Travel Series: The British Isles

The British Isles – made up of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (including England, Scotland, and Wales) and Northern Ireland – are some of the most traveled and beautiful countries in the world. Though not officially considered a part of the British Isles by their own government, Ireland is often associated with this group of nations, and is equally stunning and rich in culture in its own right. For our summer exhibit “Around the World in (Almost) 80 Days,” we here at Special Collections Research Center wanted to ensure that one exhibit case was dedicated to those lovely islands across the pond, with as much representation from its various countries as possible.

Our exhibit case dedicated to materials about or from the British Isles.

Perhaps the most fascinating object in our British Isles case is the rubbing of a 13th century brass engraving. Seemingly made with butcher paper and a waxy crayon, this rubbing from the Bernard Brenner brass rubbings collection depicts a knight dressed completely in armor, a sword at his hip, with his loyal companion – a dog – sitting at his feet. 

Close-up of Brass Rubbing of a Knight in the British Isles exhibit case.

Rubbings of brass, stone, or other materials have been practiced for centuries, beginning in China in the 7th century when this method was used to make copies of inscribed stone records.* Perhaps the most well-known usage of rubbings today is gravestone rubbing (though somewhat controversial.) No matter the object, time period, or individual, the idea is essentially the same – to transfer information that the object provides into a more portable format, whether to collect, use later for study, or simply to admire. When it comes to British brass rubbings specifically, our finding aid on the Brenner collection offers some crucial information on this practice:

“Brass rubbing is a technique to reproduce exactly the engraving on a monumental brass. Rubbings are made by carefully pressing paper onto a carved or incised surface so that the paper conforms to features to be copied. The paper is then blacked and the projecting areas of the surface become dark, while indented areas remain white. In Europe the technique of rubbing is almost exclusively applied to monumental brasses. Monumental brasses are usually figures, inscriptions, shields or other devices, engraved in plate brass and laid as memorials. Brasses originated in Europe where they first appeared in the thirteenth century. Brasses in churches are an important source of heraldic information. It was formerly a custom to put a brass over the grave slab, and on this would be shown a figure of the deceased with his armorial bearings.” 

Detail of Brass Rubbing of a Knight.

Besides the image of a knight, the Brenner collection also contains some other fascinating figures. One such image is that of a clergyman, cut from its original paper and set against cloth. Gowned in flowing liturgical robes, this priest is clearly of a high rank. With his scepter, beautifully woven chasuble and stole**, prominent hat, and his fingers in the sign of benediction, he cuts an imposing figure.

Brass Rubbing of a Catholic Priest.

Brass Rubbing of a 13th Century British Man.

Another notable rubbing within this collection is petite in stature, but by no means in interest. This rubbing depicts a gentleman in regal attire, with a significant amount of fur draped around his shoulders. The man also boasts a high, lavish collar, a full beard, and holds a book in his hand, likely bound in wood and leather, with leather thong clasps and metal bosses on the cover.***

Detail of Book.

These rubbings as a whole provide snapshots of what life was like in the late Middle Ages, and as evidenced provide invaluable insight into British life during the 13th century.

* http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EAL/stone/rubbings.html

**The outermost liturgical vestment for a Catholic priest, usually decorated/embroidered. A liturgical vestment made of cloth, worn around the neck.

***Thanks to our Research Services Coordinator Rebecca Bramlett for helping identify the book’s composition.

Our summer exhibition “Around the World in (Almost) 80 Days” runs through August 2017.

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts in our Travel Series on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts.  To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions. Appointments are not necessary to request and view collections.

New Rare Books in the Spotlight

Example of four flap enclosures for rare books and pamphlets.

For a brief period Wednesday, normal activity came to a halt in the Special Collections Research Center. Our fabulous Cataloging & Metadata Librarian, Friedgard Cowan, brought down a cart packed with recently cataloged rare books from Technical Services. When a rare book is donated or acquired, it is first cataloged in Technical Services, so that it will be accessible to researchers through our online Catalog. After it’s cataloged, the rare books are brought to the Research Services Coordinator in the Special Collections Research Center, so that we may assess any preservation needs it may have before shelving it in the stacks. Books in more fragile condition require an enclosure, like a phase box or four flap folder, before being able to be shelf-ready. Once it is determined that the book is “shelf-ready,” it is shelved in our closed stacks–ready to be pulled for the researchers who need it!

Seeing the “new to us” rare books is always exciting. So here, making their Special Collections Research Center debut:

First, an addition to our Decorated Bindings Collection! Elizabethan Songs “In Honour of Love and Beautie” Collected and Illustrated by Edmund H. Garrett, published in 1891.

Elizabethan Songs “In Honour of Love and Beautie” Collected and Illustrated by Edmund H. Garrett, published in 1891, PR 1207 .G3 1891

Elizabethan Songs “In Honour of Love and Beautie” Collected and Illustrated by Edmund H. Garrett, published in 1891, PR 1207 .G3 1891

In fact, music seems to be the theme of these recently cataloged books. From 1935, we have a first edition vocal score, “Songs from Top Hat,” with words and music by Irving Berlin. Songs included in this piano-vocal score include classics like, “Cheek to Cheek,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” and “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free).”

Songs from “Top Hat”, Lyrics and Music by Irving Berlin, published 1935, M 1508 .B465 T66 1935

Finally, an early musical manuscript: plainsong!

Can you see the grotesque face in the initial below?

Vellum Manuscript Leaf from a Choir Book in Latin, produced in the late 15th/early 16th century in Italy, M2147 XVI .M4

Special Collections Research Center’s Manuscripts and Archives Librarian, Liz Beckman, admiring the vellum manuscript leaf: Vellum Manuscript Leaf from a Choir Book in Latin, produced in the late 15th/early 16th century in Italy, M2147 XVI .M4

You can find these items and many more in our rare books collection. To search the rare books collection for interesting items from our collection, search the Mason Catalog, click on “Set Limit” and limit by the location “Fenwick Special Collections.”

E-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have any questions. Appointments are not necessary to view collections.

Marking the Hours

Music

Music for celebrating the Divine Office from the Directoriuvm Chori: Ad Vsvm Omnivm Ecclesiavm Cathedralium & CollegiatarumRare Books Collection, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries, M2153.2 .C36 1665

Sunday, November 27th marks the beginning of Advent in the Western Christian tradition. The season of Advent starts the fourth Sunday before Christmas and is preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. It also marks the beginning of the liturgical year in the Catholic Church.

In the Special Collections Research Center, we have some examples that allow us to see the ways in which people historically celebrated the Christian liturgical year.

Vellum Leaf from a Missal printed in 1493

Vellum Leaf from a Missal printed in 1493, Rare Books Collection, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries, BX2015 .A2 1493

In medieval Christian Europe, public worship and the liturgical year revolved around the Mass or the Divine Office.

The Mass can be defined as the rituals, hymns, and readings that evolved around the celebration of the Eucharist.

In contrast, the Divine Office is a set of prayers recited at specific hours of the day. The Divine Office is primarily composed of the biblical Psalms with supplemental hymns and readings. In the Middle Ages, singing the Divine Office was the responsibility of monks and nuns. According to John Cassian (d. 435), “The whole purpose of the monk and indeed the perfection of his heart amount to this–total and uninterrupted dedication to prayer.”(1)

The medieval Divine Office was composed of eight “Offices” or “hours.”

In the Middle Ages, each of these forms of worship (Mass & Divine Office) was celebrated using a different type of book:

  • Lectionary: used by priests, it contains the Scriptural readings for use in Mass
  • Breviary: used by monks, the Breviary was a service book containing the texts necessary to celebrate the Divine Office
  • Missal: used by priests, the missal is a service book containing texts (prayers and instructions) necessary for the performance of the Mass.
  • Gradual: used by priests, it contains the musical portions of the Mass, and omits the spoken parts
  • Antiphoner: used by monks, this book would have been large enough for a monastic choir to see it, and contains sung portions of the Divine Office.

One can see how the emergence of the printing press began to change these medieval books with one of the volumes from our Rare Books collection, the Directorivm chori : ad vsvm omnivm ecclesiarvm cathedralium & collegiatarumThe Directorivm Chori is the first post-Tridentine chant book published in Rome, and it contains the basic elements for singing the Divine Office, including the principal Psalms, hymns, verses, lessons and prayers. Unlike medieval antiphoners, however, the Directorivm Chori is small, meant to be held and viewed by one person–not an entire choir.

To search the rare books collection for more interesting items from our collection, search the Mason Catalog, click on “Set Limit” and limit by the location “Fenwick Special Collections.”

  1. John Cassian, Conferences. Trans. Colm Luibheid. (New York: Paulist Press, 1985) 101

 


E-mail us at speccoll@gmu.edu or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have any questions. Appointments are not necessary to view collections.