It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.
I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.
What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.
Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).
I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.
That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.
The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.
When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.
None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.
Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.
To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.
‘What is palaeography?’ asked a young Albinia de la Mare, and the rest of her career demonstrates that she stayed for an answer. But not only that: her own work transformed how we should answer the question. It is an appropriate time, in the days following the Warburg conference commemorating her nigh on ten years after her death, to repeat the question she ingenuously asked at the beginning of her graduate career.
The simple answer – one I have given in the Oxford Companion to the Book – is that the term now signifies two activities, both intellectually valid. The first concerns the process of localisation and identification of scripts, using the panoply of evidence available in a codex, and thus encompassing those skills called codicology as well as the study of its handwriting. Within this definition is the ability to make alien scripts readable, which is the first way in which many students first encounter palaeography – or ‘adult literacy’ as I have heard it called. The second approach to palaeography is to place the book itself in its cultural context, to see the codex – and other graphic evidence – as a way into the mentalities of previous generations.
In an understated way, the research of Albinia de la Mare (Tilly, as she was known) wrought magic in palaeography in both its senses. The conference paid repeated tribute to Tilly’s ‘prodigious photographic memory’ aided, as Jonathan Alexander pointed out, by the invention of the photocopy. Supported by her copies of images and her capacious collection of notes (now under the tutelage of Xavier van Binnebeke), Tilly developed an ability to identify particular scribes and – a source of even more awe – to date manuscripts within a scribe’s career. These skills made her an oracle to many scholars in different disciplines, some of whom were involved in the conference that has just taken place. A question that remained unasked within the community of Renaissance scholars who gathered at the Warburg was how transferable was Tilly’s skill. I mean, in the first place, whether there is something particularly revealing about humanist scripts which makes them open to analysis in a way that may not be possible for other scripts. To some extent, it must be true that gothic bookhands, where the emphasis is on uniformity of letter-forms, also have a further homogeneity of aspect – in short, that they are less individual than the manifestations of humanist bookhand known as littera antiqua. At the same time, from what little work I have done on French fourteenth-century manuscripts, it seems to me that the possibility of a similar process of identification is present, if only the full range of details – codicological as well as narrowly palaeographical – are used.
But the question of how transferable were her skills should also be taken another way: to put it bluntly, who else can do what she could? I do not pretend to judge who can consider themselves her heirs – and (what the scholarly community might find even more entertaining) who not. Instead, I express this as a warning about the curse of the legacy of genius. Tilly demonstrated that, in naturally gifted, trained and experienced hands, a manuscript could offer up its secrets to an extent that few had imagine. In her wake, it is natural to hope that what she achieved should become the standard rather than the apogee. The result, though, can be dangerous: over-confident identifications of hands on tenuous grounds will take scholarship down corridors of the labyrinth that are no more than wrong turnings, leaving the next generation to unravel previous errors before it can actually make progress. Let us remember that Tilly herself recognised the importance of being tentative and (as her notes on her late masterpiece ‘New Research’ demonstrate) changed her mind. Even Tilly would not live up to the ideal that others would claim for her and for themselves.
I said a moment ago that Tilly worked her wonders with palaeography in both its definitions. I remember when I was a graduate student her reminding me of the importance of not looking only at the letter-forms but at the whole page – a truth I pass on to students by describing palaeographical investigation as a repeated change of viewing, for the ductus to the aspect and back again. If, by analogy, we can talk of palaeography in the first definition as the ductus, then the aspect, the larger picture, is provided by the discipline in its second definition – a consciousness of what manuscripts can tell us about the culture in which they were created. This is where the level of specificity that Tilly achieved – localising manuscripts to specific towns and to specific decades – could be so fruitful. As Vincenzo Fera described at the conference, her interest from the time of her thesis in Vespasiano da Bisticci opened up a world populated by scribes, certainly, and their patrons, but also by the book-sellers and readers of these manuscripts. From the residue of ink left upon the prepared skin of a dead animal it became possible to conjure up a sense of human associations that was not a mere handmaid of history, it was the stuff itself. If, as historians, we fail to appreciate the evidence not just of the words but of the book in which the words appear, we will only be able to tell an impoverished and hollow history. In this sense, we have a duty to follow Tilly’s example, even as we are humble enough to realise that we cannot emulate it to her level.
What is palaeography? It is, I would suggest, a box of skills, of talents and of insights which can so enrich our understanding that the revelation of them is akin to the gift of fire – a simile that (I realise and do not blush to write it) makes Albinia de la Mare our Prometheus.
One of the delights of slow-blogging – the art of not posting everyday, of eschewing the thrill of an immediate but evanescent impact – is that writings even I have half forgotten can evoke a response long after they have been put on-line. You may have fewer visitors but look at the quality. An example: I switched on my laptop this morning to find that Brian Maxson (yes, he, attentive reader, of the article on Bruni’s Xenophon translation) had commented on my post from twelve months ago concerning the putative whereabouts of the ‘bookshop’ of Vespasiano da Bisticci.
Brian’s words have spurred me to turn my intention to update that post into a reality of the virtual sort. When I visited the location last year, the leather shop, ‘Junior’ was feeling its age: it closed late in June 2010. It has now been replaced – in despite of world financial turmoil that has made the term double-dip no longer the preserve solely of the fun-fair – by an elegant boutique. For completeness of the photo-record, here is a snapshot.
I must say, I have been suspicious of the claim that the doorway was just as it was in Vespasiano’s day – a suspicion I am emboldened to state reading Brian’s similar opinion. He goes on to suggest that the location was a few yards to the south, on the corner of the Via Ghibellina, close to the Bargello, which, as he says, before it became an early-modern prison, was where the external judge, the podestà, was holed up or incarcerated during his six months’ term in Florence. It is now a restuarant, cum pizzeria, cum gelateria (all your appetite’s desires sated in one location).
I realise that we may be unwittingly beginning a neighbourly dispute over who indeed is the heir to Vespasiano’s spot. Could there be any outright winner? Not, I would imagine, from the physical state of the buildings alone. We have to await a definite reference to an unarguably precise position before this can be finally settled. Get thee to the archives, then.
The question came up in class this morning of the whereabouts of Vespasiano da Bisticci — the man who was book-provider to the Renaissance rich, as he himself tells us in his retirement project, his Vite of ‘illustrious men’. It’s striking to think that Vespasiano’s modern fame lies in a work that was only printed in the 1830s and quickly became, for Burckhardt among others, an evocative image of quattrocento Florence. A symptom of that is the provision for him of a small slab in his memory as cartolaio e biografo in Santa Croce in 1898.
In his own lifetime, of course, the cartolaio or libraio was better known for the manuscripts (always manuscripts, no dalliance with printed books for him) that he had produced or provided for his international cast of customers. He would walk over each day from his home on the Oltrarno, on Via de’ Bardi (its location — if I remember rightly — identifiable in a fifteenth-century depiction of Florence discussed by the late A. C. de la Mare in the festschrift to Ernst Gombrich), to his shop. Where was that? It is a reasonable conjecture that it was on the Via dei Librai, whose address you will not find in Googlemaps: it has been renamed or rather goobled up by the Via del Proconsolo, which runs down from behind the east end of the Duomo past the Bargello to Piazza S. Firenze. In the fifteenth century, the last section, from where the road meets Via de’ Pandolfini, was named after its main commercial occupants, the book-sellers. They continued to congregate around there, apparently, into the nineteenth century.
Some scholars have gone further and identified a particular location as the likely position of Vespasiano’s shop — on the corner of Via de’ Pandolfini, where there remains a renaissance doorway, topped by a symbol of an open book. That, of course, could be relevant for any libraio, but if it were Vespasiano’s location, there may be some justice in its latterday history. Here is an image of what is now a shop window:
That it is a ‘leather factory’ is not entirely inappropriate, considering the importance of leather bindings to the cartolaio who was willing to provide them for his clients’ books. But that it boasts of being ‘junior’ might not have been considered by da Bisticci as a winning or dignified marketing strategy: Vespasiano would surely have admitted no senior in his trade.
Tomorrow, I set off for a month’s teaching in Florence. It is a new course, organised at the Palazzo Rucellai, intended for high-flying graduate medievalists who want to learn more than is often available about the skills that are core to our subjects: palaeography, philology, codicology. It will be an adventure for everyone — for Stefano Baldassarri, the mastermind behind the project, those of us who are designing the modules for it, and most especially for the students themselves.
The contribution I have been asked to give is on ‘codicology and incunabula’. As those of you will know who have followed this blog with an assiduity that is uncommon and perhaps unwise, my expertise lies in the manuscript world — I am guilty, perhaps, of a little of the disdain that Vespasiano had in spades for the new-fangled culture of print. But providing a course that ranges across both allows for interesting juxtapositions and reflections on what each subject can learn from the other. And having the course in Florence invites me to consider the differences in national approach to the subjects and in particular to the tradition of manuscript and incunable description.
As both an introduction and a coda to the course, I have concocted a brief bibliography on the topics. It is by no means meant to be full, nor am I anticipating that the students hunt down all of the 100 plus works during their four weeks in Tuscany. I hope rather — and this is why I call it a coda — that they will refer to it long after they have left Alberti’s palace and the winds have blown them, like the Rucellai’s boat, far from their temporary home. I am putting it on-line here, both for their benefit of the students and for the interest of any wandering scholar who might happen upon here and wish to find some intellectual nourishment.