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Medieval plays in the Van Hulthem manuscript

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From 12 November until 21 December 1999

stukje tekst uit het handschrift The Van Hulthem Manuscript (Brussel, Royal Library of Belgium, hs. 15.589-623) was recently awarded the prestigious disctinction 'Cultural Ambassador of Flanders' with the aim to make Flemish culture better known beyond its national borders.
After exhibitions in Brussels and Munster the manuscript has now arrived at the University Library in Amsterdam. The exhibition focuses on the plays in the Van Hulthem manuscript.

We met the conservator of Manuscripts of the university library, dr Jos A.A.M. Biemans, to talk about this unique exhibition.

What makes this exhibition so special?
"Normally, the University Library exhibits parts of its own rich collection. This time, however, we have the honour to host exhibits from elsewhere, centred on one important manuscript from the Royal Library in Brussels. It is a voluminous codex from about 1410 in which more than two hundred texts in Middle Dutch have been copied. It is an incredibly important manuscript for anyone working on our Middle Dutch texts. By the way, we do not know exactly why the copyist gathered these texts, nor what the exact status of the manuscript is; there are various opinions as to that, but none so far is completely satisfactory.
The manuscript has recently had a special treatment to make it last a few more centuries. Moreover, an integral reproduction has been made which has recently been presented in Brussels. In this way it is possible to study the manuscript in other libraries or even at home (in a copy). At the same time such a facsimile reduces the use of the original. At the opening of the exhibition a complete edition of all the texts in the manuscript and a cd-rom with a survey of the literature about the codex will be presented.

A number of texts in the Van Hulthem manuscript are very well-known, for example the Travels of St. Brandaan (Brendan) and the 'Borchgravinne van Vergi'. But the most famous are of course the plays and farces, and the so-called 'Abele Spelen' en de 'SotternieŽn' (Fools theatre). Who has not read something of Lanseloet van Denemarken or Esmoreit at school? The manuscript contains secular, religious, devotional, and also scabrous texts. Some of the more racy texts have been made illegible in the past and later on someone has attempted to make them legible again. Not always successfully. There is an example in the exhibition of such a text which was not to everyone's liking."

Why is it called the Van Hulthem manuscript?
"Charles van Hulthem, a book collector from Ghent (1764-1832), was the last private owner of the manuscript. He bought it in 1811 for 5.50 Belgian francs. After his death his important and extensive library was bought by the Belgian government and served as the foundations of the Royal Library in Brussels. Recently, the manuscript acquired the prestigious status of 'Cultural Ambassador of Flanders', with the commission to give greater publicity to Flemish culture abroad. This year it has been on display in Brussels and Munster, and it has now come to Amsterdam. This important manuscript has long had another title of honour, 'The Night Watch of Dutch Letters'. However, it would be better to call it 'The Rijksmuseum of Dutch Letters', because it is such a treasure trove."

Is it really possible to organize an exhibition of a single manuscript?
"Usually it isn't. It is now possible only because for conservation purposes it has been taken apart. In principle, this would enables us to exhibit it page for page. Visually, however, it would not give an interesting exhibition. That is why besides other manuscripts and printed books, there are also paintings and other objects on view. We have chosen to focus the exhibition on the plays in the Van Hulthem manuscript. The manuscripts are 'interspersed' with objects which show aspects of medieval stage practice and - thanks to the Theatre Institute - examples of modern productions of medieval plays. For example, there are playbills, programmes, costume and scenery designs. In this way we have tried to create an impression of the plays in the Van Hulthem manuscript.
Furthermore, we get to know Charles van Hulthem and his collection of books. The exposition illustrates the rich contents of the manuscript named after him, and various objects are shown, such as medieval badges with a picture of the orchard scene from the 'Borchgravinne van Vergi'. Of course, one of the display cases is dedicated to the vicissitudes of the manuscript itself and its recent conservation: I think it is important that visitors realize that the conservation of such a manuscript is really worth both the cost and the effort. After all, it is a unique object, an important part of our national heritage."

Who should not miss this 'guest appearance' in the University Library?
"If you should travel to Brussels and ask to see the manuscript, you would be shown a film or the new reproduction. Only for researchers who have compelling reasons to see the original, the manuscript will be taken out of the stocks. This exhibition is therefore a unique opportunity to see the manuscript: a real highlight for those interested in Dutch studies or in manuscripts or the medieval stage!"

The exhibition is made possible by financial support from:
Flemish government
Royal Library of Belgium
University Library Amsterdam
Frits Knuf Antiquarian Books in Oss.

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Last modified: 14 September 1999
Editor: Monique Kooijmans