Monday, March 4, 2013

Archive Archaeology

One of the texts I'm working on for the book project exists in one copy, on the last page of a single manuscript. More than a decade ago it was sold at auction to a private collector who donated it to a university library. The seller was another institution of higher learning, which had acquired the personal collection of its principal who, in turn, had purchased manuscripts from several sources, including a well-placed eighteenth-century European courtier. Unfortunately, this still leaves a void of over two hundred years between the first time the we can identify it being somewhere specific and when it was copied. There are two minimally-legible owners' marks that I am working to decipher. I'm close with the harder one and just starting in with the one that is a bit clearer. I'll go back and see the manuscript again this summer, look at it under UV light and rephotograph it.

In the meantime, I'm trying other avenues to try to put the manuscript in historical context.

The big news at Penn this year (well, in some circles, anyway) has been the accessioning of a private collection of manuscripts assembled by a couple, the Schoenbergs, who are, I am told, primarily interested in scientific and medical texts and the opening of a brand new manuscript and special collections center funded by these same donors. Today was the first day that the reading room was open to readers. And so I went over there to consult with two of the three manuscripts that the Schoenbergs acquired at the same auction sale where my manuscript was sold. My hope was that some of the other manuscripts that ended up in the same twentieth-century collection before it was broken up and sold off might have come, together, from another single collector.

One of the two manuscripts, a Hebrew mathematical treatise, offered some fleeting hope that it had also been owned by the individual I believe to have been the second, Ashkeanzi owner of my manuscript; but by the end of the day I was able to rule that out pretty conclusively.

The other, though, a Hebrew commentary on Aristotle, raised more questions than it answered. It, like my manuscript, was also owned by the third owner, the first one we can really identify with any kind of precision or accuracy or historical context. It has a similar pattern of water damage to the manuscript I"m mainly interested in. In and of itself it's not really that meaningful to be able to pinpoint that the water damage probably happened while it was in the hands of this Prussian collector, but it is another detail, and who knows how that might fit into a fuller picture once I've been able to put it together? However, the small victory of being able to put together a chronology for the water damage is badly overshadowed by

I would expect to find the owner's mark on the upper left-hand corner of either folio 2r or 3r, and as you can see from the photograph of the spread of 2v and 3r, that corner was completely obliterated and repaired with new paper.

And it's clear, as for example in folio 9v, pictured below, that there were diagrams and notes in the margins that were damaged and obliterated with the loss of that corner of the manuscript in its early pages.

So it's possible that this manuscript was in the collection of owner one as well as in the collection of owner three; the content of the two texts themselves also makes that not a totally implausible scenario. But there's no real answer there. This, like the Oxford long-shot was, well, also a long shot. But I'm also nowhere close to the end of this blind alley and will just keep pulling manuscripts that were in the collections of owners three (the Prussian collector) and four (the first institutional owner) until I find another one with the relevant mark. It's so elaborate that I'm very disinclined to believe that it was only used once; it's just a matter of putting in the time.


Just as a side note, the new special collections space is gorgeous, all glass and light.

This is just a quick iPhone photo of the exhibition space (which, incidentally, is where the third relevant manuscript may currently be found; I'll have a chance to look at it once the exhibition changes):

And (actually a pretty terrible one) one of the (really quite lovely even though you wouldn't know it from this picture) view from there:

The librarian with whom I had been corresponding asked me to please bear with them through the chaos of the first day. I wrote back to him to tell him that I'd never had a smooth first day in a manuscript library, even when it wasn't also the library's first day. But truth be told, this was actually the smoothest first day I've ever had in a manuscript library. The books were ready and waiting for me, they didn't inadvertently lose them, I didn't get a stern talking to for making requests based on old rather than new shelfmarks. I was just really impressed by the whole operation. 

It makes me that much sadder that I didn't have more of a manuscript focus to the project I was doing this year, and that much more set upon making sure that my next project is very organically and locally manuscript-based (not that it'll be like a hipster farm-to-table cafe or anything). Fortunately, this is close enough that I can come back semi-regularly.

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