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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Manna from the HMML basement (so to speak)

Caveat lector: the following posting originally appeared in 2011 in a predecessor blog to Books from the HMML Basement. I am "re-cycling" this so that it will be included in the new blog.

Manna does not always come from Heaven

“In the evening quail appeared and covered the camp; in the morning there was a fall of dew about the camp. When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness lay a fine and flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it they said to one another, “What is it?”—for they did not know what it was.” (Exodus 16: 13-15; from the Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia; Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985))

Over the past seven years the staff at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library has cataloged nearly 9000 titles in its rare printed book collections. Now, with about 98% of the printed book collections cataloged, my attention has turned increasingly to our “hidden” collections. My periodic visits to the rare book room often elicit what I have come to call the “Manna experience.” This happens every time one is confronted with a new and unidentified item in the collection. The first question is always, “What is it?” Over the past few months the HMML staff has had many “Manna experiences.”

Recent ones include:

  • 1940’s newspapers in English from Manila (during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines);
  • A small set of documents relating to the sale of slaves in New Orleans from the 1850’s;
  • Collections of barely identified engravings taken from books (for which we have no text);
  • A collection of written materials with signatures from “famous” historical figures;
  • A collection of broadsides, chiefly in Italian, with some French;
  • A bookplate (“exlibris”) collection from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Hail Marie Antoinette”

Each time we find one of these sets (sometimes in boxes labeled simply “manuscripts” or not labeled at all) we are immediately invited back into the unwritten history of the collections at Saint John’s, and we find we have to work through several stages:

  • Identify the material (“What is it?”);
  • Inventory the material;
  • Identify its source, if possible (gift? purchase?);
  • Identify potential users for newly discovered material;
  • Eventually document them through cataloging and (sometimes) digital photography
  • Market the collection to potential users (and use them ourselves for teaching).
Analogous to the Israelites in the wilderness, however, we often find that these unidentified materials become a source of nutrition—in this case educational or scholarly nutrition (food for the mind?). The newspapers from Manila provide an English-language source for an “official” Japanese view of World War II—a promising resource for students at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s to learn about an alternative view of the war’s progression. The slave documents (mostly in French) provide insight into a period of American history that one does not expect to find in Central Minnesota. In the autograph collection were signed documents from Louis XIV of France (the “Sun King”), King Ludwig II of Bavaria (aka “mad King Ludwig”), and Pope Julius II (who hired Michelangelo to paint a certain chapel ceiling in the Vatican).

Louis XVI’s autograph

Today I would like to focus on just one of these “Manna experiences”: the Jude Koll collection of broadsides and manuscript materials from Italy. We are not certain when these materials came to Saint John’s, but it is believed that Jude Koll, OSB (1914-1997), purchased them in Italy decades ago. From 1994 until now the collection has been housed in seven boxes and had apparently not been opened for several years. The only “access” to the collection was a handwritten set of cards with minimal data on each item.

Phil Mulvaney sorting the collection

For the past several months, a volunteer at the Library—Phil Mulvaney—has been inventorying the collection, while also attempting to provide some minimal identification of each one. We quickly determined that the existing order for the collection had no relevance to the collection’s contents. So now he is re-arranging them and documenting them in a file for later use. The collection spans the 16th to the 19th centuries, but the vast bulk of the collection comes from two key periods in Italian history: 1790-1815 (during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars) and the 1840’s and 1850’s (the period of the third Roman Republic).

“Broadside” refers to a sheet printed not to be folded into pages, but as one large page, generally single-sided, that would end up roughly equivalent to what we today call a “poster.” In an era of political upheaval and before the advent of radio, television or any other means of instantaneous mass communication, the broadside was the best way to get laws promulgated, call for the defense of the homeland, or pass on information about cattle diseases. At this point, we cannot say if any of the gathering of broadsides, manuscripts and pamphlets represents a unique copy of a particular document.

Various materials to be sorted

One small sample from the Italian Broadside collection may be of interest here: a handwritten collection of “prayers” in French, dated “Xmbre 1789” or December 1789. These “New morning and evening prayers for the good French people” (“Nouvelles prières du matin et du soir à l’usage de tous les bons françois”) purport to be revised versions of the Our Father, Hail Mary, Creed, and Confiteor. In the Creed we read:
“Je crois à Loüis XVI, mon seul et legitime souverain, Roi de France et de Navarre, et au Dauphin son fils unique, notre futur Maître ....” [“I believe in Louis XVI, my one true sovereign, King of France and Navarre, and in his only begotten son, the Dauphin, our future Master ...”]
New Prayers in French

One finds that the other “prayers” also contain references to Marie Antoinette (“Je vous salüe Marie Antoinette pleine de grace ...”) and the Tuileries Palace (Notre Pére qui étes aux Thuilleries ...”). In other words, we have a set of satirical prayers in French, ostensibly dated to the time of the beginnings of the French Revolution. A quick search on the Internet has not yet turned up these same words, although it seems likely that they may also appear elsewhere. Perhaps an enterprising student out there would like to transcribe and translate these? Or perhaps turn this into a research project on the use of satirical prayers during the French Revolution?

The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, sustained by the gift of Manna from Heaven. We certainly hope that it won’t take forty years to answer all of our “What is it?” questions, but we do hope that the materials we are opening up to the world will provide fresh paths of research for present and future scholars.

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