Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections

September 27, 2016

BPL Scroll

SLIS Adjunct Lisa Fagin Davis Co-curates Major Exhibition of Manuscripts in Boston Area

InfoLink caught up with Lisa Fagin Davis, SLIS Adjunct and Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America, on the new exhibition, Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections,” which will be on display at the Harvard University’s Houghton Library, Boston College’s McMullen Museum, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In this interview, Davis shares her journey to study these unique pieces of art and history.

Can you share a bit about your current position and your role in curating the Beyond Words exhibit?

In addition to teaching LIS 464: The Medieval Manuscript from Charlemagne to Gutenberg , I am the Executive Director of the Medieval Academy of America, an organization that supports the work of scholars and students of the Middle Ages. Before taking on that role in 2013, I spent twenty years working as a consultant to libraries, museums, and private collectors, cataloguing and studying medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Because I had catalogued manuscripts in several Boston-area libraries, I was invited to join the curatorial team for Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections. As part of the team, I helped make decisions about what manuscripts should be exhibited and how the exhibit should be structured, and I participated in writing and editing the catalogue, among other responsibilities.

ManuscriptWhat inspired you to work with illuminated manuscripts?

While working towards my PhD in Medieval Studies at Yale, I began learning about all aspects of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts: reading their texts, interpreting their illumination, and understanding how they were made. Since then, I have worked with manuscript collections around the country. I am particularly interested in medieval manuscripts in North American collections. How many are there? How did they get here? Who are the collectors and dealers who brought them across the ocean? These questions are addressed in my blog, The Manuscript Road Trip, and in my recently-published Directory of Collections in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings (co-authored with Melissa Conway).

What was the inspiration for the Beyond Words exhibition?

Beyond Words is the brainchild of Prof. Jeffrey Hamburger (Harvard University), who has been imagining an exhibition of Boston-area manuscripts for many years. The manuscript collection at Harvard's Houghton Library is relatively well-known, but other important Boston-area collections, such as the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts, are less familiar to scholars. Beyond Words will bring these hidden Boston treasures to light, showcasing 260 manuscripts from nineteen local collections. In addition to Prof. Hamburger, the curatorial team includes William P. Stoneman (Houghton Library, Harvard University), Anne-Marie Eze (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), Nancy Netzer (McMullen Museum, Boston College), and myself. The ground-breaking exhibition, which will be shown in three venues simultaneously (the Houghton Library, the McMullen Museum, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), will be supplemented by a detailed catalogue, a website, a symposium, and significant public programming. More information about the exhibition and related programming can be found on the Beyond Words website. You can also follow us on Twitter at @BeyondWords2016.

Can you share a few surprising things you discovered in curating this collection?

There are several manuscripts in Beyond Words that are of particular interest to me, foremost among them the extensive French world chronicle that belongs to the Boston Public Library and that will be exhibited at the McMullen Museum. This 34-foot-long scroll, written and decorated in France in the 1470s, records and illustrates the story of humanity from Creation through the Middle Ages, including a genealogical diagram that purports to demonstrate how the royal houses of Europe are descended not only from Adam and Eve but from Aeneas of Troy. I was so fascinated by this manuscript that I spent nearly ten years studying and translating the text, work that culminated in my book-length study, La Chronique Anonyme Universelle: Reading and Writing History in Fifteenth-Century France (Harvey Miller Publishers, 2014). In that monograph, I argue that the Chronique was originally compiled for the use of Marie, Duchess of Bourbon, making this a precious example of a work destined for use by a powerful woman in the fifteenth century. The scroll will be exhibited completely unfurled and will be accompanied by an innovative digital resource that will allow visitors to zoom in and study the illuminations in detail.

Any advice for students interested in pursuing this field?

Studying medieval and Renaissance manuscripts is a magical and inspiring way to connect with the past. A Master's in Library and Information Science (especially one from Simmons!) is a great place to start if you want to work in a rare book library. Simmons is one of the few LIS programs in the country that offers courses in rare books and manuscripts, so I would definitely recommend that students interested in this field take not only my course (LIS 464) but also LIS 425: History of the Book, and LIS 449: Rare Book and Special Collections Librarianship. For curatorial positions, a subject Masters or Doctorate may be required as well. The program at Simmons also provides fundamental and necessary training in metadata modeling and digital discoverability, topics of increasing importance to medievalists as more and more manuscripts are imaged and made available online. My 2015 students conducted an important and original investigation that combined medieval manuscript research with metadata modeling to create an online study of a fifteenth-century manuscript, and my 2016 students will collaborate on a similar project. I’m particularly pleased that my class will take place during the run of Beyond Words so that I can take my students to all three venues.

Picture credits, from top:

Photo 1 by Ed DeHoratius. Lisa Fagin Davis with students, teaching the Chronique, BPL pb Med. 32.

Photo 2: Initial P with Mary surrounded by twelve stars (detail)
Richard de Saint-Laurent, De laudibus beatae Mariae virginis
Paris, France, 1275–1325
Wellesley College, Margaret Clapp Library, MS 19, f. 90v