Deciphering Books: Margins and Collections

Some of the more entertaining and interesting manuscript mysteries surround the marginalia. For example, in Ashmole 61, a compilation of romances, exempla, saints’ lives, comic stories, and some prayers (mostly in verse), many texts are followed by the image of a fish, such as:

RateFish

There is much debate over why a fish, what sort of fish is it, why the variations (and there are several), why do this more than once, what kind of person was the scribe (signed in a few places as “Rate” or similar) and so on. Animals figure pretty prominently in the margins of medieval books as part of the design and not, but that’s another discussion or several.

A quick search of the internet and you can find all kinds of marginal images and doodles from medieval books, from standard manicula (pointer fingers) like:

Manicula

to abbreviations like “NB” for ‘nota bene’ (note well, or pay attention),

to my personal favorite:

CatPee

on which a scribe has pointed to the smudge and told the reader it was not an error on his part, but rather a cat which had decided to pee on the book in progress, and a curse against said cat.

There are also plenty of medieval books that have explanatory notes and commentary with them, in fact with some books, their whole purpose was commentary, but the ones that don’t have that obvious context are in some ways more interesting, and often more entertaining to consider. We also have medieval books which seem to have been created by someone copying their favorite bits out of a range of texts. These commonplace books seem to have been pretty popular given how many of them survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and into the Early Modern era.

This brings me to contemporary books and how they might get used. I personally usually don’t write in the books I tend to read for fun, but I do write in textbooks and cookbooks.

As an undergrad I seem to have found it easier to take a few brief notes in my books, but mostly underline or arrow things of importance, such as passages pointed out by the professor (I also kept reasonably detailed notebooks with notes from lecture, but that’s another story). I now have found myself using those notes to write my own lectures and lesson plans, which in a few cases has meant transposing those notes and signal from one book (usually my original college textbook) to a new one (most often a later edition or similar but not identical title). Some of this might be the result of having to adjust to new versions of the same book, a situation unlikely for most of the Middle Ages given the general expense and labor involved in making a book copy. I also remember, only once or twice, with a used textbook, being able to make use of the previous owner’s notes. There are some documented marginal conversations and arguments in the margins of a few surviving manuscripts, but a significant amount looks more like what I’ve done to my own textbooks, although quite a few of the medieval scribes, scholars, and readers were a little more creative with doodles, not something I’ve done in textbooks. In some cases, these notes or doodles in the older books become a part of studying them for meaning, and you have to wonder what someone a few centuries from now might think of your student notes or textbooks (assuming you’ve altered them somehow as I have). In my own case, I have to thank past me for writing a little in those books, since it’s quite practically useful to me now, and I suspect it might have been a useful study aid at the time as well.

Again, on the practical side, in most of my cookbooks, there tends to be 2 types of notes: final verdict of recipe overall (ranging from J to “meh” to “nope”) and adjustments to the recipe I might have made, either in the ingredients or process. The final impression notes tend to be in the upper left of the recto page or upper right of the verso. There’s no real reason for it; that’s just how it seems to end up. On a more interpretive level, those phrases or images end up in that location because there’s open space in that part of the page in nearly all books of this kind. It’s also interesting to consider that nearly all of the notes are abbreviations or images of some kind, and how they might be taken when out of context. Would a smiley face be a positive or mockery? What does “ok” stand for or mean? Same for “meh” or “blech”, etc.? There might also be a question of ranking: is ‘nope’ better or worse than ‘bleh’?

In the ingredients, if there’s something I’ve left out, often a seasoning I either don’t have or know I don’t like (frequently basil, one of my least favorite herbs, or cumin, the spice I find most overused) it often gets labeled “opt.” (“optional”) or crossed out. If someone had my entire collection as it currently is, would they figure out that I don’t like basil much, or might they conclude that it was rare or otherwise inaccessible? Besides a reasonably sizeable collection of my own, I also have a few cookbooks owned by my great aunt and grandmother. These are considerably different in content, style, and look. These have virtually no marginal notes, but they do include a lot of inserts, things like magazine clippings or some notecards with recipes either written or glued on. Assuming future person noticed the difference in publication dates and had some understanding of the dating of the handwriting much in the way we now can do with a lot of medieval and Early Modern hands, how might they reconcile or not the two distinct types of books on those shelves?  I usually don’t modify the general process except to sometimes note adjustments to times required, adjusting for my current equipment, or using the oven instead of the stove-top.

And then there’s the question of what about those recipes I either didn’t alter, forgot to annotate, or never tried for whatever reason? If there was not notation or spatter on the page, would the conclusion be it was never attempted or was followed exactly or made no particular impression? There are some studies of such things from the Middle Ages and later, but there’s no guarantee that similar impressions on the future/present would be reached even if the same kinds of study and interpretive techniques were applied.

It is an interesting thought experiment though; if someone who didn’t know me or my time and place found my book collections, what would they conclude about me if anything? You might also consider that fact that there are bookcases with books in them in three rooms in my home. What would that future person conclude about that? Would they notice that all the books in one case were all cookbooks (probably if they also had access to the room, which is the kitchen)? Would they figure out that one shelf of books in another room were those that had been read and set aside for clearing out later on (selling or loaning/giving away)? What would they make or figure out from the collection of mostly fantasy and science fiction with some random graphic novels tossed in? And what about that third shelf in a third room? Would they figure those were the books that weren’t in active or imminent use, and what would be made of all the other odds and ends on that set of shelves (a few mugs, some craft bits and bobs, a few odds and ends for the planter in the room, etc)?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you add in the more “academic” library of personal books I keep in my campus office. If the two collections were found 10 miles apart, would their mutual ownership be determined? And what would the variety, and there is plenty, on those shelves mean or add to the whole personal library picture? And that’s not even considering the handful of actual library books between the two locations…

On the Value and Interpretation of Personal Texts

My local library is known in the region as focusing on local history and genealogy. When the pandemic started to really affect public life when the stay at home order was issued, the regional library system asked for people to consider keep journal and diaries and give them to the library to document daily life during “these unprecedented times”. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend (socially distanced of course) about travel and keeping a journal to keep track of places or experiences to potentially return to. This has got me thinking about how we know some of what we do about daily life in the Middle Ages and Renaissance through diaries, shared books (with marginal notes and conversations), letters, and the types of written communication that aren’t often considered in a literary sense.

Most of what survives is not from everyday people, since the middle and lower classes would likely have not had the time, education, and/or materials to use for leisure or social written communications. Adding to this the probability that history was unlikely to have had much interest in preserving such records over time if they existed, and you end up with plagues that have a much stronger record in literary sources (mostly featuring the upper classes) such as Boccaccio’s Decameron or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet than in non-fictional sources. That’s not to say such sources have not survived, they have, but these records have received far less attention as literary and historical documents. In today’s social media saturated world, it’s pretty easy to find all kinds of stories and experiences directly related to the pandemic, but it’s a very different situation for historical plagues and other society changing events pre-mass media.

So this brings up the question to me about the travel journal I’ve kept the past several summers, mostly for conferences, and the quarantine journal I started back in March. Had COVID-19 not happened, I would be on my way to the UK for about 2 ½ weeks of travel and conferences, and I would have brought with my travel journal since both locations (Durham and Leeds) are places I’ve been before. Besides trying to schedule and map out days, most of my notes have to do with travel routes and methods, and favored food/drink or shopping stops. I remember a few years ago in London, taking note of a favorite bubble tea place (including the street address) and then going back there the following year, only to find a fried chicken joint in its place. The note from the following year reads “UpT (keep notes! J) now fried chicken place L”. Thinking back on that, I have to wonder what or how someone else looking at that note might have understood it. I’ve worked with enough manuscripts to know the challenges that come first with deciphering the words and handwriting, and then interpreting them and figuring out the context and meaning. I also think back to a book I vaguely remember titled Motel of the Mysteries that is about archeologists in the 41st century future discovering and trying to interpret a motel from the 20th century; the only bit I remember is the detail that a toilet seat was considered to be a ceremonial headdress.

So, on to the quarantine journal. What stood out to me most was that at first I was using sentences and fuller phrases, but the last 6 weeks or so have been mostly lists. For example, entry #1 dates 3/20 includes the following:

-Not full isolation start b/c HVAC and bug guys & trip to WalMart (measure tape for knit) & car wash

-3m run went pretty well; did some sweeping & a little yard stuff

-Stinky pretty cooperative

{…}

Three months later, the entry for 6/20 looks like this:

-walk

-kitty

-Target/BksMill/Joanne’s/Grocery

-Class prep and revs

– pie start

-nap

-fin pie

-dinner prep.

I can think of all kinds of probable questions from someone who wasn’t familiar with my daily life and general abbreviations. For example, who or what is Stinky, what’s 3m, what does ‘kitty’ mean, why is there ‘pie start’ and ‘pie fin’ (what’s fin?) with something in between, what’s ‘revs’, etc. All this of course assumes you can read my casual cursive.

What also stands out is that there’s virtually nothing here about the pandemic; it’s all basically daily life. There’s no real reason to keep this kind of record except that it’s something to do, and it might be interesting to me later on for some reason. I have a hard time thinking that someone else at a later might get something useful or meaningful out of this. This suggests to me that it’s possible that this sort of reasoning may be part of the reason why texts like Boccaccio’s don’t feature as much about the actual plague, beyond the preface.

I’m also starting to think about potentially using something like this as a class exercise. It’s pretty common for students in literature classes, even the required intro surveys, to focus on finding “the meaning” of whatever they’ve been asked to read. Here’s my thinking: have students keep some kind of journal for about a week, and then in class on the last day, have them switch possibly not know whose they’ve got, and then ask for interpretations. This might be a valuable exercise in considering how intentional meaning might be, as well as hopefully providing the point that sometimes the meaning is on the reader not the writer, and not everything needs a deeper point, sometimes the surface is right. I think that perception, that there’s always a deeper meaning in something literary, can prevent students in some cases from enjoying a reading assignment.

Obviously this would all need more careful thought, organization, and focus before actually implementing such an assignment. I do think though that some kind of literature to history to everyday documentation exercise would have value and interest for students, especially in a time when the world seems unpredictable and new and not very welcoming. Doing something like this fairly early in the term might be helpful to get students thinking about how they approach textual interpretation, and hopefully humanize the texts they read later on a bit more.

Since history and literature both require information and interpretation, and these sorts of documents often become important records for how most people understand the past, I realize that how my personal journals might be taken in the future is not predictable, but that too is a feature of working with this kind of writing. The intent and meaning of when it’s made might differ substantially later on. I still don’t think the library system would be interested in my quarantine journal though, but then again maybe that’s what the letter writers of the Middle Ages thought at the time too.

A Few Ideas Comparing the Past and Present

I was reading a book a while back about the importance of a handful of beverages in social history. Coffee was one and the coffee house was really the main focus of the chapter. Basically, in the Enlightenment (18th century Europe) the coffee house was the one of the social and intellectual centers of life for most people. While I had some problems with how the book in question presented and interpreted its information, it got me thinking about my own habits in coffee shops. Since I was in graduate school, the local Milwaukee coffee shops were where I got a lot of my academic stuff done. They also were good meeting up places for social get-togethers. When I moved half a country away, one of the first things I did was find the local places, and there’s been one or two added since then (about 5 years ago).

Two now come to mind: one, the current pandemic and social distancing practices, and two, what would the medieval equivalent have been?

I can’t think of a general equivalent of such a location for the Middle Ages that matches well; it would have to be somewhere that had both practical/business and social functions, as well as cater to a wide range of different kinds of people. Taverns could be an option, but those weren’t quite as socially diverse as a modern coffee shop, at least not to my knowledge. Certainly there were such places for the nobles and places for the upper class peasants and places for the lower classes, but was there much or any intermixing? It’s either too bad most libraries are closed right now, or this could be a chance for trying to research like most students would want to start (as in, To the Google!). Church or local festivals of public functions might be another option, but those are less about location and business, at least in some ways. It’s an interesting question in terms of history, but also in terms of modern society. How socially open are modern coffeehouses? Starbucks for example is supposedly open to any and all, but when you go into one, there isn’t necessarily a wide mix in terms of social standing.

Medieval Europe also has experience with pandemic and plague outbreaks, although Black Death was bacterial not viral. The bubonic plague of the 14th century does have some significant parallels including the social panic and distancing (think the frame of Boccaccio’s Decameron), as well as the origins of the term “quarantine”. Again, the details are quite different than the now, but the general parallels do make for interesting ideas.

Besides adapting to a lot more life and work online, I’ve also noticed another phenomenon with connections to the medieval past including the roles of books and reading, and personal written works. I kept a diary when I was younger (as in 20 years ago) but I have over recent years started to keep a journal when travelling. That’s unlikely to be much of thing for me this year since most of my summer travel has been canceled or postponed, but I have started to keep track of what goes on in daily life since social distancing went into full effect in my area, not quite two weeks as of this moment of writing. Looking at what I’ve got so far, it’s mostly just listing off things done, but also includes some general observations about for example how exciting it was to see a display of toilet paper and paper towels that wasn’t totally empty in a grocery store a few days ago, or how I took my fairly new car through a drive through for the first time ever (as in first time for the car, not first time ever for me). The travel journal was a major genre in the middle ages, to the point where now it’s hard to tell some of the fact from the fiction. For example, the Book of John Mandeville and the Book of Margery Kempe both contain aspects of actual travel as well as interpretive observations and thoughts and feelings about what’s been going on for the author. Then you’ve got the more household familial texts, like the Paston letters. The interesting thing here is that the forms are not quite what we might now call a journal, since Mandeville and Kempe’s are travel texts (at least as one of their main genres) and the Paston books are epistolary collections. The personal diary as we know it becomes a thing a bit later in history.

Then there’s the reading. Books as objects especially in the earlier part of the what we might call the medieval era would not have a been a common item in most households, since the printing press wasn’t around yet, and even towards the end of the fifteenth century when it was still a newer thing. Storytelling might have been one general option, and the popularity of the story telling collections from this time (Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan – not necessarily in any kind of order here) suggest this might have actually been a possibility. Today, there’s a lot on social media about how some people plan to catch up on their reading, but there’s also responses about how realistic of an expectation this might be. Fiction definitely seems to have some kind of social effect, not just for the entertainment value (although it’s certainly that) but also for the ‘escapist’ factor. I would be willing to bet that there’s a good bit of promise in the idea, since I know that there’s plenty of scholarship on the book as an object. I also have to wonder how far a research project into the use of fiction as a coping mechanism could go without a research library since I for one find great value in shelf browsing. Not that the databases etc. aren’t good places to go, they are, but sometimes finding exactly the right search is a struggle, and you find the best sources by checking out what’s near whatever it was you had found in the catalog.

There have already been some more public comparisons to history of pandemics and outbreaks of disease, and this one here is by no means detailed or comprehensive. I’m mostly considering a series of general ideas and how they might apply both to the past and to the present, and maybe a little intot he future.

The Online World of World Lit

I am facing an interesting challenge for the new year: teaching my first ever fully online class. I’ve taught World Literature 1 every semester I’ve been at my current institution (4 ½ years), but now I’m facing adapting it to a new platform. I have taught some hybrid courses (up to 50% online), but now I have to work out how to adapt everything to the online platform. In addition to the existential strangeness of likely never meeting many of those students in person, I also have to work out a variety of different ways to replace in-person classroom activities and interactions.

This is probably the biggest challenge in terms of technology, much of which I have at least theoretical familiarity, but it’s also got me thinking about texts. As with many institutions, textbook costs have been a concern of note at my university of late and there has been a push towards lower cost or no cost materials, nearly all of which are digital. There are a lot of good quality ancient and medieval texts in translation online, but the problem for me is that when I’ve assigned online texts before, I have noticed a distinct drop in the likelihood that members of the class have done that reading, as opposed to how many would have done it if assigned from the physical paper textbook. I remember the one and only fully online course I myself took, and the biggest thing I remember from it was how little I got from it intellectually. I remember especially one online discussion board when the professor made a comment on something I’d posted, and I responded hoping for more discussion, but never got anything back. I also remember totally forgetting about a fairly sizable assignment until the last minute, rushing to find a suitable source text online because for some reason, probably date or time, the local library was closed. I’m pretty sure I must have done at least ok in that class since otherwise I’d remember it better. My point is, I don’t have a lot of practical experience with the fully online class, but I’ve got enough of an idea of things that can go wrong to be a little concerned about how I set mine up.

With texts in a general literature survey like this one, I’ve found over the years that what seems to work best is a fairly even mix of things students have probably heard of or even read bits of previously (Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Dante, Cervantes, Milton) and things they likely have not (Ramayana, Tukaram, Boccaccio, Rabelais, The Abencerraje, Tales of the Heike). I also like to include a few things likely to be more intellectually challenging like selections from the writings of Boethius and Confucius.

I have found myself emphasizing more and more the fact that nearly all of these texts are in fact translations from another language, time, place, and/or culture. It has started especially when a new edition of the textbook was published that used a totally different translation of Sunjata. The 3rd edition had a translation more faithful to the original poetic style of the recitation, while the 4th edition had a prose translation. I’m guessing the editors made that decision because the poetic version was a little more difficult to comprehend in terms of story and character, but the prose version loses so much of the cultural and historical feel. When I realized I was going to have students with both versions, and I still do even though it’s been a few semesters since the new edition was released, I really liked what happened when students with the different versions had to work together in class. This is the kind of thing I now have to figure out digital ways to replace. Each section or unit of the course is going to have some kind of group or not-solo thing in it, but I want to have things that are more interactive to encourage students to engage and collaborate in ways beyond just posting to a discussion board and generally agreeing with each other as seems to happen most of the time.

One project I’m hoping will enable some of all the things I’ve been considering is a “where did this come from” or “how-why do we still have this” kind of thing where students look up the textual histories and transmissions of various texts. Because so many repositories of ancient and medieval texts have been digitizing and making more freely available not only the digital facsimiles but also general information about the various texts and copies, my hope is to have students make use of these resources. The group aspect would come in the form of students collaborating to cover multiple time periods of transmission or textual history. For example, with something like the Illiad, one student would work with what is known about the oral text and ”original” composition, another with the ancient manuscripts, another the medieval translations and copies, and the final with how the text was thought of and existed in the mid-Renaissance era. Each individual would be responsible for researching and putting together their own section, and then they would have to collaborate in putting everything together as a timeline or other to be figured out format. I’m also thinking that these projects should be shared with the rest of the class.

Besides some of the logistics, the biggest challenge for me is that while I have great familiarity with many of the European, especially UK libraries and collections, I am going to need to locate English language sources for things that are held in other parts of the world.

I’m also most likely going to have to put together the class as the class proceeds, something I don’t really like doing if possible because it can feel rushed, and that’s not usually not my personal best work.  I know most of the text selections pretty well by now, and I have discussion cues and assignments to go with them, but those are all designed for a different delivery. I’m thinking of using this whole semester as an opportunity to experiment a little more than I might otherwise do with some class elements. For example, I’m thinking of pairing shorter excerpts from the standard works, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with much less known writers and texts from the same period, and giving students a choice of the second text from a list. So someone might have to read the required pieces of the Canterbury Tales, and then their choice of the following: online excerpts of Gower’s Confessio Amantis or Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes. Somehow, some way, I also want to figure a way to work in Hoccleve’s Complaint. I’m thinking that something like this, where everyone has one text in common, and then one text that they can’t be sure other class members have looked at, might help get some kind of collaborative learning going. The problem is, it’ll be tough to pull off without more reading than usual, and students sometimes have enough trouble keeping interested or up with the reading calendar as it currently is.

The next few months are likely going to be me figuring things out as I go, and probably a fair bit of thinking out loud here.  We’ll see how this goes.

Teacher and Student Struggles with Citation and Research

Scholarly research and citation are things commonly taught in most every English course, particularly composition. I saw a post on social media recently suggesting that focusing too much of Works Cited formatting might scare students off. But then again, students do really need to be able to cite accurately no matter what their post-school goals might be, even if the formatting rules might vary by profession. Even if students practice and review, it seems like the majority of the time most Works Cited in a batch of essays have noticeable errors. Students know citation is important, they can explain why it’s a good thing, yet why is it that it seems so difficult to remember to italicize or indent?

I have taken to trying to explain why those things are part of the formatting to help students realize that these formatting details are not just there for looks. I think it helps them understand, but I’m still no closer to figuring out why so many can’t quite manage to format basic book or article citations properly. I know of the problem is citation generators, but even that does not fully explain. Maybe it’s also because the rules seem to change a bit every few years, but most composition students have really only had to work with one set of rules, possibly two. MLA 8 has been the standard in most English composition classes for long enough now that the changes should no longer be much of a challenge.

As someone who has been through MLA 6, 7, and now 8, I have to say an adjustment period should not be years long. There were some substantial changes between MLA 7 and 8, many of them good and necessary, although the revision of the structure on the Handbook itself was one of the worst pedagogical decisions made by an academic group in recent memory. I have serious doubts anyone who was seriously involved in that process has had to work with actual students much, or at least not aby other than top tier very above average ones. I was and am a good student in the traditional sense; I’m good with details and traditional schooling has not been something difficult for me. But I have had trouble trying to figure out how to cite something even slightly less than common using that manual. The style itself is not the issue; it’s how the book is set up, and how over-generalized it has become. MLA 7 let you look up exactly how to cite things, while MLA 8 tries to use the same basic paradigm for everything and it only makes a process confusing for students even worse.

Every now and then, I seem to run into something that reminds me of what it might be like for students who struggle with Works Cited and formatting. I realized that I needed to cite a digitized manuscript but had not idea of whether to treat it as an e-book or as a manuscript, which require two quite different formats. The journal I’m aiming for requires MLA citation, and the MLA 8 Handbook was not helpful for something this specialized. While I’m advanced enough as a scholar to know that sometimes the rules are not as set as one might think, it’s still a mildly vexing problem since you don’t want to submit something to a professional journal that has basic level errors like a faulty Works Cited; that’s just embarrassing even if the peer-reviewing is done blind. It’s especially bad if the particular citation is something incredibly well-known, like the Ellesmere Chaucer or the Findern manuscript.

One of the other common struggles with composition is trying to get students to take the time to actually find the best possible sources for their projects, and not simply the most convenient. Some of this might be attributable to the rise of the digital age, and the fading of patience to spend an hour working through an index or bibliography of a given subject. I’m sure there’s plenty of research about this sort of thing, but none of it helps with figuring out how to show students the value of in-depth research for a researched-based writing assignment. This complaint is all well and good in theory, but when it comes to practice some student problems are more relate-able. When the main campus library only has about half a floor worth of books on shelves, students might be quickly discouraged from the stacks, and when the accessible databases either don’t have the most current or relevant sources, again, it would be easy for an average student to get discouraged. Thankfully, my institution has great people in our ILL area, but getting students to use that system also has challenges. Even for me, having to wait a week to get a source is aggravating since I might have had time for the work when I requested the book, but may not when the book actually shows up. Or as a colleague noted, it might be difficult to remember exactly what the new arrival was needed for. If these things are troubling for someone with research experience and who learned how to use things like physical book-length bibliographies and indices, then I can only imagine what such difficulties might be like for someone who does not have the same level of expertise or experience.

Then comes the problem of fully reading and understanding things like academic sources themselves. I remember as an undergraduate being quite excited to find a journal article that I could fully read and understand. I saw on social media recently a post along the lines of “If you run into an academic source that you can’t read, that does not mean you are stupid; it just means you are not ready for that source.” I like this sentiment, but I have to wonder if the average student would accept this or feel more like they were being talked down to or possibly dismiss the idea as a feel good palliative.

So where does all this leave me? For now, students know that formatting counts on a Works Cited but is not a major part of an essay grade overall. I’m experimenting with a few things this semester in Composition 1 to see if some work on finding and citing sources outside the context of the middle of a major research assignment will be helpful. I also try to use prompts that are open enough that students can tailor their research both their own interests as well as the current resources available to them. We’ll see in December how everything works out.

Challenging the Canon

I teach a lot of survey courses, often to non-English majors. Recently the idea came to my attention of the question of accessibility of some less than canonical authors and texts that still might be useful in a literature survey. I have taught a few things that aren’t staples in surveys of global literature and British literature, but Ovid’s Amores, Boethius‘ Consolation of Philosophy, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mankind are all canonical, at least tangentially, in terms of general Western literature. With some extra annotation and lecture framing, these texts are not too hard for a student to look up either for background or for translations or secondary analysis.

I have used Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound before as well, and students generally respond well to it, although this is definitely a play where you need to use both the script and a performance. Because it isn’t a classroom standard, it’s less likely that students will have studied it previously, and some students might be more interested because this play is something new to them that they haven’t even heard of. Even Stoppard’s biggest commercial/popular hit, Shakespeare in Love, isn’t as well known to students in a first year introduction to literature class. I know this because I asked, and upon further reflection I figured out that the movie might be slightly older than some of the younger students.

There are some titles, both medieval and popular, that could have some real classroom use, but aren’t always available in accessible forms, which makes them even more likely to remain obscure. For example, the 9th century monk Sedulius Scottus wrote among other things a series of lyrics, some of which would fit nicely into either ancient or medieval traditions. For example, one of his poems (c. 81) is a debate between a rose and a lily. Not only is debate poetry a popular genre around that time, but the poem also explores some themes and images which are common like the symbolism of the two flowers, and the attempt to balance pagan and Christian ideas. The problem is that both the original Latin and the single published translation are not readily available. Neither is freely found online, and in physical book form, three copies of Sedulius Scottus: On Christian Rulers and The Poems and a single copy of Sedulii Scotti Carmina (CCCM 117) exist in the library system for the entire University System of Georgia (which includes places like the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech). There are ways to include a single poem in a syllabus, including doing my own translation, but if students get interested, their options for further exploration are quite limited.

Similarly, something like Walafrid Strabo’s Hortulus, as a botanical treatise, might get students who aren’t planning to be literature majors interested in 9th century poetry. Nursing is a popular major and learning that at one point in history lilies were considered an anti-venom in addition to their literary and cultural symbolism might be a gateway for certain students. A dual language (Latin and English) edition is the same large USG library system exists in only three copies; again, as with the lyrics of Sedulius Scottus, if a student were interested in further investigation, finding the materials to explore that text would be a struggle if their institution did not possess one of these copies. A more determined student might be able to find some additional resources, but often, if the class or assignment doesn’t directly align with the student’s major or career goals, they are less likely to be willing to take the time to seek out further information.

The problem with using something that’s not especially standard as a teaching text is not just that the primary text itself can be difficult to find. The same problem exists when a more modern text is popular, but too recent to have generated much secondary scholarship. I have previously used V.E. Schwab’s Vicious in the same general literature survey as The Real Inspector Hound. I also used novels by Kim Newman (The Secret of Drearcliff Grange School) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. All three novels were reasonably popular (two were best-sellers) and all published within about the past ten years. My reasoning was that these were stories students might be able to get interested in, and that they wouldn’t be able to rely too much on secondary work and online summaries or study guides. Vicious was probably the most successful, and I’ll be using it again, but this time I’ll compare it to how students get on with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Drew Hayes’ The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, Vampire Accountant. All of these novels are pretty readily available, although none free should a student want their own copy. It’s my experience with novels like these that tells me that often students aren’t often willing to spend time digging into related but less direct avenues of research if they can’t find something directly on their subject within an hour at most. Of the novelists I’ve listed, only Neil Gaiman has been around long enough, been popular enough, and been viewed as literary enough to have much secondary scholarship published on his work. But the interesting thing is that the university library system doesn’t have much of that scholarship; I had to go to the public library for it. Again, limited access and/or time many students may not be willing to spend.

While student struggles with critical thinking, especially when research might be involved, have long been lamented in various academically-centered media for some time, very little, at least of what I’ve seen, has been able to come up with a particularly useful solution. Getting students more interested and invested in what they’re working with is the best solution I’ve encountered, and sometimes the best way to do that is to use things that aren’t as traditional or even canonical in the classroom or academy. The problem of resources is much larger and one individual instructors don’t have much control over, but we can at least get things started by getting students interested, since demand after all can be a pretty powerful force.

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.

A Digital Research Project Outline

After an interesting conference panel on digital teaching ideas, discussion turned into a gripe-fest against giant corporate owners of journals and software and certain textbook companies, which then led to discussion of who owns online content created by professors, the professor who created it or the school (the answer is often the school). Intellectual property rights sound complex, and given how important such things are becoming, I was a little surprised at how little I knew.

The professional development workshop I went to a while back focusing on copyrights ended up being more on using digital sources (and citing them), not as much on creating your own; I admit, I may have dozed and thus could have missed something. While I recognize the importance of that aspect of law, I ended up mentally going back to students, and how much they might know or understand on the subject.

I ended up thinking back to the history professor who’d presented on the panel, talking about how to teach basic research techniques in an online class. The assignment he described that he’d developed to help students work with primary sources sounds like it would be easily adaptable to other subjects, like literature, especially the medieval. I’m not sure exactly when or how I’ll use this, but I do think this assignment would be really useful for helping students learn about primary sources, and some basic research techniques. NB: The following is based on a presentation titled “”Defining Good Research: Using Digital Resources in British and European History Surveys” by Dr. John Krenke, presented at the 64th Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies.

Step 1: Assign students a primary document. Have them analyze who the author was and consider any bias on the author’s part towards his or her subject.

Step 2: Have students consider the author’s goal and maybe do some general rhetorical analysis.

Step 3: Link the document and its details to the macro-context of the time, place, and situation of the subject. This final step would likely require students to do some research using tools provided by the instructor, including databases or textbooks or other reference sources pertinent to the subject.

This assignment would work with documents on a subject that covers multiple sides, such as the slave trade. Sources for documents include places like the Internet History Sourcebook, or on the literary side, any number of library digitization projects and Early English Books Online (if your institution has access- the free version only allows access to some documents).

In a more medieval option, questions like ‘should the Bible be translated into the vernacular?’ or ‘should women be allowed to own property?’ might work well.

Assignments like this have several benefits to my mind. First, they help students learn about digital resources. During that panel’s discussion segment, it was observed and universally agreed upon that most students, being of the Millenial generation, are perceived as tech-savvy, but really are not when it comes to learning how to navigate new (academic) tools, sites, and systems. I can personally attest to this. Not only does every fall involve a 2 week learning curve as new students learn how to navigate the D2L/Brightspace system, but even more advanced students can struggle with more specialized tools. For example, the online Middle English Dictionary requires some fairly detailed search knowledge to be able to navigate easily and efficiently. Boolean operators are a must-know, as are the different places one can search (head-words as opposed to entries, etc). The irony of all this is that while data suggest that online and technology based classes are where enrollment is keeping steady or rising in general, it’s harder for students and professors both to engage with each other and with the material.

Another benefit of this type of assignment is that it breaks down the process of primary based research into manageable pieces: focused background information research, close reading, and secondary research on the broader issue or context.

This assignment also presents the opportunity to blend digital tools and techniques with more traditional library and literary (or historical) methods. I maintain that no matter how good the digital catalogue of a library may be, it still can’t beat browsing the shelves of a decently-stocked research library for finding potential sources. That said, if students don’t have easy access to such a library then it’s all the more important for them to learn how to conduct focused and broad searches using digital resources with as much efficiency and efficacy as possible.

Going back to the original thought about intellectual property in the digital world, breaking down the assignment like this also makes it easier for students to keep track of their sources and citations in a way that makes sense. Students can get the idea that smaller assignments, like homework, don’t need the kind of attention to citation that larger, longer written work like essays require, and an assignment like this could be used to highlight the need to always cite any source that is outside of your own head..

Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.