Marc Michael Epstein on the Rylands Haggadah

Earlier this year, Marc Michael Epstein, author of The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination, gave a lecture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, called “Bad Boy: Portrait of the Rylands Haggadah as Naughty Sibling.” In the text and video below, he explains the significance and pleasures of working with these manuscripts, particularly the messages conveyed and the similarities and striking differences between two haggadot covered in his book: the Rylands Haggadah and its “brother” at the British Library.

Marc Michael Epstein—

It’s my firm policy always to work on projects—academic or otherwise—that are lively and fun. That’s why I so enjoy the detective work of working with medieval manuscripts. When I say “detective work,” I’m not being metaphorical or hyperbolic. Because I often deal—and love dealing with—“orphan” cases where, unlike manuscripts with colophons (signatures), manuscripts made by known scribes, or manuscripts stylistically localizable to  particular artists or schools, I don’t have an historical frame for the art to corroborate. This forces me to look to the art itself and determine what it may be saying about the unknown historical frame. Doing this resembles nothing more than it does a detective story in the truest sense. It has all the proper elements— fortuitous discovery, a trail of clues, a speculation (well, maybe more than one) of real detective work. True, it lacks real resolution, but this is understandable: in the instance of the Rylands Haggadah we’re dealing with a case that by any contemporary standard is “cold”— in another decade, the protagonists will have been gone 800 years! As I mention in the video, when I was a little boy, the Metropolitan Museum was one of my favorite places in the world, a magical kingdom to which I would make pilgrimages with my father, an artist. Little did I ever dream that I’d be speaking there one day—and to such a receptive audience. And little did I dream that I would hold in my own hands the most amazing, the most beautiful productions of the medieval illuminators’ workshops. But here I am, and I’m loving every minute of it!

Marc Michael Epstein is professor of religion at Vassar College.

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