The Scribblings of a Codex-Curious PhD Student

Tag: Material Culture

Making Connections…

Congress Convert

Part 2: #NCS16

After a brief rainy repose in the Lancashire Pennines, staying with family and recuperating from the IMC, I travelled back to London for Congress #2, The 20th Biennial Congress of the New Chaucer Society, (hereafter NCS) held at Queen Mary University of London 11th-15th July.

This was four days of papers presented by some of the most established scholars in the field of late-medieval literary studies. I came away with a full notebook and many significant things to think about.

One of the words that best defines the NCS for me is nexus. The congress was the coming together of late-medieval English literature scholars, a series of papers connected together through ‘threads’, and a perfect opportunity for professional networking, but aside from all of this, there was a definite focus on the networks of Chaucer and his contemporaries and on the relationship of readers to their texts.

The theorising on these networks began in the plenary session: Did Shakespeare Live in Chaucer’s London?  with Paul Strohm, Helen Barr, Farah Karim-Cooper, Bruce Holsinger, and Gordon McMullan each considering the two “Fathers of English Literature”, their relationship with one another, as well as their relation to the City of London. Some of the most meaningful questions to arise from this session revolved around how far a writer can define place, as well as what influence the city can have on an authors’ writing: what shared experiences can it offer to two authors separated by time, but inhabiting the same environment? Is there a collapsing of time within the writings of these two London authors? And can a city really belong to a single author, when so many writers were simultaneously inhabiting and creating within London, both Chaucer and Shakespeare being part of their own social group who were responsible for inspiring and sharing their writing?  Should the question instead then, be about London’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer’s London?

Bruce Holsinger provided an eloquent response to this problem, stating that we should view London not as a palimpsest, as so many have done, as a place written over anew by each author, but we should instead view is as a miscellany, as these texts and their authors being in conversation with one another by the accident of their physical proximity, occupying the same space, but removed from their original context. This codicological analogy interrupts the narrative which is written by the canon, of one great author inheriting the London of the other great author who preceded him. It instead presents the idea that this is a narrative we have invented through our want to see a miscellany as anything other than miscellaneous. The obsession with the author is our own.  Quite a bold statement for the opening session of a conference named for an author and his legacy. But as the following sessions of the week proved, Chaucer, though pervasive, did not dominate, there were as many – if not more – papers presented on not-Chaucer, representing the diverse literary culture of the period. This was exciting for me, an advocate for the anonymous text, for the authorless, and for a non-hierarchical understanding of culture.

The nexus theme was continued in the first panel I attended; Networks in Late-Medieval Manuscripts, organised by Michael Madrinkian. This included Tony Edwards presenting on non-networks, suggesting that ‘reading communities’ could be less about common readership and more to do with like circumstances and regional patterns of transmission dictated by factors other than taste. This worked well in dialogue with Michael Johnston’s paper on provincial scribal networks, which focussed on trying to provide a narrative of literary culture for the areas outside of London, principally through looking at the scribes copying documents and also literary texts within provincial locales. Johnston’s paper was then contrasted by the final paper of the session presented by Simon Horobin. Horobin presented a convincing case for the potential circulation of Troilus and Criseyde during Chaucer’s own lifetime outside of the courtly context, in copies which have either not survived or are fragmentary, concluding that a lack of surviving evidence does not constitute evidence that there were a lack of copies, thereby challenging the accepted narrative that Chaucer’s audience was restricted to the court during his own life and opening up the audience to a wider urban context. This panel was of incredible use and interest to my own research, the networks of a fragmentary textual transmission being central to my thesis. It also raised an important methodological question: when pursuing literary networks, how does the missing corpus disrupt the network ‘narrative’, and how do we overcome it? A problem I am still trying to work out as I continue researching the transmission of the fragmentary Awntyrs and its literary networks.

It is in this session that I asked my first question of the congress, to three scholars whose work greatly underpin my research (particularly Johnston, whose Romance and the Gentry in Late Medieval England (2014) presents an argument for several of the manuscripts containing The Awntyrs off Arthure as belonging to a gentry literary culture, of forming part of a ‘gentry ideology’ in the later Middle Ages, and whose work on this matter I hope to contribute to in my thesis). The confidence gained from presenting at Leeds, and from engaging in discussion there, carried over to the NCS. Asking a question to a room filled with half my bibliography would have been much too daunting a prospect a year ago, but on this occasion I had the confidence to assert my opinion, showing just how much I’ve gained from the past few months and, in particular, from the conference experience.

Another excellent panel on manuscript studies which succeeded in challenging the way I now think was the session How They Thought Then, organised by Katherine Zieman and Sarah Noonan. In particular Daniel Wakelin’s paper ‘Reading Boring Manuscripts’ forced me to reassess some of the assumptions I have made about the books I study. After teasing us with images of luxurious manuscripts, of books with fun marginalia, tears, and intriguing details, he then proceeded to show us the sheer quantity of plain pages, the pages which never get digitised or tweeted because we value the rare, the strange, and the beautiful over the blank. Wakelin then questioned the interpretations of these blank books as being unused, as having not engaged their readers, and argues instead for a consideration of these books as aesthetically pleasing in their own right, or as perhaps as having signified a different type of reader engagement, an intense, absorbing type of reading, or continuous reading, which may not incite the same types of marginal engagement as other types of text. This has forced me to problematize my own readings of some of the copies of Awntyrs and its related texts, which appear frequently in very boring manuscripts. I have taken these to represent books not intended for consumption, but as Wakelin observed, the very blankness of the page could signify a type of conscious consumption; the blank indicating excess space and thus excess wealth. Likewise, it was questioned whether this layout could be to aid performative reading, where marginal annotations would distract the performer, who similarly may not be reading with pen in hand. Wakelin successfully reminded us of the dangers of imposing our own conceptions of aesthetics and taste onto a medieval reader, and likewise the danger of assuming that they did not read like us; we can sit and lose ourselves in a novel, why could it not be possible for the medieval reader to engage in a similar practice of reading?

Proving Daniel Wakelin’s point. The only slide tweeted from his paper is that featuring fun marginalia.

Manuscript studies were a prominent feature of NCS this year, with numerous papers discussing the material form and function of the book. Many of these were contemplating the miscellany, on how to interpret this, the most uncategorisable of books, something scholars have been trying to do for years. In the panel Queer Manuscripts: The Textuality of Error, Kathleen Kennedy applied Queer Theory to the miscellany, calling for us to stop over-categorising, to stop trying to define the book on our terms, and to simply accept and delight in the miscellany; “allowing it to just be miscellaneous”, bringing us back full circle to the codicological analogy proffered by Bruce Holsinger in the opening session.

This recognition of the literary past and the books that have transmitted it as a diverse, jumbled, collection of multiplicitous histories is significant; it allows us to discard the singular narrative of culture that the canon has built. Culture is not linear, nor ordered, it is amorphous, as complex as the people that engage in it. Furthermore, medieval literary culture remains fragmentary. By viewing books as a nexus, a literal binding together of texts, but also as the connection between the people that read them, we may be able to reveal some of the  text’s meaning to its readers. By considering the social and historical networks of these texts, we can begin to interpret that which is missing. Although I suspect this will never deliver us a fully satisfying narrative, thinking about literary culture in this way may allow us to represent it without having to impose our own rules, we would be able to  delight in the miscellany of the past.


An Artful Wander…

Canterbury Cathedral is a striking feature of the city’s skyline, one which I never get tired of seeing. I have been resident of Canterbury for some six years and have visited Canterbury Cathedral on countless occasions; as an expectant student exploring my new home town, as an unofficial tour guide for friends and family, and as a graduating student twice over. But it is different with each visit, altered by the time of day, the light, the point of view.  It is inexhaustible.

Our last Material Witness session Material Process: Constructing Holy Space  offered another new experience of the Cathedral as we climbed up the scaffolding of the Great South Window to see the current conservation. This window, the widest of the Cathedral, was originally built in the 1420s in Perpendicular Gothic and contains medieval stained glass from as early as the 12th century. This session made me appreciate the transformative nature of the building and its materials. The window is tilted, its materials having failed and been repaired over many years. The current project involves rebuilding the whole window, using materials and processes which replicate those of the fifteenth century. The stonemasons still carving the stone by hand, the stone still being quarried from northern France, connecting this reconstruction to the original window’s building processes and to the people who made it. This construction represents the Cathedral’s continued use as a place of worship, from its original foundation in the 6th century, to the modern day, the Cathedral is a living, changing, space, and so no two visits can be the same.

I was more than happy then, to be offered another new experience of the Cathedral as part of the bi-annual CHASE Encounters conference which took place on Friday 6th May. On an early summer’s evening on Thursday 6th May we were invited into the locked Cathedral by Canon Librarian, the Revd Christopher Irvine, who led us, key in hand, on ‘An Artful Wander’ of the Cathedral’s contemporary sculpture.

This included the remarkable altar by artist Stephen Cox (2005), carved from Aosta marble and commissioned by the people of Aosta, Italy for the St Anselm chapel of Canterbury Cathedral. The altar reflects the environment from which it was created, the valleys and mountains replicated in the stone. This piece also connects modern day worship with the medieval Saint Anselm and the construction of holy space, as it is Anselm who, born in Aosta in c.1033, expanded the Cathedral’s choir during his time as Archbishop, 1093-1109, effectively doubling the building’s length.

The piece that I found most astonishing however, was Antony Gormley’s ‘Transport’ (2010). Made from the discarded iron nails taken from the rotted medieval  timbers of St Anselm’s 12th century  building, Gormley’s sculpture is suspended from the roof of the Cathedral’s Undercroft, from above the site of St Thomas Becket’s first tomb, on display to pilgrims in the Cathedral’s crypt until 1220 when it was moved to the newly built Trinity Chapel. This sculpture embodies the transportation of Becket’s bones and is an evocative reminder of the transmutable, temporary state of the body, and the transport of the soul from life into death. The sculpture itself slowly moves, as air and light also moves through it. Its re-use of material connects the building to the body in a way which is both provocative of the historical use of the space, and that of the modern Cathedral.

This post originally appeared as a blog post for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original article here.

A Tear in the Page…

How did medieval people read texts? How did they use them? And why do so few survive? These are the central questions I am attempting to answer through my study of the material details of four fifteenth-century manuscripts containing the alliterative Middle English romance, The Awntyrs off Arthure.

For me, one of the most meaningful realizations of late-medieval reading practice is this detail from the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91, also known as the Thornton manuscript for its compiler and owner, Robert Thornton, a gentleman from Yorkshire who produced two large miscellanies to be read and used by his family. This folio is the opening of The Awntyrs off Arthure text. It is dirty, worn, and most importantly, has been torn across, halfway down the page. This tear has then, at some point, been lovingly sewn back together – highly unusual for a manuscript written on paper. This tear and subsequent repair, as well as the significant colouring to the folio, is suggestive of the poem having been read over and over by Thornton’s family, especially when compared to the relatively pristine condition of some of the books’ other texts.

The thread from this repair has been removed as the manuscript has undergone several stages of conservation, the pages are now mounted on modern paper leaves. We cannot be sure therefore that the original repair was done by the Thornton family in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. But the holes still remain and the damage suffered by this text exemplifies how easily so many copies of it came to be lost. Other copies of the text were not so lucky; the leaves often missing their torn halves, and in fact other texts within Lincoln MS 91 were not similarly saved.

The manuscript’s construction further demonstrates that this text was valuable to Thornton, it is written onto a new page in a single column, with a larger and more decorative initial than any other text of the manuscript (compare it to the similarly beautifully decorated, but much smaller, opening of the fourteenth-century romance Sir Ysambrace ).

Opening decorated initial of 'Sir Ysambrace'

Opening decorated initial of ‘Sir Ysambrace’

This interpretation of the material can therefore give us an alternative perspective of literary consumption that bases itself not only on the survival of texts, but also on the lack thereof. The fact so few romances survive from this period is not necessarily indicative of an unpopular status, but rather, these texts were so popular they were read until they literally fell to pieces, with the poems’ other readers perhaps not  quite as dutiful as the Thorntons of Yorkshire.


Why the Immaterial Matters…

a book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements, clumsy hands. If for a hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

I returned to The Name of the Rose after hearing the sad news of Umberto Eco’s passing. For me, Eco captured in his novel our love of books and the intrigue of a mystery to be solved, of the “lost” historical text set within in a labyrinth of a medieval monastic library. His portrayal of particularly unwelcoming and hostile librarians may or may not (depending on your experience) be a work of fiction, but the novel’s suggestion of a great library now lost is unfortunately an accurate one, and it made me miserable for the many books and texts now lost to us.

The majority of medieval codices, along with the libraries that once housed them, are indeed now gone.The survival rate of medieval English texts has been estimated to be at around 2 to 5 per cent [Bale 2014, 131]. These numbers, derived largely from the examination of pre-reformation library catalogues, are problematic, for how can we accurately calculate that which is missing? But they nevertheless allow us to contemplate the potential scale of books lost to us as modern researchers, and the reasons for why this may be the case.

Certainly, many books were lost in the reformation, but this would not have had such an effect on romances, which were largely uncontroversial to over-zealous reformists. It is more likely that the Middle English romances were lost as a result of the ‘wears of time’, or ‘clumsy hands’, as Eco suggests. Middle English poems were frequently produced in small, individual booklets made of paper – less durable than the more expensive parchment – and so were far more exposed to damage, particularly if left unbound, or handled with too much enthusiasm by readers.

Or perhaps these texts were just not considered worth keeping. The Percy Folio (British Library MS Additional 27879) was supposedly first discovered being used by housemaids to kindle a fire. This manuscript is witness to several unique copies of Arthurian romance in Middle English, and without Percy’s intervention, they would have gone up in smoke and resulted in a entirely different conception of popular Arthurian romance in late-medieval England.

It is not just the missing books that we have to consider, but also the missing pages within surviving ones. The integrity of a book which is lacking half its pages presents a particular problem when attempting to reconstruct the function and meaning of a text; the text is given meaning not only by its materiality (its production materials, presentation, format, illustrations etc.), but by its textual situation; by the other texts it is presented with and read against. Likewise, in a wider sense, books can only be read against other books. If we are to get a sense of the literary culture of any given period, that which is missing has to be of equal importance to that which survives.

The low rate of survival for medieval books affects the value of those that have survived the test of time. Medieval manuscripts are valuable because of their historicity, but also because of their rarity. For example, we may deem a text particularly important because only one copy of it survives, when this copy may in fact be a representative of a widely transmitted and much read text. This text may have survived poorly because its contemporary readers either didn’t care much to keep it, or the very opposite; they enjoyed it so much, and with such voracity, that the text did not survive its readers. To the contrary, a text may survive in huge numbers precisely because nobody read it, but simply were expected to own it, like the copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace that sits on my shelf and gathers dust.

So how can we reconstruct a textual history with any accuracy if most of the texts are missing?

My research is very much twisted up in this problem, of representing that which is missing from the historical record. The material details of the manuscripts which do survive often provide the answers, even if they are only partial ones. Study of fragmented texts, damaged codices, and how they compare to similar, more complete books, can tell us about how such things were read, and used, and potentially how such books came to be lost.

The four surviving manuscripts of The Awntyrs off Arthure for example, reveal that three of them were produced as paper (rather than parchment) booklets. Two of these copies are scribal exemplars, meaning they were intended to be the copy-text for reproducing the poem. These have therefore not been read as actively as they may have been had they been copies owned and consistently read by a family, as is the case with the Thornton Awntyrs of the Lincoln Cathedral Library MS 91 (c.1430-50). This has evidence of significant wear and (quite literally) tear, with sections of the text missing. The only reason for its survival is perhaps its position in the very middle of Robert Thornton’s very large book, made up of 340 folios and 65 texts. Had the text circulated and remained as booklets, as I’m almost certain was the case, there is very little chance of these having survived.

Immateriality matters because of how this informs our reading of the material which does survive and vice-versa. How texts were used is important for thinking about what they meant in any given literary culture, and, as my research continues, I hope to be able to demonstrate that the survival of Awntyrs presents a window into a much more extensive literary culture, of texts being produced for active consumption by eager audiences of Arthurian romance, of a literary culture not necessarily represented by the vestigial manuscript record, but which can be reconstructed through a close examination of the texts and codices which remain.

This has been adapted from a blog post originally written for Material Witness, an interdisciplinary doctoral training programme for the interrogation of physical objects, spaces and environments by humanities researchers. You can view the original post here.

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