While Beowulf is one of the most important and most translated works of medieval English literature, its study universally strikes fear in the hearts of those studying it. Enter Dr. Scott Gwara, a University of South Carolina professor of English language and literature. He spent six years completing a 420-page book on the 3,182 alliterative lines. After Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf was published in 2008, he quipped, “I needed something else to do, something easier.” He then focused on cataloguing and expanding a collection of extremely rare, handwritten medieval manuscripts, many of which are housed in the Thomas Cooper Library at USC.
South Carolina has a history of medieval manuscripts stretching back to the late 19th century. The first one in a South Carolina institution is a 15th century copy of Horace’s works donated to the Charleston Library Society in 1864. Since then, libraries in the state have added more than 200 extraordinarily rare handwritten fragments or entire manuscripts dating from 1150 to 1600 A.D. and originating in eight different European countries.
And while USC owned most of these rare manuscripts, it wasn’t until his Beowulf project wrapped up that Scott heroically took up the sword and began his quest to expand the university’s collection of them, much like that Geatish hero who sought to retrieve treasures hidden in a dragon’s cave.
“I thought this effort was really interesting,” says Scott, who started traveling and gathering materials and photographs for this project in 2007. “I thought we should buy manuscripts. I was sure they were available at auction.”
Sadly, his pursuit of that first elusive manuscript ended no better for Scott than it did for Beowulf (spoiler alert — Beowulf was killed by the dragon). “We didn’t get it,” says Scott, “and I was so demoralized.”
But Scott had something that Beowulf did not: a loving and supportive wife who would not let him give up on his dreams. After doing her own research, architect Maryellyn Cannizzaro Gwara showed him an article that chronicled how the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, a charitable foundation located in New York, awarded grants to libraries specifically to help them purchase medieval manuscripts.
Scott immediately contacted the organization. They not only agreed to assist him but at the next sale completely funded a Cistercian sermon manual dated 1269. It includes 23 individual components, sermons, dictionaries, and commentaries, which now makes their home at the USC library.
“That was the beginning of a really important relationship,” says Scott. “I have also had help from the library’s special collections division and the vice president for research, so over the past 13 years, we have really managed to put together a fantastic teaching collection.”
The process became so involved that Scott quickly saw the need to chronicle not only information about the artifacts themselves, but how they were located, their significance in both the study of medieval times and the teaching of those times, and how many came to live in various institutions in South Carolina. Part of this endeavor became “Pages from the Past,” a digital record of South Carolina’s medieval manuscripts currently residing in its teaching institutions.
“I imagine this to be a 20 year project,” he says. “I am going to retire in about five years, and this will be my legacy for the citizens of the state.”
That legacy has already accumulated many accolades for Scott, including numerous grants given in support of his manuscripts initiative. He was also the 2019 recipient of the “Fresh Voices in the Humanities Award” from the Humanities Council of South Carolina.
It was not enough, however, that Scott began accumulating an impressive collection that can be used by many disciplines as a means to bring the Middle Ages to life. He saw a need to show why a compilation of medieval treasures is important and how it can be accumulated, even for an institution without unlimited funding or an endowment for such endeavors.
“A collection doesn’t materialize immediately. It is layered up over decades and, in our case, it’s taken almost 50 years,” he says. “USC got involved in 1965 by acquiring its first manuscript — a chronicle of world history by English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden. Origins are important. You want to know how the institution got its treasures, what the collection holds, and how it can be taught.”
So, Scott did one of the things that he does best. He wrote another book. Published in 2018, A History of the Teaching Collection of Early Manuscripts at the University of South Carolina, details not only the collection itself but how, without the funds to purchase complete manuscripts or those of more “popular works” — think King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table or anything written in Middle English — these lesser valued artifacts can have a huge impact on the ability to teach generations of students about that particular time period and bring it all to life.
“This book documents why we built the collection,” says Scott. “There are two aspects to this process. There is teaching, and there is research.”
According to Scott, most affordable manuscripts aren’t going to lead to published research because that kind of scholarship takes the procurement of incredibly obscure artifacts that are financially out of reach for this South Carolina special collection.
And yet, even if they aren’t the most valuable relics from the Middle Ages, USC’s manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts still provide students with an invaluable opportunity to look at, read, and hold an actual item from that early period. That alone can be a transcendent experience.
“If you pick up a book of Chaucer,” says Scott, “it’s probably a paperback that was printed on demand, possibly this past year. So you end up reading a text that is not in its original format.”
However, if you hold a manuscript from the special collection and have the actual original handwritten article in your hand, you are approaching it like it would have been approached by a medieval reader. “It is a completely different experience,” says Scott. “The impact is tremendous. It is magical.”
These magical treasures are housed where most magical treasures are housed: in the library.
Within the USC Thomas Cooper Library lies a room called “The Vault” — a cold, humidity-controlled treasury where all the university’s most valuable manuscripts wait for a day when they will be held in a student’s hand and can transport this reader through the centuries, connecting him or her to the original writer in a way that nothing else can. “The Vault is the university’s treasure house,” says Scott. “There is nothing on campus like it.”
Even the merest artifact, perhaps just a page from a book that might be deemed insignificant by institutions with access to greater funds, can be a powerful teaching tool.
Sadly, many fragments exist out there in the world due to the contemptible practice of some unscrupulous booksellers buying a complete manuscript, then cutting out the leaves and selling them individually for a few hundred dollars apiece. The seller makes more money, but these irreplaceable treasures are decimated and scattered throughout the world, with no chance of being brought together again except digitally.
“It is an awful practice,” says Scott. “A collector buys a page and hangs it on a wall and it gets lost to scholarship. We have bought some pages, but generally we don’t. However, these leaves can still be an incredible teaching tool, which is the only thing that saves this terrible practice from being a complete loss.”
The commercial vandalism of precious artifacts, ripping apart priceless and irreplaceable items from a bygone era, bothered Scott so much that he did what he does when he becomes passionate about any subject. He wrote a book.
Otto Ege’s Manuscripts: A Study of Ege’s Manuscript Collections, Portfolios, and Retail Trade with a Comprehensive Handlist of Manuscripts Collected or Sold, published in 2013, chronicles a rare book dealer who launched this horrible tradition and sold tens of thousands of individual pages across the globe.
Fortunately, these leaves, which should never have been separated and often lack the references and surrounding context that a full manuscript could provide, can be used to educate students on how to ascertain its original place in history. Scott takes a leaf, perhaps a piece of a prayer book, and asks his students where it might have been placed in the completed manuscript, rather like a magical, medieval researching adventure but without the terrorizing monsters who devour warriors or fire-breathing dragons with poisonous blood.
“You give students the scholarly resources and help them identify what they’re holding,” says Scott, “and then they see for themselves how this process of discovery works.”
In order to keep acquiring artifacts, to keep inspiring his students with items that bring the Middle Ages to life, Scott has to be creative. Only so many of these wonders exist on the planet, and many other institutions and private collectors are seeking the same relics.
“We are competing against billionaires for these materials,” says Scott, “and if we don’t get it now, we never will. The international competition for manuscripts is fierce.”
But even as the underdog in the world of medieval manuscript acquisitions, Scott never gives up. He has on occasion been able to obtain valuable fragments out from under the nose of considerably more wealthy and formidable universities.
“One of our rarest pieces is a scroll,” says Scott. “It is part of a large 80-foot scroll, and we have about 7 feet of it.” This particular piece is very fragmented, with two pieces at Harvard and one in a private collection in Germany.
“We bought our three pieces out from under Harvard,” says Scott. “They were doubtless disappointed, but if they wanted it, they should have been prepared to pay more. We were motivated.” This illustrates a good lesson to be learned by Harvard: never underestimate the passion and commitment of a man who not only wants the absolute best teaching tools for his students as a means to launch them into bigger and more prestigious avenues for medieval research but who also will probably write a book about it.
Because of the necessity to be frugal, Scott is very careful about what items he pursues. Those artifacts that are simply beautiful or popular are not going to make it into the collection. “I’m very picky when I am looking for manuscripts,” says Scott. “We can only get what can be used for many different purposes. I go through quite a calculation when I am looking at these objects because I realize that something that will last forever in our collection has to have multiple utilities.”
One of his favorites in the collection is a Bible from Oxford. It was difficult to get because the Museum of the Bible, which opened in November 2017 in Washington, D.C., was at that time showing up at every auction with the sole purpose of buying up Bibles. But the underdog won again, and it is now a prized part of the USC set. According to Scott, it is pristine.
“It survives as it had been written 800 years ago.”
Another favorite is that first complete manuscript he acquired, the Cistercian sermon manual, because it has three pages from a bestiary, a medieval book of beasts — even mythical ones — that were thought to have metaphorical meanings. These animals were also peppered into sermons to make points a little more amusing to the listener, not unlike the modern-day teacher who brings her cat into the Zoom classroom to help keep her students engaged.
“This manuscript has the serpent, the lion, the unicorn, the weasel, the badger, and the hoopoe bird,” says Scott. “Just try finding another bestiary like that on the market!”
Often in these manuscripts, the content was not all that was of interest. The scribes — the monks, musicians, poets — who copied the script from the original authors make up a large part of the story.
“Many of these scribes have a very identifiable script, a very identifiable handwriting,” says Scott. “You know by the angle of the pen or the little curlicues or the way he makes the tail of the G, who this is. You say, ‘Oh, wait a minute here! This fellow was an archbishop, and he wrote manuscripts for the pope! And some of these manuscripts are still in the Vatican.’ And you say, ‘What is his story?’”
Scott is very passionate about all aspects of the special collection, but the main point he wants to make is that these manuscripts are not just about him or the university. “This collection belongs to the state’s citizens,” he says. “It’s not mine, it’s not the university’s, it is everybody’s. And anybody is welcome to come and see it.”
Scott wants scholars and laymen alike to come see these priceless treasures. He knows that they will be with the school forever, to be studied and enjoyed by countless generations. “We have done something that is eternal,” he says. “It is going to last, and it only gets more valuable over time. And we have it — we have it! It is a genuine legacy, beyond me, that is going to persist.”
Dr. Scott Gwara wants to share this treasure with everyone. And, quite possibly, he will write a few more books on the subject as well.