CULTIVATE MSS Project: Cultural Values and the International Trade in Medieval European Manuscripts, c. 1900-1945

The CULTIVATE MSS project (2019-2024), funded by the European Research Council, aims to assess the importance of the trade in medieval manuscripts for the development of ideas about the nature and value of European culture between 1900 and 1945.

The early twentieth century saw the dispersal of many aristocratic libraries and the rise of a new generation of collectors whose wealth had been made through industry. These new buyers helped to push up prices for certain kinds of manuscripts. In addition, increasing American interest in owning European “treasures” saw an exodus of books from Europe, fuelling debates about the significance of these objects as “national monuments”. The project analyses the roles of collectors, scholars and dealers in the formation of collections of medieval manuscripts, and the impact of this on scholarship. It compares the situation in the English-speaking world, France and Germany. Through analysis of published and unpublished accounts of manuscripts, together with price data, it reconstructs the values projected onto books, to explore why some medieval manuscripts were deemed more desirable than others. It then contextualises these values within the history of the early twentieth century, assessing the impact of two world wars and other political and economic shifts on the trade in books and attitudes to manuscripts as objects of national significance.

The project draws on a wide range of source material, including auction catalogues, letters, dealers’ records, newspaper reports, collection catalogues and scholarly monographs, as well as the evidence provided by the manuscripts themselves.

These sources shed light on attitudes to the Middle Ages and to manuscripts’ place in twentieth-century culture. For example, this manuscript was advertised by the dealer Maggs Bros. in 1920 as containing a rare contemporary portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales (The Black Prince). It was bought by the University of London who presented it to the thenPrince of Wales (subsequently Edward VIII). He returned it to the University to be used for teaching, where it became MS 1. An alignment of the manuscript’s content with contemporary political interests thus helped to determine the book’s fate.

The project team comprises the PI, post-doctoral researchers and PhD students. The post-doctoral researchers are focusing on the trade in manuscripts in North America, France and Germany. The PhD students (Natalia Fantetti and Pierre-Louis Pinault) are examining the roles of women and of specialist clubs and societies, such as the Roxburghe Club and the Burlington Fine Arts Club, in shaping the development of the manuscript trade in the early twentieth century.

The Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania is a key partner of the project. The Institute of English Studies will host a workshop on using the Schoenberg Database and researching manuscript provenance on the 14th January 2020. More information about the workshop is available here.

An extended synopsis about the project from the grant application is available here.

The Team
Principal Investigator (PI)

Dr Laura Cleaver

Laura’s work focuses on London as a central point in the trade in medieval manuscripts.

Dr Federico Botana

Federico’s work concentrates on the trade in medieval manuscripts in Paris c. 1900-45, and the involvement of Italian dealers.

Dr Danielle Magnusson

Danielle’s research examines the rise of American collectors and their impact on the demand for medieval manuscripts.


L. Cleaver, ‘The Western Manuscript Collection of Alfred Chester Beatty (ca. 1915-1930)Manuscript Studies, Vol. 2 (2017), pp. 445-82.

L. Cleaver and D. Magnusson, ‘American Collectors and the Trade in Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts in London, 1919-1939: J. P. Morgan Junior, Alfred Chester Beatty and Bernard Quaritch Ltd.’ in T. Burrows and C. Johnston ed. Collecting the Past: British Collectors and their Collections from the 18th to the 20th Centuries (London and New York, 2019), pp. 63-78.