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How the trade in medieval manuscripts affected the development of ideas about the nature and value of European culture.


The CULTIVATE MSS project, based in the Institute of English Studies, explores how the trade in medieval manuscripts between 1900 and 1945 affected the development of ideas about the nature and value of European culture during this period.

This period saw a growing market for medieval books, with record prices at auction in the 1920s, before the global depression of the 1930s. Yet some manuscripts were considered more desirable than others, fetching higher prices and attracting more attention in publications. CULTIVATE MSS analyses the impact of the values of those involved in the early twentieth-century manuscript trade on the long-term locations of books and the study of the Middle Ages, with repercussions still being felt today.

Project approach

The four main aims of the project are:

  1. to evaluate the significance of the commercial trade in medieval manuscripts in the early 20th century for the development of the academic study of medieval manuscripts and culture.
  2. to identify and analyse the values (both philosophical and economic) applied to medieval manuscripts.
  3. to document and evaluate rhetoric around manuscripts as objects of “national significance” and their interpretation as symbols of European identities. 
  4. to develop a new methodology for the study of collecting that will be of use beyond the study of medieval manuscript provenance.

The project team will analyse published and unpublished material, including auction catalogues, letters, dealers’ records, newspaper reports, collection catalogues and scholarly monographs, as well as the manuscripts themselves, together with price data, to reconstruct values projected onto books. It will seek to contextualise these values within the history of the early 20th century, assessing the impact of two world wars and other political and economic shifts on the trade in books and attitudes to manuscripts as objects of national significance.

Impact and outreach

The project will open up new research questions about collecting, attitudes to medieval objects, historiography, and concepts of national culture. It is anticipated that the findings of this project will be applicable to Art History, History (both medieval and modern), and Cultural Sociology. Beyond academia, the findings of this research are likely to be of interest to curators and archivists, particularly those working with collections formed by individuals in this period, and to those working in the contemporary trade in medieval books, where provenance continues to contribute to value.

The project has a podcast – The Cost of Culture – and runs events.

Further Information

The project is funded by the European Research Council. The principal investigator is Dr Laura Cleaver.