The Free Library of Philadelphia's Lewis-Widener manuscript collection is part of our national and world heritage of hand-written and illustrated texts that have survived from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It contains 255 complete codices, 2,000 illuminated leaves (single manuscript pages separated from books), and 1,000 leaves with text only, which are fragments from almost two thousand books. A few leaves date from as early as the ninth and tenth centuries. The earliest codices are from the eleventh century, with the majority dating from the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries.
The John Frederick Lewis collection was donated to the Free Library in the 1930s and includes manuscripts of high artistic value, as well as representative examples of a broad range of medieval books. In 1939, Joseph E. Widener donated nine manuscripts of extraordinary historical and artistic quality to the Free Library.
The Rare Book Department is open on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tours of the department are available Monday through Friday at 11:00 a.m., or at other times by prior arrangement.
Featured below, as an introduction to the collection, are some of the manuscripts in the Free Library collection that are especially notable.
The Psalter, containing the 150 psalms traditionally believed to have been composed by King David, was "the prime devotional, liturgical, and educational text of the medieval Christian world." This example from early thirteenth-century Paris is one of the glories of the Lewis Collection, and is commonly now called "the Lewis Psalter." The manuscript begins with a series of 48 roundels (miniatures in round frames, all of which are shown here) depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the events surrounding his return at the end of time.
This incomplete thirteenth-century Bible has tiny historiated initials by William de Brailes, one of the very few medieval manuscript painters known to us by name. De Brailes worked in Oxford from about 1230 to 1260, and about a dozen manuscripts have been attributed to him. The initial paintings in this Bible, each only a little over one inch square, vividly depict events in the books of the Bible, which they introduce.
Edward IV, king of England from 1460 to 1483, claimed the throne toward the end of the long series of civil wars now known as "the Wars of the Roses." This elaborately decorated parchment roll was made to demonstrate Edward's royal ancestry all the way back to Adam and his descendents. His equestrian portrait at the top of the roll is somewhat damaged, but the other imagery, including the resurrected Christ, patriarchs of the Old Testament, Roman emperors, and Anglo-Saxon kings, is remarkably fresh and clear. (Note that the roll itself is very large—over 15 feet long—but the illuminations are quite small, the intention apparently being to pack in as much information as possible.)
The Edward IV roll was displayed as part of the Leaves of Gold exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2001. The extensive online exhibition is worth visiting.
The great majority of the books produced during the manuscript period were religious in content, but secular works, like this one, certainly existed. Many of them perished from long years of continual use, but this one has survived in excellent condition. It is a long allegorical poem, clearly inspired by The Romance of the Rose, relating a dream-journey in which the protagonist learns that to work hard is virtuous and admirable. The miniature paintings are probably the work of an anonymous artist called "The Master of Sir John Fastolf."
It is only in the last few years that Janet Backhouse, the former keeper of manuscripts at the British Library, hypothesized that these four leaves, and about sixty-four others in various European and American collections, all came from a single book: a magnificent Book of Hours painted for Louis XII of France by the great manuscript painter Jean Bourdichon in about 1498. The calendar pages in Books of Hours give the saints' days for each month; more elaborate books, like this one, also show the sign of the Zodiac for the season, and an activity proper to that time of year. These leaves feature feasting and keeping warm in February; mowing in June; winnowing in August; and wine-making in September.
Medieval books were mostly not sumptuous productions full of gold and brilliant color, but even fairly modest books could have at least a few decorations. This miscellany includes several works by Albert of Brescia, highly fictionalized history and geography, and a collection of prophecies. The marginal decorations include numerous birds like the ones at the head and foot of the first page, a warrior in combat with a snail, and the fox and crane familiar from the fables of Aesop.