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Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections

Collection Profile

The Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection includes a dozen manuscript books and eight manuscript leaves, dating from the 13th through the 16th centuries. The earliest book, a 13th-century Paris Bible filled with historiated, zoomorphic, and decorated initials, is known as the "Gwysaney Bible." The collection also includes three illuminated books of hours: a 14th-century manuscript (use of Sarum) from northern France or Flanders, a 15th-century northern French manuscript (use of Reims), and a 15th-century Dutch manuscript (use of Utrecht). It also contains a 15th-century choral service book from Italy.

Faculty from the departments of art, art history, English, history, modern and classical languages, and music seek out this collection to introduce graduate and undergraduate students to these beautiful books. Courses include: Medieval Art; Artist Workshop; Patron in the Middle Ages; The Book and Beyond; Medieval Latin; and Introduction to Musicology, among others. Assignments are not uncommon, students often being asked to write an impressionistic paper about one of the manuscripts. These manuscripts are a key component of a cross-disciplinary distance learning course, The Flowering of the Middle Ages, which features 16 lecturers who address various aspects of the Middle Ages; the course also includes a discussion with Special Collections staff about the production of medieval manuscripts.

Students from the art history graduate course Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts curated the exhibit "Lustre: Spiritual Treasures, Sensory Pleasures: Medieval Texts & Images from Houston Collections" in 2005, using items drawn from this collection. They were involved in most aspects of production: selecting materials, conducting research, planning the display, writing label text, and producing a catalog and Web site. Students also created artworks based on medieval manuscripts. One produced a large folio detailing the Martha Stewart trial and another constructed a full-scale scribe's desk and bench. Additional manuscript books were borrowed from local public and private collections to enhance community interest in the exhibition.

Earlier exhibitions also have drawn heavily on this collection, including "Incunabula, 1455-1500: The Cradle Years of Book Printing" (1995), co-curated with John Lienhard, host of Engines of Our Ingenuity, heard on many public radio stations. A printed catalog also accompanied this exhibition. "Glorious Works: Manuscript Books from the University of Houston Libraries" (1996), was curated by Special Collections and exhibited at Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston. It was presented in conjunction with a concert by the internationally renowned vocal ensemble Gothic Voices, who sang a chant from the Italian choral service book as part of their concert.

The Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection proves that manuscript books need not languish in darkened stacks, but can be learning tools for students and the public, and may even be brought to life through performance. Web exhibits include: "Stultifera Navis; The Ship of Fools" and "Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents."

Collection Profile and Overview: Julie E. Grob
Illustrations: Thomas DuBrock

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