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Biblioclasm & Digital Reconstruction: from a single leaf to the complete manuscript

Biblioclasm & Digital Reconstruction

Biblioclasm & Digital Reconstruction
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Carla Rossi, Università di Trieste, Biblioclastia e ricostruzione digitale
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Carla Rossi, Università di Trieste, Biblioclastia e ricostruzione digitale

Biblioclasm & Digital Reconstruction (the WayBack Recovery Method©)
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Biblioclasm & Digital Reconstruction (the WayBack Recovery Method©)

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Seduta introduttiva Corso di ricostruzione di manoscritti medievali smembrati
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Seduta introduttiva Corso di ricostruzione di manoscritti medievali smembrati

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OProM (ACMD) vs Fragmentarium

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Il Libro d'Ore De' Pazzi, un manoscritto smembrato negli Stati Uniti

In March 2024, the British publishing house Cambridge Scholars decided to dedicate an entire series (Dismembered Medieval Manuscripts: Biblioclasm and Digital Reconstructions) to our project, inaugurated by the volume by Prof. Carla Rossi, "Isabelle Boursier's Book of Hours, a Dismembered Manuscript from Mary Benson's Collection".


The pioneering project, 'Biblioclasm and Digital Reconstruction', spearheaded by Prof. Carla Rossi and her team, was initiated in 2006 and has successfully digitally reconstructed around 500 manuscripts torn apart for profit. Exploring the ethical complexities of manuscript dismantlement for financial gain, the series illuminates the darker aspects of the manuscript trade, advocating against biblioclasm—the deliberate destruction of books—and calling for responsible stewardship of our cultural heritage. It is committed to publishing in-depth analyses and critical editions of the manuscripts, combining advanced digital humanities and philological approaches with digital technologies to revitalize scattered historical treasures. It addresses urgent issues of deaccessioning practices and vandalism, offering a critical examination of the ethics and implications of such actions on medieval artefacts. Designed for academics, preservationists, and anyone interested in the complex process of cultural preservation, each book in the series stands as a testament to the dedication required to protect our collective heritage. It enhances academic dialogue by delving into the historical and practical aspects of reconstruction and encourages active engagement and action among scholars navigating the challenging terrain of history, ethics, and preservation.

Our principal endeavour seeks to digitally reassemble dismembered manuscripts from various parts of Europe, whose leaves have been dispersed through sales on the antiquarian book market.

This ambitious initiative is detailed in a special issue of "Theory and Criticism of Literature & Arts", which is made freely available through Open Access. Within this publication, eleven of the current reconstructions are elucidated, showcasing the innovative work being carried out. 

NOTA BENE: Due to the ignoble and violent defamation campaign orchestrated by a freelance collaborator of antiquarian booksellers and auction houses (assisted by certain "fragmentologists") against our center, the members of Receptio have formed an association to protect medieval manuscripts. The project for the digital recovery of dismembered manuscripts has found many supporters in the academic world, to the point where it has evolved into a shared crusade against those dealers who, despite being members of the ILAB (International League of Antiquarian Booksellers), violate one of its main policies, which states: "Members are committed to the preservation of historical materials and should not break complete and intact copies of books or manuscripts." Our project is now being carried out under the auspices of the OProM, and of Prof. Franco Langher, formerly an anti-mafia prosecutor in Italy, and Prof. Martin Aurell, from the University of Poitiers.

The Importance of Precise Terminology

It is crucial to establish a clear distinction between ancient parchment fragments and intentionally removed leaves, for profit. In the realm of manuscript studies, the term "fragment" typically refers to a residual part of a codex that has experienced various types of damage over time. This damage can occur naturally, through wear and tear or decay, or through intentional actions such as parchment reuse.

"Genuine fragments" are representative of a larger manuscript, preserving a portion of its original content. They can range from small sections of a single leaf to larger segments containing multiple pages or text parts. These fragments provide valuable insights into the historical, cultural, and textual aspects of the original manuscript they originate from.

Mislabeling a recently removed leaf as a "fragment" risks misrepresenting its historical context and obscuring the fact that these leaves were deliberately severed from manuscripts. This disregard for the ethical and legal implications associated with their removal is a concern. Therefore, it is essential to use accurate terminology that acknowledges the intentional removal of a leaf for commercial purposes, recognizing it as a distinct entity separate from genuine fragments that have undergone natural historical processes of damage or decay.

This distinction allows for different approaches to the preservation, cataloguing, and study of these materials. It considers the diverse motivations and implications associated with each situation and promotes ethical practices in manuscript studies. By encouraging responsible collecting and stewardship of cultural heritage, it inspires a deeper understanding of the historical processes that shape surviving materials. It also highlights the importance of preserving manuscripts in their original form whenever possible.

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The Madruzzo Hours

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The Whitney Hours

Use of Rome, illuminated manuscript in Latin and Italian, on parchment [southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1480]. 239 leaves, 14 lines, 96 by 70mm. On 13 July 2016, the manuscript was auctioned as Lot 115 at Christie's in London, remaining unsold and thus being returned to its owner. Christie's price at the time was between £30,000 and £50,000. On 6 July of the following year, it was put up for sale again by another British auction house, Dreweatts 1759 Fine Sales, and fetched only £27,000. Produced for Maria Maddalena della Torre (Maria Magdalena von Thurn und Valsassina zu Kreuz), daughter of Phoebus and Lucia Arcoloniani, born in 1464 and married to Georg von Lamberg zu Ortenegg in 1480, the year of the possible production of the manuscript. The codex could be a wedding gift from Georg von Lamberg to his teenage wife (the woman depicted in the miniature of the Resurrection of Lazarus), or in any case be related to the marriage (although not produced for a couple), the manuscript was made for an Italian client wealthy enough to order a book from an influential Flemish artist known as the Master of the Wodhull-Haberton Hours, in a great centre of BoH production in Bruges. At the time of the auction it still had its old binding, with its cloth cover, on which was embroidered the Madruzzo family coat of arms.

Use of Rouen, in Latin and French. France (Rouen), late 15th or early 16th century. Consisting of only 79 leaves at the time of the auction (160 by 115 mm), 25 lines of text in angular Gothic bookhand. Auctioned at Skinner's in 2017 (Price realised: $24,600) and dismembered soon afterwards. It may well have been made for a Rouen layman, the forms of the prayers being all in the masculine. When the auction took place, the manuscript was already missing some miniatures, such as the initial one with the four Evangelists and the final one with the owner kneeling in front of the Virgin. The manuscript offers an outstanding example of the style of illumination attributed to the pupils of the Master of the Echevinage of Rouen, such as Robinet Boyvin and Jean Serpin, who after the death of the master (perhaps Boyvin's father-in-law) ran one of the most prolific workshops of the later fifteenth-century.

Books of Hours were usually illustrated with multiple miniatures, as many as the patron could afford. The presence of many full-page miniatures and richly illuminated borders in this manuscript suggests that it was produced for a high-ranking person. 

The manuscript was bound in an early 19th century blind- and gilt-tooled calfskin binding, with parchment pastedowns and fly leaves; ex libris Henry A. Whitney, with a gift inscription dated January 17, 1818.

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De Roucy Hours

Use of Châlons-sur-Marne, illuminated manuscript in Latin and French [Troyes, 1480].

Originally consisting of over 200 leaves, measuring 145 by 100mm. 

Known as Courtanvaux-Elmhirst Hours, it was an illuminated manuscript on vellum, produced in 1480 for Louis de Roucy, the Marquis de Montmirail illegitimate son, for the liturgical use of Châlons-sur-Marne (his mother's home town). After an 18th century sale, this Book of Hours reappeared for the first time on the antiquarian book market at a Sotheby's auction, on 14 June 1954 (lot 32).

It was described as being already imperfect, with 31 miniatures reported, and the bookplate of Edward Mars Elmhirst (1915-1957), bound in old black morocco; some traces left on the leaves by the original 15th century cover suggested that this must have been burgundy red.

The manuscript, which in 1954 was still intact, was sold again at a Bloomsbury’s auction, in New York (3 April 2009, lot 15), after the death of its last owner, Harry A. Walton Jr (1918-2007), and was torn apart shortly afterwards. This manuscript was, however, already lacking several leaves before the auction.

Fol. 85v, detached from the manuscript in the early 20th century, now at the University Library of South Carolina, preserves the seal of François-Michel-César Le Tellier (Paris 18 February 1718 – 7 July 1781), Marquis de Montmirail by hereditary line, better known as Marquis de Courtanvaux. For this reason, the book was renamed after this 18th-century French owner, as Courtanvaux Hours.

It was illuminated by a pupil of the so-called Master of the Troyes Missal.

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De Ponthieu Hours

Use of Paris, 160 by 102mm, order of leaves altered, wanting single leaves with miniatures at the beginning of the Hours of the Cross and the Penitential Psalms.

Illuminated in Paris, by Jean Pichore and Jean Coene. Originally consisting of over two hundred leaves; 178 leaves when auctioned at Sotheby's in 2013 (unsold) and in 2014.

Page layout throughout the manuscript consists of 22 lines in a Gothic bookhand, some letters with ornamental cadels in upper border, capitals touched in yellow, rubrics in red or blue, one-line initials in gold on red and blue grounds. Only 14 full-page miniatures extant. Rectangular marginal blocks with acanthus leaf and foliage panels divided obliquely, gold leaf detailing; sloping blackletter hand with blue and red touches, gold leaf versals, red ruled layout lines.

We learn from a handwritten note in French at the end of the manuscript, written by a member of the De Ponthieu family, that it had already lost many leaves before 1605, when it was sent to Paris to be restored and rebound.

In the 18th century, some flyleaves joined the manuscript collection of John Percival (1683-1748), Earl of Egmont.

Dismembered in 2014, after being auctioned at Sotheby's for (only) GBP 20,000.

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The Book of Hours of Catherine Guernier

Northern France (Paris), c.1475-85. 141 leaves (last blank, fol.89 mostly blank), 133mm. by 88mm., lacking a leaf after fol.137, else complete, collation: i12, ii-x8, xi5 [of 6, blank vi cancelled], xii-xvii8, xviii4 [of 6, lacking i, a further blank cancelled at end], with vertical or horizontal catchwords, 16 lines, ruled in very pale red ink, written-space 70mm. by 48mm., written in dark brown ink in two sizes of a fine lettre bâtarde, rubrics in dark red, Calendar in alternate lines of red and blue with major entries in burnished gold, capitals touched in yellow, one- and 2-line initials throughout in burnished gold on red and blue grounds with white tracery, a few larger initials in liquid gold on coloured grounds, approximately 138 panel borders, in the outer margins of every page with a 2-line initial, the borders c.70mm. by 18mm. formed of blue and gold acanthus leaves with coloured flowers and fruit and birds, grotesques, people, snails, insects, dragons, etc., thirty-three historiated initials with full borders, the initials 4 to 8 lines high, mostly 6-line, five large miniatures, one half-page (fol.39r), others in arched or pointed compartments above large initials and within full borders including one incorporating further historiated roundels (fol.21r), early additions at end, last blank slightly defective, stains probably from pilgrim badges offset onto first page, some rubbing and thumbing affecting outer corners of some borders, other minor wear and dust-staining at extreme edges, generally sound, seventeenth-century panelled calf, silver clasps and catches, edges gilt and gauffered, paper endleaves, binding scuffed and rebacked, in a fitted pale brown cloth case, title gilt.

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The Franquelin-Croiset Hours 

Ex William Foyle - Beeleigh Abbey Collection, from a Book of Hours auctioned at Christie's, Jul. 2000, and at Sotheby's, December 2, 2003 (dismembered shortly afterwards).

176 x 123mm. i + 188 leaves, mostly in gatherings of eight and, apparently, lacking only one folio, vertical catchwords at inner lower margin of final versos, 16 lines written in black ink in a Gothic bookhand between two verticals and 17 horizontals ruled in pink, justification: 102 x 74mm, rubrics in red or blue, text capitals touched yellow, one- and two-line initials of burnished gold on blue or red grounds with infills of the contrasting colour with white tracery, similar line-endings, four-line initials with blue staves on gold and red grounds, the infills decorated with flowers, FIFTEEN LARGE MINIATURES with full-page borders, the miniature in an arch-topped 'jewelled' frame, borders with divided grounds with sprays of blue and gold acanthus on unpainted vellum and naturalistic fruit and flowers in liquid gold, TWENTY SMALL MINIATURES with three-sided borders of similar type (hole in front endleaf, occasional small spots and offsetting in margins and smudging to final three small miniatures and Gabriel's face on f.29). Late 16th-century French calf gilt, with a triple fillet border and central medallions with curling foliage on a hatched ground, two brass clasp hinges and catches at fore-edge, spine in five compartments tooled in gilt with a clover-spray (joints cracked, spine restored, lacking clasp straps). Red wrapround slip-cover.
The origin and intended use of the manuscript is that of Paris, Carla Rossi's research shows that the manuscript was produced for a Châtelet notary, called Claude Franquelin, towards the end of the 15th century and that it remained with the family for over four centuries. It was first sold in 1872 by B. Quaritsch, in whose catalogue it is described in great detail.


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A Book of Hours formerly owned by the Brooklyn Museum

Book of Hours, use of Paris, illuminated manuscript on vellum [France (Paris), early 16th century]. Sold to support Museum Collections. Auctioned at Sotheby's, London, 30 November 2021 (as Lot 67).

The study surrounding this manuscript, undertaken based on its digital reconstruction accessible at this link, has culminated in a book published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2024: Isabelle Boursier's Book of Hours, a Dismembered Manuscript from Mary Benson's Collection.

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The Rosenbaum Psalter-Hours

Psalter-Hours, written in Latin in a Gothic bookhand, on vellum.

Origin: Most probably Maubeuge. For more details please refer to the edition edited by A. Orosz, currently in print in our Horae-Hours Series. 

Date: second half of the 13th century.

Dimensions: single folia between 175–179 x 125–136 mm, bifolium: 178 x 266 mm. Written area: between 145–150 x 86–90 mm.

Description: All leaves imperfect, cut in the upper margin and along the right edge, sometimes cropping decorative elements with penwork drolleries. Twenty and twenty-one lines per page in a slightly irregular Gothic hand, black and red ink, plummet ruling, distributed in one or two columns. All recovered leaves written by the same hand in two types of writing. Modern pencil foliation and other notes on the recto and verso of some leaves.

Decoration: historiated, inhabited and uninhabited initials on a background of burnish gold leaf, in blue, red, orange, black, white, brown, beige, green colours, some of them with extensions in shape of humans, birds, and dragons often biting into the body of the letter.

Versal initials in burnished gold and blue with flourish penwork extensions in red and blue. Penwork line-fillers with non-figurative, linear, and floral elements, and dragons, monsters, human-headed monsters, birds, fish, bulls, dogs, lions and humans in full shape or only their head in blue, red, and gold, often with a red blob or ball in their mouth. Contents: Psalter – Canticles – Creeds – Litany – Collects – Hours of the Virgin – Office for the Dead. Provenance: Broken and widely dispersed in the 1960s, with leaves in the collection of Carl Richartz, Amsterdam by 1966.

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The Guyot Hours

Use of Nantes, in Latin and French, on vellum. Rouen, c.1485-1510.

194 ff. 120 x 80 mm. 15 lines (64 x 40 mm), bastard script.

Painted panel borders on most pages (decoration partially repainted after 1500, to conceal the original ownership). Complex mixture of contents and styles, mainly Nantes and Rouen.

Auctioned as a bound manuscript at Sotheby's, on 6 July 2006 lot 88. Sold as single leaves on eBay, from 2006.

Three miniatures auctioned at Bloomsbury, 601/2007, lots 17, 18, and 19.

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A Spanish Book of Hours illuminated by P. J. Ballester and his circle

Use of Rome, Valencia, around 1480.

Book of Hours produced in Valencia for a noble clientele.

Six extremely interesting illuminated leaves have recently re-emerged from a private collection. With Prof. Josefina Planas Badenas, Prof. Carla Rossi presented the discovery in the special issue of the journal Theory and Criticism of Literature & Arts.

We know for a fact that in 1886 the parent manuscript was already dismembered, and it is highly probable that Charles Brinsley Marlay, who bequeathed his two extraordinary miniatures to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1912, had no idea of the provenance of the leaves he had acquired. However, we would like to hope that, albeit subject to an act of vandalism, other leaves from this lavishly illuminated Book of Hours have survived and can be identified through further investigation.

If we consider that the intact Book of Hours illuminated by Ballester and his circle must have measured 140 x 105 mm, the writing space of each leaf corresponded on average to that of the miniatures, i.e. 130 x 93 mm, containing approximately 12 (max 14) text lines, with large decorated initials on the recto of the leaf juxtaposed to the main miniature. There must also have been a rich profusion of gold in the text. Other text leaves had to be simpler, but still quite recognisable today.

We would like to thank Dr. J. Günther Rare Books for kindly sending us the documentation on the four miniatures they sold.

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A Rare English Dominican Prayer Book, use of Sarum [England (probably London), c. 1420]

The parent volume was auctioned at Skinner's of Boston, 23 May 2017, lot 1160, and thereafter dispersed in the North American trade. Skinner did not recognise either its Sarum use (they sold it as for use of Rome), or its belonging to a Dominican abbey (which they mistook for a Benedictine).

Further confusion arose at the sale of the individual leaves by Charles E. Puckett (who misidentified the convent of origin as that of the Brigidine nuns of Syon Abbey). Carla Rossi was able to bring order to the matter. Only very recently, after the death of a collector, Roger Martin (1939-2020) from Grimsby, who had acquired some scattered leaves from the parent manuscript (the complete Calendar from the parent volume, a bifolium from the Office of the Dead and the Psalms, and individual leaves with a prayer to the Trinity and the Psalms of the Passion), and the sale of his collection, Dreweatts sold a miniature from the parent manuscript depicting a Domenican friar kneeling in prayer, evidently from the same parent manuscript, identified by Carla Rossi as the English Prayer Book of Hours, auctioned in 2017 at Skinner's.

The parent manuscript was made for a Dominican friar, it once contained the Fifteen Oes of St. Bridget of Sweden, but with the absence of that saint from the Calendar, evidently not made for a member of that order (see C. Gejrot, 'The Fifteen Oes: Latin and Vernacular Versions', in The Translation of the Works of St Birgitta of Sweden Into the Medieval European Vernaculars, 2000, on the existence of this text quite apart from Brigittine books). The Calendar was thoroughly that of Sarum, with St. Swithun added in the margin for 2 July. The first leaf of the Calendar has pentrials in its upper part and an apparent date (perhaps '1481') in its lower margin and partly trimmed away, over which a shaky sixteenth-century hand has written Fr Claudii de Sto Be[...]d[...]. 

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Italian Book of Hours

Very rare Italian Book of Hours, from the Milanese Dominican milieu, sold under a false designation in Germany (at a bargain price). Dismembered by a well-known German biblioclast in the United States.

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