Curator's Choice: English missal: The John Rylands University Library

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The Independent Culture
My chosen item is a large English missal, handwritten during the second half of the 14th century and lavishly decorated. A missal contains the text and information of the mass and was used exclusively by the clergy in the context of worship. The book was probably placed on the altar and included stage directions written in red to tell the priest what to do next.

The decorations around the capitals in this book are mainly floral but on some of them you can see little faces in the smaller penwork initials.

They first discovered some bits were missing in 1845, but the trail got really hot in 1848 when they found out that since being rebound it had been more extensively mutilated. It was thought that the librarian had failed in his duties but they then discovered a number of their books in the hands of a bookseller in Manchester who told them that they had been sold to him by a woman whom he recognised as being the wife of the assistant librarian. The assistant librarian was then arrested, as well as being sacked.

I think medieval manuscripts have a sort of instant appeal. In this one I particularly like the penwash because a lot of the formal illumination is not as imaginative as this. It has absolutely nothing to do with the text and that's what's so exciting. It seems so frivolous, almost as if the artist was just amusing himself.

Sarah Lawrance is Exhibition Officer for The John Rylands University Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester (061-834 5343). The exhibition 'Treasures of Chetham's Library' to 16 Jul, Mon-Fri 10am-5.30pm, Sat 10am-1pm

(Photograph omitted)