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Lost manuscript returns to lender

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When the illuminated manuscript arrived at the Peabody Library in 2006, the rare book staff didn't know exactly what to make of it. Slightly larger than the average hand and as thick as an extravagant cut of prime rib, on first sight it's gorgeous. Its small pages contain exquisite calligraphy and stunning illustrations of religious scenes. One page contains a date that suggests its age: 1492. That it was anonymously mailed to the library in a plain brown box did make it a little mysterious. Questions about what it was and its origins soon turned into wondering who mailed it and where it had been. Was somebody returning it?

Peabody Library rare books assistant Paul Espinosa can laugh about it now, but when he first received the manuscript, he wasn't sure if he was supposed to call the police, report it to university administration, notify Interpol—there simply aren't standard operating protocols for what to do when something older than the United States shows up in mail. The staff decided to be happy to have the book back in library possession. They photographed it and assigned it a shelf number—and there it sat until 2009 when Stacy Lambrow, a Johns Hopkins Master of Liberal Arts graduate student interning at the library, expressed an interest in illuminated manuscripts. Espinosa recalled the item that arrived by mail.

By this point in its existence, the manuscript had been around for more than 500 years, and Lambrow wanted to explore its provenance. Soon she would email Professor James Marrow, Princeton University's professor emeritus of art history and an illuminated manuscripts expert, who would tell Lambrow that he inquired about this very manuscript at the Peabody Library when he was a graduate student in the 1960s. Soon, Professor Marrow would contact Professor Rolf Hammel-Kiesow, a historian and archivist for the German city of Lübeck, who would help identify the family of the man for whom the manuscript was made. And soon, Lambrow, Marrow, and Hammel-Kiesow's combined research would piece together the story of an influential patrician family in a Hanseatic League German port city commissioning a private devotional from Dutch artisans, which has come to be known as the Prayer Book of Hans Luneborch, in Low German.

And this single manuscript offers that rare opportunity to reconsider the past with new information. "This manuscript came out of nowhere," Marrow says. "It's of extraordinary interest to students of manuscript illumination. It's an extraordinary document of cultural and spiritual life at the highest echelons of Lübeck in the late middle ages. And I would say in that case, almost unique."

Adapted from "Return to Lender", Johns Hopkins Magazine

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