If You Happen To Be In The Boston Area

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Saint Barbara, attributed to the “Ghent Associates” of the Master of Mary of Burgundy, from a book of hours-missal, c. 1485-1490. Courtesy of Houghton Library/Harvard University

We check in from time to time at magazines published by universities where we have recruited. This article, which we appreciate topically because of the conservation of cultural heritage described, makes us wish we could visit the venues described in “Illuminations.”  Lily Scherlis provides a good example of why we keep coming back to this magazine–crisp, clear writing and a compelling argument in favor of looking back into history for an enriching perspective on crowdsourcing versus individual authorship (read to the end of the quoted section):

…These works were born into a world where literacy was scarce and almost universally affiliated with religion: the exhibition description refers to monasticism as, at its heart, a “cult of the book.” I imagine how compelling written religious text would have been to early readers: the words echo off the page, as if read by an invisible voice heard only by you, but are available to other readers as well.The original words had been passed down, as ancient-seeming to the scribes as to us today, infused with the voice of God. In an age when human geniuses were understood as divine conduits, God was the source of all true creation. Today’s individual authors, revered as the sole sources of their works, were unthinkable then. Instead, responsibility for the creation of these manuscripts was diffused among anonymous scribes with many assistants. (Credit is also arguably due to whoever slaughtered the calves and prepared the vellum for the pages.) Manifold individuals took part in the collective creation—the most recent physical instantiation—of a text much larger and more ancient than themselves.

Before the widespread use of movable type in the fifteenth century, “the concept of copyright, let alone plagiarism, made no sense,” writes Hamburger in his essay, “Authors & Readers,” in the exhibition catalog, and book theft was prevented with chains; now we have digital-rights management and lawsuits. A display of several volumes chained and shut, shielding their contents, greets visitors at the door. For Stoneman, the chains represent the value the works’ makers assigned to them: a reminder that each is unique, laboriously produced, held close, and dear. But other chains are invisible: even today, one of the manuscripts on display—the ornately bordered Book of Hours from the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Collection—cannot leave its home library. To include it, the curators had to negotiate to lengthen its testamentary tethers: Houghton was designated an extension of Widener, allowing the manuscript to be moved barely a hundred yards east. Literal and figurative chains have a paradoxical function: they safeguard these scarce volumes from wandering fingers, and that security makes access possible.

But the book in a glass case poses a challenge. The rigors of proper conservation do not allow us the privilege of leafing through fragile pages. Intricate artworks are shut up in the pages we cannot see. Those on display, even when chosen with nuance and care, leave the viewer with only a small cross-section of the manuscripts’ contents. Stoneman—for whom the chance to turn the pages is one of the choice privileges of his position—and the other curators debated these decisions extensively. Companion iPads on black stands (Stoneman aptly notes their resemblance to mushrooms growing out of the gallery floor in the interstices between the glass cases) offer digital facsimiles of several additional pages: a compromise giving viewers a glimpse without disturbing the delicate volumes themselves.

These works were born into a world where literacy was scarce and almost universally affiliated with religion: the exhibition description refers to monasticism as, at its heart, a “cult of the book.” I imagine how compelling written religious text would have been to early readers: the words echo off the page, as if read by an invisible voice heard only by you, but are available to other readers as well. The original words had been passed down, as ancient-seeming to the scribes as to us today, infused with the voice of God. In an age when human geniuses were understood as divine conduits, God was the source of all true creation. Today’s individual authors, revered as the sole sources of their works, were unthinkable then. Instead, responsibility for the creation of these manuscripts was diffused among anonymous scribes with many assistants. (Credit is also arguably due to whoever slaughtered the calves and prepared the vellum for the pages.) Manifold individuals took part in the collective creation—the most recent physical instantiation—of a text much larger and more ancient than themselves…

Read the whole article here.

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