When a leaf from this beautiful and important medieval manuscript turns up for sale, collectors take note
The Beauvais Missal has captivated collectors since the 14th century. The leaf we recently acquired gives a hint as to why collectors covet these pieces.
History of the Beauvais Missal
The known history of the Beauvais Missal begins in the late thirteenth century, when it is believed to have been produced. The illuminated manuscript in Latin was given to the Beauvais Cathedral in northern France by Robert de Hangest, a former canon, upon his death in 1356 to ensure that an annual memorial mass would be held for him. The prayer book remained in the cathedral’s library for more than 400 years.
Scholars believe the cathedral library was dispersed during the French Revolution, after which the Beauvais Missal disappeared. It resurfaced in 1843 in Lyon, newly bound for sale at auction. Henry Auguste Brölemann purchased it, and four generations of his family preserved the medieval book into the 20th century. His heir, Madame Etienne Mallet, sold the book at auction in 1926. The buyer was an agent for the famous American newspaperman and collector William Randolph Hearst, who brought the manuscript to the U.S. and kept it for sixteen years.
Breaking Up Medieval Manuscripts
In 1942, Hearst sold the Beauvais Missal to New York book dealer Philip Duschnes for $1,000, and this is where the history of the 700-year-old manuscript takes a sharp turn. Within a month, he had begun dismantling the codex and selling single pages, or leaves, to collectors at a range of prices based on the amount of illumination. The craftsmanship of the scribe and the illuminator makes each unique vellum leaf a work of art.
Book-breaking was a very profitable business, and Duschnes was assisted by Otto Ege, a professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art who also bought and sold medieval manuscripts. As a fellow “biblioclast,” Ege helped to create a collectors market for medieval manuscript leaves in the U.S., particularly through his “portfolio” offerings. Ege considered this a noble endeavor. “Few, indeed,” he wrote, “can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”
Recent Discoveries of Illuminated Leaves
From the mid-20th century onward, the leaves of the Beauvais Missal were disseminated around the world. Some were acquired by institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Morgan Library & Museum and by private collectors, too. Some leaves were lost; less than half of the leaves are currently known to have survived.
When leaves of the manuscript surface today, it is noteworthy. In 2022, a “bargain hunter” purchased a leaf of the manuscript at an estate sale in Maine. The news circulated nationally, prompting the rediscovery of another seven leaves, which excited medieval scholars. One of the seven had long been owned by a professor who decided to donate it to the University of Connecticut.
Virtual Reconstruction of the Beauvais Missal
In recent years, the rise of digital humanities has made possible many new avenues for studying medieval manuscripts, and one of those projects focuses directly on the Beauvais Missal. At the Fragmentarium Laboratory for Medieval Manuscripts, scholars are virtually reconstructing the manuscript. All of the known leaves have been uploaded and sequenced, allowing people to ‘flip through’ the manuscript in a form akin to the original codex. It also provides scholars with more context for studying this important manuscript as a whole.
The leaf offered at Raab was obtained by us from a private collector. We immediately recognized its importance. The leaf has been added to the Fragmentarium project database.
To learn about our work on manuscripts from this era, visit our Medieval & Renaissance Historical Documents page.