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

The CULTIVATE MSS project (2019-2024) examines the impact of collectors of medieval manuscripts, experts and dealers on the formation of collections and the development of scholarship between 1900 and 1945.

University of London, MS 1
University of London, MS 1

This period saw a growing market for medieval books, with record prices at auction in the 1920s, before the global depression of the 1930s. Yet some manuscripts were considered more desirable than others, fetching higher prices and attracting more attention in publications. CULTIVATE MSS analyses the impact of the values of those involved in the early twentieth-century manuscript trade on the long-term locations of books and the study of the Middle Ages, with repercussions still being felt today.

The research compares the development of the manuscript trade and manuscript scholarship in Britain, France, Germany and America. During this period the Bibliothèque nationale was actively seeking to acquire French manuscripts, and in all four nations manuscripts were part of discussions about national heritage. At different stages, laws were introduced to try to control the movement of works that were sometimes regarded as “national monuments”. In America, dealers like Abraham Rosenbach defended the purchase of European cultural heritage, arguing that if Europeans wanted the books they would be able to buy them back, and some manuscripts crossed the Atlantic multiple times in this period. The two World Wars had major consequences for the movement of both manuscripts and dealers, with many booksellers leaving Germany and Austria for the United States.

Among the criteria used to assess manuscripts in the period were their age, condition, textual and pictorial content, and previous owners. While some collectors claimed that they wanted to build collections with books that represented manuscript production from across Europe throughout the Middle Ages, most collections reveal the collector’s taste.

Case A Early Schools, from illuminated manuscripts exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1908
Case A. Early Schools, from illuminated manuscripts exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club, 1908

Moreover, some purchases were shaped by specific circumstances. The manuscript above 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 then Prince 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.

Medieval manuscripts preserve texts on a wide range of subjects, but in this period illuminated manuscripts were increasingly studied as a form of art. Exhibitions in Paris in 1904 and London in 1908 played an important role in advocating for illumination as an art form, but once again sought to categorise material on national lines.

The trade in medieval manuscripts has largely been written as a history of male collectors, with a few exceptional female participants, such as J. P. Morgan’s librarian Belle Greene. Among the aims of this project is to present a more inclusive analysis of the networks underpinnning the market for medieval books, researching the contributions of women as well as the impact of clubs and societies in forming and reinforcing ideas about manuscripts.

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