American Biblioclasm

If you look up “biblioclast” in the dictionary (by which I mean click on that link, since no one actually uses a dictionary anymore and the word isn’t in a lot of them anyway) you’ll see it means one who destroys or mutilates a book. It is most often used to refer to book-burning, but to librarians and collectors, it refers to someone who separates out of leaves of a book to be used individually, mostly to be sold as works of art in their own right.

Before the printing press, books were individually created and “illuminated” by scribes and artists, some taking years to produce. Very few individuals could afford them, and very few could read. We’re talking here mostly about bibles, prayer books, texts used in the Catholic mass, and so on. Some examples of illuminations:


In many cases, books were hauled away and dismembered as part of the spoils of war. It was pretty much standard operating  procedure, since raising and maintaining armies was expensive and they were expected to pay for themselves.

In the last years of the 18th century, for example, Napoleon invaded Italy and looted the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Many of the liturgical manuscripts there were lost to biblioclasm and spread to the winds. Some did survive intact, found their way into private collections and can be seen by the public from time to time.

But some were cut up, reassembled, and sold as works of art. Between 1802-1806, the Venetian priest-turned-art-dealer, Abbé Luigi Celotti, cut miniatures from some of the Sistine Chapel loot to make montages which he framed and sold. This one, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard,  has as its central image a Last Judgement taken from a missal belonging to the Medici pope, Clement VII. The border has four scenes of Adam and Eve taken from other books, and the whole parallels the original sinners and the damned at the Second Coming of Christ.


From the book lover’s point of view, all this is quite barbaric.

In the 20th century, the Nazis took biblioclasm to new levels, burning any books written by Jews. This was, of course, an ideological outburst more related to the Bonfires of the Vanities than to biblioclasm-for-profit. Hard to say which is worse, really.

Right here in the U.S. we’ve had some pretty egregious examples of mutilating books for profit. A  good example is the Beauvais Missal, a manuscript produced at the end of the 13th century that originally had 309 leaves. It survived intact for well over six hundred years and was ultimately purchased at a Sotheby’s auction in 1926 by William Randolph Hearst, who sold it for $1000 in 1942 to New York dealer Philip Duschnes, a notorious book-breaker.

Duschnes quickly went to work selling leaves for $25 to $40. Today, there are 99 known leaves of the Beauvais Missal scattered across the world, in 26 states and five countries (Canada, Japan, Monaco, Norway, and England).

Here’s a case where someone found a leaf of the Missal in a trunk in Maine!


Leaf from the Beauvais Missal

All of this brings us to the real subject of today’s story: with help of the internet and digital technology, we can attempt to reassemble some of the books that were scattered in this way. The Broken Books project at Saint Louis University is attempting to re-assemble them digitally.

Here you can look at the leaves of the Beauvais Missal that have been traced so far, and here is an interesting site about the effort to reconstruct it.

What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.



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