bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The stories manuscript tell: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is monumental. The British Library has become accustomed to putting on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that cram its gallery with items — and visitors — to the point of sensory overload: feasts for the eyes which go beyond an elegant sufficiency. At the end of any show, its curator must have an acute feeling of the passing of a moment, but when this exhibition closes, something more will happen. Never before has it been possible to look at the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book side-by-side, or to stand looking at the diminutive Cuthbert (formerly Stonyhurst) Gospel and then turn to ninety degrees to see the outsize Northumbrian masterpiece, the Codex Amiatinus. A sweep of manuscripts that takes us from the first known book in England, the St Augustine Gospels, to Great Domesday, and beyond, with the exhibition’s coda being a stupendous case placing the Utrecht, the Harley and the Eadwine Psalters in dialogue with each other. An exhibition where the Lindisfarne Gospels are reduced to a walk-on part, upstaged by the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels near by them. Those who saw the Bodleian’s recent Designing English will be insouciant about the Alfred Jewel and the Alfredian translation of Gregory the Great being together (and, in truth, Oxford did that combination better) but they will not have had the chance see the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun close by, or Beowulf in the same rooms, or items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Plus, mingling with books and objects, there are single-page letters and charters which enliven and deepen the story. Never before and, given the ravages of time exacerbated by the present resurgence of petty nationalism, most likely never again. When the curators oversee the exhibition being dismantled, it will be difficult for them not to have a tear in their eye because they will know that something unprecedented is being irrecoverably lost. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is not, in the usual publicity parlance, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; it is once in the life of the world.

This is an exhibition, then, that cannot be judged by the usual standards. If it were, we might set the litmus test: does it make best use of the materials to hand for its stated aim? How good is it at telling the story of the English lands from the fifth to the eleventh century? I am not the person to answer that, and not just because my expertise lies much later than the Anglo-Saxon period. I have only, so far, had chance to make one visit of two-and-a-half hours. I will surely appreciate different elements when I return again and, hopefully, again. On this first occasion, my palaeographical interest informed my viewing: there before me, in the flesh, were so many of the manuscripts that I have mentioned to students and encouraged them to study, online or in reproduction. It was like having a bibliography of must-see manuscripts that reside on disparate shelves all flutter down and come to rest in one place. This makes it for me and (I have heard tell) for other scholars, an exhibition with a massive emotional punch. I admit all those points but, at the same time, I believe the items themselves dictated my response: in the vast majority of cases, each manuscript opening was so rich with information that it commands your focus, only for its neighbour to redirect you, at which point you step back and appreciate the contrasts and the comparisons between that coupling. And so on, taking the manuscripts and charters as small groups, sometimes separated between cases, sometimes making you move back and forth in the rooms to the annoyance of others present. That is to say, I did not so much ‘take in a show’ as wallow in its exhibits.

Not all the manuscripts hold equal allure: Beowulf is an unprepossessing volume, whose attraction is perhaps enhanced by the damage it suffered in the Cottonian fire of 1731. But why it should contrast substantially with the grandeur of others shown before and after it in these rooms is itself an interesting question. In other words, while the layout of the gallery encourages a singular linear progress, the items on display propose other itineraries: they encourage you to make the museumscape your own. I emphasise this because it provides for me a partial solution to a problem I have with exhibitions of manuscripts. Here is the issue: a book is not an art object in the same way as a painting or a statue — those latter artworks are intentionally single and, in the right conditions, can be observed as a whole. The virtue of a book, in contrast, is that it is plural, that it is intended to be picked up and its pages turned: it has kinetic energy. To put this another way, it is less an object than a performer. When it becomes an object is as part of a gathering of books: a library impresses by the quantity of packed shelves, and teases by its owner taking out just one of the volumes and opening it before you. The library offers the possibility of reading, but the exhibition display (as we know it) cannot. It reduces the books to being like other art objects; it captures these performers in tableaux.

So, for me in an exhibition of manuscripts, there is often a frustration at the static presentation of these mobile, plural items. That, though, would be too begrudging when faced with what is, in effect, the ultimate pop-up library, an unrepeatable conglomeration of outstanding codices. Each, yes, is forced into a single pose but at least each is open alongside others. As a palaeographer, I would have preferred fewer openings highlighting illumination and instead ones foregrounding the fundamental artistry of a book which is its script. Yet, with what we have here there is so much to read, not simply in the sense of deciphering words but, more widely, in looking at the object. At the most basic level, this is about matters of size: the exhibition ranges from the pocket-book to the all-too-heavy Amiatinus. The sense of the individual shape — I was surprised by how relatively thick the Cuthbert Gospel was — is brought home by each being placed in relation to the others. Issues of magnitude relate also to the script used. Some of the opening cases bring in close proximity fragments of the letters of Cyprian (BL, MS. Add. 40165A), the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Bodleian, MS. Hatton 48) and the earliest known charter of English origin, made by Hlothhere, king of Kent, at Reculver in 679 (BL, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2). They are all in a script we would term uncial but the differences between them and, in particular, how small and delicate the module is of the charter’s writing, are what is most noticeable in how they are presented here.

London: British Library, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2 (top part), Reculver, 679

The history of script is very much on display: the grandeur of uncial and half-uncial; the practical importance of insular minuscule; its later replacement by what we know as Anglo-Saxon minuscule, itself increasingly informed by and challenged by the presence of caroline minuscule, and the changes that bookhand underwent at the masterful fingertips of Eadui Basan and Eadwine — these can be traced through the exhibition, if you care to find them. Attention is not drawn to these issues by the captions but what matters is the material is available to allow you to investigate these elements.


So, I will end these musings with two pleas. One is to future curators of exhibitions: you will not be able to repeat the unforgettable success of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but when you are looking for a successor worthy of its achievement, do think of having an event which takes a single period in western history and looks at its manuscripts primarily through their scripts and, more generally, through their physicality. Such insights are necessarily there in the exhibition and perhaps providing visitors with suggested multiple itineraries would be one way of encouraging them to see the multiple perspectives this display allows. As it stands, the viewer needs to make the exhibition their own and so my second plea is to anyone going to London: be like walkers in the city and when you are in the gallery, find your own routes through it, not expecting to travel in one required direction but, instead, toing and froing through its riches. That assumes, of course, you do visit it. If what I have said has not been explicit enough, let me be clear: your grandparents could not imagine this event, your grandchildren will envy you your tales of it. Go, go, go.


Cromwell on the Box

Posted in British History, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 25 January, 2015

What would Geoffrey Elton’s reaction have been to Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies? He most likely would have treated them with the disdain of professorial silence – even in his most rabid character-assassination of Thomas More, he was able to avoid mentioning A Man for All Seasons, though the success of Robert Bolt’s play surely rankled with him. But if, as we are dealing with fiction anyway, we are allowed to imagine for a moment a meeting between the don and the novelist, I do wonder what they would have had to say to each other. Mantel takes up the challenge of making Cromwell a sympathetic figure but what she provides is hardly The Tudor Revolution in Government: the novel (the cruel could say there is already enough fantasy in Elton’s thesis). Her Cromwell is rarely seen working as a bureaucrat – a master of detail, certainly, someone who can sense how to use the inner workings of the machine for grander political ends – but the genius with which she endows her character is a heightened ability to read humanity. And the human was hardly central to Elton’s histories; for him, the march of civilization was surely greater than any detail of an individual. He felt no need for a biography of his hero, let alone story-telling about him. Before, though, he emits a gruff snort and walks away from Ms Mantel, perhaps she would have a chance to explain her deeper agenda: Wolf Hall (in particular) is not only about an imaginative creation of Henrician politics; submerged beneath that, there is struggle in which Mantel pits Cromwell against More and in which what is at stake is modernity and Englishness. Perhaps, if she had chance to explain that, a smile would have curled Elton’s whiskers.
Mantel’s concept of modernity is revealed by a minor factual slip. In the days after his wife’s demise (in the narrative of Wolf Hall, it is elided with the later deaths of his daughters), so, in 1527, Cromwell ‘has got Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, Principalities; it is a Latin edition, shoddily printed in Naples, which seems to have passed through many hands’ [p. 105] – which is impressive, considering that Il Principe was, in the year of Machiavelli’s own death, not yet printed, let alone in a Latin translation. The first printed edition was that of Filippo Giunti in Florence in 1532; Silvestro Teglio’s Latin version did not appear until a couple of decades after Cromwell’s death. The text certainly did circulate in manuscript in Machiavelli’s own lifetime, so we might say that Mantel’s error is a matter of detail, of no consequence to her larger tale. It seems to me, though, that her determination that her hero should know Machiavelli’s most notorious work – not just at this point but also later in the first novel [pp. 488, 501] – is revealing of her construction of her hero. We might infer that her sense of Machiavelli is like that of Burckhardt: a man without hypocrisy who describes things as they really were, stripped of all comfortable pretence. And her Cromwell is a man in his image; a worldly man, who returns to old England a foreigner, enriched by his experience and by his brush with the modernity that is the Renaissance. There is something yet more Burckhardtian about Mantel’s Cromwell, at least in Wolf Hall: he is not just acquainted with new thinking – be it Machiavelli or Luca Pacioli [pp. 363-4] – but he is himself so endlessly inventive, it reminds me of the visual gag in the film of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the main characters are repeatedly seen accidentally inventing Leonardesque machines. Cromwell has something of the l’uomo universale, the man not many-sided but all-sided who, for Burckhardt, epitomises the Renaissance.
So, this Machiavellian, Leonardian Cromwell returns to the land of his birth; he has seen the future and he lurks in the shadows until he can impose it on his unwilling, ungrateful countrymen. A future defined by the Renaissance and, of course, the Reformation. Cromwell is not just ready to question tradition, he is determined to stamp on its face. There he stands pitted against Thomas More, depicted by Mantel as a man so ensnared in his conservatism that he cannot tolerate modernity. By some paradoxical twist, that cosmopolitan scholar becomes a parochial stick-in-the-mud, suspicious of Cromwell’s well-travelled career: ‘you are an Italian through and through, and you have all their vices, all their passions’ [p. 567]. Except, of course, for Mantel, Cromwell is also the future of Englishness – a new England (for ‘England is always remaking itself’ [p. 649]), modernised by being receptive to foreign ideas. That sounds encouragingly liberal: the low-born Cromwell takes on privilege and established power and shakes it to the foundations. In the process, let us remember, he helps destroys the fabric of a church that he sees as corrupt. If we were to look for a modern parallel for Mantel’s Cromwell and think of an outsider who used every wile to challenge tradition and to break the accepted way of doing things, then the closest may be Margaret Thatcher.
Mantel, of course, would hate that, her bête noire morphing into her hero in the black cloak. Perhaps she would not recognise such parallels and, even if we can find them, perhaps they do not matter – after all, these are only novels. Except that they are not: they have somehow become a cultural phenomenon. I am not sure how that has happened: I still am perplexed at the decision to have a painting of Hilary Mantel at the top of the stairs to the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. How has she become such a household name? Has she filled a gap left by the end of J. K. Rowling’s time as favourite author? If so, it still cannot explain the hyperbole by which Mantel has taken on the mantle of being ‘our greatest living novelist’ – even ‘our’ most accomplished historical novelist might be excessive (Robert Harris provides strong competition). However, though, it has come about, the cult of Mantel and, in particular, of her Cromwellian novels, demands further questions: are they so loved simply for their evocation of character and context? Or is their attraction deeper and is there an affinity with its projection of ‘Englishness’?
This is where, finally, we come to the television adaptation of the novels which began this week. I will admit that I am in the lonely position of not yet being a fan. There are some fine actors in the production but I cannot help thinking there is serious miscasting: it is always good to have Jonathan Pryce on screen but he has nothing of the smooth-skinned corpulence needed for Wolsey – like Shakespeare’s Cassius, Pryce is a lean man; I would he was fatter. Yet more of a problem is that Mark Rylance simply looks too old to be Cromwell in his late thirties and early forties – the actor is the age now that Cromwell was when his head parted from his body and, even given the changes in aging, he looks too world-weary. This, though, is a small difficulty alongside the greater problems of transferring novels with so much internal monologue into an ensemble performance in which the eyes are on Cromwell rather than our seeing the world through his eyes. What surprised me most was that writing which can be so visual seemed not to survive the move from page to screen. Many of the scenes and the words are there, but not the aura of the work. The dull palette used – presumably in conscious contrast to The Tudors – created an ambience which, at worst, was lacklustre or, at best, homely. And it is that homeliness that concerns me most.
The homely is unthreatening. So, we are invited to view a ‘Tudor world’ as we know it or, rather, as we would like it to be. For instance, I was struck by how classless the society was – social gradation seemed to have disappeared both in the interactions and the interiors. There was little sense (as there is in the novels) of the heavy distaste for a man of such lowly birth as Cromwell’s; there was limited hauteur in a Norfolk or, indeed, the king. Meanwhile, the buildings which were home to Cromwell – still, at this point a lawyer in Wolsey’s service – seemed to lack none of the late-medieval conveniences afforded to the higher born and bettered housed. This is a world which has been domesticated for us so that it is tame, familiar and quintessentially English. Wolf Hall, in other words, as heritage product – ‘our’ great novel depicting ‘our’ Tudor forefathers. The battle of conceptions of Englishness that drives Mantel’s telling of the tale is wiped away by television’s evocation of a world we think is ours. But if the battle has gone, who won it? The arch-modernisers like Mantel’s Cromwell, full of dangerous and destructive if revivifying new ideas, or something more traditional? Is this Henrician politics showing how we can break the mould or is the BBC offering us a vision of how we should be happy to be moulded by ‘our’ inheritance? Is, by some convoluted route undertaken in the process of move from book to programme, Wolf Hall, the TV adaptation, a sort of revenge for the conservative, that is, for Mantel’s Thomas More? Cromwell’s on the box but is he also back in his box?

Royal Manuscripts exhibition at the British Library

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 November, 2011

When is a manuscript royal? Is it solely when it was commissioned by a monarch? Or – a slightly broader definition – when it is called into existence by the will of a member of the royal family? Is it one which was made with the intention of entering a royal collection? Or one which, whatever its creator’s plan, did end up there in the Middle Ages? Or, indeed, one which reached the British Royal Library after the medieval period? It is a question worth asking because examples of all of these types of books are on display in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination’ exhibition at the British Library.

On one level, the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition answers the question: John Lowden begins the introductory essays by stating that the definition used includes ‘any manuscript for which there is evidence of a royal connection at any point in its history’ (p. 19). It is a definition so capacious that it invites sub-division, a process that Prof. Lowden himself undertakes in the pages that follow. But it is also a definition not immediately on display to those who visit the exhibition, relying on the brochure, captions or audio-guide to help lead them through the more than 150 manuscripts laid out in the cabinets. They are told, instead, that manuscripts ‘associated with successive kings and queens of England … include some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries’. A set of associations are implied, linking ‘royal’ with ‘manuscript’– associations which the visitor without a catalogue can (like Miss Lavish wandering Florence without her Baedeker) have the thrill of discovering for themselves.

The visitor may find it is easiest to define ‘Royal Manuscripts’ by what it is not: in the first place, the exhibition does not attempt to provide a detailed history of the library of the English monarchs. It is the case that, after a useful brief section on the creation of a manuscript (where parchment and vellum are bravely distinguished), the exhibition proper opens with a section on Edward IV as founder of the royal library, showing samples of the outsize Burgundian manuscripts that he bought. Beyond that, though, there is little here to hint at the difference between the Plantagenets and their French counter-parts: the development of the library of the Louvre from at least the reign of Charles V had a sense of books as part of the royal patrimony, whereas in England, until the late fifteenth century, manuscripts were as likely to leave the king’s ownership as to enter them, the books he came to own being seen as appropriate diplomatic gifts, ripe to be alienated from his property. Nor is there any mention in the captions of the purchase of the residue of the French royal library by John, duke of Bedford in the earl 1420s and its likely transfer across the Channel. This is simply not a tale the exhibition wishes to tell.

Similarly, the exhibition is not about the physical allure of the written word captured on parchment. The display includes some rolls – of prayers and genealogies – and, in one instance, presents an indenture of Henry VII (a manuscript made for the king to give away to Westminster Abbey: BL, MS. Harl. 1498) bound as a book within its binding and chemise, with heavily-encased seals hanging from it. These, understandably, are the exceptions: after all, the royal collection has suffered the sort of solicitous attention that results in the original bindings being removed and thrown away, though they (as many a presentation miniature reminds us) would have been the most noticeable element of a book to its early owners. Nor is there a discussion of the development of script in these volumes, nor a sense of what import different textual presentations may have been intended to carry. The sub-title for this show tells us where its main interest lies: in that element of a book’s construction that was its illuminations.

But the openings presented belong not only to manuscripts made for kings or queens. The second section of the exhibition, entitled ‘The Christian Monarch’ describes, through the medium of illuminations, the long association of kingship with religious devotion, from Athelstan to Henry VIII. Some of these books were created as instruments of royal worship, while others entered princely hands only a few generations after their first construction – a distinction neatly summed up by the juxtaposition of two Psalters, both owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, with one made for his private worship (BL, MS. Royal 2. B i, noting that the presence of the duke’s notes in the calendar at fol. 4v works against the exhibition’s hypothesis that he intended the book for his nephew’s edification) and the other, the so-called St Omer Psalter, owned by him but produced in Norfolk nearly a century before it reached his hands (BL, MS. Yates Thompson 14). Yet others are included for their depictions of kings rather than being definitely royal in ownership – an example is the eleventh-century Rule of St Benedict from Christ Church, Canterbury with its fine miniature of three Anglo-Saxon kings joined by a swirling scroll that also lifts up the monk who reverently lies beneath them (BL, MS. Cotton Tiberius A iii). The section gives a sense of the habits of devotion and the duties they placed upon royalty but it also raises a question that lies at the heart of the rationale for this exhibition: was there a particularly royal type of illumination?

In some cases, the exhibition strains to associate a book with a royal patron. This is the case with the poster-boy for the show – God creating the world, as depicted in a Bible historiale (BL, MS. Royal 19 D. iii). It is a magnificent piece of work, its blues and reds a mass of delicately realised sets of wings – angels depicted à la Fouquet, if a few decades earlier. The audio-guide at this point echoes the catalogue in suggesting ‘it would not be a surprise if [the manuscript] were made for a royal owner’ but it goes further in suggesting the identity of that prince was likely to be Jean, duc de Berry. What interests me is the reasoning for this suggestion which, on the audio-guide, stresses the lavish nature of the illustration and implies that this would be most likely to be paid for by a member of a royal family. And yet, there are enough examples of resplendent manuscripts on display in this exhibition that were not commissioned by princes – from monastic and ecclesiastical establishments or from aristocratic families and (in the last century or so of the period) confraternities. The fact that some of the products made for such institutions or individuals later entered royal hands reminds us not only that princely collections were often inhabited by the second-hand but also that those same princes did not disdain handling manuscripts illuminated for the lesser-born. In other words, we would be best to avoid assuming that richness of decoration had particularly royal connotations at any point in the period covered by the exhibition.

The implication of this is that in their ownership and use of manuscripts, kings and queens were participating in a wider bookish culture. Rarely was it one of the factors that set them apart from their subjects but, instead, showed them sharing others’ interests. If this is so, we might wonder how far royal patronage defined what was new or what was best in manuscript production, rather than simply partaking of those fashions. Did princes earmark a larger proportion of their wealth on manuscripts than did other book-owners? Or did they reserve their cash for more ostentatious methods of conspicuous consumption? And, when they looked at a book, what drew their attention: did they turn to the illumination, seeing it as light relief from the over-supply of words that they were expected to decipher? Or did they let the volumes rest closed, so that the rich bindings were on show, at the expense of the masterful painting hidden inside? How did they hold these books and turn their pages? It is in the nature of a block-buster exhibition like ‘Royal Manuscripts’ that the objects are static, held open at a single folio for the duration of the display – no equivalent here to the daily turning of the pages in the Piccolomini Library of Siena’s Cathedral. What we are offered, in effect, is a snippet view rather than the whole book. The images can be enthralling, but the books in which they sit are not mere containers for artistic genius – each of these manuscript has a dynamism, an incorrigible plurality of its own, that can only be imagined when it sits under glass. We should savour the exhibition, with its juxtapositions and its insights, while we can; we should relish all the more the day these manuscripts are again available for consultation, folio by folio, opening by opening, in the Reading Room upstairs.