When Charles Argersinger shows visitors around the exhibit of illuminated manuscripts in the Special Collections area of the Holland and Terrell Library, his pleasure is palpable.
“More than anything else, I love the wild imagination of these scribes,”
To get a photo/musical sneak preview via photos by Ben Herndon, WSU Today intern, click on the following
he says, standing in front of a page from a 15th century choir book. On the parchment, a blue “E” is encased in the finest filigree of red ink, swirling off into the margin in a flight of elaborate and unrestrained fancy.
“What were they thinking?” he asks.
Over the past dozen years, Argersinger has collected 20 illuminated manuscript pages (and one printed page for comparison purposes!) working with dealers in the U.S. and Europe. Dating from 1250 to 1742, they are on display at the library in the first public exhibition of Argersinger’s collection. The show has been extended into November from its original closing date of Oct. 1.
Argersinger, a professor of music in the School of Music and Theater Arts, said he became interested in the manuscripts after a colleague in the music department, Lori Wiest, showed him a dealer’s catalog that she had picked up at a chorale music convention.
Wiest, who directs WSU’s Madrigal Singers, said she was surprised to see that the manuscripts were for sale.
“These are things I had studied about in my doctoral,” she said. “I had only seen them in museums.”
Being able to see actual pages up close has been amazing, she said.
“They are exquisite, really.”
Michael Hanly, another colleague of Argersinger’s, also has enjoyed seeing the manuscripts up close, but he has done more than admire them. He has transcribed, translated and annotated them.
“It was a bit of work,” he said, and laughed. “For me, this is dessert. It’s the fun stuff.”
A medievalist and professor in the English department, Hanly’s research includes the painstaking work of transcription and translation, mostly of works penned during Geoffrey Chaucer’s lifetime.
But it isn’t a simple matter of copying down what he sees on the page, though that too can be tricky because of damaged pages or scribal errors. As illustrated by his work on Argersinger’s manuscripts, often what is written on the page is a small fraction of what was communicated to a medieval reader or musician.
All in Latin, the pages are replete with abbreviations, the meaning of which could vary from region to region, monastery to monastery or even scribe to scribe.
“Every manuscript is different,” Hanly said, and that’s what makes it interesting.
For him, one of the most interesting pages in Argersinger’s collection is an elaborately decorated page from a “gradual,” a choir book containing the sung portions of the Mass.
In it, though both the calligraphy and filigree are exquisite, several lines have been carefully crossed out in red ink. If it was really a mistake, he said, the scribe would have simply used a tool to scrape the ink off the animal-skin parchment and re-do the passage. Hanly said he called on colleagues all over the country to see if anyone could explain it, and no one could.
“I love that it’s still a mystery,” he said.
For Argersinger, one of the most interesting pages is a sheet of music that uses Hufnagelschrift (shapes like horse-shoe nails) for notation instead of the more typical neumes that were shaped like squares or diamonds. The staff shows middle C as a yellow line and the F below middle C as a red line, but the staff itself can change, like the modern movable C-clef.
Still, it would be hard for Argersinger to choose his favorite piece.
“Each one of them is very special and has a definite reason for why I chose it,” he said.
As a collection, the pages remind him that even during medieval times, when life was often brutal, there were musicians and artists who retained a sense of beauty, a sense of art.
Maybe the Dark Ages weren’t entirely dark, he said.