bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Postcard from Harvard VIII: what to do with a blank page

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 15 May, 2018

Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), fol. 259. Image from Cambridge University Library:

Here is my latest ruse to make you read: a page blank except for a running header of printed letters. It may well look familiar to you. Certainly, Bill Stoneman, the curator here in the Houghton, immediately recognised it is as from the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493. The reason for its presence is explained at the preceding verso, where the text of the history of the ‘sixth age of the world’ ends. The printers make a virtue of having space left within the gathering and provide this suggestion:

Nuremberg Chronicle, fol. 258v – detail.

They propose that future generations will ’emend and add’ to their volume by inserting further records; the pages are there so that readers can write — perscribere possunt. Just over eighty years after the book was published, one reader took them at their word. Not any reader but Jean de Beauchesne, a French native resident in England who was responsible for the first pattern book of scripts printed in London.

Cambridge MA: Houghton Library, MS. Typ. 232.

Beauchesne takes the opportunity to use the blank space to demonstrate that he can certainly write and more than that: he delights in his virtuosity in mastering a range of bookhands, ending by signing himself in mirror script (elsewhere he describes it as ‘by the left hand’ which raises other interesting questions); he dates his interventions to 1575. It does not appear, however, that he is adding to a page in situ in the volume. I say this not just because the curve of the pages in the bound book would make it difficult to achieve as smooth a movement of the pen as he does, writing remarkably steadily free-hand. It is also because he does not employ the verso, suggesting that the intention was for the page to appear flat as a set of specimens for others to admire and to imitate.

Why, though, would he cut out a page from a printed book and use it like this? There is an obvious practical reason: the quality of paper is good, thicker than much that he would have probably have found from mills in action in his own time. This, in itself, may have attracted him to it. But I asked myself — or, rather, I asked the learned curators and former curators in the Library here (I am here following the sensible injunction of Bridget Whearty to include those who make our work possible in our narratives) — why Beauchesne would retain the printed book’s running header. He could, after all, have disguised its origins by excising the top, without substantial loss to his writing space. That he did not, I suggest, was central to his purpose. Beauchesne wants us to notice the printed letters, wants us to realise from what book they came and wants us to think upon those implications. So, Jean, I will follow where you lead.

The printers of the Chronicle expected readers to write in their copies, personalising them. We have learnt from excellent scholars like Harvard’s own Ann Blair (whom I take this opportunity to thank for stimulating conversations during my short stay here) that the printed book was often considered unfinished, intended to be completed by the interactions it encountered with its owners and readers. Something like this is happening here but, at the same time, Beauchesne is intentionally going beyond the future the printers envisaged for their volume. They expected historical records to be entered but he deploys the smooth page undirtied by print for another possibility: to demonstrate the ongoing efficacy of script. He makes print cohabit with script and, in effect, to cede its place.

The consequence of what I am proposing is that Beauchesne’s act is highly self-conscious. If so, then, we might wonder whether his choice of texts is similarly conscious. As you will see from the image above, he opens, in a grand textualis bookhand, with two lines which translate as ‘a man’s three fingers write and the soul labours; who does not know how to write thinks there is no labour’. This is a variation on a colophon found in earlier medieval manuscripts in which the scribe emphasises the effort involved in their work; some examples show that the usual wording talked of ‘the whole body labouring’ instead of ‘the soul’. Beauchesne repeats the statement by translating it himself into French, in the second sample presented in a littera antiqua that can rival print in its static appearance. What I think he is doing is placing himself in a long tradition of scribal practice, making the printed running header conscious that they are a mere youngster in the presence of this millennia-old skill.

I will push this further and suggest that the next choice of text is, similarly, as pointed as a pen’s nib. It is a passage from the Vulgate, the opening of Proverbs 4, where the father instructs his son to listen to his advice and to seek wisdom. It is a suitably moral message of the sort that often appear in pattern books. At the same time, written above Beauchesne’s signature, it places him in the role of the wise father. But who is his son? Could it be that the child that needs to learn, that needs to follow the paternal precepts, is print itself? Is the suggestion that print continually needs to learn from the sagacity of script?

You may feel this is an overly inventive reading, but the next quotation gives it, I think, some credence. It is another Biblical quotation, this time the famous passage that opens Ecclesiastes 3 – ‘To everything there is a season…’. In the context of the page’s original context, it would have been highly apt, as the histories in the Nuremberg Chronicle describe continual changes of fortune. In the folio’s stand-alone reuse, it gains extra significance. This is because the extract ends with verse 5 and any attentive reader would be expected to think over what comes in the following lines — and in verse 7, we have ‘there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak’. In the same vein, we may be encouraged to ask, is there a time to use script and a time to use print? Is print the future, or it is simply another season in the repeated tergiversations of time?

I am not suggesting that Beauchesne is proposing that there is a single reading for his texts — but I am arguing that he wants us to read his texts at the same time as reading his scripts, and that he is hoping we will consider the interactions between print and handwriting that he provides for us. He is by no means insensible to the ironies of his reuse and of the possibility that it may indeed be claimed that his art of handwriting has had its day. His final phrase, which in its brevity is intentionally ambiguous, acknowledges that: ‘Nil Penna sed Usus’. This motto is sometimes rendered ‘The pen has no force but is useful’, but one other way of translating it would be ‘The pen is nothing but when in use’. Beauchesne might, then, be acknowledging the limitations of his skill but, in the context of this page, I think he wants us also to take the advice not to let the pen run dry and so become useless. Even in the presence of print, Beauchesne is reminding us, script does not die.

And, in the face of a bravura performance of script, would any of us honestly dare to assert that the printing press is mightier than the pen?




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  1. […] the transformation of bookhands after print, with Inglis as the endpoint of the discussion. What I discussed in the last post, on Beauchesne, and in this one will act as a first trial for some of the ideas I am developing. I […]

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