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UCL Special Collections


Updates from one of the foremost university collections of manuscripts, archives and rare books in the UK


Advent Definitions: Holiday fragments

By Helen Biggs, on 22 December 2017

Contributed by Katy Makin, UCL Archivist

R 221 DICTIONARIES ANON 1779 – A pocket dictionary : or, complete English expositor (London, 1779)

References to ecclesiastical festivals, or ‘holy-days’ feature strongly in our collection of manuscript fragments. These are around 150 pieces of medieval and early modern manuscripts, primarily leaves from liturgical texts such as missals, breviaries, psalters, and bibles, but also including biblical commentaries and key legal and philosophical texts of the medieval period.

They exist as fragments because they were recycled as decorative covers and endpapers or to reinforce the binding of printed books, which was common practice from the end of the medieval period onwards. Most of our fragments were probably ‘rescued’ from bindings in the 20th century.

Unsurprisingly, both the recycling and the rescuing caused a great deal of damage to the leaves. Helpfully, this damage now provides clues as to how the pieces were used. Here is a piece that was used as an outer cover:

MS FRAG/LAT/30 Fragment of a Missal, C13th

Note the shape – it has been cut so that the edges form tabs to wrap around wooden boards. The tabs are much cleaner than the rest of the page because they were protected by being inside the book.

MS FRAG/LAT/4 Fragment of a Breviary, C13th

Unfortunately, being on the inside hasn’t protected this piece, which was used as an end pastedown. The brown patches around the edges are remnants of leather binding from where it was glued to the inner surface of the board and some of the large decorated initial N has been lifted away by the adhesive.

MS FRAG/LAT/62 Fragment of a Missal, C14th?

This piece has a special relevance to this advent blog because it is a page from a missal (a book containing prayers, chants, readings and rubrics for the celebration of Mass) showing the text for the Mass on Christmas Eve.

The text for Christmas Eve begins at the red writing, or rubric, a little over half way down the first column, which says “In vigilia nativitatis. Intro[itus]” – i.e. “The Vigil of the Nativity. Introduction”

On the next line, and elsewhere on the page, you’ll notice a large gap where a decorated initial letter should be. This is because when manuscripts were made it was normal for the main text to be written first and the rubrics, initials and decoration to be added afterwards, sometimes by different people. In this example, the scribe has left a space for the capital H of “Hodie scietis” and other large initials but these were never completed.

This raises questions about the original manuscript. Why was it left unfinished? What would it have looked like if it had been completed? Was this page ever used by a religious community to celebrate Christmas Eve? Whatever the answer, the fact is that this page, intended for use during Advent and Christmas, may be the only surviving piece of the original manuscript. Whether Christmas is to you a “holy day” or a “holiday”, it’s a poignant link to the past and the traditions that we continue to celebrate centuries later.

The whole of the MS Fragments collection has been digitised and will be available online soon.

In the meantime, extended descriptions of all the fragments can be found in our catalogue