Friday, March 10, 2017

Cutting Up Manuscripts

  Recently I posted on Twitter a photograph of an isolated medieval manuscript leaf that I own, from a 15th century book of hours. This is all part of the monster process of organising my digital photographic material and easing back into my paleography project which sits forlornly on the website Medieval Writing looking old and daggy because I ran out of energy for keeping up with technological change. This particular leaf had a cursive addendum which I couldn't make out. Here it is.

  This is the bit of added script.

  A keen eyed reader not only transcribed it for me (Pascarii episcopi nannetensis), but recognised the manuscript from which it had been removed, an unusual book of hours from Brittany; not exceptionally fancy or lavish, but which had contained much information about Breton usage. He had tracked down some other leaves from the manuscript, which had been dismantled and sold leaf by leaf by the bookseller from whom I bought my sample.
  I bought a largish number of single manuscript leaves and fragments in the late 1990s, early 2000s to use as exemplars for various aspects of paleography and book design in the Medieval Writing project. At that time, collections of good quality manuscript images on the internet were sparse, and many of them had ferocious restrictions on any sort of re-use. The project mostly relied on old black and white photographs. My budget was modest, so pages, fragments and bits were all that could be acquired.
  Manuscripts have been pulled apart over many centuries. Some of the bits I bought were bookbinders' scraps used in early modern printed books. No respect shown back then. People have chopped out miniatures and initials from old manuscripts since at least the 19th century, leaving the less ornate pages to the oddball collectors' market. I tried to only buy what appeared to be orphaned bits and avoided sellers obviously dismantling books, but a couple of sellers clearly bided their time and only released the odd page at a time. I now know who they are and so does my Twitter correspondent.

  Even fragments can contain a great deal of information when it comes to learning about manuscripts, texts, decorations and illustrations, and how they were assembled and used. The above is a calendar leaf from a different French book of hours containing a load of coded information. Plenty to discuss there.

  An isolated leaf can give information about how manuscripts were made, such as the example from a book of hours above where the initials have not yet been filled in and the prickings are still visible on the untrimmed page.

    They can show some of the tricks of the bookmaker's trade, such as catchwords at the end of a quire to show how the quires should be assembled.

  They can indicate how readers used their books, as in the two sides of this leaf from a book of hours, one side of which shows an image of Veronica's handkerchief which has been much smudged with use and the other shows prayers added into a blank leaf in the cursive hand of the owner.
  So many of the leaves I have acquired show corrections, carried out by various means, that it is easy to debunk the myth that manuscript copies had to be perfect or the scribe was cursed to hell. Either that or there is one hell of a scribal party going on down there.
  The process of pulling manuscripts apart for educational purposes cannot be discussed without reference to Otto Ege, who, in the 1940s, dismantled 50 medieval manuscripts and put individual leaves from them in teaching sets which were then sold to educational institutions. (Click here for a quick description, just google him to find out the various places they got to and where you can see some of them.) Most of the leaves in his sets are from liturgical books, which have been regarded as very stereotyped, not of great individual interest textually, but there is still much to learn from the individualities of books from different regions or traditions. Great efforts are being made to reassemble those manuscripts, in the virtual world if not in actuality, as naturally there is even more to be learned from the whole than from isolated parts.
  Before getting overwrought about the collecting of fragments, just think about how access to these things has changed in very recent decades. Complete medieval books have, over the centuries, crept from the exclusive library collections of the rich and aristocratic to august public institutions. In Britain, some of those private collections were salvaged from monastic libraries at the Dissolution, when they would have otherwise been destroyed. Even in major public institutions, access to these can be difficult and book reproductions of photographs of them have been expensive to acquire and produce. As with much medieval art, there is a tendency for book publishers to reproduce the same pictures over and over again, leading to a false concept of just how much of this stuff there is around.
  Fragments, acquired relatively cheaply and circulated in classrooms and seminars, have provided a sense of reality, and possibly a more accurate perception of the nature and variety of medieval manuscript material than the arty tomes. Not every book of hours was illustrated by the Limbourg brothers. This is not an endorsement of the procedure of cutting up manuscripts, however. Many more options are available if we use them properly. Library collections are being steadily digitised and the restrictions on usage of the images is being eased by major institutions.

  A left handed would be scribe copies from a genuine medieval exemplar (carefully covered in plastic) at a paleography school in 1996 at the University of Tasmania, conducted by Christopher de Hamel.

  Something similar applies to isolated examples of legal documents, such as the Elizabethan final concord shown above. These also float about on the collectors' market. They can be used to indicate the nature, form and wording of documents of a particular type, but they are usually just one step in the legal process of a case, and don't make a lot of historical sense unless placed with other documents pertaining to the case. Mind you, this contextualisation of documents can be a problem in archival collections as well. If you ask a medieval historian what they did with the medieval legal document collections in the National Archives in London when they recatalogued them in the 19th century, take a box of tissues with you. I believe I have seen British Library catalogue entries for boxes of charters which are not even identified individually.

  Cutting up has occurred in this market too. The French deed of sale above has had the seal hacked off, because there are folks who collect seals.
  I think one answer to the problem is that libraries and institutions which are digitising and distributing images of manuscripts need to concentrate a bit more on the nature of the texts and the way they are written, and not focus quite so strongly on the pretty manuscripts with beautiful illuminations and decorations. These are lovely. We all adore them. But they don't show the diversity of the same text in different manuscripts within this tradition. They don't indicate the range of quality of handwritten copies. They don't show the regional variations and why a scruffy little volume may be of value in its entirety because of its content. And please, put up some more document collections in a freely available format, because these are part of the history of writing as a process.
  Those wonderful academics who post segments from the manuscript tradition on social media could also occasionally venture away from their killer bunnies, monstrous beasties and medieval donuts to show something of why the writing on these manuscripts is interesting and important. It just might inform people as to why chopping a text up into bits and dispersing it is a loss of historical information. Those marginalia bits are fascinating, but the folks posting them understand their context. To many less esoterically educated viewers they are digital cuttings. Fortunately if you collect them in your Tumblr or Pinterest scrapbook, you do no harm to the original.
  It is notable that the British Library has recently digitised the Paston Letters and the Book of Margery Kempe, both collections of writings of words, not art galleries on vellum. More power to them. The National Archives in London has digitised a large collection of wills, but you have to pay for each one you download. This is not helpful if you are not looking things up by personal or place name, but wish to scour through a lot of documents for reference to something in particular, like ownership and disposal of books. Yes, it involves masses of work and a lot of money, but these projects are being done at an ever increasing rate, so it would be nice if they included some diversity of content.

  So there should be no excuse for chopping up manuscripts for profit these days. They can be made available to all without dismembering them. Meanwhile, there is probably still a point in collecting up the genuine orphans, binding fragments and unregarded scraps. You never know what question we might want to ask next. Meanwhile, one little Florentine initial will never find its way home, but at least I liberated it from the piece of brown non-archival cardboard that was eating it from the back.

  Thanks to Jean-Luc Deuffic for the transcription and for inspiring me to write this piece.

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