Malcolm Parkes RIP
I will not pretend to have known Malcolm Parkes well but, like so many, I owe him such a debt of gratitude that I cannot leave his passing on 10th May unremarked: he was a giant of palaeography. The breadth of his learning was always on display in his writings – indeed, he disdained those who concentrate solely on one script or one chronological period (and, so, presumably, I fail his high standards). This was a scholar who could range across the centuries, as comfortable with the Chanson de Roland as with the manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower, and who could make associations which few would have had the eye to see. What, though, I will most remember him for is his generosity of spirit.
When I began my graduate studies in Oxford, I went to two sets of palaeographical classes, one in my own Faculty of History, by Richard Sharpe, and one in English, by Malcolm Parkes; later in my doctoral work (and less formally), I was to learn much as well from Andrew Watson. Most student medievalists considered the task of palaeography as a matter of comprehension – what Richard Sharpe describes as ‘adult literacy skills’; some of us left the lectures, however, inspired by the possibilities of what palaeography in its widest sense (including codicology) can teach us about the book itself. The ability to hold a manuscript in your hands, to turn it over and to take all the elements of its construction to create a vivid history of its production, use and journey from creation to present – that is an invigorating and potent skill which Malcolm Parkes could convey with wit and clarity.
Central to learning how to do that is being able to write a technical description of a manuscript and, addition to his palaeography classes, Prof. Parkes provided instruction in that practice. Fired with interest by what I had half-learnt, I went off to describe some manuscripts and sent my rough attempts to him. I was not in his Faculty and there was no reason why he should have given me attention; all I could offer him was dinner in my student house in Jericho. But he accepted the invitation and sent me back my descriptions covered by pencil notes which I can still recollect twenty years later and which, in their wise advice, have informed how I developed my own practices of cataloguing.
I also remember him as an engaging lecturer, a master of the vignette and also of the obiter dictum. One, in particular, I recall from his Lyell lectures: ‘it is easy to imitate another’s letter-forms, it is much more difficult to imitate their spaces’. It is an insight suggestive of his own way of working, his own sense of the practicalities or technology of script that enabled him to provide such lucid analysis of (in the title of those Lectures) their hands before our eyes.
There are two other details that come to my mind. One involves an occasion early on in my graduate life when I was working in Duke Humfrey’s – so this was, perhaps, in 1992 and from my memory’s image of the light streaming into Selden End, late summer or early autumn – and Prof. Parkes walked in, cap in hand, to meet a lady sitting opposite me. They proceeded to converse without any attempt to lower their voices, so angering me that I walked out, little appreciating that, if I had had the sense to stay and listen, I would have learnt about the latest discoveries each of them had made, and not realising that the lady in question was destined eventually to be one of my doctoral examiners: the Professor of Palaeography at King’s London and former doyenne of Duke Humfrey’s, Tilly de la Mare.
I mention this tale because of the insouciance it suggests Malcolm Parkes had in the places that were his natural habitat. It extended also to dealing with manuscripts – no white-glove man, this, he would fairly plonk a volume down on its foam-rest. For those of us beginning our career and so daintly touching these half-hallowed objects, this was a liberating revelation. I rationalised his practice in my mind as a recognition that manuscripts, written on parchment and bound in leather over wooden boards, are fairly sturdy things – sturdier, it must be said, than the frail human body. And so, indeed, Professor Malcolm Beckwith Parkes has left us, but there survive many manuscripts which will outlive you or I, and which can say that they have been touched, enlightened and enlivened by him.