bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Slow Study Movement, or Andrew Holes in Paris

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 22 March, 2013

Anyone who has been in earshot of me in the recent past – let’s be honest, not just the recent – is likely to have heard me rail against the culture dominant in Britain that presumes research is only research when it has been printed. It feels at times as if academia has become a support industry for the publishing world. I have no objection to new books: I love books; some of my good friends are or have once been publishers; indeed, I chose to marry one. The problem is not with publication but with the assumption that research only gains its justification through being presented in article or monograph form. There are surely other valid ways of disseminating new findings, be it in the lecture hall, at a seminar or even through an on-line posting.

Even that, though, is not the main concern. It is, rather, that the expectation of publishing encourages swiftly committing discoveries to print when they would be better gestating, maturing, ageing in the barrel of one’s mind. There are, of course, some types of research, where there is a finite set of sources or data which can be analysed and completed within a fairly short time-frame. But are we to privilege those over other types of scholarly investigation? What are we to say, for instance, to the palaeographer who is trying to reconstruct a scribe’s practice where the sources are disparate and, indeed, not for certain all yet identified? It is the sort of pursuit that feels near-infinite, a jigsaw-puzzle where the box has been lost and you are not even sure how much of the picture the remaining but dispersed pieces represent. But it also means that when a solution to a conundrum is discovered, it is all the more rewarding for the scholar and useful for scholarship. At that point, finally, publication would be justified, even required. To reach that, though, can – as the example I am about to give will show – take many years, more than can fit into an arbitrary five-year cycle fond of contemporary policy makers. I propose to you that we should emulate the Slow Food Movement and promote the art and the skills of Slow Study, withstanding the pressure to publish the half-baked, and let our work rest in the oven for as long as it takes.

My intention here, though, is not to give a manifesto, but to present an example of what I mean from my only research. It is a tale that reached something of a denouement just yesterday but it started at least a decade ago, and the journey from then to now had more than its fair share of pauses, frustrations – and luck. The main piece of good fortune that I have had is to have been contacted my friend and colleague, Stefano Baldassarri, asking me to look at a manuscript in Paris of texts by or related to Coluccio Salutati, Florence’s Chancellor at the turn of the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, and god-father to the first generation of quattrocento humanists. Stefano was, at this point in 2010, in the process of editing a work that appears in the codex; he had noticed that the front flyleaf included an inscription by a seventeenth-century English owner, Richard Smith, a notable collector of both books and people’s death-dates. I did not have chance to go to Paris until 2012 – after Stefano’s fine edition was published (it is entitled La vipera e il giglio) – and then only on microfilm. But, as I looked through it, I saw in the margin of one folio a small, frankly unprepossessing pointing-hand or manicula which took my mind back to some research I had pursued – but (thank God) not published – eight years earlier.  

In the first years of this millennium, interested in fifteenth-century collectors associated with Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, I spent time becoming better acquainted with the manuscripts of the English curialist, Andrew Holes. He gave to Humfrey one important manuscript, the sole copy of Salutati’s last masterpiece, De laboribus Herculis (a book now in the Vatican, but that is another story). The Florentine bookseller and unreliable gossip, Vespasiano da Bisticci, claims that Holes had collected so many books while he was an English representative at the papal curia that he had to hire a ship to carry them home. Whether that is true or not, those that survive number well over a score, with most of them in Oxford as Holes, a Wykhamist, gave his library to New College. Those manuscripts had received some recent attention in an article by that learned historian of the English in Rome, Margaret Harvey; she acknowledged for the palaeographical information the generous assistance of Tilly de la Mare. Margaret Harvey’s 1991 article was only the second to be dedicated to Holes; the first appeared in Speculum during the Second World War and its author, Josephine Bennett, entitled it ‘Andrew Holes: a neglected harbinger of the English Renaissance’. It is fair to say that Holes’s stock has not risen much since Bennett wrote, despite Harvey’s important piece, though, in various contexts in manuscript studies, he does gain a passing mention.

On that March day in 2012, the little pointing-hand in the Paris manuscript acted as a sort of Proustian epiphany taking me back to my work on Holes, for its style was familiar from his manuscripts. But it also reminded me of a problem which I had been forced to leave unresolved for lack of decisive evidence. I noticed that several scholars talked of manuscripts including marginalia by Holes, without ever giving specific folio references, but with the range of codices cited suggesting that two quite different sets of notes were being attributed to him. One was the script that provided the manicula, small, impressionistic, drawn vertically, and sometimes accompanied by words written rapidly in a gothic cursive. The other was much more presentable, a notably spiky gothic bookhand. It seemed to me to be implausible that one reader was moving between the two styles but I could not find any definite proof to identify one as Holes and so I had to designate the two sets of interventions ‘reader I’ and ‘reader II’.

The presence of the manicula – whoever was its author – suggested to me that we might be able to associate the Paris manuscript with the collection of New College and, indeed, in the sixteenth century, the antiquary John Leland saw in that library a volume the description of which corresponds with the manuscript I was studying. Not only that: the inscription by Richard Smith on the flyleaf mentioned that he also owned ‘another MSS of the same Author of the same vellum’. Might this be another manuscript from Holes and New College? Might it too have reached Paris? I could not pursue those questions that day last year – I only had a few hours in the library as I was in the city on other, more official business in the Sorbonne.

And, so, the search had to be put on pause another year. The wait, though, was worth it.  As, I hope, will be the wait to hear the second and final instalment of this tale…

Humfrey, duke of Gloucester and Magna Carta

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 January, 2021

As this evening I will be giving a lecture to the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, and the organisation has kindly agreed to my request that it should be a free event, it seems only fitting that I should share a nugget of unpublished research with you.

The title of my talk is ‘St Albans, Oxford and the fate of the library of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’. This will be, in fact, the second time in just over two years that I have spoken to a St Albans audience. The previous occasion was memorable for taking place in the city’s cathedral, the former abbey; my lectern was close to where the duke’s impressive chantry still stands. This time, there can, of course, not be any trip to Hertfordshire; all will take place thanks to the magic of Zoom. It is also made possible by the riches of manuscript material which is now online, and it is about one such volume that I have something to reveal.

Frequent visitors to this site might realise that I have a long-term project to reconstruct the history of the library of that most ostentatious of fifteenth-century English collectors, the royal prince, Humfrey. This is long-term not in the sense that a funding body might imagine, taking three or so years; this is one which is being undertaken (on and off) over decades. It might prove a life-time’s work, if my life is long enough. As readers of this site will know, I make no apologies for offending the gods of REF: I am a devotee of slow scholarship.

This, yes, is a long-winded manner of saying that what I am about to discuss involves research from the BC era — that is Before Covid-19. I have returned to it in these winter days thanks to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. It involves one small piece of information which needs to be placed into a wider context, and that will be provided by my eventual study of the duke’s library. For today, I want to concentrate on that single detail.

Humfrey’s connexions with the abbey of St Albans are well-known; he is often talked of as a friend and intellectual soul-mate of its long-term abbot, John Whethamstede. The latter, we know, gave manuscripts of his writings to the duke — it is symptomatic of the losses that have occurred from the duke’s book-collection that none of those survives. Indeed, the only manuscript that care now bear witness to the association between the insitutional library of St Albans and the private one gathered by Humfrey is a famous volume of part of the history of Matthew Paris. It was written by the author himself, was kept at the abbey and is now in the British Library, as MS. Royal 14.C.VII. In between, it was for a few years, owned by the duke of Gloucester.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 9

Quite how Humfrey came to possess it is not apparent; the assumption that he was given it by Whethamstede is understandable but unproven. What precisely happened to it after it left his hands is another interesting and shady story, which I will touch upon in my talk this evening. What I want to mention now is what happened to the book while it was (presumably) at his palace of Greenwich.

One of the issues around the duke’s book-collecting is the issue of his personal involvement with the volumes he owned. On the one hand, those who sought his patronage expressed their astonishment at how learned he is — but they say that before they met him (if they ever did) and they would say that, wouldn’t they? On the other, he was willing to give away over three hundred of his manuscripts during his lifetime, to the University of Oxford — was he bored of them? The situation, of course, is more subtle and, indeed, of wider significance: we need to places what habit around him in the wider context of the practices and purposes of courtly reading. It was much more often a group activity than a solitary one; it could also be a delegated habit, with prince expecting others to do it for him. I have, however, over the course of my research, come across some cases where Humfrey himself does write in the margins of his books — not simply his ownership notes, which are well-attested, but notes engaging with the text. This manuscript gives a notable example of this.

Humfrey annotates the volume on a few occasions, and far less regularly than some other readers, like Polydore Vergil in the next century. One instance, however, is of particular interest. It occurs next to Matthew Paris’s discussion of Magna Carta.

London: British Library, MS. Royal 14.C.VII, fol. 155v with annotation by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester

Humfrey paused at this point and picked up his pen. He wrote ‘nota bene’ (his most frequent intervention in the books he read) but then goes on: ‘nota de Illis qui faciunt contra magnam cartam anglie quomodo incurrunt sentenciam excommunicacionis’. That is, ‘note about those who act against England’s Magna Carta how they incur the punishment of excommunication’. Here we have a royal duke, a descendant of Kings John and Henry III, noting the importance of obedience to Magna Carta.

We might like to see in this some sign of a ‘constitutionalist’ mindset on the part of Humfrey. We might also want to claim that the fact this is one of the rare occasions on which he felt compelled to write demonstrates how important this was to him. Or we might wonder what propelled him to write and for whom he was writing. The sense I often get when seeing his interventions in his books is that he sees himself being seen: this prince whose life could hardly ever be private was expecting an audience even to these acts we would imagine as moments of inward reflection. What I sense and what I will talk about at length another day is that, for Humfrey, the page was his stage. There is a theatre to annotations.

Never read once

Posted in Academic Practices, Reading by bonaelitterae on 30 March, 2020

I have a morning when what I have published is unwriting itself. I am working on a long-overdue article which should be a simple write-up of a plenary lecture given two years ago. In challenging myself, however, to think deeper and go further, I am realising how superficial I have been in what I have already allowed to go out to the world. Reviewers to date have been very kind to The Renaissance Reform of the Book and Britain; I would be much harsher.

The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘The Eloquent Page’, which encapsulates a point central to my argument: the Quattrocento humanists in reforming how the page looked did so in the belief that the presentation of a text was not extrinsic to its meaning but essential to its expression. For words to be beautiful, they need not only to sound so (in the mind’s ear) but also to be pleasing to the eye. If, in other words, one wants to write with eloquence, it is not just about a phrase being well-turned; it must be also be well turned out on the page. In pursuit of this visual expression of eloquence, the humanists believe they had found their paradigm via a re-invention of an earlier style of script. Their assumption was that, just as a particular idiom of Latin was, for them, the best method of communication, so this new old bookhand, the littera antiqua, was not simply a good possibility but the best.

I stand by all these claims but what has struck me today is how much more persuasive I could have made them. The article I am writing touches on how humanist texts praise of the built environment. What I have come to appreciate and regret is that I missed a trick in Renaissance Reform in not drawing a parallel between ideas of a well-designed building and what we can call the architecture of the page. Fundamental to both of them is the sense of proportion, and it was clearly that perception of balance, through which comes harmony, that attracted the humanists to their littera antiqua.

I could say, in my defence, that making such an association would have been in danger of disrespecting chronology: in the development of the revived styles, the page came before the Palazzo Rucellai or the Pazzi Chapel. The humanists did not need to think — indeed, could not think — of architectural prototypes for their reforms, whereas later Brunelleschi or Ghiberti could not but have been conscious of the re-design of the page as setting an exemplar for their own innovations. I might also say that, perhaps partly in response to developments in the art of the built, a hyper-sensitivity to the proportions of the page appeared in the second half of the fifteenth century, when scribes like Bartolomeo Sanvito began to show a concern for the golden ratio. A perception of the importance of proportion, then, was integral to the early humanists’ reform, but turning that into a science came later than the main focus of my discussion.

Either of those defences, though, is weak when set against my obvious failure. The associations had been expressed with exquisite eloquence by Ernst Gombrich in his classic essay ‘From the Revival of Letters to the Reform of Arts’. When I say ‘classic’, I mean both in the public sense that it is often republished and highly regarded and also in a more private way: it is an essay which I read first early in my days of doctoral research and which was fundamental to my intellectual development. I remember cheering its anti-Hegelianism, being enthralled by its delineation of a human community, feeling the thirst to read as much Gombrich as possible. I have still on my wall a quotation from him, which I have written out in a tidy script which I stopped being able to achieve quarter of a century ago:

I learned what I should have always have known, that the past was not people by abstractions but by men and women

If I turn, though, to my recent monograph and check the bibliography, I find no mention of his name. It is true that you will also not found there a reference to Michel de Certeau, who is another (but more recent) strong influence of what I have written. Perhaps it is the case that the deepest debts are the ones that cannot be expressed. I still accuse myself, though, and find myself guilty of ingratitude. I take some comfort that I am alone in this specific oversight: there is an important recent doctorate on the humanist reform of script and one which we should hope soon appears in print, by Philippa Sissis, and she provides ample citation to Gombrich. At least my failing is peculiar to me but that does not exonerate me.

I also know how this failure occurred: I read as I live life — I savour and then I move on. I rarely return to re-read, and if I do re-read it is sometimes because I have forgotten I ever seen it in the first place. I know, in this instance, that I did return to Gombrich’s article several times, so it transfused itself into my mental apparatus, but I must to have come to assume that my recall would be perfect and I would have nothing to regain by revisiting it again. Perhaps, in privileging further reading, I have lived by the assumption that it is better to have read and lost of the memory of it than never to have read it at all. Today, in contrast, I have come to realise the truth of the famous passage in Seneca’s Letters:

Distringit librorum multitudo; itaque cum legere non possis quantum habueris, satis est habere quantum legas.

He is surely not talking of reading as the eye gliding over the page but the sort of intensive study which comes only with frequent re-acquaintance. Perhaps it is better than never to have read than to have read only once. Maybe this should be an article of faith for the virtuous pursuit of slow scholarship.

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.

Same, similar and suggestive

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 10 September, 2016

There are, I am finding, advantages to a retirement which is ludicrously precocious and — let us be pessimistic for a moment — temporary. In the nine days since it began, I have been on a lecture trip to Cork (with thanks to Caitríona for the invitation, and Jason and Emma for the best-of-Irish hospitality); I have enjoyed a decadently convivial tea (with thanks to Judith); I have settled down to work on completing my monograph, and…

When I first sat down to write this, I was hoping to continue with fanfare and the words ‘I have made a new discovery’. But I have not and what I have instead is in some ways more interesting. For, it is a cautionary tale which may help remind us of the limits of what we can do with our evidence and may suggest what is changing (and what not) about those limits in the digital age.

I am spending time with John Tiptoft, earl of Worcester, who is the focus of one of the chapters of my book. Considering his reputation for sadism, some might consider that I am keeping bad company, even in my solitude. It is not, though, with his bloodthirstiness that I am currently concerned; instead, it is with his book collecting while he was in Italy from the autumn of 1458 until the summer of 1461. I have been drafting a brief paragraph on the humanists who sought his patronage, who included Ognibene Bonisoli da Lonigo, often described as a quiet-living schoolmaster in Vicenza who avoided the bustle of the larger cities. Ognibene presented to Tiptoft a manuscript of his commentary on Juvenal, and that is now in the Bodleian (where it is MS. Arch. Selden B. 50). He also dedicated to the earl a translation of a minor text he claimed was by Xenophon on hunting. I was about to write a footnote reading ‘the dedication copy is not known to survive’ when I decided that was a statement that required a further check.

The transmission of Ognibene’s text has been discussed by my one-time colleague, the enviably polyglot David Marsh. While the work is available in an incunable edition, in manuscript, David lists only five copies. A dedication copy is likely to have been produced as a stand-alone item, and that reduces the list further to two cases where the translation is totus codex. One, in San Daniele, is an unlikely candidate given the history of the Biblioteca Guarneriana. The other is in Yale University’s Beinecke and I had previously excluded from enquiries because the catalogue dates it to the very end of the fifteenth century, so at least two decades after Tiptoft’s execution in 1470, let alone his departure from Italy nine years earlier. Investigating this again, I wondered about the rationale for that dating; it is not made explicit but I suspect it was on the basis of the paper. It is said to have a watermark similar to one the grand master of such studies, Charles-Moïse Briquet, found occurring in stock produced in Verona in 1467, with variants datable to between 1476 and 1492. As the watermark is similar rather than identical to the image he provided, the assumption would naturally be made that it was one of the later variants being used. There is here, however, a helpful reminder of limitations of research even as exhaustive as Briquet’s. More often and not, when one finds a watermark, it is not exactly as is described in his listing (or in Piccard), and then, as the saying goes, all bets are off: no conclusion can be drawn definitely identifying a date on the basis of a similarity. At the most, the likeness might be suggestive of a place of origin since motifs circulated locally — unless, that is, the motif is simple or popular. Even then, however, place of production of paper is no guarantee of the place of its use as a writing surface.

The paper, then, can not be sufficient evidence for dating the manuscript but, if we had only the catalogue, we would have to take the statement on trust. Nowadays, however, we do not have to trust it. The Beinecke is one of those laudable institutions which has made not only its descriptions available on-line but, for many of its manuscripts, uploaded high-resolution digital images. This places the catalogue’s scholarship and the primary source which it describes in dialogue, one which can at times be revealingly discordant. I have described before, in the context of the discovery of a manuscript from Tiptoft’s circle, how this subtly shifts the method of research, in ways which are not entirely unproblematic; more fundamentally, it also alters our sense of the authority of scholarship. We do — and here is a second general note of caution — need to be wary not to replace trust of others with trust in ourselves: our eyes can be deceived by what we think we see on the screen.

Tiptoft was not one of those owners (like Humfrey, duke of Gloucester was) who had a pathological need to announce his possession of a book. Some manuscripts presented to him or written for him do have his coat-of-arms but he himself never provides an ex libris. How, instead, we can identify a book as his is usually by its marginalia, for he added to many of his manuscripts notes in a large littera antiqua, or (and this was more frequent) provided a distinctive diagonal manicula with long forefinger and cuff marked, sometimes surmounting a line in the margin, its straight vertical interrupted by small sets of curves. The images the Beinecke provides reveal an unadorned manuscript written in an elegant humanist cursive bookhand, with ample borders rarely interrupted by annotations, but there are three interventions. The first, at fol. 6v, is cropped but is clearly in the hand of the scribe (note, in particular, the style of st ligature, with the first letter joining the second just below the top of its ascender). This contrasts with the next note, ‘Superstitio venatoria’, at fol. 11v, where the script seems not to be that of the scribe (contrast the form of st ligature, for instance, or the shape of the v). It may be this reader who appears again at fol. 26, adding not a word in the margin but a long straight line, interrupted by small sets of curves, topped by a diagonal manicula with long forefinger and simple cuff marked. That sounds very much like my description of the interventions we can firmly identified as Tiptoft’s, and there are some similarities. If this were simply connoisseurship, we might make a triumphant declaration, but it is not and we would be wrong to do so.

‘Similar’ is not ‘the same’, and the similarities you see have to be balanced against the dissimilarities you want to ignore. So, in this case, the description I have just given overlooks two basic differences. First, Tiptoft usually draws a rather dapper frilly cuff, not the simple curves that appear in this case. True, he does not always use that, as can be seen on some of the openings from another manuscript I have been able to identify as his, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. lat. 7966. But what is invariably the case — and I have gone through several manuscripts checking this is so — is that he always uses a single line to make the forefinger, rather than drawing it with two strokes as happens here. Likewise, if we turn to the words written in the Beinecke manuscript at fol. 16v, there are some similarities with Tiptoft’s hand but the aspect of the script is more flowing, more relaxed in itself than Tiptoft’s rather deliberate serifed strokes.

So, any identification of this reader with the dedicatee of the work the manuscript contains should not be asserted. I think I was sensible to pursue the possibility but more sensible not to force the evidence to prove something it cannot. The principle must be to err on the side of caution: only through firm, incontrovertible identifications can scholarship progress.

And, yet, this is not quite all. The more I look at the Beinecke manuscript, the more I am struck with the similarity of its script with other manuscripts made for Tiptoft or by artisans who worked for him. There is, in particular, a manuscript (for which there are no images available on-line) at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, their MS. 389, an imposing volume of Cicero’s Orations in which several copyists shared responsibility. None provides a direct parallel to the Beinecke’s script, with its slanted ascenders and tendency to some extravagant letter-forms, but the similarities of aspect and of detail (as in the curious ampersand) are suggestive:  these probably did not come from the same pen but it would seem likely that they were from the same milieu. Likewise, there is a codicological detail of the Beinecke manuscript that cannot be checked on-line but may be significant: it is said to be not just on paper but on paper that is ‘highly polished’. This style of finish is also known from other manuscripts produced for Tiptoft (for instance, Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. F. 1. 13) and might again suggest a common context of production.

That is to say, Tiptoft may not have touched these pages but among those whom he knew may have been one or more who did. We cannot make a firm identification but I think, at least, we can draw the conclusion that the codex now in Yale was made in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, on the terra firma of the Veneto, perhaps in or around Padua, the city where the earl was longest present while he was in Italy.

‘Is that it?’, you might ask, ‘can you say nothing more certain than that?’ My response would be that we have a duty not to pretend to certainty when it does not exist, however much others (like you, the reader in my head) or we ourselves put pressure to provide that definitive assertion. This takes will-power in a culture where the expectation is of quick publication. I have already owned up to my membership of the Slow Study Movement and I will insist that there are some types of research that cannot be squeezed into the straitjacket of a finite project started and finished within a REF cycle: manuscript studies demands a longer commitment than that. But, you might also point out, there is an added intellectual difficulty. I said that we should err on the side of caution and I must, therefore, admit that I have condoned error. You could legitimately note that I have shown that Tiptoft’s association with the Beinecke is ‘unproven’, rather than definitely to be rejected. I accept that. You might draw out from that a more general point: is it not our role to speculate? Yes, I respond, we must have speculation and hypotheses, but we must also be ready to set them aside them. What is more, if a hypothesis remains just that, a possibility which is not fully proven, then we might want to share it with colleagues in discussion or in a seminar, but we really should not waste the printed page on it. We should keep such speculation to the spoken word — or to a blog.

 

 

Virtual manuscripts and the real world (part II)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 30 July, 2013

I realise that, since the first of this two-part series, I have left you so long on tenterhooks, that all your joints must be tender. Let me let you down from your sense of anticipation and complete what I promised last time. I ended by saying I have some advice — or, rather, a set of user’s requests — for those about to embark on a project of digitizing manuscripts. I do not want to be greedy or overly demanding, so I confine my desiderata to six points:

  1. Think of secondary audiences – I will admit that this is special pleading by a palaeographer, but my request does have wider relevance. The internet is the domain of pretty things: the visual works better than the textual, and the more eye-catching the image, the better. So, some on-line projects have worked to the internet’s preferences and provided selected images from manuscripts, concentrating on the illuminations. Leave aside the point that this is to provide too narrow a definition of what makes a hand-written codex artistic, this misses an opportunity to serve the wider range of users who are likely to be interested in the manuscript: alongside illuminations, give unadorned text pages, and, while you are at it, give images of the early binding, if it has one, and of signs of provenance. Those elements which are not as yet fully explained are the most useful to include, as they may spur others to discovery. As photography of a few folios of the manuscript is happening anyway, it is little extra work to add a few more images, and a huge assistance to future scholarship.
  2. Provide a ruler and a palette test-card for each image – images on-line can be deceptive. The hues seen on a screen can be far off what is actually there on the page; the nature of a manuscript can be lost by amplification, if there is no reference-point to appreciate its actual size. This, of course, should be standard in hard copy images and on-line; too often the absence of such information can make an image worse than useless and positively misleading.
  3. Give a full description – the possibilities of misunderstanding an image can be decreased not only through visual aids but, all the more, by giving the detailed explanation that a manuscript description provides. Of course, as discussed in the previous post, there are many practical arguments against including the provision of full descriptions in a digitization project; there is a danger that it is not seen as core to the ‘mission’. Provision of full and accurate descriptions would cost (though only a small proportion of the overall budget of such a project) and be time-consuming. And, if those arguments were not strong enough, let me also point out that what I am asking for is not a brief note of contents and structure but a more detailed analysis of material, measurements, structure, script, illumination and provenance. The totality of this is rarely provided: for instance, the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (I have before me a sample page) mentions the overall size of the page but not the layout or size of the written space; it provides collation of the quires but in a form that is incomplete or inaccurate (so, in this instance, as all quires are formed of sheets folded to make an even number of leaves, a quire of seven must signify a folio has been removed at some place and at some point in time. It might be said that this sort of detail would only be of interest to academics and that academics are not the primary audience for this type of project which claims to make heritage accessible to a wider public. That may be so, but academics are likely to prove the most loyal visitors to the site. What is more, for those who are not trained to read the opaque information elliptically presented, why not provide an on-line guide to deciphering what it says? That would treat ‘the wider public’ with the respect they deserve rather than patronizing them by considering them interested in pictures alone. Finally, if time constraints are used as an argument against doing this, see my guideline (5) below.
  4. Provide where possible hyper-links to related manuscripts – as the amount of information on-line grows, our ability to view the whole panorama decreases. Knowledge on-line is not knowledge simply made available by the single act of mounting it onto the ether – the internet can be a place to hide learning. Some hardy souls – like Siân Echard – have attempted to provide indices of manuscript images mounted on-line, only (as in the case of the UCLA project to develop such a resource) to be overwhelmed by the task. Googling is no substitute, especially as the search engine has problems recognising shelfmarks, let alone the difficulty of information held in databases not being easily discoverable from outside that database. Perhaps the time will come when the speed of digitization slows and scholarship can catch its breath long enough to develop comprehensive portals to provide us with an Ariadne’s thread guiding us through the labyrinth of learning. As matters stand, we are at the stage where we are grappling with the overload of knowledge, not where we are composing the equivalent of L’Encyclopédie. And that being the case what assists at this point is if websites create their own associations, demonstrating their recognition of related work that has gone on elsewhere. This does not mean simply having a page of ‘related resources’ but embedding links wherever possible so that the viewer is provided with as many strands of thread as possible. It might not be possible to create a comprehensive listing at this point, but each website offering digitized manuscripts can play its part in making the knowledge more accessible.
  5. Most importantly, budget for updating – an on-line project should not be considered finite. There are many worthy projects that have been developed, gained attention at that phase, been launched to fanfares, and then fallen silent, becoming so static that they seem petrified, written in stone rather than on screen. In a virtual world where the oxygen is change, this runs the risk of death by obsolescence, with the site becoming of antiquarian interest, appropriate only for the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive. This issue returns us to the Parker Library on the Web project which has received repeated mentions in the disputes between Edwards and Pennington. One point of similarity between them is their dislike of the high subscription price-tag for access to the website but, as Edwards mentions, the justification for those charges is that it will help cover the costs of the six-monthly updates. Sitting in an institution where access is available, the cost concerns me less than ensuring the updates are truly that – not just correction of typing errors or technical improvements to information already present but additions to that information, reflecting the latest scholarship which is often aided by the availability of the project itself. This, indeed, can provide a sixth and final entry on this wish-list from an avid user of on-line manuscripts:
  6. Encourage comments – most websites have a ‘contact us’ pages, but that is hardly sufficient positively to encourage engagement, which is of such potential use for projects like those we are discussing. No team of scholars can be expected to know of all discoveries and so should take advantage of the conversation the internet allows.

 This is not too much to ask, is it?