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Vassar Has Some New Medieval TreasuresGift from Diana Pearson ’78 Enhances Special Collections Holdings

Students in Professor of History Nancy Bisaha’s class “The High Middle Ages” spent the semester learning what life was like in Europe between 1000 and 1300 AD. Thanks to a recent donation by Vassar alumna Diana Pearson ’78, they were also able to examine a biblical manuscript that was created during the period they were studying.

Students in a class on the Middle Ages taught by Professor of History Nancy Bisaha (top) examine an 800-year-old biblical manuscript with Ronald Patkus, head of Special Collections.

The students spent an hour in Thompson Library listening to Ronald Patkus, head of Special Collections, discuss the finer points of the biblical text and the commentary made by a medieval theologian, etched on vellum by a scribe with a goose-quill pen more than 800 years ago.

Leaf from a Book of Hours. Northern France, ca. 1425.

Patkus will use other items from the recently acquired collection in a class he regularly co-teaches called “Detectives in the Archives: Reading Medieval and Renaissance Texts.” He said the donation had significantly enhanced Vassar’s collection of material from the Middle Ages. The new material includes more than 80 individual items—sermons, Bibles, devotional books, music, liturgical manuscripts, literary manuscripts, and notarial and financial records from as early as the 9th century. “The materials expand our coverage of chronological periods and geographic areas. A substantial number of items date prior to the 15th century, and derive from places outside France and Italy, including England, the Netherlands, and Spain,” Patkus said.

Pearson met with Patkus on campus this fall after deciding to donate the material to Vassar. “I love that [Patkus] teaches a class on this kind of material,” she said. “My main goal in making this gift is to inspire others to make such donations to Vassar because the college takes such good care of its rare collections and uses them in its academic courses.”

The material Pearson donated to Vassar is part of a collection of rare books and manuscripts collected by her late husband, Nicholas B. Scheetz, who died in 2016. Scheetz served as Manuscripts Curator at Georgetown University and left part of his collection to that institution. But Pearson said that because she and many of the couple’s good friends were Vassar graduates, he wanted to ensure that some of the material was left in the college’s care.

Leaf from Seneca, Epistolae morales. Italy, ca. 1470.

Bisaha said she was looking forward to using the new material in many of her classes in the future, including a course on Northern Europe that she will teach in the spring semester. “This new material certainly fills some gaps in our collection,” she said, “and having them available for my students really helps them get a sense of what was being created in the Middle Ages, how these materials were made and how they were distributed.”

Patkus said the college plans to create a catalogue and host an exhibition and symposium in 2022 that will focus on the material Pearson donated. In the meantime, he said, faculty will display some of the manuscripts in various classes, and some students may use them for independent study projects or senior theses. “The collection will be a great aid to teaching, and we’re in the early stages of planning for events that will give further visibility to the collection,” he said.

Tao Beloney ’23, of Alameda, CA, one of the students in Bisaha’s class who witnessed Patkus’ discourse about the biblical manuscript, said having the opportunity to examine the actual document had enhanced his understanding about things he was learning in the course. “It was amazing,” Beloney said, “to see something almost 1,000 years old sitting on a table right in front of me.”