In Reno, she found a 15th-century French prayer book with gold leaf once owned by a Welsh actor-turned-missionary. In South Dakota, she discovered a 600-year-old leaf from another book with a prayer meditating on the final seven statements uttered by Jesus.
And in Boulder, Colo., she found a rare image of the martyrdom of St. Eustace, who was boiled in a hollow bronze idol shaped like a calf.
Lisa Fagin Davis has written about each of these hand-written medieval manuscripts in university libraries as part of her virtual road trip around the country, examining ancient European texts found in unexpected places in the United States. Davis, who lives in Newton, is an authority on medieval manuscripts and recently started blogging about her finds.
“Everybody knows about manuscripts at Harvard and at the Getty,” she said, referring to the famous museum in Los Angeles. “But nobody knows about manuscripts in South Dakota and Ohio.”
Davis, the acting executive director of the Medieval Academy of America in Cambridge, teamed up with a friend, Melissa Conway, head of special collections at the University of California Riverside, to assemble an online directory of manuscripts created before 1600 and stored in public libraries, universities, and other places in the United States and Canada. A massive catalog of manuscripts was published in 1935, and updated in 1962 — but nothing had been done since then, she said.
But during their research, Davis also became intrigued by the stories of how the manuscripts made their way from their origins in Europe to the United States. She estimates there are about 20,000 bound books and 25,000 single pages in this country. Each one of them arrived here through the art market or by changing hands in some other way.
“Every manuscript in a US collection has a story behind it and some of those stories are fascinating,” she said. “I’ve developed a particular interest in how those manuscripts have moved around in the last 100 years or so.”
The University of Nevada Reno manuscript, several hundred leaves written in 15th-century France, had a particularly interesting history. A combination prayer book, breviary, and Psalter, or Book of Psalms, it was given to the school by Gareth Hughes, a Welshman who acted on Broadway and in silent films in Hollywood.
“We’ve met some interesting characters in our travels so far, but we haven’t encountered anyone like Gareth Hughes,” Davis wrote in her blog.
In the 1940s, he gave up acting and spent more than a decade as a missionary to the Paiute tribe in Nevada. He died in 1965 of complications from a lint-borne respiratory disease linked to years of sorting donated clothing.
No one knows how or when Hughes acquired the manuscript, part of his collection of rare books, Davis said, but many suspect it was during his trips to Europe in the 1920s.
William Stoneman, curator of early books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library, said the stories behind how centuries-old manuscripts made their way to the United States are as important to American culture as the objects themselves. After Davis wrote about the Reno manuscript, the university invited her to Nevada to give a talk about it.
“What she can tell them about the manuscript is half the story,” Stoneman said. “What they can tell her about how it got there is the other half of the story, and equally exciting and important.”
In her blog, Davis has zigzagged across the northern part of the country, checking in at university and public libraries along the way. She started in September at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, and earlier this month she reached the West Coast.
Next she will head south along the California coast and turn eastward again.
“It means that smaller colleges and universities not in major urban centers have material to contribute,” Stoneman said. “And it’s now much easier to get access to it than it was in the past.”
More people read her blog each week — 500 to 700 — than ever read her journal articles, Davis said.
She has worked for 25 years as a consultant cataloging medieval manuscripts all over the country. She recently spent 18 months working on the Boston Public Library’s collection of manuscripts, reviewing and describing each piece — staffers at the library had known there were errors in the way the manuscripts were described. The library has one of the country’s largest public collections of early manuscripts.
Davis was able to determine when, where, why, and by whom many manuscripts were written, said Susan Glover, keeper of special collections at the library.
“I remember one day, she came into my office, she was so excited,” Glover said. “She had been able to track the provenance of the manuscript from the time it was written to us, and there were 16 different owners.”
Davis has also worked to digitize medieval manuscripts to make them more easily available to anyone who wants to see them. But scanning fragile manuscripts is complicated.
Some of the manuscripts contain gold leaf, which can be damaged by static in the scanner. Too much light will harm the pigments. They are often written on vellum, which is parchment made of animal skin and is often no longer flat.
“Manuscripts are very fragile,” she said. “You can’t just smash them face-down onto a scanner.”
At the Boston Public Library, which is photographing its literary and historic manuscripts, it’s often a three-person job: a technician operating the camera and two conservators holding down the page. “It’s a long and tedious and very careful process,” Glover said.
Davis plans to write about manuscripts at libraries around the country as she heads east. She will end her virtual road trip in Boston.
“I think all of us who are interested in the field of medieval manuscripts wait for the next installment to see where she’s going next,” Glover said.
Follow Davis and her discoveries at www.manuscriptroadtrip.wordpress.com.
Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow here on Twitter @KathleenBurge.