PRINT March 1967

Medieval Manuscripts at Berkeley

WHILE THE IMPORT OF THE EXHIBITION of medieval manuscripts and books from the renowned collection of the late William S. Glazier recently shown at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, can perhaps only be fully appreciated and properly evaluated by a small and select group of antiquarian bibliophiles and scholars of medieval culture, this exhibition had however not only the broadest possible general appeal to all interested in literature and the humanities, but, in focusing the interest of a diversity of specialists—the historian, the artist, the iconologist and the paleographer—seemed unusually appropriate in a university setting.

Significant collections of important medieval manuscripts and books in the Western Hemisphere are few in number and small in extent, and the Glazier collection is one of but very few containing items of such historical and artistic importance as to attract the interest even of scholars, to whom the great libraries of Oxford, of the British Museum, and of the Vatican, as well as the archives of ancient monasteries and other European institutions of antiquity, are relatively accessible.

A century of vigorous American museology and private collecting has succeeded in importing to the United States, and fairly liberally distributing within its borders, a stupendous quantity of art treasures representing nearly every phase of our European Renaissance and pre-Renaissance cultural heritage, but bibliophilic treasures of the same import seem not to have received so much attention, and are therefore by no means as generally accessible to the American urban public throughout widely scattered universities, museums and libraries.

The general educational value of exhibiting the Glazier collection lies, however, not in the mere specialistic prestige attaching to those items, either unique or of great rarity, “choice” from the point of view of the bibliophile or the antiquarian, but in the broad scope of the collection as a whole, representing as it does a great variety of the different forms, techniques, regional and epochal styles of format, iconography, calligraphy and illumination, employed in the manufacture of books from the 7th to the early 16th centuries—the era during which the book, as a physical object, was brought to its zenith as a work of art in itself, often combining the efforts and skills of many specialized craftsmen. Among the many factors concurring in this development was the invention of the “codex” format in the first century A.D.—the essential form of the book as we know it today, consisting of separate sheets bound together along one margin and secured at the bound edge to a backing to which, in turn, protective covering boards could be attached either by hinges or by flexible leather strips.

Such a format offered many obvious advantages over the earlier roll format not only in convenience for use and reference (pages could be numbered for example and references more easily notated and found) but in the matter of potentialities of embellishment, decoration and the inclusion of graphic and illustrative material. (On the roll only inks and pigments acting as dyes were practicable, since gold leaf or paints of a type that dried and adhered only to the surface would soon crackle and flake off with repeated rolling and unrolling.) Another factor was the development of the process of treating animal skins to produce vellum, which, unlike the papyrus used in the rolls of classical antiquity, could be written upon on both sides. But as decisive a factor as any in the evolution of the book format as art work was an inherent aspect of totemism and magic in the medieval attitude toward the picture and the written word as reflected in the character of certain types of books used in connection with religious functions. Prayers and liturgy, known by rote to thousands, would nonetheless be carefully inscribed on sheets of fine parchment or vellum, in large ornate lettering, and embellished with iconographic pictures. Such books were obviously not so much texts to be “read,” in the ordinary sense, for pleasure, instruction or edification, as they were “sacred things” in themselves—icons to be displayed reverently in a religious setting and, perhaps, occasionally “read from” purely ritualistically in a highly formalized context of religious ceremony and pageantry.

While one finds among medieval books extremely beautiful products of the most sophisticated artisanship with respect to decorative calligraphy, ornament, pictures, graphic decoration and design, as well as finely crafted coverings (sometimes jeweled) one yet reflects that this lavish (and functionally uneconomical) embellishment of books-as-things implied an attitude toward the book that was at once fundamentally naive, primitive and but semi-literate.

It should be noted that the making, lettering and illumination of books by handcraft continued to be practiced for nearly a hundred years after the invention of printing in the mid-15th century, and that hand-lettered and illuminated capitals were long employed decoratively as chapter headings even in printed books for a “luxury market.”

The exhibition of the Glazier manuscripts was extremely well-planned and excellently coordinated with the programs of various departments of the University. A long contemplated visiting lectureship by the eminent Belgian scholar, Professor L.M.J. Delaisse of Oxford, generally regarded as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the medieval book, was carefully arranged to coincide with the University’s borrowing of the Glazier collection.

Palmer D. French