Reconstructing a broken book

Author: Carol C. Bradley

Pages of a prayerbook

The story of the University’s acquisition of a number of leaves from a 15th-century Breton Book of Hours—the personal prayerbook of a medieval lady in Brittany’s diocese of Vannes, in western France, circa 1450—really begins with the auction of the book by Sotheby’s in London in 2011.

The book sold for a modest price to an anonymous buyer, says librarian David Gura, curator of ancient and medieval manuscripts in the Hesburgh Library’s Department of Special Collections.

Part of Gura’s job is acquiring medieval manuscripts—and at Notre Dame, he notes, such manuscripts are accessible to the public and used for teaching and research, by both graduate and undergraduate students—a part of the University’s “unsurpassed undergraduate education” not available to undergraduates at most institutions.

Gura took notice when a very rare and unusual medieval Breton calendar appeared on eBay. “We have very few Breton manuscripts, and it was a great example,” he says.

While the library rarely acquires single leaves, the calendar was acquired for use in theology professor Rev. Michael S. Driscoll’s class on liturgical prayer, where Gura taught students to read the Latin manuscript and localize it—determine exactly where the book was used, based on the saints, feast days and other elements.

That the calendar was available on the market reveals the prayerbook’s sad fate, however. After the Sotheby’s auction, the book made its way to Germany, where it was “broken”—cut apart so the pages could be sold individually to collectors.

Book breaking, Gura notes, is all too common. Biblioclasts—book breakers—with “a wanton disregard for cultural artifacts, profit from their customer’s ignorance. A breaker can buy a manuscript of average quality and, by selling individual pages, quadruple their investment.”

A page of a prayerbook

Such unethical sales may make money, but the book’s historical and research value is lost forever. “They belong in institutions, where they can be used,” Gura says. “Many medieval manuscripts now meet this grim end. Much of the market is among amateurs who want a piece of ‘medieval art’ for their wall. They are often unaware that their purchase funds an unethical enterprise and promotes the destruction of these cultural artifacts.”

Websites such as eBay have expanded the customer base exponentially—and all traces of the manuscripts disappear with the auction listing.

Gura began to see more and more leaves from the same rare manuscript on the market. And what began as an effort to preserve a medieval calendar turned into an effort to reconstruct an entire manuscript from pages that had been spread all over the world.

To date, the Hesburgh Library has acquired 86 of the 129 pages of the book, including 16 of 30 illuminated pages, from locations as far-flung as Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and California.

The manuscript and its story are revealed in an exhibition curated by Gura, “Hour by Hour: Reconstructing a Medieval Breton Prayerbook,” on view in the Department of Special Collections Exhibition Room, 102 Hesburgh Library, in the West Concourse. The exhibition, which runs through Friday, Aug. 16, is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The exhibition, Gura says, shows why it’s so important that these manuscripts be preserved. “There is much that we can learn from them—but there is much that has been lost because they’ve been mutilated.”

This manuscript, the exhibition notes tell us, “Is more than individual leaves to hang on the wall or put in a folder. It’s a historical and utilitarian object, a piece of material culture. This book was used for private devotion and to ease the passing of a loved one; it was used to mark and calculate time in complex ways; it is a product of organized craftsmanship and a testament of regional artistic skill. Hour by hour, it was a part of someone’s life.”