bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

An apparent corrigendum

Posted in Academic Practices, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 4 May, 2015

I have today been able to add the latest article to my list of publications. It is one whose prose will seem somehow familiar to those of you who are attentive readers with retentive memories: ‘Good Duke Humfrey: Bounder, Cad and Bibliophile’, which has just appeared in the Bodleian Library Record, began life as a lecture to Bodley’s Volunteer Guides, an extempore performance then written up as two instalments on this blog. What has now appeared replicates that with some – but, as we shall see, not enough – refinement and with the addition of the latest version of the listing of the Duke’s manuscripts, which has also appeared as a page here (what the print version does not incorporate are the links to images which, as you will see on that page’s comments, was very helpfully supplemented last year by an assiduous reader, Bradley Dubbs). This article, then, can be said to have been born digital but have grown up hard copy.

Here is an inside tip: the significance of the piece lies in its appendix which, as it were, wags the tale told in the main text. The body of article is in knock-about, hopefully crowd-pleasing style, with only light annotation. What the listing of manuscripts provides, in contrast, is as authoritative statement as possible of what we know about the Duke’s library at the present time. I have been reluctant in the past to publish this in hard copy since that captures in a permanent form our state of knowledge which is necessarily incomplete and open to addition. I still have qualms but, at the same time, I have come to recognise that there is a use to taking stock of where scholarship presently stands and recording that moment to encourage others to rise to the challenge of supplementing what we know. While that can best be done on-line, this format does not reach as effectively all who work in this corner of the field of bibliographical endeavour. Hard copy exudes some aura of bona fides not available to a personal website, for an article goes through review, editorial checking and the intervention of a copy-editor. That process, in this instance, changed details of the presentation but not the substance of either the main text or the appendix, but the result is something which has a sense of permanence. What I am saying is that it is a fixity provided by publication which the rationale of publication intends should be undermined. This is an article which wants to be superseded.

What it did not want is for its errors to be noticed immediately. But, when I was able to open the hard-copy off-prints on Thursday evening and browsed through the first paragraphs, I was left dismayed by an egregious lapsus calami made by the author (remember, I am his severest critic). At the top of p. 37, explaining Humfrey’s status as royal prince, it describes him – not once but twice – as ‘heir apparent’ to his nephew, Henry VI. This is, of course, arrant nonsense. The designation of ‘heir apparent’ is reserved to that member of the family who will inherit come what may but Humfrey’s chances of succeeding could have been thwarted if Henry were to marry and to father a child. That, of course, might have seemed unlikely considering the young king had run away at the sight of naked female flesh cavorting before him at his court. Indeed, when (five years after Humfrey’s death) Henry’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, did give birth to a son, many suspected that the king could not have been the father. All the same, the possibility of Henry siring a son made his uncle not heir apparent but heir presumptive.

This is, I should add, a slip that was made in the blog-post of the lecture and was imported from there into the article. The conclusion might, then, be that my prose had failed to rise to the more exacting standards of print publication, though I am not convinced we should allow lower standards on-line. The difference, instead, is that what is posted on the internet is mutable and thus corrigible. I use this website, at times, as a safe forum in which to essay a first version of what I will later circulate in print with the aspiration that time and others’ reading will help me improve my expression and my argument. That, at least, is the theory. In this case, obviously, it did not happen and I am left wondering whether I can hunt down all the copies in the world and correct them myself.

Being faced with one’s own fallibility is not a new experience, I suspect, for any of us. As I may have said to you before, I find re-reading one’s own previous writings shaming and doubly so – both because there is a queasy feeling that one could not acheive now what was written then and, at the same time, there is the hot sensation of embarrassment at seeing what ignorance one once had. However hard we try, we cannot wash away all the errors in our writing. We should not, perhaps, take that in the spirit of Luther when he said esto peccator and pecca fortiter, implying that we could not avoid our sinful nature and so should learn to live with it. We scholars can, after all, avoid making error by the simple expedient of not publishing in a format that proclaims its fixity. As academics, we are a breed that over-produces in the publications we spawn – we live in a culture that encourages and celebrates such over-production (yes, the REF is blind). Perhaps we should stop to think – as authors and as peer-reviewers – that if a work is half-good, then it is not good enough to see the light of day: a half-bad publication is one which may do more to set back than to move forward scholarship.

That said, this article is now published and I cannot press a recall button. As it is, I hope that with its detailed appendix it rises above the half-way mark of goodness. What I ask of its readers is that you sit with a pencil and lightly correct, p. 37, lines 3 and 4, deleting ‘apparent’ and writing in the margin ‘presumptive’. Be like the early modern readers who thought of any book they bought as not finished by the act of leaving the printing-house and, instead, inviting their own interventions. And what I suggest to you who are my colleagues on-line is that we should adopt more of the habits of the res publica litteraria: let us be bolder with each other, readier to correct each other (in an affirmative fashion). That would surely strengthen our community and be no bad thing for scholarship.

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