Fifty-two discoveries from the BiblioPhilly project, No. 2/52
The Library Company of Philadelphia is justly famous for being the first successful lending library in the western hemisphere, and one of North America’s oldest cultural institutions. And while the Library’s headquarters on Locust Street houses an unparalleled collection of books and manuscripts relating to early American history, few are aware that it is also home to about thirty Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Several of these are exceptional not, primarily, for their content, but for the early date at which they arrived on American shores. Manuscripts known to have been present in American collections before the turn of the nineteenth century are vanishingly rare, and the paths by which they crossed the Atlantic remain relatively understudied.
A good example of this phenomenon is a late-fifteenth-century manuscript that contains an unpublished devotional text in French, the Traictie des VII fruis de tribulacion or Treatise on the Seven Fruits of Tribulation, written by a member of the Celestine order, an offshoot of the Benedictines founded by Pope Celestine V. The manuscript itself contains a single, heavily damaged opening miniature representing a kneeling layman in prayer before Saint Michael, Saint James (or possibly Saint Roch), and a bishop saint. The unidentified coat-of-arms below it has been erased and crudely re-drawn, frustrating our ability to identify the figure represented in the scene above. The preceding flyleaf contains a later ownership inscription, perhaps dating to circa 1600, also in French, that has unfortunately been partially effaced and rendered illegible, though the somewhat earlier, elaborate, late-Gothic penwork below it is clearly readable as “L’an mil cinq cens et trente huit,” or, the year fifteen-thirty-eight.
Traictie des VII fruis de tribulacion, Philadelphia, The Library Company of Philadelphia, Ms. 18 875.Q, unnumbered flyleaf recto
The manuscript is of special interest to Philadelphians because it once belonged to the pioneering bibliophile William Mackenzie (July 1758–1828), who bequeathed the little book to the Loganian Library, later the Library Company of Philadelphia, in 1828. As Edwin Wolf stated, at the time of his death, Mackenzie possessed “by far the most valuable collection of antiquarian and modern books up to then gathered by an American.” The diminutive Traicitie des VII fruis can be found in the first Catalogue of the books belonging to the Loganian library, published in 1837. But the manuscript’s rather unusual title has facilitated the identification of this very volume in a Parisian auction catalog of 1785 (De Bure, Catalogue des livres rare et précieux de M. …. [d’Hess], Paris, 7 March 1785, lot 35).
This was the sale of Joseph-Louis, Baron d’Heiss, the ambassador of the Palatine Elector in Paris. According to a recent Christie’s sale catalogue the Baron “ruined himself through extravagant book acquisitions and was forced to sell his library in 1781 for 100,000 livres to Antoine-Rene d’Argenson, marquis de Paulmy (1722-1787), founder of the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal…. Able to pay off his debts, but bereft of his library, d’Heiss began to collect again, and in the next few years formed a second library, which was dispersed in his anonymous sale by de Bure.” Throughout the multiple sales of his collection, detailed here in an excellent blog post by Jean-Paul Fontaine, he preferred to remain anonymous, noted only as “M. le Baron d’***,” though his identity may have been an open secret to those in the know.
We do not know how rapidly Mackenzie purchased the manuscript following the sale, nor if he knew anything of its prior provenance. Little is known about William Mackenzie’s life, aside from his book collecting, though he apparently did not travel much beyond Philadelphia. The publication that accompanied a 1995 exhibition held at the Library Company, entitled William Mackenzie: America’s First Book Collector, provides some further information, as does the entry in the American National Biography, which recalls that:
The dispersal of hundreds of monastic and aristocratic libraries during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars created an unprecedented opportunity for collectors such as Mackenzie, who were able to acquire a far greater amount of much older and rarer material on the open market than had previous generations. While few sources for Mackenzie’s purchases have been identified, it is known that he bought at local bookstores…. Trade between Europe and the United States had resumed in 1784, so by the following year the acquisition of such a book would have been feasible, though presumably an intermediary was used…. It is likely that he had a European agent looking out for his interests.
Whether Mackenzie acquired the book directly from this sale via an agent in Europe, or through the intermediary of an American bookseller such as Thomas Dobson (1751–1823), is difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, the Library Company manuscript represents an extremely early example of an (admittedly modest) object from a major European aristocratic collection being purchased by a New World collector, preceding the large-scale American interest in medieval manuscripts by a century or more.