Tearing Books for Education's Sake: Otto Ege and His Manuscript Leaves

by W. Fiona Chen


How can breaking up book enhance educational experiences, one may ask. Art historian and educator Otto Ege would have a lot to say about this highly debated question. Since 1911, he has been known for excising folios from medieval manuscripts and proudly claim himself as a “biblioclast”. In the late 1940s, Ege selected fifty manuscripts from his personal collection, removing several leaves from each, mounting them, adding descriptions, boxing up the fragments, and offering them for sale to educational institutions around North America. Such a biblioclastic practice, which literally means book-destroying practice, has been criticized by many for being profit oriented and devaluing the manuscripts. However, through his "biblioclastic" acts, Ege aimed to “brought otherwise priceless art and craft within the reach of institutions or individuals who otherwise could not afford to own complete manuscripts and early printed books.”

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Young Otto Ege

Otto Ege's Career

Otto F. Ege, the man who has been recognized as one of the most “strange, eccentric, book-tearers,” is known as a “biblioclast,” but he did not break up books through his whole career. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1888, Ege studied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and art education at New York University. After moving to Cleveland in 1920, he became a faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), where he served as Dean from 1946 until his death in 1951. Ege believed in promoting a fine art education for the general public as he was an active member of several advocacy and resource groups such as the National Education Association and the Society of the Study of Aesthetics.

Before the 1930s, Ege did not have expertise in bibliography, textual criticism, or librarianship. It was his position as an instructor of lettering, layout, and typography and his willingness to learn new things that made him devote himself to pre-modern manuscript collections. He became a tour guide and traveling buyer for several Ohio libraries and museums in the mid- to late-1920s. With limited finances, most of the objects in his personally collections are detached manuscripts or manuscript leaves, and Ege decided to break these already fragmented manuscripts further so they could serve the general public as tantalizing materials for the study of paleography and medieval book design.

Aside from being a teacher, Ege was a prolific writer. Many of his publications advocated for art education among grade school and high school students, and he sought to broaden the historical awareness of the general public. However, his best known works are his boxed portfolios, specimen sets of medieval manuscript leaves and pre-modern print samples, composed from the pages of manuscripts he broke apart himself. In his published writings, Ege explained and defended the rationale behind his biblioclastic practice, invoking celebrated “book-tearers” such as Pope Leo III, King Henry VIII, and Percy Bysshe Shelley to affirm that the practice of breaking up books had had a long history and had been pursued by famous people of varying status throughout history.


Saint Cosmos and Damian, Illuminated by Vincent Raymond (ca. 1523), Arranged and Framed by Luigi Celotti (19th century)

The History of Manuscript Leaf Collections

The phenomenon of the dismembered manuscript leaf owes its origin to the French Revolution, a time when monasteries were being dissolved. During this period, manuscripts flooded the book market and were sold by weight. Many illuminations were sliced out of the codices and sold as leaves or smaller cuttings so that dealers could avoid paying book tariffs. However, beyond economic incentives behind biblioclasm, aesthetic appreciation and discernment also developed as the dealers selected lavishly adorned pages from medieval and Renaissance books to be cut and sold. An prominent figure in this practice is Luigi Celotti (ca. 1768-ca. 1846), an abbot-turned-art dealer who dismembered manuscripts, trimmed out texts, and arranged the remaining illuminated fragments into montages. A new taste for illumination sparked scholarly interest, as is evident in art historian, collector, and later first keeper of the Department of Prints at the British Museum William Young Ottley’s (1771-1836) manuscript leaves sale, in which Ottley incorporated his art-historical observations into the catalogue descriptions for the auction. Another figure who used single leaves in a scholarly way was Scottish antiquarian James Dennistoun of Dennistoun (1803-1855), who stayed in Italy for twelve years to collect manuscript leaves for his projected study on the history of medieval Italian art.


Dialogues of Gregory the Great (Leaf 41) Within its mat With Printed Label in Otto Ege's Portfolio of 'Fifth Original Leaves'

Ege's Biblioclasm

Unlike other collectors mentioned already, Ege’s engagement with manuscript leaves was not purely out of self-interest. As an advocate for art education in the general public, Ege expressed his trust in experiential learning and he had faith that breaking up books and a thereby disseminating historical scripts and texts would be edifying for a wider public. In the late 1940s, Ege selected fifty manuscripts from his personal collection, removing several leaves from each, mounting them onto large paper mats, adding descriptions, boxing up the fragments, and offering them for sale to educational institutions around North America. This collection series called “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts,” is composed largely of folios from books for church services such as missals, psalters, and hymnals, as well as personal prayer books such as the Books of Hours. They also include rarer items such as Livy's History of Rome, Aquinas's Super Sententiis, Jerome’s letters, and Dialogues of Gregory the Great.

Ege not only dedicated himself to the selection of leaves, he also put effort into creating labels and composing descriptions for them. These descriptions not only include the countries and the time periods in which the original manuscripts were made, the languages of the texts, and the types of the script, but also paragraphs that explain the significance of certain details or illuminations. For instance, the printed label for a leaf from a middle fifteenth century French Book of Hour (leaf 29), which is now owned by the Morgan Library, points out that “the occasional appearance of the strawberry indicates that the illuminating was done by a Benedictine monk.” It also provides information regarding the evolution of the strawberry illumination: “Fifty years earlier the stem would have been wider and colored, and the foliage rich; fifth years later the ivy and holly leaves would be entangled with flowers and acanthus foliage.”

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The Opening of Ege's Essay "I am a Biblioclast"

Ege's Ideal and Criticism of His Practice

Ege’s practice of breaking up books and offering them for sale for the sake of education was not universally appreciated. A. S. G. Edwards expresses skepticism. Edwards deems Ege’s practice to be “mutilation” and suspects that Ege was driven by greed, questioning how much money would be enough for Ege. On the other hand, there are also scholars like Roger Wieck who show sympathy for Ege as an collector and dealer and consider Ege’s practice to be purely aesthetic and education focused rather than profit-oriented. A more rigid perspective is that of that Christopher de Hamel, who believes that “the breaking up of a medieval manuscript whether for enjoyment or for profit is, and always will be, at least for bibliographers, entirely indefensible and infinitely regrettable.” However, Ege himself did not think of his dismemberment as anything but an expression of goodwill. He proposed the following guidelines and purposes of breaking up books in his iconic essay “I am a Biblioclast”:

  1. Never to take apart a “museum piece” book or a unique copy if it is complete.
  2. To search for and make available to schools, libraries, collections, and individuals single leaves or units of mediaeval manuscripts, incunabula works, and fine presses.
  3. To circulate leaf exhibits, supplemented with outlines, lectures, and slides, to organizations so as to engender an interest in fine books, past and present.
  4. To encourage and inspire by these fragments the amateur calligrapher and private press devotee not to imitate the deeds of the masters of the book, but to think as they did to meet present day problems.
  5. To build up a personal collection of books and important fragments to illustrate the History of the Book from the days of Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets to the work of Updike and Rogers.

Additionally, he said:

“Surely to allow a thousand people ‘to have and to hold’ an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments. Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf.”

The Aftermath and the Future

When Otto Ege passed away in 1951,  he left behind a controversial legacy. He undoubtedly contributed to art education by exposing the American general public to original medieval works. However, scholars in our own digital age face key questions as they create online catalogues for Ege’s manuscript leaves. A critical issue is: to what extent can Ege’s portfolios be considered publications and to what extent is Otto Ege their author? Curators also face issues regarding storage and display of the boxes Ege compiled: Do they belong to libraries, galleries, or museums? Scholars and curators are not working with one single artifact, but rather with collections of artifacts that are of high artistic value but have been designated for educational use. It is a challenge to recover a “virtual unity” of Ege’s leaves because it requires agreement among libraries on property rights and technical specifications for database construction. Despite such challenges, it is rewarding to see projects that carry forward Otto Ege’s desire to share the artistry of medieval manuscripts with a wider audience. As Professor Fred Porcheddu puts it: “whatever one may think of his [Ege’s] biblioclasty, we, the inheritors of his actions, can seek a virtue among the scattered leaves.”

Further Reading

De Hamel, Christopher. Cutting Up Manuscripts For Pleasure and Profit. Charlottesville: Book Arts Press, 1996.

Edwards, A.S.G. “Otto Ege: The Collector as Destroyer.” Manuscripta: A Journal for Manuscript Research 53, no. 1 (January, 2009): 1-12.

Ege, Otto. “I am a Biblioclast.” Avocations vol. I (March, 1938):516-18.

Gwara, Scott. Otto Ege’s Manuscripts: A Study of Otto Ege’s Manuscript Collections, Portfolios, and Retail Trade. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.

Porcheddu, Fred. “Otto F. Ege: Teacher, Collector, and Biblioclast.” Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America 26, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 4–14.

Porcheddu, Fred, and Greta Smith. “Otto F. Ege Collection: The Ege Manuscript Leaf Portfolios.” Last modified May, 2008. http://ege.denison.edu/index.php.

Wieck, Roger S. “Folia Fugitiva: The Pursuit of the Illuminated Manuscript Leaf.” Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 54 (January, 1996): 233–54.

Tearing Books for Education's Sake: Otto Ege and His Manuscript Leaves