bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Wondrous Variety of Fragments

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 27 June, 2022

Have I ever mentioned how spell-binding manuscript fragments can be? Even if I have — and maybe I have once or twice — it is worth repeating. I can do it with just one example, which I was asked to discuss on the Picture This blog of Canterbury Cathedral Archives.

I do appreciate that the claim of being ‘spell-binding’ might cause hollow laughter in some quarters. In fact, anyone who has had to pore over a scrappy bit of parchment with kakographic handwriting from an obscure text would be likely to curse rather than to praise — likely to wish that the book had disappeared completely. But part of the fascination of fragments is the sense that they are a doorway, left just a little ajar, so we can peep through and make out in the distance how much there is which is beyond our certain knowledge. Just do not step into the wardrobe and close the door behind you.

Or fragments are the flickers of flames on the back of the cave. We conjure with the shadows they throw.

And what shadows. This is my point for today: the plurality of the fragmentary. This is the case in terms of shape and location and of previous use. It also pertains to their origins. So, the example I have recently discussed elsewhere involves a printed book which combines one pastedown from an incunable of Cicero and one from a medical manuscript, at least a century and a half older. In the space I had, I could only touch on the various questions this raises. We know that binders fairly often brought together pieces from different books to help finish a new binding they were making, but how did this work? Was there a conscious desire for variety or was it merely about what caught their eye at the specific moment when they wanted something? The variety of ‘waste’ which must have stuffed the binding shop must have been the epitome of the gallimaufrical — and these two fragments do not reflect the full range. Both could reflect a university’s educational programme at different points in its history, but what was available also included the biblical, the liturgical, the devotional, and then also the documentary and, yes too, the blank. We are aware of this variety if we survey large collections of surviving complete books but, I suggest, fragments make this eclecticism all the more immediate, as it places them into close proximity, and creates unexpected harmonies and imperfect cadences.

So, read that blog-post and tell me: are you beginning to be persuaded?

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