bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The fragmentary is the norm

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2021

In these autumnal days, a return to normality is a fashionable topic — or (as the conversation often goes) perhaps it is the arrival of a new, subtly different, normality. One feature which suggests that times they are a-changing back again is the revival of in-person academic conferences, albeit masked and capped, and with no physical proximity (until the conference dinner). I have just returned from one such event, From Fragment to Whole, organised by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies, and an invigorating day it was. At this near-normal event one of the repeated propositions was about normality itself: that, in manuscript studies, the fragmentary is the norm.

It was a claim with which I began my own paper; it is probably one which you consider needs its truth to be proven. What I can say is that, in my experience, an historic collection (a cathedral’s, or a college’s) is usually defined by this characteristic: it holds several handwritten codices which give the ostensible impression by their solidity of each being whole; however, if you inspect them closely, it will become clear that some begin or end in medias res, in others the texts are disrupted by loss of leaves, while some are otherwise not pristine because of damage or wear or vandalism or, indeed, repair (for instance, when cropping with rebinding has removed marginalia) — and are, in some way, now less than originally envisaged. These, indeed, are so numerous that they tend to form the majority of the collection. What is more, this relates only to those items with shelfmarks that begin ‘MS.’; in most libraries of several centuries standing, there are also early printed books, and it is likely that some of those have signs that, as part of their early modern binding, include manuscript ‘waste’ — or did once include them: there may now be only some offset and, if one is lucky, these pastedowns, flyleaves and reinforcing strips will be collected together in a guardbook, itself is given a MS number. A library, in other words, might have an integrity in itself but this whole is a home to the fragmentary.

My challenge to you is to provide an example of an historic collection where this does not hold true. Before you rush to respond, let me provide three further points: a counter-balance, an implication and a more philosophical query.

The counter-balance relates to what, for me, is one of the delights of working with manuscripts. We might say that they begin to decline from their original completeness from the point of production — that their history is an unavoidable move from whole to fragmentary — but we would also have to admit that their completeness can also be increased: they gain accretions through the addition of further items or the insertion of notes of ownership or by the interventions of readers, and the attempts to elongate its life, and to save that ‘original completeness’ often involves medieval or later conservation work which might replace its binding and add to it extra leaves which can themselves then receive written words or passages of whole texts. The endpoint of a manuscript’s production is rarely the point when it stops coming into being: the shape it takes before us is not the result of a single movement but of generations of interactions with it.

The implication can be briefly stated: not all that is fragmentary is a fragment. A manuscript which has had its initials cut out but appears otherwise complete is fragmentary in the text it provides but would hardly constitute ‘a fragment’. What precisely we might mean by that noun was the subject of stimulating discussions at the conference. How we might go about this was the subject of Daniel Sawyer’s paper, in which he noted the earlier comments on this by Peter Kidd. What became apparent was that there was a difference of perspective in the room on the basis of disciplinary research: for those with primarily literary interests, the fragment was an incomplete textual unit, even when it was intentionally inserted into a manuscript as an excerpt or abbreviation. For those of us approaching the material with a focus on the codicology, we conceptualise a fragment as something more exiguous. Literally, the term implies a remnant of breaking up, though, as I noted in my paper, some instances we would define as fragments were born that way: the writing out of a text which was abandoned because of an imperfection or redundancy, but survives because it was recycled, often as flyleaves in a medieval binding. Despite such cases, we can provide a definition that unites all the examples: we imagine a fragment to be an out-take, the remains of what was either intended to be a larger project or produced as one. We are inclined, then, to reserve the term ‘fragment’ for a leaf or a bifolium which shows signs of being re-used. Yet, as Daniel Sawyer, also said, we have to be aware that in wider parlance, a certain vagueness is bound to remain and is unlikely to be radically revised by academics’ attempts at reform. Given this, my reflection is that we should not waste effort on trying to police the terms but instead take care to using qualifying phrasing so we can clarify the sense each of us is employing them (so we might talk of a ‘part-leaf fragment’, say).

The question I have for you is, in fact, the primary reason for writing this post: why should the obvious truth that fragmentary is the norm need stating? Why might it surprise us? My hypothesis is that, in Western culture, we have a deep-seated commitment to the concept of the whole. In my talk, I suggested it was a latent neo-Platonism: if we can perceive that there might be a Platonic form of the manuscript, the fragment would surely be at several removes from that perfection — a mark of severe defect. For sure, there is also a Romantic tradition of prizing the ruin, with its sense of what was or might have been, and that undoubtedly feeds part of the attraction of fragments. Yet, even that ruin-lust plays with ideas of the once-whole or even the future-whole. What, I wonder, happens if we accept the evidence of how the ‘whole’ in manuscript terms is neither common nor the intended nature of the object — it is, as I have said, expected to mutate, to gain and to lose — and take the next step: dispense with the assumption that the world is made up of the complete or is some way complete in itself.    

My sense, at this moment, is that, if we did take that step, it would not immediately have a significant effect on how we work when we describe fragments. There could be changes in some details — for instance, as I have explained elsewhere, with a fragment, there is a use to measuring the space between the lines and the height of minims, and that might usefully be done for all manuscripts. A more substantial change would be to provide internationally agreed permanent identifiers for manuscripts digitally reconstructed from disparate fragments; again, I have commented on this before and suspect I will do again. This would have some wider consequences but still would have a relatively minor impact. Much more important would be the shift in our perspective. It would not simply be a case of releasing ourselves from assuming a fragment is a ‘failed manuscript’. It would encourage us to begin from the assumption that any manuscript we have before us, however weighty it may seem, is not to be interpreted merely as a ‘whole’. In this way, ‘fragmentology’ would not be a small field of study but, instead, working with fragments will help us revitalise manuscript studies more generally. How would that shift manifest itself? I have my own thoughts, as will be clear from what I have written elsewhere, but I would like to hear how you might take up this proposition and deploy it yourself.

Tower or Babel
Marten van Valkenborch, ‘Tower of Babel’, c. 1600 (private collection)