Thursday, May 23, 2013

5 Things You Wouldn't Expect to Find in Special Collections

The Mount Holyoke College Special Collections is a treasure trove of books and manuscripts. Here are a few of the more unique items from the collection.

1. Pocket-Sized Literature

Perhaps “pocket-sized” is a bit of an understatement for this fine-press book. Measuring 1/2 inch by 5/16 inch, this tiny tome relates the fictional advice of King Arthur to a person choosing to embark on a quest. Complete with purple leather covers, three illustrations, and handmade paper, this book comes with all the trappings of its full-sized counterparts; it is even bound just as a normal book would be. Entitled Grail Field Notes, this miniature volume was printed in 1995.

2. Mark Twain’s Signature

Hidden among a nondescript set of Mark Twain’s writings is this autographed edition of The Innocents Abroad, a travel book originally published in 1869 chronicling the author’s journey through Europe and the Holy Land. Perhaps best known for his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain is one of America’s most beloved novelists; the author William Faulkner even declared him to be “the father of American literature.” Although he is better known by his pen name, Twain’s given name was Samuel Clemens; both signatures can be found in this edition.

3. The Manuscript of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Autobiography

Best known for his tales of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a prolific and well-loved author in both his native Scotland and around the world. This is the manuscript of his autobiography Memories and Adventures that was published in 1924. Written in the author’s own hand, this draft contains numerous corrections and revisions, giving us a sense for the process and challenges of writing an autobiography.

4. Illuminated Manuscripts

While illuminated manuscripts are typically defined as those that have been decorated with gold or silver, this term may also refer to those that have simply been decorated or painted. Special Collections is home to two illuminated manuscripts, one from medieval France and another from early Persia.

This first manuscript is a page from an edition of the Vulgate Bible dated 1230 AD.  The Vulgate was the definitive Latin translation that was officially disseminated by the Roman Catholic Church between 400 and 1530 AD. The edition this page was taken from was created in France during the reign of St. Louis IX, one of France’s most beloved kings and the only one to be canonized. Manuscripts such as this one were usually prepared using a sharp stick to make light grid marks before filling the page with script, illustrations and flourishes. The grid lines are still evident on this manuscript, giving us a sense, not only for the finished product, but also the work that went into its creation. The colorful flourishes that accompany the text have a decorative as well as spiritual purpose. The use of color in manuscripts from this time was meant, not only to bring its text and images to life, but also to instill the glory of God into the work.

Very little is known about the Persian manuscript from our collection, however we don’t need to know much in order to appreciate the beauty of its text and embellishments. Like illuminated manuscripts from Europe, the flourishes that adorned the pages of Persian manuscripts were more than just decorative. These colorful decorations were meant to balance the text, bringing harmony to the work.

5. Papyri Fragments

These fragments date from approximately 2nd century A.D. Their subjects are surprisingly ordinary: letters, tax receipts, petitions, land leases, even some fragments from Euclid. Papyrus was made from a plant of the same name that was once abundant in Egypt. It served as the main writing material for many centuries but was eventually replaced by parchment, which provided a smoother writing surface and was more durable.

You can come visit these treasures Monday-Friday, 9:30-12:00 and 1:00-4:30 in the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections.

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