Dr Hannah Morcos

Hannah Morcos’ research explores the French trade in medieval manuscripts, focusing particularly on the development of national collections during this period.

Ecole nationale des chartes
Ecole nationale des chartes. Photo credit Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.0 FR

Chronologically, the investigation begins with the acquisition by the Bibliothèque nationale de France of hundreds of medieval manuscripts from two nineteenth-century English collections. The first, formed by Bertram Ashburnham, 4th Earl of Ashburnham (d. 1878), was discovered to contain a large number of items purloined from French holdings in the mid-nineteenth century. The second was amassed by the prolific collector Sir Thomas Phillips (d. 1872) and featured large numbers of manuscripts purchased in France and of French historical interest. The discourse surrounding the ‘return’ to France of these manuscripts – in the press, catalogues, scholarship, as well as correspondence – offers revealing insights into ideas about French patrimony in this period.

Private collectors actively contributed to the development of the national collections, donating funds (for example, to secure the Phillips manuscripts), as well as items in the form of legacies and gifts. The period in question concludes with the exceptional offering of the library of James Édouard de Rothschild (d. 1881), developed by his widow Thérèse (d. 1931) and heir Henri (d. 1947), to the Bibliothèque nationale in 1947. James Édouard was one of the founders of the Société des anciens textes français and his interest in medieval French literature is reflected in the collection, now known as the ‘fonds Rothschild’.

The Ecole nationale des chartes, the grande école which served as a training ground for many involved in the field of medieval manuscripts, is a central node in this study. Its influence on France’s national collections will be assessed alongside interactions between scholars, collectors, and dealers. This study will also examine the implications of the law of 1913 to conserve ‘historical monuments’ of French national interest on the national collections.

Within this wider context, Hannah is exploring the distinct concerns of the libraires and how their activities were affected by the evolving discourse and legislation concerning French patrimony. Of particular interest are the medieval manuscripts that passed through the hands of the libraire Théophile Belin and his wife, Laure Pillet Belin, who managed the business following his death in 1921, which offer a key starting point for examining the involvement of women in the French book trade.

Dr Federico Botana

Federico Botana’s research explores the work of Italian bookdealers – 'librari antiquari' – who played a fundamental role in the development of public and private manuscript collections in Europe and the United States. His work also compares their activities with those of their French counterparts, tracing these criss-crossing networks of collectors and dealers within the context of Paris’s position as one of the main centres of the global medieval manuscript trade.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Parisian bookdealers such as

Leo Olschki
Leo Olschki (1861-1940). Public Domain.

Théophile Belin, Henri Leclerc and Giraud Badin regularly conducted auction sales attracting collectors and dealers from other European countries and North America. In contrast to Italy, where national libraries were not actively promoting their manuscript collections, the Bibliothèque Nationale and the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal brought their treasures out for the general public in four major exhibitions: the Exposition Universelle of 1900, Les Primitifs Français of 1906, and the manuscript exhibitions of 1926 and 1937.

Italian bookdealers such as Ulrico Hoepli, Tammaro De Marinis, Giuseppe Martini and Leo Olschki also traded at an international level (often in competition, although sometimes in collaboration) with their counterparts in other countries such as Wilfrid Voynich in London, Louis Giraud-Badin in Paris, and Jacques Rosenthal in Munich. Hoepli held regular auction sales in Rome, Milan, Zürich and Lucerne. Martini traded mainly in New York, where he also advised individuals and libraries on how to build their collections.

The librari antiquari had a major influence on the development of both manuscript scholarship and connoisseurship. They amassed important collections for themselves, which included material that until then had been overlooked by most scholars and collectors. They also embarked on prestigious editorial projects, notably Olschki and Hoepli, who established publishing houses of major importance still in operation today. Olschki also founded the journal La Bibliofilia, which featured numerous articles by eminent philologists, historians and art historians still considered landmark studies in the twenty-first century. Among other activities, the librari antiquari contributed to the repatriation to Italy – from France and elsewhere – of manuscripts of high artistic and historical significance.

Federico's work examines the commercial strategies of the librari antiquari and how these related to their cultural projects. To what extent were those projects motivated by a genuine will to promote art and culture – or was it just good business sense?