bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

N. R. Ker and the palaeographer’s work ethic

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 March, 2018

I am not doing very well with keeping my New Year’s resolution, which was, my friends, to spend more time with you via this blog. As you will see, after a sprint-start in January, the dynamo ran low and all fell quiet. I could claim that my Lenten vow has been to give up on my resolution – but now I am even breaking that.

I could make my excuses. I could, with honesty, say that I have been prioritising: apart from my teaching and research duties, there have been three papers to give in as many months (I know, I know, I should learn to say no). The last of these was in Magdalen College, Oxford, and was on someone whose energy and productiveness puts me to shame, the doyen of mid-twentieth century British palaeographers, Neil Ripley Ker.

Ker’s name is well-remembered in scholarly circles, though it is over three decades since his relatively early death in 1982, at the age of seventy-four. Anglo-Saxonists still prize his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957, reissued 1990); the wider community of manuscript researchers continue to thank him for his monumental Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, of which two volumes appeared in his lifetime — the first in 1969 — the third following soon after his death, and the enterprise being completed thanks to Alan Piper and Ker’s executor, Andrew Watson. It was one of two major projects for which Ker had main responsibility that has become widely known by a four-letter acronym. Alongside MMBL, there sits MLGB, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, a listing of books for which provenance from a medieval British library can be traced; in the team that produced the 1941 volume, Ker was the most active (in part because, during the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector), and he also led on the significant revision which appeared as a second edition in 1964. The enduring importance of the work is attested by its transfer into electronic form as MLGB3, a version being provided thanks to Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby.

My talk in Magdalen, however, focussed on none of those works. It was designed to relate to the present exhibition in the college’s Old Library, which is an elegant and instructive display of music fragments. If you have not seen it yet, it is open each Thursday afternoon until 19th April 2018. It is the work of the urbane musicologist, Giovanni Varelli, and of the energetic librarian, Daryl Green — my only contribution to it was to offer a pun for its title, ‘Fragments of Note’. I was asked to speak in part because I am presently working on preparing the catalogue of the college’s manuscripts for print, and also because of my known interest in manuscript fragments. The most recent manifestation of that is the Lost Manuscripts website, but, a decade and a half ago, I was involved (with Scott Mandelbrote) in providing addenda and corrigenda for the reprint of Neil Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, which was first published by Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1954. Given that Ker himself was a Magdalen man, it seemed appropriate to talk about his work in producing a volume whose transformative potential for scholarship has not (I argued) yet been fully harnessed.

The title-page of the 2004 reprint of Ker’s 1954 volume.

It has been said that Pastedowns has a ‘wonderfully frumpy title’ and it may be that its lack of ostentation has been part of the reason that it is a publication often considered as one of Ker’s learned opuscula. That is not to say it has been entirely ignored: one of the reasons it was reprinted fifty years after its first publication was because it had been repeatedly cited in another volume that the Society had overseen, David Pearson’s Oxford Bookinding (2000). Pearson’s title suggests where the weight of attention has fallen: it is Ker’s exemplary discussion of the stamps and ornaments used in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that has garnered the most interest. That, though, was, in effect, an appendix to the main study, which was a listing of manuscript pastedowns — not, it must be noted, all fragments — found in those bindings. Ker’s purpose was to begin to understand the process of destruction of manuscript culture in an England overtaken by print and by Reformation. In that enterprise, he has not, I would suggest, had the followers that his subject deserves.

My intention now, however, is not to reprise my talk but to draw attention to three points about his method of working which struck me forcibly as I was preparing it. The first is the evidence for his practices provided by the surviving notes on which the printed book depends. They show him checking each volume in person, taking rubbings of the binding as an aide-memoire and making brief notes on the text of the fragment. This last element hints at what a remarkably retentive memory he had. Boxed into our Google-world, where ‘real-time’ checking on-line can be combined with digital photography to refresh our hazy recollection of the item itself, we are liable to underestimate what a feat it was for him to identify both texts and the relationships between fragments which were geographically dispersed.

A page from Neil Ker’s post-publication notes on pastedowns.

If that might make most of us mortals despair at achieving his level of scholarship, there is a second factor that is salutary. It is the amount of sheer legwork that was essential for Pastedowns to be produced. The published work is nearly entirely confined to examples available in Britain. That was not the end of his studies: the image above shows him working on pastedowns on a rare trip to the States in 1971, a decade and a half after the book’s appearance. The tracking down of relevant examples was an enduring interest of Ker’s and, indeed, forms the main source of the addenda provided in both Pearson’s Oxford Bookbinding and the reprint of Pastedowns. What, though, is more remarkable is the effort he put into researching his topic ahead of submitting the volume to the press. It is perhaps best demonstrated by the map I have compiled of all the places he visited.

It is clear that, while there is a concentration in the obvious locations of Oxford, London and Cambridge, Ker saw it as his duty to criss-cross Britain in tracking down other examples, in public libraries, in parish church collections, and in private hands. All this took time, and that is the third point I want to stress. Pastedowns was published in 1954 and the text as printed shows that additions were being made up to the last possible moment. The history that lay behind it, however, went back about two decades. Magdalen has in its archives the notebooks he produced on the fragments in his college, and I am able to date those to the second half of the 1930s. That is to say, this was a long-term project requiring sustained determination. There was none of the publish-and-be-damned culture that the REF encourages. I would like to submit Ker’s Pastedowns as a vindication of the principle of slow study.

Looking through Neil Ker’s papers is a humbling experience. It reminds one of the qualities needed for such scholarship. We often hear of the ‘palaeographer’s eye’, and Ker certainly had that. What is meant by that is an ability to detect the distinctive features on a page, combined a retentive visual memory. In addition, Ker shows how the research has to be both painstaking and patient, aiming at a comprehensiveness which does not brook over-hasty publication. He also epitomises both a love of detail and an ability to see beyond the mass of minutiae to their wider implications — and it is that vision in Pastedowns which I think we have yet fully to appreciate.

There is, then, much more we can do and the starting-point must be to return to Ker’s work. This is why, thanks to financial support from the Bibliographical Societies of London and Oxford, I am beginning a project to create an online searchable edition of Pastedowns, to be hosted on the Lost Manuscripts website. Not all the funding is yet in place (if you want to assist, let me know!), but the work on building the database is beginning. I hope you share a little of my excitement at the times ahead.


One Response

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  1. Pip Doran said, on 18 March, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    Fascinating as always!

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