Otto F. Ege, an Ohio-based scholar and book dealer, made a controversial practice of dismantling medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and selling the individual leaves for profit during the first half of the last century.
Ege (pronounced EGG-ee) argued that his book-breaking served a noble purpose by providing people access to medieval relics that they otherwise would never be able to afford. Scholars lament the damage he did to numerous significant manuscripts.
When he died in 1951, Ege left to his family a collection of full manuscripts and manuscript fragments.
Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library recently acquired Ege’s collection, adding dozens of manuscript fragments and more than 50 complete manuscripts to the library’s rich collection of medieval material.
The Beinecke purchased the collection from Ege’s grandchildren: Jack, Tom, Susan, and Jo Freudenheim.
“Otto Ege was a scholar and educator whose passion was to make manuscripts and early printed books accessible to non-scholars and scholars alike,” says Susan Freudenheim on the family’s behalf. “The Beinecke’s commitment to preserving his collection and to making the works he collected available to students, scholars and the public, both digitally and in the library, is very much in keeping with Ege’s work.”
He defended his practice of unbinding books in “I am a Biblioclast,” an essay published in in the March, 1938 issue of Avocations, a hobby and leisure magazine.
“Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments,” he wrote. “Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”
Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America says that, in many cases, the books Ege took apart were unique and important.
“Ege left an indelible imprint on the landscape of early manuscripts and books in North American collections; there are more than 25,000 single leaves of early manuscripts in the United States and Canada, and it has been estimated that at least 10% of these passed through Ege’s hands,” Fagin Davis says.
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