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?