Sunday, April 17, 2011

Secret MS Stashes awaiting 'discovery'

As paradoxical as it may sound, a probable majority of surviving manuscripts remains inaccessible to the public and unknown to scholars.   Nonetheless, they could become known at any time, as various wealthy private collectors die, and their estates are redistributed and the items auctioned off.   Its an ongoing process.

A Book of Hours:  many thousands sit in private hands

A large number of MSS soon to be "discovered" are of this type, rare objects remaining in private hands, and because of perhaps doubt as to the method of acquisition and legitimacy of ownership, will only slowly trickle out.

The various nefarious stories surrounding more recent 'discoveries' and purchases via international 'dealers' (DSS, Nag Hammadi etc.)  is really only the tip of an iceberg of stories and events affecting the movement and preservation of such treasures.

The description of the story of the personal collection of Leander van Ess, recently posted on the internet by Milton Gatch, gives a picture in microcosm of the political and religious events which expose ancient MSS to market forces:

"Although he was never a wealthy man, historical circumstances made it possible for Leander van Ess to acquire large collections of valuable books. He emerged from the monastery into the world because of the secularizing programs of the Napoleonic regime in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The dissolution of the monasteries involved the dislocation of extensive and ancient libraries. In some areas of Germany these books were gathered into university or royal libraries, but in northwestern Germany there were no such repositories and the holdings of monastic libraries, if not taken to France by the conquerors, were thrown open (as it were) to the world. They were sometimes taken by the former monks as they went on to other lives; often they found their way to the open market, sometimes under questionable circumstances.
 Leander van Ess amassed very large collections, apparently at nominal expense. He had books from Marienmunster, acquired when he left there; he had books from other former monastic libraries, including many from the Benedictine monastery at Hysburg in the diocese of Halberstadt, of which his cousin Carl had been a member. A large number of books originating from a number of south-west German monasteries, came from the duplicates collection of the unversity library at Freiburg im Breisgau. A significant group of manuscripts originated at the Carthusian monastery of St. Barbara in Cologne. Van Ess continued to acquire books at Schwallenberg, during his tenure at Marburg, and at Darmstadt.
By happy chance, most of the books once owned by Leander van Ess can still be identified. They are the collection of manuscripts and incunabula sold in 1824 to the great English collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872) and van Ess's library, sold in 1838 to Union Theological Seminary in New York."   ( - Milton Gatch)
What is remarkable is how, just as recently as 180 years ago, miltary/political events (the rise and fall of Napoleon) caused the massive displacement and exchange of hands of perhaps the majority of MSS then residing in monasteries in the West, i.e., France and Germany.     The well-known (?) temporary capture of Codex Vaticanus by Napoleon was only one MS transport case, but Napoleon actually caused the movement of many thousands of books and manuscripts.

One can imagine, with some 100 wars and conflicts raging round the world at any time since the two World Wars (another story of vast displacements) just how frequent the transfer of goods, and sometimes loss, is occurring today.


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