February 07, 2020

Special Collections Acquires First Italian Illuminated Manuscript in the Portland Area

Watzek Library’s Special Collections and Archives has recently added another rare book, an Italian book of hours, to its growing collection of archival materials. The book, valued at more than $45,000, was acquired thanks to a highly competitive grant from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation. Starting next spring, students will have the opportunity to examine the text in depth in Professor Karen Gross’s manuscript analysis course.

by Scout Brobst BA ’20

There is a new addition to Lewis & Clark’s Watzek Library Special Collections’ body of archival materials. Through a B.H. Breslauer Foundation grant, the college is now home to an Italian book of hours worth just over $45,000, which will make it the only Italian illuminated manuscript in the greater Portland area.

In medieval times, books of hours presented a standardized set of daily prayers and meditations, not unlike the devotionals associated with the church today.

Rare books primed for academic use tend not to end up in the hands of undergraduate students at liberal arts colleges. They are usually acquired by large research universities with doctoral and postdoc students, and when they do find themselves in the collections of smaller colleges, they are often sectioned off from the student body.

According to Hannah Crummé, head of Special Collections and Archives, the priority for Lewis & Clark’s rare materials is student accessibility and relevance.

“Your average liberal arts school doesn’t let many students work with their special collections holdings,” Crummé says. “We have intentionally created a collection designed to support the curriculum and create opportunities for our students.”

The Italian book of hours was selected with this priority in mind. It is the second one acquired by the college, following the 2016 acquisition of a Renaissance-era French book of hours dated around 1500.

“As the laity increased their literacy, people wanted a shortened version of what the monks and nuns were reading so they could punctuate their days with prayers,” says Associate Professor of English Karen Gross, with whom Crummé consulted during the book’s acquisition process. “In those times, if people had money, it was one of the first things they bought.”

For this reason, the books are at once common and unique. They reflect the lives of the individual reader, scribbled with birth dates, death dates, notes, and illustrations.

For Gross, the drawings within this particular book of hours were a unique selling point. “There are flourishing drawings that have these zoomorphic forms that grow out of tendrils from slipping into the margins,” she says. “There are two beautiful deer that are resting in the border, and a small little scene of a priest saying mass. It made such a lovely contrast with our other manuscript.”

Gross plans to use the text in the second iteration of her Working With Medieval Manuscripts course, scheduled for the spring of 2021. Students will have the opportunity to learn about the development of manuscripts in the Middle Ages, as well as pursue individual research questions on the book itself.

But the value of the acquisition extends beyond the work done in history and English classrooms.

“It creates opportunities for students in chemistry, it creates opportunities for students in history and literature, it creates new exhibition opportunities for us,” Crummé says. “Not to mention, it creates opportunities for Portland-area researchers. It’s really quite an asset to our campus.”

Gross adds that the book may also be useful for students of religious studies interested in the comparative study of private devotion, and students of art history who want to become familiar with illumination themes.

“I hope all students realize that there is something in it for them,” says Gross. “Yes, there are restrictions because it’s an old manuscript, but it’s here for all of us. I think of it as a testimony to the quality of what our students have already accomplished with rare materials.”

Special Collections and Archives

English Department