bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Designs of English

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 20 April, 2018

Designing English, the present exhibition curated by Daniel Wakelin at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is an undoubted triumph. If you have not seen it, do not miss your last chance: go before it ends on 22nd April 2018. Its display of manuscripts skilfully encourages the viewer to look beyond the text and see the page. It also encourages the visitor to think beyond the page and appreciate the extent of medieval graphicity — in graffiti or an inscription moulded onto a bell. What, however, has made the gallery are frequent haunt of mine in the past months is a realisation of how the exhibition is wonderfully subtle and, in the best sense of the word, ambivalent.

The show opens in apparently celebratory mood with a case (re)uniting the Alfred Jewel, usually held in the Ashmolean, with one of the earliest manuscripts (MS. Hatton 20) of the Anglo-Saxon translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, attributed to Alfred himself. It is a combination that alone, as they say, is worth the entrance fee (there is, in fact, no entrance fee, which makes this exhibition a particular bargain). It also, though, hints at some of the problems of its topic. In the confrontation of intricate metalwork and relatively simple layout on the page, there is no contest: the manuscript cannot have the same mastery as the jewel. This contrast is, in part, an issue with the difficulty of displaying books in cases. The power of a book is its plurality: it is itself an object but each opening within it is an object for the eye’s gaze. This multiplicity can only but be denied by the static presentation that an exhibition usually requires. It must be said that ‘Designing English’, in common with the recent and equally excellent ‘Colour’ at the Fitzwilliam, does well to help the visitor appreciate the mechanics of manuscript-production and, thus, remember the book’s dynamics.

That a book comes off worse in a comparison with the Alfred Jewel is not, though, entirely about the necessities of presentation. Turn your back on that case and you are faced with a rather different approach to the page – before you now is the intricate mise-en-page of the Macregol Gospels (MS. Auct. D. 2. 19).

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. D. 2. 19, fol. 127 – the Macregol Gospels (Ireland, s. ix in.), glossed in Anglo-Saxon (s. x2).

This is one moment when a manuscript shows it can take on a jewel-like quality. The Gospels are on display here not for their illumination or for its Latin text but for the interlinear glosses added in Old English. We are not here to consider the medieval book as a whole but to note the presence of the English language (in its various varieties) within it. It is a presence which is often marginal. Of course, as Alfred’s Pastoral Care bears witness, the Anglo-Saxon tongue had a remarkable heyday from the late ninth to the mid-eleventh century, sitting alongside Latin as an appropriate language of written communication. After the Norman Conquest, English was not to enjoy the same status again until… quite when is a question that hangs over this exhibition.

One obvious answer would be that English regained its glory with Chaucer, and some of the display here demonstrates the regard in which he was held. So, for instance, in one manuscript (MS. Rawl. poet. 223), the opening displayed has a running header announcing the author’s surname. What is striking with these pages is that the English language is presented in a cursive bookhand with substantial continental influence. This should remind us that England was by no means the first country to prize writings in the local vernacular: we can think of thirteenth-century Castile or the fourteenth-century construction of the tre corone of Florence. A precedent which was better known in England was the culture of French writing around the Valois court of Paris, and later also in Burgundy. In its patriotic fashioning of local language as literature, fifteenth-century England was playing catch-up. Even when emphasising its specific identity, England was indebted to what had been going on elsewhere in Europe.

If this surprises a visitor, they cannot complain that they were not warned. Daniel Wakelin’s introductory panel draws attention to the limited presence of English in this world where Latin dominated. The fully literate — the literati — did not just write in it, they spoke it and they thought in it. They were certainly not the majority: they were, in fact, a tiny minority in England, though their presence was unevenly spread. One of the images which acts as back-drop to the cases brought this forcefully home to me: I had a moment of recognition, seeing before me the hall of Christ Church, where I had been an undergraduate and my mind’s ear could hear myself reciting the Latin grace before dinner that I had been called upon to read. The hall was built in the later 1520s by Thomas Wolsey for his foundation of Cardinal College. The statutes for that college survive; they are derivative of earlier examples in many respects, including in their stipulation that over dinner the students should speak in Latin (or, if they stumbled, Wolsey allowed them to turn to Greek instead). Later in the sixteenth century, that same hall, now a central space of the royal foundation of Christ Church, was host to royal visitors who would be entertained by plays written by students in Latin. There is, in other words, an irony that ‘Designing English’ is taking place under the aegis of the University of Oxford, an institution where for centuries being learned was being Latinate — being conversant, that is, in something more than what would have been called dismissively the mother tongue.

This exhibition, then, is a triumph not only in its beauty and, indeed, in the artistry of its design. In the ancient Roman procession that gives us the term, triumph, beside the victorious general would stand a slave repeatedly saying in the victor’s ear ‘Remember, you too are mortal’. Likewise, this exhibition celebrates but it also whisper to us when we think of the book and of the extent of English: ‘Remember the limits’.

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The Mysteries of the Wolsey Lectionaries

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 14 May, 2017

Last week saw the launch of an exciting new website, The Wolsey Manuscripts. Its primary purpose has been to bring together the two gorgeous lectionaries produced for Thomas Wolsey in the late 1520s. They have, since the seventeenth century, lived in the same city, but in different institutions, one at Magdalen College and the other at Christ Church. Their libraries might be only a few hundred yards apart but, as anyone who knows Oxford well will attest, the High Street marks a cultural separation to compete with Paris’s divide between the rives droite and gauche. The books, as a result, have rarely been seen together and this project, energetically overseen by the two librarians, Daryl Green and Cristina Neagu, has provided the opportunity to reunite these long-separated twins — both in the flesh for a few days and permanently on-line.

The launch on Thursday involved a jolly evening event with a set of short talks; mine was on ‘Pieter Meghen, Scribe, Drunkard, and a Waste of Space’. I was accidentally introduced as Meghen himself; to add to the audience’s disappointment, I had to admit I could not compete with him in all regards — I am no scribe. The following day, the morning was given over to an academic roundtable discussion of the manuscripts, which I chaired. I opened it by reflecting on how, though the manuscripts are so beautiful and so famous, there are so many mysteries about their history. The symposium itself demonstrated how much there remains to be considered but also how the new website can help us. I want to draw attention to that by discussing here two details.

The lectionaries have traditionally been assumed to have been commissioned for Wolsey’s Oxford foundation of Cardinal College, the forerunner of what is now Christ Church. However, both James Carley (who was present) and myself have come independently to the conclusion that this is unlikely: the rota of feasts to be celebrated does not fit precisely with those Wolsey’s statutes required for his college, and the choice of saints says more about Wolsey’s construction of his own identity, suggesting they were for his private chapel. There was around the table no appetite for reviving the claim for a Cardinal College provenance but I thought we should at least air it. The internal evidence for it is taken to be the rather unusual presence of an image of St Frideswide in both manuscripts — Frideswide, the local saint of Oxford, adopted by the university as its saint and whose shrine was to be housed in Cardinal College. With the wonders of Mirador, we called up each of the miniatures to sit appear alongside each other, and the result led our conversation in a different direction. If you do it yourself, using the viewer to show fol. 12 of the Christ Church Epistolary and fol. 14v of the Magdalen Gospel Lectionary, you will see that, while the overall structure is the same, the details and the style of rendering is different: what we have here is evidence of two different hands at work.

This confirms what is a reasonable supposition — that the manuscripts were illuminated by a workshop rather than a single individual. Exactly where that workshop was remains unknown. In the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, written by Ralph Hanna and myself, it is suggested that it was in Westminster, partly on the stylistic proximity to charters for Cardinal College produced in the same years. In particular, it seems to me that the same hand has written in gold the motto on the garter that appears in one of the charters and repeatedly in the manuscripts (for instance, at Magdalen MS. lat. 223, fol. 14v and Christ Church, MS. 101, fol. 20); note, for instance, the rather fat shape to the ‘O’:

Kew: The National Archives, E24/6/1, detail.

At the roundtable, however, Scot McKendrick was firmly of the opinion that the illumination could not have been executed in England because of evidence of ‘Antwerp mannerism’. The proposal that the manuscripts were sent across the Channel to be decorated is inherently plausible — we know that the sea acted more as a thorough-fare than as a barrier, and, of course, Meghen as a Dutchman himself, had good contacts in his homeland. Such a scenario does, though, create questions of its own: in the Christ Church manuscript, there are blank pages interrupting the text, raising questions about why an incomplete volume would have been sent overseas to be illuminated. It is also well-known that the Magdalen manuscript has different iconography from its twin, as it — but not the accompanying texts — celebrates Wolsey as bishop of Winchester (a see he received in early 1529); was this volume sent later with instructions of its own or were revised instructions rushed across the Channel?

In thinking about these matters, there was another detail that sharp-eyed Daryl Green brought to our attention. We zoomed in close on the initial at Christ Church MS. 101, fol. 33v and saw that the letter ‘p’ descends into the illumination just below. It is, in fact, not the only occasion on which this happens: looking through the manuscript itself with new eyes, I noticed a parallel to it at fol. 26v (there are, though, no equivalents in the Magdalen manuscript). This suggested to us at the roundtable that the rubricated titles must have been added after the illumination, complicating further the order and process of production. That was, in fact, a false hypothesis, as I can say now having used the website further. For, while there does seem to be over-painting in those two instances, there are also occasions when the edge of the  border has been interrupted to allow space for the title; in other words, in this case, the illumination must have happened after the rubrication. You will see a good example of that if you go to fol. 40 — and you will also see that the top of some of the ascenders on the first line (the ‘d’ and the ‘ct’ ligature) have been painted over by the illuminator. So, in these cases we have one sequence of work; do we have the opposite at fol. 33v? This is where the high resolution allowing us to zoom in very close is revealing in a way that peering at the page itself is not. Call up that folio again and zoom right in on that ‘p’: look closely and you will see that the gold circle surrounding the ‘E’ below stops at each side of the descender. You will also see that the colour of the descender does not change. These details demonstrate that the artist was actually painting around the letter, and is even making a feature of it. So, thanks to this technology, we can be certain that rubrication did occur before illumination but we also come to understand the care with which the artist interacted with the script.

The two insights that I have discussed here have become possible because of the capabilities of the new website. It is now your turn to tell us what you discover. I await your comments eagerly.