Different Ways to Read and Learn Medieval Stuff

Over the winter holidays, I did a lot of personal fun reading, some of which doubled as professional interest. This included Christopher deHamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer, and Ironfoot (Enchanter General Book 1) by Dave Duncan. All 3 books have interesting suggestions about history and the importance of books. The thing is that one is of course a set of detailed manuscript studies written by a scholar, one is true story adventure/ political history written by a journalist, and the third is historical fiction written by a novelist. My point here is and will be that each of these different types of books and authors can be useful in terms of examining and understanding history and the role books and languages play, especially old books and languages.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is set up with the adventure of the librarians trying to save their books as a frame, and in the middle is a political and social history of the region, concentrating on the changing perspectives and roles of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali, who all become associated with major terrorist groups in high level positions. The frame, 50 or so pages on either side of the central 100 tells the titular story of the manuscript libraries being created, maintained, guarded, and then smuggled out of the Timbuktu area. This area (and I didn’t know this beforehand) was home to a lot of medieval manuscripts of most any subject you can think of, many kept by families. They were eventually collected into libraries. These libraries were largely the work of Ahmed Baba Institute and Abdel Kader Haidara mostly in the 1980s and 1990s; this is librarian-ing part 1 The secular content and some of the religion in the manuscripts was not in accordance with the Islam that men like Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Iyad Ag Ghali promoted, so when their groups started taking over areas closer and closer to the libraries, Haidara along with friends and family had to try and smuggle the books to a safe location, so they (both books and people) wouldn’t get destroyed; that’s the bad-ass librarian-ing (part 2). {NB: this paragraph was largely borrowed from a book review I previously wrote and published on the Cannonball Reads blog.}

As a general audience read, the structure bothered me a little, since while clearly connected in terms of theme, the two different parts didn’t have much direct narrative connection until the very end when the jihadis decide they might need to find and get rid of the manuscripts. It’s all important information to know, and I admit I hadn’t known much detail about how groups like Al Qaeda gained and lost influence in places like Mali over the past few decades. My problem was that if you’re going to title a book “Bad Ass Librarians” then the majority of said book should explicitly related to that, and the relation gets lost. Looking back though, this kind of focus is more something that scholars tend to worry about; journalists on the other hand focus more on the process of finding the information and presenting that alongside the results. I’m not suggesting literary and historical scholar don’t work with process or documenting it, the most certainly do, but rather that in terms of the final product presented as a result of the research, the standard practice in scholarship is thesis and topic sentences, all directly related to each other. Journalism on the hand typically seem to open with the result, then go back and present as much of the discovery was they have time for, and end with how the story currently stands. I say this without having had any formal journalist training, but it does seem to be a basic principle of reporting that you focus more on presenting information as you get it, and less on interpreting what it means throughout your research.

One of the more interesting elements of this book to me was the existence of personal manuscript libraries and how they were gathered together so recently. One of the biggest discoveries revealed towards the end of the book was that the collections had not been catalogued until having to relocate everything. I really would have liked to know more about what exactly they realized they had. But again this was a general interest book, and the books were more important as a group than as individual objects, at least in the context of the piece.

Irontfoot is a novel, of the historical fiction/murder mystery/fantasy variety. Imagine fantasy and historical fiction are fused into a mystery, like what you’d get with a mash-up of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, anything by Terry Brooks, and Harry Potter. The result, if it’s decently done, would be Ironfoot (Book 1 of the Enchanter General). There’s a touch of historical reality in the social divisions between the native Saxons and the ruling Normans, which is probably accurate given the setting in 1164 England. The brief cameos by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and a young Richard eventually Lionheart help keep the historical setting from getting lost in a world where magic and the Church exist in uneasy balance. These parts actually do seem pretty accurate or at least plausible, except for the magic thing of course. Overall, it’s an enjoyable easy read, in spite of a lot of little irritations. {Again, NB, most of this summary is again from a review I’ve previously written and published.}

The first part of the book where the world and general situation are introduced take place at a school for enchanters, and the hero Durwin, who being Saxon is technically a servant allowed to sit in on classes, who has untapped potential, that is revealed when he fixes a prophesying spell by correcting the grammar of the Saxon language in which it’s written. Apparently this is something no one has thought of doing before (getting spells to work by correcting the grammar and language), and it helps Durwin save the day more than once. The idea though that language was part of the magic, and that by doing something as simple as editing and fixing the grammar (a known practice among historical scribes, although not always to the benefit of the text) a spell could be made to work is an interesting concept, and not one I’ve seen before, and I’ve read a good bit of fantasy fiction. There’s also the value of the spellbooks, which apparently is substantial in this world; Durwin at one point makes a comment about feeling guilty about taking a spell book or few as payment when the new owners likely has no idea how much she could get by selling the collection. Comparably in actual history, actual book manuscripts in the 12th century would have mostly indeed have been highly valued.

So then, overall there’s a traditional scholarly study of medieval manuscripts, a journalistic exploration of modern ideas about the history of faith and knowledge, and historical fantasy fiction. The common thread for me is that they each in their own ways had something genuinely interesting to say about the history and importance of medieval books.

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Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts, Part II

I hadn’t quite finished reading the book when I started the first half of my review, but as it turns out, Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts really does divide pretty distinctly into two halves.  The first half covers the older manuscripts, but also those with more direct connections with England and Ireland. The manuscripts considered in the second half are distinctly more European in character. In general, this is actually a nice strategy because it gives a broader perspective in terms of both production and survival of the various texts.

Chapter 7 looks at Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek, MS Thott 143 2°, which is a Psalter. This chapter also opens with a different narrative style, which again marks the difference between the two halves.  The chapter opens not with the specific book but with the author’s observations. This is not terribly unusual, but the narrative style makes it more obvious. After noting the general nature of the Danish people and the atmosphere of the reading room, de Hamel introduces the book itself:  “Opened on the desk in front of us, supported by two foam wedges, is the finest and most famous illuminated manuscript in Demark. We won’t touch it; just look.” (280) As one might expect with a manuscript particularly known for the artwork and decoration, the first section of the chapter considers the full page images. After describing them in some detail, de Hamel moves on to discuss the royal owners of the book, and introduces its connection to several (5) other royal psalter manuscripts that may have  been owned by family members who commissioned their versions from some of the same crafts-people and artisans. Before going into some of the details and connections between the various manuscripts, de Hamel describes the library and the reading room. Just before he begins to review the physical attributes of the book and consider who exactly may have commissioned it, he repeats what the librarian specialist assisting him had to say about the mystery involved: “’I am not an art historian’” he said, in that low and evenly paced monotone of Danes speaking English, as if delivering the punchline of a deadpan joke: “and art historians jump too quickly to conclusions.” (296).

The next part reviews what is known about Thott 143 2°, including its physical description and review of contents, and how that information might be used to determine origins and ownership. Based in part on the inclusion of an alphabet between canticles and a litany, de Hamel suggests that the manuscript may have originally been intended for use as teaching a royal child how to read, which narrows the potential first owners down to a handful of young royalty, likely in Scandinavia. He reviews some previously proposed options based on some added notes and inscriptions. The calendar, another common component for a psalter, suggests English influence, which de Hamel attributes to the scribe based especially on the script.

The last section of the chapter goes back to previously mentioned 5 royal psalters, and provides brief descriptions of each, and what is known about each book. This is used to argue that at the time the manuscript was produced, book-making was becoming professionalized and specialized professionals were starting to collaborate with regularity.

Chapter 8 reviews a manuscript better known for its musical adaptation than its physical existence as a book, the Carmina Burana, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660. This chapter begins with de Hamels memory of a high school Latin class during which his teacher played a gramaphone recording of Karl Orff’s setting of some of the poems. He continues with further adventures as a graduate student backpacking some of the same routes he suggests “some of the wandering scholars of the Carmina Burana had done 800 years earlier” (333). This leads to the description of his first visit to Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, concentrating largely on the appearance of the library itself.

According to de Hamel, the particular manuscript that he’s about to describe has been in its current location since 1806, and derives its name ‘Burana’ from the 8th century monastery Benediktbeuern in Upper Bavaria. The manuscript in questions was discovered in the library uncatalogued after the monastery was suppressed during the Napoleonic reforms in 1803. Orff took about 20 of the 350 poems and songs in the “finest and most extensive surviving anthology of medieval lyrical song and verse” (335) to set to music, and de Hamel also notes the uniqueness of many of the texts, most of which are in Latin, but include some entries in other European languages, including Middle High German.

de Hamel emphasizes the luck in getting to see the original by noting that he got to see it largely because of a chance encounter with the head of rare-books at a conference who had himself never actually seen the original book in person (so to speak). In the description of the process of getting to meet the book, he notes that because it’s classified as a national treasure he was not only required to wear gloves, but also assigned to sit at a special roped-off table. He then gets down to describing the physical appearance of the manuscript and its contents. He takes care to point out more than once that Orff’s arrangement is not at all accurate to the positioning of texts in the manuscript; “O Fortuna” is not the first text, and the manuscript has much greater variety than the selections chosen by Orff might suggest. As he continues he notes that although the book is in some ways disorganized, the texts do tend to fall into several categories including satires, love songs, drinking songs, and religious dramas. De Hamel provides an example of each and provides translation and general interpretation.

There’s a break in the interview as de Hamel tells the anecdote of the gloves he was required to wear getting dirty, and his intention of keeping them as a “previous souvenir” only to have his wife wash them. There are 3 remaining subjects in the chapter: the images, possible sources and compilation, and German history during the time Orff would have been adapting his excerpts to music. After reviewing the images, de Hamel decides that they were probably “afterthoughts” (359). Concerning potential authors or composers, many of the texts are likely 12th century (about 100 years before the book was compiled), and only one names a composer. He also considers the likely circumstances of the book’s creation. He also points out that Orff was not the first to publish contents of the manuscript; Jacob Grimm (one of those Grimms) persuaded the librarian at the time to publish and edition in 1847 which is also the source of the common title of the manuscript. Finally, Orff’s treatment of the book and its texts is the last part of the chapter, considered in the context of the current political and historical events in Germany.

Chapter 9 picks up the historical, geographical narrative from Chapter 8 since the modern discovery of what is now Paris Biblioteque nationale de France, ms n.a. lat. 3145 happened as a result of the Allies entering the town of Berchtesgaden after Hitler’s defeat in 1945. Two French officers found and pocketed 2 medieval books. The first book turned out to be the original Tres Belles Heures of the Duc de Berry, and the second is the focus of this chapter. It was given to a monastery by the soldier who found it. When a monk took the book to an antiquarian to be valued, it was discovered to be “the long-lost Hours of Queen Jeanne de Navarre” (380). After reviewing the known provenance of the book, de Hamel then moves on to consider the library and reading room in which he viewed it.

If you didn’t known that de Hamel was of British descent {born in England, grew up in New Zeland, college at Oxford}, his description of the library and its workers would be a very strong give-away. He emphasizes that he showed an email from the library’s head of manuscripts to be sure he got the actual book because “in Paris they are a bit inclined to fob you off with a microfilm, especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing.” (384). He also declares that the general procedure for requesting and retrieving a manuscript “all seems unnecessarily complex, but it is their way of doing things” (ibid.). From here, he moves on to describe the physical attributes and contents of the manuscript. He also includes a general review of the genre of the Book of Hours which is useful even if you already had a general idea as he goes into some detail.

He points out that many books of this sort were owned by women and many were associated with particular religious orders, in this case the Franciscans. He also observes that the original owner of the book is pretty clear based on the miniatures, and the naming of the figure of the book’s owner in one of them as “Johanna, Queen of Navarre”. de Hamel also includes the known details of Jeanne’s biography. The rest of the chapter describes and discusses the illuminations of the Hours of Saint Louis and other decorations, and then the provenance of the manuscript as it is currently known. The art is of interest as some of the artists are identifiable, one of whom has a name and address, which helps place the creation of the manuscript probably in Paris.

de Hamel fills in some of the early history of the manuscript by noting its likely presence in a 15th century inventory of the Duc of Berry’s library, who then could have given it to queen of England, his niece and a granddaughter of the original owner, possibly as a wedding present (Henry IV married Joan of Navarre in 1402). Eventually the book was donated to Franciscan convent in Paris. The history of the manuscript from the 18th century forward is mostly one of sale and resale. de Hamel also gets his hands on some library records which detail their acquisition of the manuscript between 1967-1973, which covers the time the book was rediscovered and brought for valuation to the present.

Chapter 10 covers the book most recognizable to those who study English literature, Aberswyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 392 D, the Hengwert Chaucer. This chapter is overall a retracing of the possible existence and identity of ‘Adam scriveyn’ whom Chaucer addresses in one of his lyrics. After describing the initial identification of him with Adam Pinkhurst by Linne R. Moony in 2004 and the ensuing controversy, there is a brief biography of Chaucer, and then the introduction of the two oldest known Chaucer manuscripts, Ellesmere and Hengwert. Much of the chapter is framed as a trail of Adam Pinkhurst as candidate for being Chaucer’s scribe.

Witness 1 is the manuscript. After briefly describing the provenance, de Hamel describes getting to the library and his surprise at having an audience and photographer there to document his review of the manuscript. He again makes note of the gloves provided, this time drawing attention to the “packet labelled “Made in China”, which may explain their diminutive size.” (434) Apparently, the audience got bored after a while and gradually dispersed. He describes the physical appearance of the manuscript, and the general appearance and set-up of the pages. He then discusses the collation and the problem of the order of the tales and connecting tales with their intended tellers. He concludes this witness examination with the dating information and some evidence from the painting over of guide letters.

Witness 2 is the author, Geoffrey Chaucer. Evidence from Chaucer comes from his poetry and some early editors of his.

Witness 3 is Adam Pinkhurst, particularly his written oath required for membership in the Company of Scrivners. This document survives in the Guildhall Library as MS 5370. The main problem in comparing the hand here to Chaucerian texts possibly by the same scribe is that the oath is in a documentary hand, while the literary texts were done in standard book script. Further evidence comes from other documents attributed to the same scribe. The final part of the section and the chapter is a more detailed look at how scribal identifications are made. De Hamel’s final conclusion as a member of the jury is that he does not believe beyond reasonable doubt that Adam Pinkhurt was the ‘culprit’ but he leaves open the possibility that “Perhaps the other eleven jurors will outvote me yet.” (464)

Chapter 11 looks at St. Petersburg, National Library, Cod. Lat.Q.v.XVII.2. This chapter represents what is likely the least known text of the twelve, the Semideus, a treatise for princes concerning practical advice on armaments and warfare, like tossing bottles with venomous snakes onto enemy ships so that the snakes will get out when the bottles break and hopefully bite your enemies. The author was Catone Sacco, an Italian humanist and lawyer, who gave the book to Filipo Maria Visconti, which is why the books is labeled as “The Visconti Semideus”. After the introduction, there comes a biography of Visconti and his descendants which parallels the early history of the manuscript.

After a series of wars including the French Revolution the manuscript ended up in the hands of one Piotr Dubrowsky, whom de Hamel compares to Libri as a book collector. When he needed money, he decided to sell off his book collection, and it ended up in the imperial library of Tsar Alexander I, and stayed put. De Hamel describes the complex bureaucratic process of getting a visa to go to Russia, and then describes trying to get into the library, which apparently involved a lot of copying of information from paperwork, and not being allowed to bring his print edition of the text with him into the reading room. There are a few semi-serious jokes about Russian stereotypes.

He describes the manuscript, including the added 16th century list of family birthdays on the front page and some added French poetry. For this manuscript, probably because the text is so obscure, he provides a summary of the preface along with some interpretation and connections to some decoration.  He does the same for the main body text, although he is clear that he is using the pictures to follow the narrative, since the text is “140 pages of complex Latin” (488). After a brief anecdote about how the invigilator gave him some whiskey-flavored Russian chocolate, he finishes the summary of the text, and considers some ideas about the style of the artwork. The final section considers why the author may have written and had bound and decorated the book, and who may have participated.

The final chapter covers another book of hours, Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig IX.18, the Spinola Hours. This final chapter follows patterns set earlier in the book. It opens with a memory of his first visit to LA some 30 years prior, before describing the history and then appearance of the Getty Library and Museum. This is followed by how he accessed the reading room; apparently it is a very American thing to ask for “Photo Id”, but everyone was very friendly and welcoming. The book was apparently labeled “the Spinola Hours” to give it prestige in expectation of selling it in the 1970s.

Again as usual, he describes the physical attributes of the manuscript, and its owners prior to its sale to the library. As the book has some full page illustrations, he spends time describing them, along with the decoration of the calendar, and the main text, the Hours of the Virgin Mary. There is very little discussion of the actual text; it’s mostly about the pictures. As deHamel points out, most people know and study these sorts of books for their pictures, and he is in what is largely known as an art museum. He does also include some consideration of the book family the manuscript is a part of, and looks at what might be extrapolated in terms of book production. After a brief anecdote about his lunch of healthy food with skinny Californians, and waiters who call you by your first name, he returns to the history of the art of the book, particularly who the 5 identified artists may have been. After some speculation about who might have originally commissioned or owned the manuscript, he returns to the manuscript’s familial history, connecting it to the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc of Berry (the number of times this guy shows up, you’d think there’d be a little more detail about him or that title of his) and the Rothchild Prayerbook. He ends up suggesting that the same people might have been involved in the creation and commissioning of these 3 books. He also traces their potential provenance. As a side comment he mentions that he was actually present in 1975 when the “Spinola Hours”. A retired German butcher brought a book for assessment to a Sotheby’s office which turned out to be the book he is now discussing. De Hamel also describes the actual sale which involved the auction, which turns out to have been rigged a little. H. P Kraus, the famous NY bookseller, was unusually quiet during the auction but managed to win; it turns out he had made previous arrangements to signal with his glasses when he was no longer willing to keep bidding because he didn’t want his active bidding to influence the sale.

The Epilogue is mostly a statement about how you don’t need to travel to exotic locations to find interesting manuscripts, which is a nice thought. But as noted with the introduction, my question remains why not include more of such manuscripts in the main analyses?

A Review of Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Part 1)

When you are a former librarian of the Parker Library at Corpus Christi Cambridge and worked at Sotheby’s, you probably know a few things about old books. What Christopher de Hamel does in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts is describe twelve of the most famous books in medieval Europe in ways that you don’t need much special training to understand. He provides the physical description of the book, the script, the decoration, the possible and known history of the book, and why any of it might matter. And he occasionally says things even scholars think, but are unlikely to say in public like calling an illustration in the Book of Kells ugly, or comparing a scribe’s flourish to a love-sick teen girl’s doodles in her notebook.

The one complaint I have from the first half of the book is that while the author acknowledges the difficulty in accessing the books each chapter is dedicated to, you have to be Christopher de Hamel on a lucky day to get to touch these particular manuscripts, even if you have the credentials and training to work with such things. The problem is that one of his goals is to convey “what pleasure you can have in looking at manuscripts” (8). While this is a laudable goal, he’s chosen 12 of the most inaccessible, famous things, and why couldn’t the same be done with something more accessible and less famous? Very few people would be able to touch the same things, and work with books with such fame attached, and it sounds like talking about the famous stuff is part of the fun.

The author’s personal voice is dominant in the book which is unusual for a scholarly discussion of a manuscript. There is real scholarship behind this book, although as the author points out, it’s all in the notes which most people don’t read (unless you’re a manuscript nerd) and thus relegated to the end of the book. He makes the decision to treat each chapter like an interview (his word) because interviews aren’t just about facts, many of which are likely known beforehand; interviews are about the surprising details in terms of presentation as well as the words, and the meaning that can be gained from them. A de Hamel says, “Listen to them, and let them speak.” (1)

The first chapter is dedicated to Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 286, one of the oldest known books in England (it dates to the late sixth century and was most probably in England by the seventh), and a copy of The Gospels of Saint Augustine.  One of the more noticeable features of this first chapter, and one that continues throughout the book, is that de Hamel also includes a description of the reading rooms and how he gets access to the valuable book in a collection. Before he really starts to discuss the manuscript he first discusses the owner who had put it into its current collection, Matthew Parker, the sixteenth century English bishop who lived through the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth. He then provides the history of Parker’s library, which is interesting because it used to be impossible to access because of how the college had interpreted a stipulation Parker had included about how if a volume was ever lost, the whole collection would be sent to a neighboring college. Then he describes the book in terms of general appearance, contents, collation, script, size, and decoration. In the process, he also considers connections the book has to history and to other manuscripts.

Two more features in this chapter set up the overall tone and character of the book as whole: the pictures, and the personal stories. There are a lot of colored images in this book, most of the manuscripts and features of interest. On the one hand, it makes things even easier for the everyday reader to understand, but on the other, it’s not always easy to tell which picture goes with what description. The chapter ends with the story of the book’s trip (with the author who was the librarian of the collection at the time) from Cambridge to Westminster Abbey, London for mass with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Benedict XVI. de Hamel hints at this episode in the beginning of the chapter by baiting the reader a little with “At the end of this chapter I will recount how Pope Benedict XVI and the Archbishop of Canterbury both bowed down before me, on live television, in front of the high altar of Westminster Abbey.” (10) Naturally the episode has to do with the manuscript, but it’s still a good hook.

Chapter 2 considers Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Cod. Amiat. 1, better known as the Codex Amiatinus. This chapter begins with some archeological history in England, and then a question: why would Bede (as in the Venerable) want 3 new Bibles made for the 2 monasteries of Wearmoth and Jarrow in England, and what might have happened to them? The answer of course, at least to the latter, comes partially in the form of the manuscript, which is “the oldest surviving entire manuscript of the Vulgate and it is still the principal witness for establishing the text of the Latin Bible.” (61). But before the book itself is introduced, there is a description of how de Hamel got to it (physically and permissorily).

This chapter in particular highlights de Hamel’s habit of not directly stating the key point about the manuscript on hand until presenting all the details about it. This is usually the reverse of how a lot of scholarship is presented; often it’s the point first, then the evidence, followed by or interspersed with the reasoning. Only after about 20 pages of images and descriptions does he finally get to the likelihood that the Codex Amiatinus may have been edited and commentated on in the margins by Bede himself. The chapter ends with some speculation about how the book may have gotten from England to Italy.

Chapter 3 presents what is probably the generally most recognizable manuscript to the general public: Dublin, Trinity College MS 58, aka The Book of Kells. The chapter opens with an illustration of the books fame and importance, noting “The Book of Kells has been reported stolen twice.” (96) The second incident occurred in 1874 and was more misunderstanding than theft; the first time the book disappeared was in 1007 and probably was actual burglary. Of all the manuscripts in the first half, this is probably the least accessible for direct study, and the description of how de Hamel got access takes a while, although how he got permission is not included. Some of the special rules include the fact that he himself is not allowed to touch the two volumes he was allowed to see (the librarian would do it for him); the other two were on display for the day. This fact (the 4 volume existence of the book) easily leads into a discussion of how the manuscript ended up in that form.

Once he begins the discussion of the contents, a lot of time is understandably spent on the decoration, the Book of Kells’ most notable feature. This is where he makes the comment, “I shall probably have my permission to visit the Republic of Ireland revoked for ever, but the picture is dreadfully ugly” (113) referring to the first full page illustration in the entire book, an image of the Virgin with her child. While the image is itself reproduced in full color, his description of it does make it sound unattractive, and after some consideration, I have to agree that this is not a very pretty Mary or Christ. de Hamel also considers KS 58’s relationship to other Gospel books of its time and place, and its use and reputation from the 1500s into the 20th century. The final observation notes that the most Irish work of art of all time was probably made in Scotland, but then again, Finnegan’s Wake was written in Paris, and no one really argues about that not being totally Irish.

Chapter 4, on Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Co. Voss. Lat. Q 79, the Leiden Aratea, is framed as an example the practices of copying as applied to antique and medieval manuscripts. The basic premise is that while now in modern times, copying with or without acknowledgement is looked down upon, medieval writers and scribes considered it a sign of quality to be directly and openly based on a recognized example or exemplar. The particular example, in the Leiden Aratea is a discussion on ancient astronomy in poetry, but is discussed more in terms of it being a nearly identical duplicate of its exemplar which would have been centuries old in the ninth century when this version was made. After reviewing the classical renaissance in England under Charlemagne and Alcuin, there is the story of how de Hamel got access to the book and the reading room in which he saw it. Apparently, the Dutch are pretty easygoing. The description of the book focuses on the script (rustic capitals) and the illustrations with some consideration of the symbolism and meaning involved.

After reviewing the transmission and translation of the original Greek into Latin, there is digression into the shape and construction of the manuscript, which leads into de Hamel’s work being interrupted by a group of curious PhD students who are interested in seeing the manuscript, and one asks how he can tell the book is actually late 9th century, not a late-Roman era original. The response that follows concentrates particularly on the relevance and meaning of a planetarium diagram towards the end of the book. Back in the reading room, de Hamel reveals how in direct sunlight he notices that many of the images in the book have deep impressions, suggesting the book in front of him may have been used as an exemplar, but he’ll come back to this. The images themselves are similar to those in a copy of the same text at a library in Boulogne, but not identical. The final discussions of this Aratea look at tracing the ownership of the manuscript from the sixteenth century onwards, and the chapter ends with a discussion of the evolution of reproduction techniques.

Chapter 5, on NY, Morgan Library and Museum M 644, a collection of interpretations of the Apocalypse by a monk named Beatus in Spain in the 8th century (this copy is ninth century), opens with the observation of a non-standard reading room rule, concerning the prohibition of finger nail polish. Then comes the author’s comparison of the manuscript’s most notable feature (images and description of the Apocalypse) with his walk through NYC to get to the library. He also considers the history of how people thought about the end times, and then begins his discussion of the building and reading room.

Before describing the manuscript itself, de Hamel describes how it got from Spain to NYC, and its connection to the notorious nineteenth-century book collector/forger/thief Count Guglielmo Bruno Icilio Timoleone Lirbi-Carrucci dalla Sommaia, Libri for short. Other famous names involved with the manuscript include M.R. James, Yates Thompson, and J.P Morgan. He describes the foliation and collation, and the contents. After discussing the use of diple to indicate Scriptural quotations, he makes the comparison between the scribe’s “use of rows of little red hearts” to “those in a love-sick teenage girl’s exercise book” (209). HE then discusses, at greater length than prior chapters, the script used, Visigothic miniscule and its connections to cursive. From here he moves into the page design and the contents.

He spends a considerable amount of time describing the images in the book, which are in a style called Mozarabic and has connections to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. He asks if it is good art, and ends up deciding that the style is appropriate for the subject and uses the comparison to Picasso’s Guernica. The final section discusses what de Hamel labels as “one of the most remarkable features of this famous manuscript” (224), namely the certain knowledge of its painter, and the likely when and why the book was made.

The sixth chapter, at the midway point of the book, presents the late 11th century Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 717. The chapter begins with a review of the role and importance of riddles in literature from the Exeter Book to The Hobbit. The connection comes from the Exeter connection, since the manuscript by Hugo Pictor was probably originally part of the same library as the Exeter Book. Content-wise the manuscript is St Jerome’s Latin commentary on the Book of Isaiah (Old Testament), but that’s not the important thing here. After reviewing how the manuscript physically got to where it currently is, de Hamel describes the old Duke Humphries reading room that he worked in as a graduate student, and lamented that it was now no longer in use as such, having been closed to scholars in 2011, and replaced by 2015 by the new Weston Library. After describing the external appearance of the manuscript, he turns immediately to discussing the painter’s self-portrait on the last page of the manuscript which is likely the codex’s most famous feature. He describes some of the other ornamentation of the book as well as some of the marginal additions and commentary, and the meanings of some of Jerome’s interpretations.

After moving on to describing some of the features of the parchment used, he reviews the unusually certain provenance of the manuscript and the general history of the time period, and how the two factors are related. The Anglo-Saxon heritage and the Norman effects are the main features of focus in this regard. De Hamel also notes the textual family this manuscript belongs too, since the Jerome commentary has multiple surviving copies, and the features that allow for such determination. This discussion includes trips to Salisbury and Durham, as both were medieval cathedral cities that had manuscript connections with Exeter. The relationship that connects Bodley 717 does not concern the text or contents, but rather the artist Hugo, whose work de Hamel points out bears strong similarities to manuscripts in the other libraries.

As he returns to Bodley 717 itself and its scribes and collation, de Hamel spends a good bit of time considering whether or not the fourth and final of the scribes who worked on the manuscript might have been Hugo himself. As he points out, a benefit of working with such old documents is the acceptability of some degree of speculation. He concludes with a more in-depth review of the self-portrait and what it might have to say about scribal practices, both in Jerome’s time and 700 years later in Hugo’s.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.

Beginning a New Project

Embarking on a new project is always an interesting time. What I am beginning to work on is an extension of an older project, but it represents a new direction. My current long-term research project is a revision of my dissertation into a book. The original project, titled “Argument In Poetry: (Re)Defining The Middle English Debate Poem In Academic, Popular, And Physical Contexts”, argues that many medieval English argument poems tend to follow two models based on academic and popular practices of the times. The academic models come from commentary and disputation practices (Chapter 2), while the popular practices are derived from medieval drama and sermons (Chapter 3). The physical context, addressed in the fourth chapter, reviews a sample of representative manuscripts containing debate poems in order to analyze the types of texts, themes and marginalia typically preserved along with the poems.

I am currently working on a replacement for my original chapter 4. I will be replacing that chapter with an extended analysis of a single longer poem, John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. I plan to analyze the persuasive elements that relate to the commentary tradition, the disputation tradition, the sermon, and confessional literature. The first part of this project will be concentrating primarily on the interactions between Amans and Genius in order to analyze Gower’s treatment of the interpretive and persuasive dialogue in the context of the various related discursive traditions referenced above. The second part of the project will concern the same elements within the exempla presented by Genius.

I am proceeding thus:

1) Initial reading of the primary text for ideas and questions to guide research.

For this first step finding the right edition of your text is important as the edition can be used to start the secondary source research process.  The advent of the digital humanities has made this element far more accessible than ever before. To me, a good edition, traditional or digital requires several components. First, a good scholarly edition must have a good “Works Cited” and ideally “For further information see” sections. A second key element is the inclusion of a glossary and textual notes. Particularly if I am looking at the text in question for the first time in depth, a detailed “Commentary-Notes” section is also very helpful. I am partial to the TEAMS Middle English series because these editions meet the above requirements. In the case of the Confessio Amantis, I will be primarily referring to:

Confessio Amantis, Volume 1

 

{I will eventually be using all 3 volumes, but volume 1 serves as a good example.}

An interesting fact about this series of editions is that many are available online as well as in print.  If I am committed to a specific text as my object of study, I find that I prefer to have the printed text. I prefer to not be tied down by WiFi connections and battery or cord availability. That said, I do like the digital editions because they can save time with hyperlinks to notes, and a digital text can make initial word searches faster than a paper concordance. I always make sure to double check a full concordance (when available) simply because, especially with Middle English, there may be forms of the word or alternative spellings that I was not aware of.

2) Once I have some ideas and questions from the initial reading of the primary text, I next begin looking into the secondary research to see what has already been done in the field, and to find out who the major scholars are. For this literature review, I start in two places. First, I have search my primary academic library’s catalog for potentially relevant sources.

 

 

The second place that I look to build my list of works to review is the Bibliography section of my edition.

                                                                                  LIbrary search

As of this writing, I have gotten as far as the two steps described above. What follows is based on previous practices.

3) As I read through the first round of primary sources, I keep notes. Based on my initial questions and observations concerning the text, I write down the relevant ideas for each text. I also make note of any potentially useful sources referenced so that I can look up the original arguments or ideas for myself. I prefer to keep track of my sources in a searchable digital file, but I keep my notes in a notebook. Although the paper notebook is less easily searchable, I find that if organized by title and author, I can still refer back to what I need while not being tied to an available screen.

This part of the process is probably the most time-consuming. The Bibliography and Index can be helpful places for saving time, especially if a text is not the work of a single author, but a collection or anthology of essays. That said, I firmly believe that taking time during the initial research phase will save time later on. Keeping detailed, organized notes will be helpful later on when I might realize that I want to return to a source I haven’t looked at in six months for a specific reference. In addition to checking my notes, I will also go through the indices and bibliographies provided to re-view the source in terms of my current question or perspective.

4) Outline. I like outlines and I find that I work well with them. As I teach composition students, I record my claims and reasons based on the primary text, keeping track of the relevant passages. I then add to each claim-reason the relevant secondary references.

5) First draft. After ensuring that everything in my outline is compatible, I sit down to write. I find that setting a schedule is useful, but that flexibility must be included. I set myself a weekly page goal and a daily  progress goal with a catch-up day built in.

6) Review and Revision. A hard lesson to learn is that having someone else read your unfinished work is helpful. After draft 1 is done, I send it to a willing trusted third party, while I begin my own revisions. This step is repeated until a polished project is completed.

Given that I am currently in the middle of step 2, the Gower project of mine will be ongoing for quite some time. I hope to have an outline at least started by Summer 2015. In the meantime, stay tuned for occasional updates and observations about how works is coming along.

Beowulf Online

First, the poem itself  does need some introduction. Although there was a movie that borrowed the title and some character names, said film was not in actuality anywhere close to the poem.

The Best Edition and Translation for Serious Students: Beowulf on Steorarume

This online text includes side-by-side Old English and modern translation, and a diplomatic Old English only version. The translation is more faithful to the original syntax and style than many which is why I like it. The site includes a glossary to the Old English, an Introduction to the text, supplemental readings from related texts, bibliography, and explanatory notes with the text. Admittedly, the ads and prominent ‘donate to support’ are not always fun to look at, but the rest of the site makes up for that.

While I admit to owing a huge debt of gratitude to this edition for helping me get through a course covering the original Old English text, this site is also a great illustration of the importance that Beowulf still has. Not only doe the site contain a variety of aids in the study of Beowulf itself, but it also presents other Old English texts that might relate to the same ideas and traditions.

This link to other texts presents one of the main reasons why the Old English Beowulf is still relevant today. It contains some of the only information to have survived the centuries concerning history, culture, and mythology of the time in the English language (at the time). For this reason alone, the poem deserves respect, because it is one of the only texts we still have that illustrates a connection between the English language literary traditions and the epics of Greece, Rome, Scandinavia, and others. This heritage is important because it contains clues to the development of the English literary tradition from some of its earliest stages.

The question remains as to whether or not Beowulf is actually high art as a poem. This is a matter of interpretation, and requires research and study to answer. However, since the text exists in a single damaged copy, and is one of very few extant pieces of Old English poetry that we still have access to, Beowulf deserves attention. Whether we like it or not, it’s nearly all we have.

Beowulf has certainly gotten plenty of attention over the past few centuries. J.R.R. Tolkein was a scholar of the poem, and used sections of it as inspiration for parts of his LOTR series. Even today, the Internet contains many blogs and message boards dedicated to this poem. Just type ‘Beowulf’ into Google or any other search engine. The existence of these digital platforms allows people who may not be professional scholars to interact with some of the oldest known literature in the English language. For this reason alone, the Internet can be called a boon to literary scholarship, because the Internet allows people to experience and interact with texts and ideas they might not otherwise be interested in or have access to.

The quality of these interactions is another question entirely. Some blogs (and other digital sources) are written by trained academics, and others are not. I don not mean to imply that blogs and web sites composed by non-academics are not valuable, or that those by professional scholars must automatically be accepted as high quality. I do say that the author’s background should have an impact on how the content is approach, analyzed, and-or accepted (or not).  I would judge quality based on how the author of an opinion uses the actual text of the poem, and whether or not they account for previously published thoughts on the poem.  If an author cites the poem frequently and correctly, and especially if they cite authoritative scholarship (or even an authoritative edition of the poem), then I am more inclined to take their ideas seriously.  These are all techniques in which scholars are trained, and  a professional academic is more likely to use them.  That said, I don’t believe for a minute that a person must be trained scholar in order to be a thoughtful reader or interpreter.

Beowulf and its digital presence illustrates both the importance and the cautions of engaging with the digital humanities. While the Web allows for greater access, exploration, and discussion, the natures of said discussions and those who engage in them must be taken into account.  An astute observer might notice that I have yet to offer any opinion on the nature of Beowulf as a poem myself. I have no intention of doing so. While I do find the poem fascinating for historical and linguistic-literary reasons, I simply do not feel the need to engage the digital world on this matter. I plan on saving that for works and authors in which I have considerably more experience and expertise. First up, Chaucer. Coming soon.

Key Books for Most Any Medievalist

***This list is not exhaustive, nor is it permanent. It will be updated periodically. Let’s say it’s a permanent work in progress.***

Poetry:

The Owl and the Nightingale

Pearl

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A Parallel Text Edition of Chaucer’s Minor Poems (there are also some Supplement volumes)

De Nuptiis Philologiae Et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury) by Martianus Capellanus

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series

 

Prose or Poetry-for-not-strictly-poetic-reasons:

The Art of Preaching by Alanus d’Insulis

The Metalogicon by John of Salisbury

Ars Versificatoria: The Art of the Versemaker by Matthew of Vendôme

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series

 

Anthologies:

Riverside Chaucer edited by Larry Benson

Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology edited by John Conlee

Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 edited by Rita Copeland and I. Sluiter

Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c. 1100-c. 1375: The Commentary-Tradition edited by A.J. Minnis, A. Brian Scott, and David Wallace

 

Scholarship:

European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius

Medieval Narrative: An Introduction by W.A. Davenport

The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar by David Fowler

Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative by John Ganim

The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and its Critics by Kathryn Hume

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600 by Vivienne Law

Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History by Gordon Leff

Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages by A.J. Minnis

Handbook of Medieval Studies :Terms, Methods, Trends. Ed. Albrecht Classen

Old English and Middle English Poetry by Derek Pearsall

Reading Middle English Literature by Thorlac Turville-Petre

 

Manuscript Studies:

Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Ray Clemens and Timothy Graham

A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 by Michelle Brown

Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson

Pause and Effect: An Introduction of the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B Parkes