American Manuscripts and Medieval English
26 Jul 2017
Having recently travelled to the East Coast of the United States to consult medieval manuscripts on a trip partly funded by the MCR 50th Anniversary Grant, Thomas Kittel reflects on the history of the ancient manuscripts and the libraries they are housed in.
The MCR 50th Anniversary Grant generously contributed £200 towards a research trip to consult medieval manuscripts in the Morgan Library in New York, and the Yale, Harvard, and Princeton University Libraries. My DPhil research focuses on manuscripts of two texts from late medieval England, Piers Plowman and The Prick of Conscience. Both survive in many copies: Piers in around 50, and The Prick in over 100. My work looks at physical features of these books – the materials from which they’re made, their structure, and changes which have occurred to them over time. This kind of evidence helps to construct a history of production and use, but can only be gathered by consulting the books themselves, rather than in facsimile. A number of copies of both texts are held in institutional libraries on the East Coast, and in July 2017 I travelled to New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts to consult these materials.
American manuscript holdings developed mostly through the activity of 19th and 20th century book collectors. John Pierpont Morgan, founder of the bank named after him, also founded a library in 1906 to house his collection of rare books and manuscripts. It was made a public institution by his will, and remains in the same lavish neoclassical building on Madison Avenue and 36th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It contains a copy of Piers Plowman, and a copy of The Prick donated by Curt F. Bühler, a former curator of the library.
University collections developed similarly, mostly through the benefaction of alumni. Princeton graduate Robert Garrett, a gold medallist in discus and shot put at the 1896 Olympics and the son of a wealthy Baltimore family, amassed a huge collection of medieval and renaissance manuscripts which he donated to the university. The Garrett collection includes a manuscript of The Prick. The poem is also found in the collection of Robert H. Taylor, a philanthropist who donated his library to Princeton in 1971.
Further north, at Yale, the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection developed out of the book buying of James Osborn, an Oxford alumnus who famously shelved his books in liquor cartons. His collection was donated to the Beinecke, Yale’s rare book and manuscript library, along with an endowment which supports further acquisitions. The Osborn manuscripts include a copy of The Prick. More recently, in 2013, the Beinecke has become the home of the Takamiya Collection, a group of 51 manuscripts of medieval English including a copy of Piers Plowman donated by the Japanese academic Toshiyuki Takamiya.
The manuscript holdings at Harvard reflect a diverse programme of purchases and donations. MS English 515, a copy of The Prick, was acquired by the University and was once part of the library of James Halliwell-Philips, an antiquarian and graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge.
American manuscript collections are both a valuable resource for work on medieval English literature, and part of the history of book collecting and its relationship with philanthropy and the institutional identities of libraries and universities. I’m grateful to the MCR 50th Anniversary Grant for making my trip possible.