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Medieval Music Manuscripts in the Free Library of Philadelphia

John Frederick Lewis (1860-1932) was the most active collector of medieval manuscripts in the Philadelphia area during his lifetime.  A man of modest means who could not afford to go to college, Lewis became a lawyer (passing the bar was the only requirement at the time) and married into a wealthy family. Lewis began collecting manuscripts in the 1880s, and was intrigued by calligraphy and collected scripts as well as illuminations.  He collected over 200 codices and over 2000 leaves and cuttings. 

In addition to the European manuscripts Lewis collected it should be noted that he also collected “Oriental” manuscripts (manuscripts from the Middle and Near East, as well as from Africa) and cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumeria and Babylon. His widow, Anne Baker Lewis, donated Lewis’s collections to the Free Library of Philadelphia after his death. All of the items in this exhibition are items from Lewis’s collection.  The Rare Book Department has other medieval manuscripts given by the Widener family and by Hampton L. Carson which are not displayed here.

The leaves and codices (books) in this exhibition were chosen for their appearance as well as for their musical attributes.  All of the music displayed is chant: a single line of melody.  The Free Library’s collection is representative of different kinds of musical notation through the medieval era.  Each artifact is described by a plate, explaining either the significance of the musical notation or the iconography in the decoration. 

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