Michigan State University

New Exhibit at MSU Libraries Showcases Rare Medieval Books and Manuscripts

Cindy Hunter Morgan

It’s not often we have opportunities to interact with objects made when Joan of Arc was alive, but visitors to MSU Libraries have an opportunity to see a collection of 500-year-old books in a new exhibit of medieval work on display through December. The exhibit examines MSU’s growing collection of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in a variety of genres, both sacred and secular, including medicine, poetry, cookery, religious devotion, music, history, and astronomy. Materials are interpreted through markings their producers and owners left behind, and visitors can hear recordings by College of Music students of vocal music from two manuscript fragments. MSU University Librarian Joseph Salem said the exhibit showcases the astonishing, mysterious items visitors can discover in the MSU Libraries.

“Some of the greatest joys we have in the MSU Libraries are to build and steward this rich collection of rare books and materials in our Special Collections Library and, as part of our land-grant mission, to get those books into the hands of our students and researchers,” Salem said. “This exhibit is on the main floor near both entrances to the Main Library, and we’re delighted that everyone who walks through our doors can share the same kind of experiences with these wonderful materials that our students get in the classroom.”

MSU Libraries Curator and Cataloger of Rare Books Tad Boehmer said the exhibit, sponsored by Jack and Susan Davis, is full of “firsts.” “We have a book that features the first use of Roman type, a book that features the first illustrations of Horace’s work, one of the first books that features an illustration of a woman other than the Virgin Mary, a book that features one of the first illustrations of a print shop, and a book that includes some of the first illustrations of constellations,” Boehmer said. “We also have the third edition of the first printed cookbook. Consider what that represents!”

Other highlights in the exhibit include a collection of medieval remedies, a fragment of a 13th century psalter donated to the MSU Libraries by R.E. Olds’s daughter, and a very large book known as an antiphonal, which contains sung portions of the cycle of daily prayers performed by members of the clergy and religious orders. The pages of this book are likely sheepskin, and it would have taken one animal to make each sheet in the book. There are 95 sheets in that book.

The importance of collecting rare and special books for use as unique research tools has been recognized by the Michigan State University Libraries since its beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Honoring this commitment, Special Collections was formally established in 1962 with the charge to house special materials, as well as to build, preserve, and make accessible important research collections for educational use. Today, Special Collections holds over 450,000 printed works, numerous manuscript and archival collections, and an extensive collection of ephemera supporting research in popular culture, radicalism, comic art, and gender. Notable rare book collections include early veterinary medicine, eighteenth century British history and culture, modern American literature, cookery, and natural history. All of the materials may be seen and used in the Special Collections reading room during open hours.

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