The Wow Factor

I tell visitors that this book was an early lesson in humility for me. When I became curator of Illinois Wesleyan University’s special collections sixteen years ago, I was surprised to learn that we had no information about how the book came to campus. The first page says it is part one of the work but we don’t know where part two is and we don’t know how part one got here! To our undergraduate student population it is the Harry Potter book. The shorthand I use is chant book.

There’s no mystery about what the book is: a medieval codex containing music and text for a Catholic Mass. But it’s big, and no one can believe we don’t have any information on its origins. There are two photos that offer clues to how long it’s been on campus. They date to the 1950s-60s and show it being used in the music library of that era. Those photos and a research paper a music history student did on it in the early 2000s are all we have to go on. That student dated it to the late 1500s and determined it was of Spanish origin. But we can’t say if it was made by monks in the New World or brought from Spain. Once, a political science major who was working as an assistant in the archives and who also was a member of our Collegiate Choir sang from it for a group of Humanities students.

I am not a medievalist or a Catholic and I don’t read music, but I am a shameless fan of the material culture used to convey ideas over time. And I am not above using the full force of the artifacts available to me to generate audible responses of “wow” from visitors of all ages. This book is a wonderful teaching object for book history and a great hook for engaging curious minds.

This large volume prompts myriad questions: Who would use this book? What is it made of? Why would one side of a leaf be white and the other yellow? Why does some of the vellum show stitching marks? What design choices can you identify in it? Are there parts of the book that tell you something about the social status and cultural values of its creators? And why on earth would anyone cut off the top of the only fully decorated initial letter in the book and leave all that white space at the bottom? 

I don’t expect that contributing it to The Peripheral Manuscripts Project will resolve the mysteries of this volume’s relationship to Illinois Wesleyan University, but wouldn’t it be cool if someone out there has part two? Whatever happens, we’re bound to learn something new about this book and the 13 other medieval manuscript leaves and fragments we hold. It’s exciting to share in the wow factor of material culture with this larger community.

By Meg Miner, University Archivist & Special Collections Librarian/Associate Professor, Illinois Wesleyan University

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