In the early decades of the 20th century, a Cleveland book collector named Otto Ege (pronounced egg-ee) removed the leaves from hand-written medieval books, divided them among 40 boxes, and sold the boxes around the world. His purpose was to provide as many people as possible with access to a variety of medieval manuscripts. As he wrote in defense of his practice: “Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”
Most of these boxes, each containing approximately 50 leaves, now reside in university and public library collections in Europe, the United States and Canada. In 1957, University of Saskatchewan library director David Appelt, aware of the existence of the Ege collections and their potential significance, contacted the Walter Murray Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.) and received a $750 donation in order to purchase one of the boxes (#25). It is now worth several hundred times that original purchase price.
The leaves contained in each box were created between 1100 and 1550 AD, mostly in monasteries in Europe and England. They were written by hand (the printing press was not invented until 1450) on the prepared skin of sheep and calves. Almost all the leaves are religious in content, taken from books used to celebrate the Catholic mass, from Bibles, from Books of Hours and from other devotional writing.
This exhibit displays how the leaves were originally produced by many hands over many weeks and months, and how the leaves were designed to be used for a variety of purposes. Products of intense work and devotion, some are visually modest, others extraordinarily beautiful. All reveal the human labour involved in the attempt to communicate on the written page, a familiar activity to us now but a developing and experimental one when these leaves were produced. The last leaves in the exhibit, created after the invention of the printing press, mark the end of manuscript culture and the beginning of the mass-produced text we now call the book.