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DANIEL WAKELIN Designing English: Early Literature on the Page.


Designing English: Early Literature on the Page.

Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018. 215 pp. 89+ color plates (some subdivided).

This entrancing and informative book was written to coincide with the excellent exhibition of the same name (Designing English) in the Weston Library of the Bodleian from December 1, 2017 to April 22, 2018. With its emphasis on graphic design, the exhibition (and the book) illustrate (literally) the perhaps surprising continuity between an interest in designing texts during the Middle Ages and today. Ordinatio has become an academic focus of medievalists in the past twenty-five years, as manuscript studies have become broader and to some extent have left behind "literature" (a word used, interestingly, in the subtitle of the book) in favor of codicology. This book fully demonstrates the link between text and design, a link that Bodley's Librarian, Richard Ovenden, suggests in the foreword was essential to make the underrated vernacular communicate to its new readership.

For this book Daniel Wakelin must have looked at every single one of the nearly nine hundred and fifty Bodleian manuscripts that Ovenden notes contain some English material. The majority of the Bodleian's thousands of manuscripts are in Latin, but even minor uses of English are relevant to this exhibition, although the major English works such as The Peterborough Chronicle and manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman are included, too. Not all the manuscripts illustrated and discussed are from the original Bodleian collections, but only eight other libraries are listed in the "Index of Manuscripts": in Cambridge, the libraries of Corpus Christi and Trinity, together with Cambridge University Library; Chicago University Library; Lambeth Palace Library; the National Archives; and elsewhere in Oxford, the libraries of Jesus College and University College.

Wakelin writes with fluency, elegance, and intelligence. Although entirely suitable for academic reading, his text is also accessible to the knowledgeable reader or visitor of the exhibition: in the introduction he explains why we might have "prejudices about the so-called 'Middle Ages'" (6) that would lead us to question an early interest in design, and he foregrounds the craft, handicraft, and craftsmanship of the period. His descriptions of scribes and illuminators is transparent and calculated to diminish the distance between the perhaps unfamiliar terms and the reality of those who did these activities: "a scribe is merely somebody doing the task of copying and an illuminator the task of painting (illuminating or limning)" (11). One of the four illustrations to the introduction is not even of a manuscript but of a copper jug from Ghana (property of the British Museum).

Each of the six sections of the book is elegantly illustrated and textually informative: "Making Space for English," "Making Pages," "Pages for Reading," "Decorating Pages," "Pages for Voicing," "English in Space." Each of these has a subtitle from a text discussed and illustrated to start the chapter. Chapter 1 is "In fruma waes word" (In the beginning was the Word), illustrated by a manuscript where the English words (very small) gloss the same Latin verse decorated in the manner of a Bauhaus design (but at the turn of the eighth century). Having started with marginalized English (sometimes literally marginalized), Chapter 2, "In wat syde of heven that thy be," takes its subtitle from a line in the Prick of Conscience, the very page illustrated alongside the text. Materials are dealt with in this chapter: the process of making parchment (including "small, holey scraps of parchment,"[53]), of reusing manuscripts as palimpsests, of folding (or rolling) manuscripts to various sizes and shapes, of squeezing words into margins, and all sorts of other ways of manipulating material to its textual and social purpose, until "perhaps by the late fifteenth century the bound book was too strong a model for storing or reading not to be followed" (71).

Chapter 3, perversely but perhaps deliberately, begins, "Here begins Book IV." It introduces the first four letters of Bede's Book IV as intertwining orange and green birds and beasts. Here the reader is introduced to medieval paratexts (Wakelin supplies a list, 73-74), such as different scripts, paraphs, changes of font (as we would say today), running heads, contents pages, glosses, and marginal annotations, all copiously illustrated. Chapter 4, "xii signes that reigneth," opens with a zodiac man and asks (and answers), 'What is this picture for?" "So what do pictures and diagrams in English manuscripts achieve?" (99). The chapter deals with images: their construction and purpose, the importance of convention in religious pictures ("not because the culture was narrow or restrictive, but because it was through shared patterns of images that people found a way to show their personal piety" [106]), and the role of images in presenting magnificence, in entertaining, and in educating. Among the manuscripts are some a medievalist may never have seen before: drawings of antlers to instruct the reader in the different ages and designations of deer; a page illustrating four of The Twenty Jordans, with a real Jordan (urine flask) alongside (from the Museum of London); a unique diagram illustrating problems in chess, with an ivory chess piece (from the Ashmolean) en face.

Chapter 5 is "taec us hu we magon us gebiddan" (teach us how we can pray), the words of the apostles to Christ that led to the exposition of the Lord's Prayer. It opens with a folio from one of AElfric's sermons, including these words and the Pater Noster itself, and the chapter deals with devices to enable reading aloud in numerous situations: preaching, chanting the liturgy, group reading, reading verse, singing, performing and reading plays.

Finally, Chapter 6 begins with an invocation to the Virgin and to Christ: "Lady, Jhesu, mercy!," taken from a brass memorial to Thomas Peyton and his two wives, with a picture of one of them with this inscription folded into her elaborate headdress. The theme of the chapter is "Books and other objects are more alike than they seem" (157). There are five manuscript pages illustrated, but the majority of illustrations are of other types of inscribed artifact: the brass from Cambridgeshire; an Anglo-Saxon knife from Kent; a silver brooch from Sutton Hoo; a gold ring from Godstow Priory; a piece of a sandstone cross from Dewsbury; another brass from Norfolk; and various much better known inscriptions: John Baret's cadaver tomb from Bury St. Edmunds, together with the decorated ceiling with his motto, "grace me gouerne"; the Prick of Conscience glass from All Saints, North Street, York; John Lydgate's verses on the walls of the Clopton chapel in Long Melford. Even the manuscript pages are unexpected: verses jotted down from the walls of a Cornish priory; Lydgate's Long Melford verses as they appear in manuscript; an illustrated poem on the instruments of Christ's Passion; the tau-cross as a charm for childbirth; and a charm for toothache to be written on a loaf or on butter or an apple for the sufferer to eat.

The research for this volume (and exhibition) must have been phenomenal--relatively few are thanked in the acknowledgments, which suggests prodigious hard work on their part, but among them are the endowers of Wakelin's Oxford Chair (which is in memory of the gifted codicologist Jeremy Griffiths, who died too young), "brilliant students in the Faculty of English in Oxford," and "my dad, Roger Wakelin, for travelling round East Anglia with me to make brass rubbings and take photographs of inscriptions." Copious thanks are due to Wakelin himself for a book that should be prescribed reading and teaching in any manuscript-oriented course from now on for a very long time.

Susan Powell, University of Salford (emerita), University of Leeds
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Author:Powell, Susan
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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