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.


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.

Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

Cambridge University and a few Colleges

Cambridge University Libraries, Special Collections

Links to searching the collection, brief subject guides, and ‘image of the month’.

Special Collections blog (CUL)

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

This page contains information on the library in general. Of particular interest is the Early Manuscripts link which contains access to the James catalogue, and names of other resources for using the collections.