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Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

By Micah Erwin

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.
These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

Fifteenth-century bookbinding includes ninth-century Bible fragment in front and back covers

By Alicia Dietrich

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Michael Laird, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin and the proprietor of Michael Laird Rare Books, shares some recent discoveries he made about a Bible in the Ransom Center’s collection.

Scholarship begets scholarship; ergo bibliography, the study of books as physical objects, builds upon earlier discoveries, while seeking to answer questions about the transmission of texts, the provenance of books, and their bindings.

In fall of 2009, Ryan Hildebrand, head of book cataloging at the Ransom Center, wrote about an unusual nineteenth-century fore-edge painting that adorns a fifteenth-century book at the Ransom Center, namely a Latin Bible, printed in 1481 by Johann Amerbach, of Basel.1

While the name of the fore-edge painter (John T. Beers), is known 2, questions remain about the bookbinding itself, and of the manuscript fragment contained therein, specifically: When and where was the binding made? Can we identify the text of the manuscript fragment, and determine its date of origin?

It is an extraordinary fact that certain ornamental tools that were stamped on early bookbindings were unique to a particular workshop and thus can help to identify specific binderies—or even specific bookbinders. The study of early bookbindings has made significant progress during the last decade, particularly in Germany where vast databases of Gothic bookbinding tools now appear online3.

Fifteenth-century Gothic bookbinding, signed with the name-stamp of Johannes Meigfoge. Ellwangen, Germany. Pigskin over wooden boards, front cover. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fifteenth-century Gothic bookbinding, signed with the name-stamp of Johannes Meigfoge. Ellwangen, Germany. Pigskin over wooden boards, front cover. Photo by Pete Smith.
Careful study of the Ransom Center’s bookbinding reveals an actual name-stamp on the front and back covers. The binding is also adorned with ornamental stamps of birds, flowers, hearts, and Evangelist symbols. (View the above slideshow for more images of these stamps.)

After more than 500 years of use, many of these stamps are no longer easy to see. In special cases, a light pencil rubbing can reveal much more than meets the eye. It was determined that the Ransom Center’s binding is such a case, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram gave special permission for rubbings to be made in this instance. These rubbings were then compared with other rubbings that were taken from known binderies of the fifteenth-century.

The name on the binding of the Ransom Center’s 1481 Bible is Johannes Meigfoge. Meigfoge is known to have been active in Ellwangen, Germany, during the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century. Meigfoge’s workshop was first described by Ernst Kryss4, who failed to localize the bindery, but located 38 bindings by Meigfoge, including 35 books printed in the years 1475 through 1513, and 3 manuscripts. The location of Meigfoge’s workshop was convincingly assigned to Ellwangen (eastern Baden-Württemberg) by Heribert Hummel, in 1977.5

Fragment of a 9th-century Latin Bible. John 10:5 used as spine-lining. Manuscript on parchment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fragment of a 9th-century Latin Bible. John 10:5 used as spine-lining. Manuscript on parchment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Inside the front and back boards of the present binding may be seen an extremely ancient fragment of manuscript that dates from the ninth-century.6 Whereas fragments from old manuscripts were commonly used as strengtheners by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century bookbinders, scholars rarely encounter manuscript material as old as this fragment. And so we can deduce that in the fifteenth-century, this small piece of parchment waste was used by Johannes Meigfoge to strengthen the inside of the spine, where it is still preserved therein.

Although the text of the fragment is hardly extensive, the Caroline minuscule handwriting is quite clear, and reads: In quam cumq[ue] domum intraveritis pri[mum dicite: pac huic domui. This text is from the New Testament, specifically Luke, chapter 10, verse 5:

“Into whatsoever house you enter, first say: ‘Peace be to this house.’”

Words of wisdom from a hitherto unknown ninth-century manuscript fragment—easily the oldest Biblical text at The University of Texas at Austin— afforded by the study of books as physical objects. With its nineteenth-century fore-edge painting, it is a remarkable fact that in one volume we are able to discover evidence of ca. 1000 years of book history.

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1HRC Incun 1481 B471a

2Jeff Weber, Fore-Edge Paintings of John T. Beer (Los Angeles: J. Weber Rare Books, 2005)

3The Einbanddatenbank of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (accessed 8/8/2010)

4Ernst Kyriss, Verzierte gotische Einbande im alten deutschen Sprachgebiet (Stuttgart: Max Hettler, 1953), Tafelband I, no. 53. Ilse Schunke, Die Schwenke-Sammlung gotisher Stempel- und Eingbanddurchreibungen (Berlin, 1996) II, p. 257, offers no evidence for the assignment of this workshop to “Tubingen.”

5Heribert Hummel, “Johannes Meigfoge, ein Ellwanger Buchbinder des 15. Jahrhunderts” (in: Ellwanger Jahrbuch Bd. 27, 1977/78, pp. 187–194).

6Compare the ninth-century Latin Bible fragment at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley: f2MS A2M2 800:3, reproduced by Digital Scriptorium. (accessed 8/8/2010). The Bancroft fragment is thought to be German (as here?)