A Rare Collection Proves Illuminating for Scholars

By Lesley Young

While Rhodes sophomore Doug Fetterman ’16 stays busy at college studying cell structure and human anatomy to prepare for his career as a physician, he also manages to put in time to smooth the way for his retirement.

“I hope to collect rare books or curate a museum or be on a museum board,” says Fetterman, 20, a biology major from Hudson, OH. “My job as a Rhodes Student Associate offers me tools I can use later in life.”

As one of more than 100 students participating in the Rhodes Student Associate Program (RSAP), Fetterman works in the Archives and Special Collections housed in the Paul Barret, Jr. Library. The position is one he says he had designs on from the beginning. “I truly love books. I could have worked anywhere, but I wanted to be in the library.”

Fetterman’s current project is the scanning of select items from a collection of rare documents that share a narrative with similar pieces found in the libraries of Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, as well as other universities. “It’s a good feeling to see Rhodes’ name next to Yale’s and Harvard’s. I’m pretty proud of it,” Fetterman says.

Known as the Otto F. Ege Portfolios, the rare collection consists of single-page illuminated manuscript leaves, some dating back to the twelfth century. The leaves were disassembled from their original bindings, divided into 40 portfolios of around 50 pages each, and sold throughout the United States in the mid-twentieth century by the estate of Cleveland, OH, biblioclast and book collector Otto Ege.

Ege’s aim was to distribute the portfolios to various locations so that as many people as possible could study these ancient manuscripts and the creative art of bookmaking. The portfolios made their way to numerous universities, including those in the Ivy Leagues, and public libraries. Approximately 120 pages belong to Rhodes as part of the Jessie L. Clough Art Memorial for Teaching. The Rhodes portion of the collection comprises two complete portfolios—one of which contains Bible pages, many from the Vulgate Bible—and one partial portfolio.

Reuniting the Collection

As one of the institutions owning part of the Ege portfolios, Rhodes has been asked to help a University of South Carolina (USC) professor and expert on Ege reassemble the widespread collection digitally. Much of Fetterman’s RSAP time is spent scanning the Ege manuscripts on a specialized scanner that copies the documents at 1,200 dots per inch (dpi), a high-resolution measurement important for ancient documents, which have such features as gilded lettering, elegant calligraphy, and multihued illumination.

“They are beautiful. Using a scanner with the capability of 1,200 dpi, you really bring out the beauty and can see all the illuminations and hard work that went into creating these manuscripts,” Fetterman says.

He then stores the images in the Rhodes College Archives Digital Collection, called DLynx, where they have found a permanent home while they await a chance to be digitally reunited with leaves from other sources by virtue of USC’s Center for Digital Humanities. Thanks to USC’s professor of English and comparative literature Dr. Scott Gwara, the diaspora of what is projected to be 20,000 pages of historical manuscripts can now be reconciled through his digitization project, a project at which he’s been hammering away for more than four years.

“It’s an amazing thing. It’s like an invisible archive, and it will be as big a medieval library as any institution in the U.S.,” Gwara says. Gwara published a book about the collector, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts, last year and came up with the digitization project while simply looking for something to do.

“Five years ago I had just finished a book on Beowulf, and I wanted to do something else. I thought, ‘Why not catalogue all the manuscripts at University of South Carolina?’ We had a big exhibition. Then I thought, ‘Why not go to other states?’ ”

Eventually Gwara and his project partner, Eric Johnson, USC’s curator of early medieval manuscripts, decided to invite 50 founding partners to participate in the digitization of the Ege manuscripts.

Enter Rhodes

"I had been to Rhodes when I was doing a survey of manuscripts in the American South, so I was familiar with the manuscripts there. In fact, I was so impressed with the campus, I told my son about it, and he applied there,” Gwara says. “It has a gorgeous library.”

How the manuscripts came to Rhodes is its own saga. Due to the generosity of sisters Floy K. and Etta Hanson, Rhodes owns a collection of Asian woodcut prints, porcelains, fabrics, and other objects that the sisters obtained and donated to the college in honor of Floy Hanson’s teacher, mentor, and colleague Jessie L. Clough.

“When they were teachers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was an experimental teaching movement where you didn’t observe arts and crafts, but you created them,” explains Bill Short ’71, associate director of Barret Library and head of special collections. “Floy Hanson and Miss Clough would take students on trips and acquire these pieces.” Included in the 2,000 objects of the Clough Collection are the three portfolios of Ege manuscript leaves the Hanson sisters somehow procured in the 1950s and then dedicated to Clough.

A history of Ege on the Denison University website indicates that he died in 1951, having never sold one of the portfolios. His wife, however, took up the mantle and began selling the portfolios. Now, just as Ege wished, students, teachers, and scholars at Rhodes can study and admire Psalms from the Vulgate Bible, which dates back to the late fourth century; gilded lettering on a medieval manuscript; or a page from a 1240 A.D. document of Roman historian Livy.

Classics professors, English professors, history professors, and others have used the Ege manuscripts over the years, offering students insights into book culture, religious culture, historical systems of writing, and artisanship from the fourth century to the fifteenth. “You can talk about the features of early manuscripts and printed books, and people will get a dim idea, but when they actually get to touch one, a manuscript on vellum, which is animal skin, they realize the extraordinary care with which they were made,” Dr. Michael Leslie, professor of English and dean of British Studies, says. “It brings to life how many decisions were being made, how many people were involved, and by how many hands they were produced.”

“Some of them have marginalia—erratum notes to indicate that there was a mistake and this is the correction,” Short adds. “They couldn’t correct mistakes in their calligraphy. A sheep or a goat gave up its belly to make the vellum, so they would have to make a concession for the mistake.”

Dr. David Sick, associate professor in Greek and Roman studies, incorporates the manuscripts into his classroom. “Latin paleography, or the study of handwriting styles and manuscripts, is a highly specialized and technical field. Having the manuscript leaves in the library’s collection allows students a small glimpse into the difficulties of producing a modern edition of an ancient text. When an intermediate Latin student encounters a page of a manuscript from the Medieval period or the Renaissance, he/she can barely decipher one word, let alone translate a longer passage.”

While critics question Ege’s methods—ripping apart rare and historic books—the evidence speaks for itself. “It’s not common for a liberal arts college of this size to have such valuable manuscripts in its archives,” Short says. That was Ege’s intention all along.

“He was an interesting person. He believed in what he was doing and didn’t have any problem cutting up these books. A lot of people find it repulsive, but he wanted to sell to middle-class Americans. Manuscripts were expensive. He wanted people to be able to appreciate the script, the handling of the manuscripts, the artistry, decoration, and illumination,” says Gwara. “He helped popularize a form of connoisseurship called middle-class connoisseurship.”

“As a classicist,” Sick notes, “I’m happy to see the manuscripts put back together even in a virtual state. We had lost the original purposes of the texts by cutting them apart, both as literature and as works of art. By reassembling them virtually, we can still use them to teach basic skills in paleography as well as recognize their original composition.”

So far Gwara is waiting on close to 3,000 digitized pages from his 50 partners, including Rhodes. Fetterman says he’s barely scratched the surface with his scanning duties. “I’ve been working on it since December. Scanning is just in the early stages. Mostly I’ve been working on figuring out what they are, whether they are from a book of hours, breviaries, or stories from the Bible.”

Gwara is in no hurry. If he has his way, the end result will be far-reaching and considerable. The project’s programmer is still developing the interface so that viewers, who will be anyone with an interest in viewing the manuscripts online, may juxtapose and compare pages and flip them as a real book. “It’s incredibly complicated, with lots of functionalities, and I want it to be simple but robust,” Gwara notes.

“Something very important was lost by the breaking up of these books,” says Leslie. “Cultural products like that speak volumes, so to speak. The fact that we can have them back in a book form by being digitally reassembled means they can speak to us in a different way.”

Gwara hopes to have the USC manuscripts completely digitized by March and will insert those from other institutions as they come in. “Hopefully I can undo some of the damage done by Otto Ege,” he says.

By studying the collected manuscripts, maybe other bibliophiles such as Fetterman will find their calling. “This has given me a great appreciation of what rare books mean. This is something I truly love, and I hope to someday come back to it.”