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RALPH HANNA Patient Reading / Reading Patience: Oxford Essays on Medieval English Literature.


Patient Reading / Reading Patience: Oxford Essays on Medieval English Literature.

Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017. xii + 370 pp.

Ralph Hanna is so prolific a scholar that selecting essays for his latest collection cannot have been easy. Patient Reading follows on from Pursuing History, which appeared in 1996 and brought together work of the preceding dozen years. The sub-title of the new collection, Oxford Essays on Medieval English Literature, alludes to the span of time (and the environment) in which its constituent parts were written, namely since Hanna's appointment in 1997 to what became the Chair in Palaeography in that university.

The book comprises thirteen essays grouped into three sections, followed--unexpectedly--by a lengthy, previously unpublished excursus on Piers Plowman that begins provocatively (a favorite word of Hanna's), "This is the book I thought I never wanted to write" (271). Certain of the preceding essays are also new: "Vernacular Exegesis in Fourteenth-Century England" and "Performing Exegesis: Lyric and Sermon in Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.6.26," both within the opening section entitled "Language Barriers," and "John of Wales and 'Classicising Friars'" in the closing section entitled "Historicising the Archive," "archive" in the newish and very general sense (frequent in the book) of body of surviving historical materials. The second section, wholly containing previously published work, is "Nasty Books: Collection Procedures." The three groupings demonstrate Hanna's interest in the multi-language realities of medieval English literacy and his extensive knowledge of Latin "commentative" texts (a term that he prefers to the much narrower "exegetical"); his huge expertise in bibliographical book history ("how any text has come to be joined with others in a typically miscellaneous medieval book", [2]); and his achievements regarding the topography--the localization--of medieval books. In fact he characterizes the volume as "in the main, a sequence of local studies" (1), and maintains that he deliberately avoids "offering general pronouncements and global explanations", that the essays should be taken "merely as exemplifications of types of method" (2). This is, of course, too modest. As with the work of the late Ian Doyle, the revelatory demonstrations of the nature of the medieval books he discusses function as general principles for the rest of us.

The opening section seems deliberately designed to stress the lowly place of the English vernacular. After an introductory essay on "Literacy, Schooling, Universities," which valuably discusses Latin educational texts and points also to the prevalence of Anglo-Norman in grammar teaching, Hanna in effect downgrades medieval English by demonstrating that very often it exists only on the margins of a non-vernacular literate richness. He concentrates on sermon manuscripts, putting the scraps of English verse unearthed by the original compilers of the Index of Middle English Verse firmly in their place as no more than prompts or exempla for use during a preacher's oral performance. Two essays (including one of the new ones) are devoted to performing his own detailed commentative analysis of the Latin contents of Cambridge University Library, MS Gg.6.26--whose sermons contain a text of the well-known Middle English version of "Candet nudatum pectus" (IMEV4088)--but, perhaps revealingly, he has in the end to admit the "expressive force" of that short lyric (89).

Hanna's conclusions can be controversial (thus he queries "the notion that there is a definable and discrete Middle English vernacular archive that one might prioritise," [61]), but his provocations are salutary. And when he turns to specifically English sermon materials, as in the new "Vernacular Exegesis in Fourteenth-Century England," he usefully contrasts the simplicity and lack of commentative ambition of the early fourteenth-century verse Northern Homily Collection with the sophistication of the three English prose sermons in Worcester Cathedral Library, MS F.10 (c. 1400), which he characterizes--like the Latin sermons that surround them--as "suggestively setting audiences on their way to the richness of non-biblical and non-English materials of all sorts" (45). The contrast is obvious, but Hanna's point is the scarcity of "fully commentative" fourteenth-century English texts.

The four essays in the second section are codicological in nature--"nasty books" they may seem, but not after Hanna's expert analyses of their makeup. The essay on the early thirteenth-century Lambeth Palace Library, MS 487 (published in the 2009 festschrift for Bella Millett) demonstrates in masterly fashion how its scribe added further English homiletic materials not originally planned and constructed quires of varying sizes to cope with these changes. "Producing Magdalen College MS lat. 93"--a book produced over two hundred years later--is a brilliant deconstruction of a miscellaneous Latin manuscript largely written by John Dygon, recluse of Sheen, uncovering layer after layer of archaeological strata. Hanna shows that the indexes appear to relate to other Dygon manuscripts and he concludes that MS lat. 93 may represent simply one collection of quires assembled at a late stage into this particular form. He comments along the way that while setting out in order the contents of the manuscript "may be appropriate for a catalogue, it has disadvantages when considering the book as a production" (109)--a preoccupation with the nature of manuscript cataloguing that he has more recently explored in an essay published in The Library in 2017. The two other pieces in this section in turn revisit and greatly extend discoveries first made by Kathleen Scott about manuscript English fragments now dispersed into separate bindings in the Rawlinson collection (placing their production in the context of the Mercers' Company in early sixteenth-century London), and analyze the household book (Bodleian Library, MS Lat. Misc. c.66) put together in the later fifteenth century by the Cheshire gentleman Humphrey Newton (demonstrating that he had some engagement with contemporary literary culture).

The subsequent section, "Historicising the Archive," begins with Hanna's classic 2003 British Academy lecture "Yorkshire Writers," showing that it was not so much the works of Rolle that were central to the religious literary culture of the region as the four long instructional English verse compositions Speculum Vitae, Cursor Mundi, the Prick of Conscience, and the Northern Homilies. Hanna's method here is to study the textual transmission of the poems via manuscript and scribal connections. The companion piece that follows, "Some North Yorkshire Scribes and their Context" (2008), has become equally well known for suggesting the minster town of Ripon as a possible centre of copying, partly for dialectal reasons. The amount of circumstantial supporting detail, especially about "Local readers, actual and putative," is more than impressive.

Two quite different essays then follow. "Dr Peter Partridge and MS Digby 98" somewhat resembles that on Humphrey Newton--one man and his manuscript--but Hanna historicizes Partridge precisely in the context of early fifteenth-century Oxford Lollardy, analysing Digby 98 to show that Partridge, in later life, almost certainly took action to suppress evidence of his earlier adherence to the cause. The essay was written for Anne Hudson's festschrift (2004). The new "John of Wales and 'Classicising Friars,'" in contrast, returns us to sermon materials and would have fitted better with the opening section of the book, were it not that Hanna is now concerned wholly with Latin. The essay takes issue with the exegetical scholar Beryl Smalley's dislike (in English Friars and Antiquity, 1960) of the use of classical sources in the sermons of fourteenth-century Oxford friars, showing that they were writing in the tradition established by their predecessor John of Wales. Hanna demonstrates that John's purpose was to provide effective preaching materials for others to use, including similitudines that he believed should be characterized by "their delightfulness and their memorability" (261).

After such a sequence of largely manuscript-based studies, the subsequent eighty-page literary and textual discussion of the figure of Patience in Piers Plowman comes as a surprise (though it fits better than some of the essays with the "Medieval English Literature" of the volume's subtitle). Comprising an explanatory preface, an "ideological prequel," a prologue, four numbered sections, and its own bibliography, it is indeed its own book, or at least booklet. There is, throughout, no doubt of Hanna's intense engagement with the text and his seriousness about language--this is truly, punningly, "patient reading"--but there is a feeling that the work has been included to demonstrate further this great scholar's versatility and because it could be. It does not fit well with the rest of the volume, and although it will no doubt be essential reading for students of Piers Plowman (section four comprises a more general consideration of the C Version revisions), explication of a difficult poem is not always made easier by Hanna's sometimes knotty prose. Book historians might have preferred further demonstrations of his incomparable ability to reconstruct the shape, size, and production methods of now dismantled manuscript volumes, as in "Unnoticed Middle English Romance Fragments in the Bodleian Library: MS Eng. poet, d.208," published in The Library in 1999. Hanna's longer-lasting legacy, one feels, will reside in penetrating codicological studies of this kind.

Oliver Pickering, University of Leeds
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Author:Pickering, Oliver
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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