Life Beyond the Grave: The Leiden Apocalypse Fragments

By Erik Kwakkel (@erik_kwakkel)

A while ago, this blog devoted a post to medieval manuscript fragments, parts of sheets that were cut up and used to support bookbindings. New fragments appear on the radar frequently. Just yesterday, for example, new fragments of Old French verse texts emerged at the University of St Andrews. Leiden University Library, my go-to place for looking at manuscripts, has hundreds of them, in various languages. Four seemingly insignificant strips, which I studied a while back, can be used to show just how important it is to take fragments seriously and to have a look at them when you study a text tradition. The strips in question, now sealed in plastic, once belonged to a Middle Dutch copy of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation or Apocalypse. Apart from being disseminated as part of the Bible, the book also has a separate transmission, as is the case in Latin and other vernaculars. However, only six such manuscripts survive in Middle Dutch. This immediately elevates the Leiden fragments, which bear shelfmark BPL 2454 (13) and can be dated to 1350-75, to an important – seventh – witness of the tradition.

Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS BPL 2454 (13), fragment 1

The oldest surviving manuscript, kept in the St Petersburg Library of Sciences, can be dated to 1325-50. The Flemish book historian Willem de Vreese found it in a pile of Middle Dutch manuscripts that were left under a dripping pipe in a forgotten part of the library. He was given permission to defrost the chunk of ice and “liberate” the twenty or so medieval books – like Han Solo being freed from carbonite. The best known manuscript, however, is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS néerlandais 3, made around 1400 in Flanders, most likely in Bruges.

Paris, BnF, MS néerl. 3, f. 12r

The Paris manuscript is of great interest because it is the only one that is illuminated. It contains twenty-two breathtaking full-page miniatures, considered prime examples of “pre-Eyckian” realism. Equally remarkable is the manuscript’s layout: each book opening contains a miniature on the right page, with on the facing page the corresponding text – a chapter from the Apocalypse. Text and image thus form a diptych. For the Apocalypse tradition this is very unusual. In fact, it is found in only one other manuscript, a Latin copy made in Tours shortly after 800 (now Trier, Stadtbibliothek MS 31).

Trier, Stadtbibliothek, MS 31 (c. 800)

Back to the Leiden fragments. While not much of the original manuscript survives (the smallest of the four strips measures 41×12 mm, the largest 16x107mm), they provide crucial information about the decoration program of the Paris manuscript. The strips connect to Paris in two ways. First, they are illuminated as well, setting the Leiden and Paris copies apart from the other five. More notably, however, the fragments seem to present another instance of the unusual diptych tradition: the page out of which the strips were cut contained on the back the text of Chapter 12, while the front side held an image pertaining to Chapter 11. Certain elements from f. 12r of the Paris manuscript, presenting the image to Chapter 11, can be clearly made out in Leiden. Note for example how the crawling figure attacked by devils in the lower part of the Paris page (displayed above) is found on one of the Leiden strips as well – moreover, the man with his eyes closed is the same one as the individual being decapitated in Paris.

BPL 2454 (13), fragment 4

We can learn quite a bit from these small snippets. Most importantly, the Leiden fragments suggest that the decoration program in Paris is not unique. The diptych presentation, it seems, may have been more widespread in Middle Dutch vernacular. Also, the diptych design not only made use of high-quality miniatures, but apparently also accommodated plain colour drawings, as on the Leiden fragments, which were much cheaper. Readers who purchased such books thus seem to have been given a choice. Given that Leiden is the oldest one, predating Paris by several decades, the Middle Dutch diptych tradition, modest as it may have been, could potentially have had a long life, one that at least goes back to the early second half of the fourteenth century. Most importantly for us fragment lovers, however, is that the tiny Apocalypse remains show there is life beyond the grave, like the message of the text itself.

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