bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

History in Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 September, 2016

Today deserves a little fanfare: the latest instalment of Lost Manuscripts has been made available this morning. There are only 32 new fragments, coming from 19 host volumes, so not a full drum-roll and brass band, please — but some piano trumpetting will not go amiss.

This is the third batch drawn from the collection of Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), a Colchester boy who rose to be Archbishop of York. We must be grateful that he left his library to his hometown, and perhaps equally grateful that the authorities did not look after his books too well: that is, they refrained from hyperactive campaigns of ‘restoration’ and so most of the books are in their early modern bindings, with some usually sensitive repair work done in the 1970s. With those early bindings often come flyleaves and pastedowns from manuscripts. The procedure on the Lost Manuscripts’ website has been the same as before: to give brief descriptions of the bindings, to catalogue the fragments and also, where possible, to bring together separate fragments from the same manuscript and to record that. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, the imaginary location where those physically divorced fragments share an existence as a partially reconstructed manuscript is the city of Babel. The Babel numbers now run up to forty, with twelve new inhabitants appearing today. They include some elegant arrivals — my personal favourite is a full leaf from a fine copy of Moerbeke’s translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics — but others, it must be admitted, turn up looking rather shabbier.

The intention of this project has never been simply to make freely available, in virtual format, information and images of these books, though that is a benefit in itself: if the result of the website is that someone appreciates more fully what can be found in an early modern book, then it has done a service. My aspiration, however, is that over time we can ask much larger historical questions about the death of manuscript culture. We are far away from being able to do that, but I do have a couple of tentative comments which I think deserve investigating further.

1. The long life of tearing up manuscripts

It is already known that, while the heyday of book destruction was the Reformation period, it began long before that and did not end in the mid-sixteenth century. The Harsnett collection itself has examples of this and it goes back much further: it was an element inherent in manuscript culture, new codices sometimes cannibalising older ones, not just through the re-use of parchment, creating palimpsests, but also through the recycling of discarded pages in bindings. The sixteenth century inherited this practice, which was certainly most widespread in the first three quarters of the century. It did, though, continue and not just in Oxford (as is sometimes said). The material used did, in some cases, change, with an increase in recent paper waste, including booksellers’ accounts, being taken out of the rubbish (or the privy) and employed to serve the purpose that parchment manuscript leaves had previously provided. There are, however, other occasions, at the very end of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, when medieval codices were available and were deployed in bindings. In some cases, these were from what must have been quite impressive volumes, being used in known a book-collector’s library: the books of Richard Bancroft (1544-1610) provide notable evidence of this from his time as archbishop of Canterbury (1604 until his death); I will discuss this in more detail another day. Perhaps the manuscripts involved were already too damaged to consider preserving them, but it remains striking that, in this generation of the early antiquaries, destruction could be thought an appropriate process.

2. Not one process but many

What also has intrigued me from the findings we have made so far is the variety of practice. It is obvious that there are differences in use which define the types of fragment that survive: some binders included pastedowns, others had large strips as flyleaves, yet others small reinforcing pieces. There were differences as well in the quality of manuscript, and the parts of it they would employ. In some cases, this must have been governed by issues of availability, a dynamic that must lie behind the increasing use of recent documentary material which I have just mentioned. That, though, would not explain, for instance, the habits of some binders who cut up the manuscript and kept only those pieces with no or minimal text. As some clearly did this consciously, it raises questions about others’ practices: did the provision of an elegant leaf as a pastedown, replete with text and sometimes illumination, say something about the interests or even the loyalties of the binder or of their client? There is a basic opposition in the practices between those which were intended to hide the origin of the material used and those that celebrated it, but even here these describe two extremes of a range of practices. Our intention here must be to get into the mind of the binder when they had the manuscript before them and set about re-using it: we want to recover the impulses that moved their hand as the knife came down upon the parchment.

There are, of course, further issues raised by the increasing amount of evidence that is being gathered, and any comments at this stage must be provisional. But at least we are beginning to know what questions we can ask – and I am confident they will be thought-provoking questions.

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