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Window to the Past: Rare book offers view of religious life in Middle Ages
COLUMBIA, S.C. – University of South Carolina English professor Scott Gwara had sorted through 32 lots of medieval books and manuscripts in a London auction house when he pulled out box 33 and discovered a pristine prayer book that he hoped would round out USC’s collection of 15th-century religious texts.
“I pulled this off the shelf and I thought, ‘This is amazing,’” Gwara recalled as he unveiled the volume that was hand-lettered and illuminated more than 500 years ago. “It is the original cover, it has never been rebound, and the paint is as fresh as it was in 1490.”
Better yet, for a medievalist such as Gwara, the prayer book he uncovered in May while teaching a USC Maymester course on King Arthur was illuminated by Robert Boyvin. Boyvin was one of the premier French painters of his time, a renowned illuminator who was commissioned by wealthy and religious patrons intent upon owning one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.
Those who had a Book of Hours could imitate monks in monastic orders who paused at regular times to pray. Even better, they could study vellum illustrations of biblical scenes and the saints in rich miniature detail amid backgrounds of vivid colors, including gold.
The book, written in Latin with 20 illustrations, originated in Rouen, France, which housed one of the most accomplished manuscript workshops of that era.
Gwara was able to purchase the volume for the university collection with financial support from the B.H. Breslauer Foundation. The New York foundation, established by the estate of book dealer Bernard H. Breslauer, supports the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts for U.S. libraries and institutions.
The Breslauer Foundation also has underwritten the purchase of two other medieval texts for USC, including a rare Bible that is also part of the university’s medieval teaching collection. There are now five components, Gwara said, including the Bible, the Book of Hours, a Missal, a book of the Order of the Mass, a Psalter, and a Breviary, which is a book of prayers and hymns.
Although the books are rare, they are meant to be touched and studied, said Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library. The Hollings library is located inside the Thomas Cooper Library, on Greene Street at the USC campus.
“Our collection is really a teaching collection,” she said. The library is sponsoring a manuscript symposium next March that will give the public an opportunity to examine some of the rare books in the collection, including this latest acquisition.
For those who can’t travel to see the volume in person, the library has already begun the process of digitizing the Book of Hours so that scholars can utilize it as a primary source. Having the rare texts online also has had an added benefit, she said, by increasing visitation to the library.
“People realize what you have, and then they want to come,” Sudduth said.
The task of digitizing the Book of Hours has fallen to Kelsey Crumb of Summerville, a graduate student in library science who sees the task as more than a resume-enhancer.
“I love it. It is so beautiful,” Crumb said. “It’s like holding history.”