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Rare book from Northeastern archives selected for ‘illuminated manuscripts’ display

11/10/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Archivist Giordana Mecagni poses for a photo in the university archives in Snell Library on Nov. 10, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

A palm-size 15th-century book from Northeastern’s archives at Snell Library was selected to be part of the multi-venue exhibit “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.” Described by its curators as “the largest exhibit of pre-1600 manuscripts ever mounted in North America,” “Beyond Words” features more than 260 items spanning the 9th to the 17th centuries donated by 19 Boston-area libraries and museums.

Northeastern’s contribution is a Dominican Prayer Book of more than 500 pages, with text in Latin handwritten in the Gothic bookhand style. It has just a single illustration—a grotesque inside a large blue “R” on the first page—but red and blue text is sprinkled throughout. The decorations are what characterize it as “illuminated.” The manuscript includes components of a Book of Hours, prayers that were to be said at specified hours of the day, and the prayer cycle Office of the Dead, among other devotions. Tiny tabs extending from the edges of certain pages indicate where particular sections begin.

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The palm-size 15th-century Dominican Prayer Book from Northeastern’s archives at Snell Library was selected to be part of the “Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections.” Photo courtesy of the Northeast Document Conservation Center

“It is our earliest book and our only medieval manuscript,” says Giordana Mecagni, head of special collections and university archivist at Northeastern. An article in the February 1976 faculty and staff edition of Northeastern Today lists its acquisition along with other rare books in Northeastern’s collection, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Hanging of the Crane, from 1875, and Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, from 1909.

Mecagni and her staff turned to the Northeast Document Conservation Center, in Andover, Massachusetts, to prepare for the exhibit, including mending the lining of its parchment spine and re-attaching some leather that was separating from its binding. The NEDCC also produced a digitized version of the book, which resides in Snell’s repository.

This summer, students in the class “History of Books,” team-taught by Erika Boeckeler and Ryan Cordell, both assistant professors of English at Northeastern, more precisely determined the date of the book’s creation. Careful research revealed that a book including prayers related to St. Vincent and Catherine of Siena, as their book did, would have been created after 1461.

Our special collections are growing. They show the lineage of changes in the book industry and are garnering interest on the national scale.
— Giordana Mecagni, head of special collections

In the exhibit, Northeastern’s rare book joins others from institutions including Harvard University, Brandeis University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Armenian Museum and Library of America, and the Boston Athenaeum. The materials are displayed in three locations, each with a specific theme: Harvard’s Houghton Library features manuscripts for the monastery; Boston College’s McMullen Museum, where the Dominican Prayer Book is displayed, focuses on those that are meant for private libraries; and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum concentrates on Italian Renaissance books.

“One of our missions is to provide access to materials that professors can use as teaching tools,” says Mecagni, citing the “History of Books” class. “Our special collections are growing. They show the lineage of changes in the book industry and are garnering interest on the national scale.”

The Dominican Prayer Book will be on display at Boston College’s McMullen Museum, 2101 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, through Dec. 11. For more information, call 617.552.8587 or email artmuseum@bc.edu.