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Assistant Professor Bridget Whearty, far left, and students discuss a 14th-century manuscript by Nicholas of Lyra that was recently donated to Special Collections by alumnus Alex Huppé on the recommendation of CEMERS director and Distinguished Professor Marilynn Desmond.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
Special Collections and CEMERS welcome ‘new’ 14th-century manuscript
November 30, 2016Tweet
The words of a 14th-century scholar drew a crowd of students, faculty and staff to the Huppé Reading Room in the Glenn G. Bartle Library for the recent unveiling of the oldest parchment document on campus, “Postilla litteralis super epistolam ad hebraeoes.” (Literal Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews.)
Authored by Nicholas of Lyra, one of the greatest biblical scholars of the Middle Ages, the work is part of his larger commentary on the entire Bible. In this manuscript, Lyra addresses Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews in which Paul urges perseverance in the face of persecution, essentially encouraging people to keep the faith. This broad work is said to be one of the most influential Bible commentaries to this day, centuries after it was written.
The manuscript, recently acquired through a recommendation from Distinguished Professor Marilynn Desmond, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS), “will facilitate teaching and research across a range of disciplines, from paleography, text editing and history of the book to theology and religious history,” she said. “This one manuscript will greatly enrich our work on the Middle Ages.”
The gift of this historically important work is thanks to the generosity of Alex Huppé ’69, a long-time supporter of the University Libraries. In his opening remarks at the unveiling, Curtis Kendrick, dean of the Libraries, expressed his “gratitude for the manuscript and for the learning and teaching opportunities it brings to Binghamton.”
Alex Huppé’s father, Bernard Huppé, with CEMERS founder Aldo Bernardo, served as CEMERS directors from 1966-73. The center built its reputation with conferences addressing topics such as the early Renaissance and medieval drama. According to Desmond, this foundation set the stage for CEMERS today as “a research center that has an international reputation, still publishes the research it organizes and continues to hold conferences that people from all over the world come to.”
Although unable to attend the unveiling in person, Alex Huppé commented through social media that the photographs of the unveiling “looked like a great event. Thrilling, really.”
Reta Bernardo, Aldo Bernardo’s widow, was in attendance. She spoke of Huppé and her husband’s shared interest in “helping acquaint more students and professors with the works of important scholars like Lyra.”
She also offered a powerful illustration of the impact of gifts like the Lyra manuscript can have, sharing that her husband’s discovery of a life-long passion was a direct result of his exposure to a Petrarch manuscript. A graduate student at Harvard at the time, the experience impacted Aldo Bernardo so profoundly that he abandoned journalism, becoming instead as one of the world’s leading Petrarch scholars.
Assistant Professor Bridget Whearty, who attended the event with a group of her graduate students, said manuscripts like the one donated by Huppé bring teaching to life. “It’s one thing to have students learn about medieval scholars or the hard work of making books by reading about these things in a modern textbook, but it’s something else entirely to offer them the experience to see and touch that work, to have it right before their eyes and under their fingertips,” she said.
“For example, the ‘Postilla’ manuscript really makes scribes’ work visible, especially by showing marks that were often removed or minimized before final distribution,” she added. “In this particular manuscript, we can see things like ‘pricking,’ the tiny holes that medieval book makers used to make sure the lines they drew on the parchment were clean and parallel. These are an important part of the steps of bookmaking, but they were often trimmed away when the book was bound, or as it was rebound over the intervening centuries.”
The manuscript also shows sewing holes and how the book binders made the book, Whearty said. “Because we can see all these painstaking details, students have a way to connect not just with the author but with people otherwise lost in history, people like the maker of the parchment, the illustrator, the scribe.”
For Whearty, one of the things that’s really useful about the ‘Postilla’ manuscript is to show how ideas, people and books moved across what we might think of today as set national and linguistic boundaries: ideas moving across Greek and Latin, between France and England. “This book helps us glimpse, in a visceral way, a multi-cultural, learned, international Middle Ages, which is incredibly different (weirder and richer) from what people see on TV, or think they know about the past,” she said.
Whearty is determined to show her students that history is the “story of the human race, not just a representation of dead white men. And although Nicholas of Lyra happens to be a dead white man, his manuscript encompasses everyone’s past.”
Desmond echoed Whearty’s appreciation of the value realized by the campus and greater community because of the quality of our Special Collections, and is quick to recognize the broad benefits of the Lyra gift.
“CEMERS has a proven record of producing high-quality research across disciplines,” she said. “The center has facilitated the participation of Harpur College students and faculty in internationally recognized conferences, lectures series and publications, helping to raise our University’s profile around the world.”
Anyone with an interest is invited to view the Nicholas of Lyra manuscript by contacting Special Collections in the Glenn G. Bartle Library.