Michael Johnston and Michael van Dussen, editor: The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches.
In their prefatory remarks, the editors of this timely volume, Michael Johnston and Michael van Dussen, highlight the tendency among many medieval book historians to produce "tightly focused analyses of individual manuscripts or small groups of codices" (1), citing James Simpson's critique that palaeographers and codicologists fail to translate their findings into "literary criticism and cultural history." The collection they mastermind--The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches--successfully marks a move away from such tightly focused studies toward a reappraisal of manuscripts as "objects within the cultural world, where people interact with them in meaningful, readable ways" (2). The essays ask broad questions about book culture in later medieval Europe but significantly they are underpinned by those aspects of traditional manuscript studies, and this is the strength of the collection: there are no single case studies, and instead scholars use their intimate knowledge of manuscript production and use to make "broader interpretive claims about manuscript culture" (12). It is this philosophy (not a new idea, as acknowledged by the editors, but applied to medieval studies in pockets only) that drives the collection, informing the thirteen contributions and challenging, "gauntlet-like" the "entire field of medieval literary studies" (Kerby-Fulton 243).
The essays gathered here are consistently strong, privileging theoretical assessments of questions around matters such as authorship, the manuscript-print nexus, circulation, archival practices, and miscellaneity, while (necessarily) retaining a strong foundation in close readings of the book; as such they are both provocative and informative. Some of the contributions suggest ways in which we might refocus our treatment of and relationship with the medieval book. Seth Lerer's essay opens by looking at the complex relationship between manuscript and printed books, asserting that manuscripts were designed to be unique but that early printed books, for all their indebtedness to the manuscript, were never meant to pass as manuscripts. "Bibliographical theory and the textuality of the codex: towards a history of the premodern book" (17-33) argues that early printed books and manuscripts did not exist simply to transmit authorial content but instead were "shaped by the commercial, scribal, and social institutions of the time" (18). Lerer's piece looks at how the medieval impulse to compile "shades into" compilation practices evident in early printed books, specifically in Sammelbande (19), examining also the various ways in which early printed books could be and indeed were transformed into unique objects. In "What is manuscript culture? Technologies of the manuscript matrix" (34-59), Stephen G. Nichols suggests that we are too dependent, despite our technological sophistication, on "analog protocols developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries" (34) with respect to our attitudes to medieval manuscripts. He suggests that we can profitably consider them a "technology," produced in "urban micro-cultures" requiring high levels of skill and interpretative acts that are visible on each page, rather than as irregular, artisanal, and idiosyncratic objects that require to be replaced by critical editions. "Manuscripts," Nichols argues, "situate their texts in contemporary history" (36). Jeffrey Todd Knight's "Organising manuscript and print: from compilatio compilation" (77-95) also studies a Sammelband, here in order to think through "the complex entanglement of print and manuscript ... in the reading and writing cultures of late pre-modern England" (77).
Several of the essays offer thought-provoking reassessments of commonly debated issues and cruxes in the field medieval book history. Erik Kwakkel, in "Decoding the material book: cultural residue in medieval manuscripts" (60-76), is concerned with the kind of information that can be gleaned from the codex itself apart from in the words: the "data embedded in the physicality of the object itself" (60). His essay examines what looking beyond the textual content might teach us about the scribe, the relationship between that scribe and the reader, and the anticipated use for the volume, concluding that "book design may relate manuscripts to their milieu of production, readers, and manner of use." It is the kind of essay I can imagine setting as required reading for students, since Kwakkel offers compelling examples here, arguing that such considerations "reach beyond the discipline of manuscript studies," illuminating not just our reading of the codex but of medieval literature itself. Arthur Bahr's "Miscellaneity and variance in the medieval book" (181-98) considers both the variety inherent to the medieval manuscript miscellany and the "range of modern theoretical approaches" to those volumes (181), suggesting that the term "miscellaneity" is "most useful as provocation to further investigation and new modes of reading, rather than as an objective designation" (182). And in what seem to be happy companion essays, Sian Echard and Martin K. Foys tackle the archive and the digital surrogate, respectively. Echard's "Containing the book: the institutional afterlives of medieval manuscripts" (96-118), explores issues around judgment and value in archival practices around manuscripts and printed texts though the lens of material associated with Matthew Parker, while in his piece Foys tackles the "long media history" of the eleventh-century codex London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius MS B.v, to the present day. Both of these essays deploy narrow case studies, but they use the case studies profitably to speculate on wider concerns around archival practices and preservation. Meanwhile Andrew Taylor examines the complex relation of author to text in manuscript, the role of the manuscript and of practices associated with manuscript publication in the valorization of the author, and the role of academic editors in how manuscripts are represented ("Vernacular authorship and the control of manuscript production," 199-214).
In line with the broad view on manuscript culture encouraged by the editors, several of the essays are attuned to European book cultures. Specifically, the remaining three essays look at the Continent and beyond. Pascale Bourgain examines the idea of a textual tradition, how texts were disseminated and how far, as well as at the idea of the success of a text in "The circulation of texts in manuscript culture" (140-59); Lucie Dolezalova, in "Multilingualism and late medieval manuscript culture" (160-80), finds similarities between medieval England and medieval Bohemia with respect to manuscripts that communicate in three languages; and Keith Busby and Christopher Kleinhenz, in "Medieval French and Italian Literature: towards a manuscript history" (215-42), suggest that attention to manuscript transmission can lead to a "radically different vision" (215) of the influence of particular authors and texts in this period.
This collection is to be warmly welcomed. It offers a new model for the way in which close studies of manuscripts and texts can contribute to a fuller, theory-driven picture of the complexity of book and textual production in the medieval period and, perhaps too, to a greater consciousness around the whys of such studies. But this does not represent a turn from current practices so much as encouragement to refocus and freshly interrogate those practices; as Kathryn Kerby-Fulton notes in her "Afterword," "it is the duty of all of us who work in book history to interrogate our assumptions, and to contribute to self-awareness in the field's methodologies. For what is theory ... but self-awareness of method?" (244). And she also restates the argument of this edited collection of essays in order to emphasize how the attention to detail, detail that characterizes the work of palaeographers and codicologists, in fact delivers much of what the editors call for in their introductory remarks.
University of Limerick, Ireland
CARRIE GRIFFIN is a lecturer in Early Modern English literature at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Her latest book, Spaces for Reading in Later Medieval England, was coedited with Mary C. Flannery and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2017|
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