bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Putting shelfmarks in their place

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 5 December, 2010

I have been proof-reading a chapter that is about to appear in a volume on the production of books in late medieval England, edited by those fine young scholars (young in comparison to me), Alex Gillespie and Dan Wakelin. The publishers, CUP, in their wisdom have decided in one case to move the shelfmark of a manuscript I mention from the footnote into the text itself. Apparently, their house style tends to place shelfmarks in the body of a work — something I strive to avoid. This has set me thinking about the most appropriate way to cite manuscripts or specific copies of printed works.

Let me start by saying that there are some cases when I would certainly provide a shelfmark in the text itself: you only need to look at the manuscript descriptions I have put on-line to find instances of that. When I do that, I like to mark out the shelfmark typographical, my preference being for small caps. There is a difference, though, between a description or a catalogue, and continuous prose forming an article or chapter. Even in this latter case, I could see an argument for citing shelfmarks within a sentence, if you were having to publish with endnotes rather than footnotes. Then again, it would be better to avoid being published in such a format – but that is a debate for another time.

Considering why my strong preference is for avoiding shelfmarks in the text and having them cited at the bottom of the page, in the footnote, it seems to me that there are two reasons. The first could be dismissed as stylistic — but style is central (or should be central) to our practice as authors. The presence of a shelfmark, with or without the library abbreviated, is an intervention in the flow of the prose, a distraction from the words and their argument. If the manuscript needs to be identified in the text, much better to think of a verbal designation rather than a formula of words and number. Those who favour shelfmarks in the text would probably argue that it aids precision — but what I think they mean is that it looks more ‘scientific’. And that, indeed, is probably the nub of this issue: as authors, we are not scientists who cite equations or formulae, and we should not pretend we are by adopting a pseudo-scientific rhetoric. Placing shelfmarks in the text may exude an aura of forensic scholarship, but all it actually does is make the text less readable than it really should be.

The second point is equally important and also defines more tightly the alternatives for citing a manuscript in continuous prose. Reference to a shelfmark in text does not only distract, it can also mislead:  it necessarily associates the book in the reader’s mind with its present location rather than its earlier history.  This is a problem, obviously, also with talking a manuscript by a loconym based on its present home, like ‘the Madrid Hours’. That manuscript was of Low Countries manufacture (illuminated by the ‘Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy’) and was owned by an Englishman. It might be said that there is no harm to this practice, as the loconym so obviously does not relate to its origin, and that would, of course, be the case for an American or antipodean repository. But in other cases it is positively dangerous because there is still a tendency to assume present location may relate to origin, when usually the history is more complex. Let me give a specific example: it relates to a manuscript made by Thomas Chaundler, now Oxford: New College, MS. 288 (a description of it is available on-line). Chaundler was Warden of New College and so it might seem logical to assume that the volume was always in Oxford. But that is demonstrably not the case: he had it made for Thomas Bekynton, bishop of Bath and Wells, and it was in Wells that it lived, certainly into the 1530s when it was seen by John Leland. Its eventual arrival at New College presumably reflects a later appreciation of the author’s association with that Wykhamist foundation and so tells us more about the subsequent history of the construction of the College’s identity, rather than its earlier history.

In short, let us keep shelfmarks in their rightful place: they are welcome on the page, as long as they confine themselves to the footnotes and avoid distracting or misleading readers by inserting themselves in the text. Shelfmarks are, I suppose, a little like Victorian children: they should be seen but not have erred into the flow of one’s prose.