scope; no one can decide how they will affect future research. Whether recovered from a bog or from a desk drawer, the medieval manuscript essentially remains a material object with the option of travel, and oh! the places it will go!