bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Ker’s Pastedowns online

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2021

St George’s Day is celebrated in several countries around the globe — Ethiopia, Georgia, Portugal for example. In 2021, there is another reason to consider it a red-letter day: it sees the launch of the online edition of Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, with its supplements.

I have discussed before on this site the remarkable nature of Neil Ker’s work on manuscript fragments. You may notice that post was written in March 2018 when I announced my aim of producing an online edition of Pastedowns. It has taken some time to secure funding but heatfelt thanks are due to the Bibliographical Society of London and to the Oxford Bibliographical Society — the original publishers of Ker’s volume — for providing the support which allowed me to enlist the help of James Willoughby for organising the data into a spreadsheet and Tom Gillett of We Write the Web for making the technology work.

Only two points remain for me to say now, one of them minor, one of them of more significance. The first is to explain why the online edition is introduced to the world with the sobriquet POxBo. Pastedowns is best known by its author’s surname (even if there are disagreements about how to pronounce it) and his name is used for the website’s search function. We could not, however, publicise it as ‘Ker’ for two reasons. First, this is only one publication among many with which he is intimately associated, and those who studied pre-Conquest vernacular literature, for instance, will think of something else when they hear his name. Second, POxBo includes not solely his work but also the supplement published in 2000 by David Pearson as well as the corrigenda and addenda provided to the OBS reprint of the volume in 2004, compiled by Scott Mandelbrote and someone called David Rundle. I would like to thank Dr Pearson for allowing us to include his supplement in this database.

POxBo, then, is intended to signify that we are working with the tradition established by Neil Ker but are not confined to his 1954 volume. I do appreciate that, for other Ker projects, the expectation is that there should be a four-letter acronym: MMBL or MLGB, though the latter is now online as MGLB3. Following its lead, our abbreviation is five characters long because I wanted to emphasise a key feature of the work which is sometimes overlooked: its remit was not to collect together all fragments reused in bindings but only those pastedowns found in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. That was because the habit of using manuscript ‘waste’ for pastedowns lasted longer there than elsewhere in England and because the scholarship available on bindings from that university town allowed a plotting of the development of the practice with some precision.

This last comment relates to the more important thought I want to share. POxBo exists partly because there is an enduring use to Ker’s listing of fragments which is increased by making it searchable online, with all its supplements included. There is, though, another rationale and that is a sense that we have not yet fully understood how useful his work can be.

It is pleasing to see that a manuscript catalogue of an institution cannot appear now without due regard to the fragments in the collection. In many cases, however, the fragment alone is mentioned, with reference to its number in Ker’s Pastedowns. There is less attention paid to the binding from which it came but this provides crucial evidence. The date of publication of the printed book and the tools used to stamp the binding can provide a narrow date-range for when the manuscript from which the fragment comes was dismantled. This is crucial evidence for its history.

Why might this information be overlooked? A cataloguer might respond that their interest is in the fragment itself not in its wider context. Or they may point out that traditional practice privileges the medieval history of medieval manuscripts, with less attention given to what happened to them after c. 1540. They might also with justice provide the defence that they cannot include everything. I have come to realise how superhuman the challenge of cataloguing a manuscript fully can be: it requires more eyes than Osiris had. I do want us, however, to reflect on the fact that cataloguing often considers a manuscript from the standpoint of its creation, rather than its later life. What I am urging is that we look back from the present moment and focus on unravelling how the codex in front of us — either whole or in small parts — has come to be how it is.

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