bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Aspects of Palaeography

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 10 May, 2013

Inaugural lectures do not nowadays receive the attention they deserve. Gone are the days, I fear, when they would appear in print, in the attractive octavo format soft-bound (if it was here in Oxford) in a light blue paper cover (a blue suspiciously light for here). Gone, also, is any chance that they would receive a write-up in the press, so that those not present could gain some inkling of what they have missed. Perhaps there are advantages to this: it certainly meant that for Daniel Wakelin’s inaugural on the outskirts of Oxford (as we who are not in the English Faculty think of the wastelands of St Cross), they made the journey from afar – from Cambridge and from London, because this was the only place where they could hear what the first Jeremy Griffiths Professor of English Palaeography had to say. They will have left not disappointed that they made the trip.

Dan’s lecture, cryptically titled ‘Life and Letters’, was a bravura performance, undercut by a winning modesty. In some of his work, he develops his argument by an inquisitive technique, providing tentative responses only to reject them, and that was his approach in this lecture.  He led his audience with him through a maze of uncertainty not towards definite knowledge but towards a sense of where we might find that knowledge. This is a professor who will never, I am pleased to predict, impose his opinion ex cathedra. Even when he disagrees, he is urbane. For, I detected (to my delight) the hint of a polemical agenda. It was delivered with such gentleness and gentility that I am left asking: was it there or am I wishing it was there? Humour me for the moment and let me assume it was.

Dan’s theme was the thoughtfulness of all including the most hurried late-medieval scribe – how the jobbing hack, perhaps at times only semi-consciously and often not consistently, made choices about how to form his words. The professor was leading us into a world where literacy was a minority affair and where those who were literate mastered more than one script (even those who only mastered one language). Even within a single script, even at its least calligraphic, choices were to be made. We saw examples of scribal corrections where repeatedly y was partially erased to make it form an i, or where the form of r was changed from what we call z-shaped to long or anglicana, descending below the line. If Malcolm Parkes had been present in the room, he might have suggested from the floor that these changes were examples of the problems of fifteenth-century anglicana; they certainly seemed to me to share a rationale which was a concern for greater clarity. So, where the y denied the space between it and the following letters necessary to provide word division, it was reduced to an i to make clearer the separation. In the case of the ‘z-shaped’ r, the slides shown demonstrated that this was a fitful intervention – others on the same line were allowed to stand when their angles were sharp enough and their relation to the surrounding letters certain enough not to allow doubt. A pursuit of clarity would not explain all the examples the professor showed us – there were also cases of florid loops being added to a letter which could provide no greater certainty of meaning. What, though, united all those examples was the insight that we should direct our attention to the intervention of individual strokes.

A goodly proportion of the lecture was given over to a scribe who could by no means considered low-grade or equipped only with a cursive scrawl: Ricardus Franciscus. Dan concentrated on the extravagancies of the ascenders Ricardus often added to the upper line and made us wonder what purpose this affectation might have had. At times, it hindered rather than helped legibility, so much so that, on occasion, the letter had to be written in minuscule within the distended shape of the majuscule. Dan played with the textual critic’s desire to read a word-based meaning into the shapes and patterns drawn into these strap-work designs, only to reject that possibility. What he was urging his audience to do – if I can put words into his mouth – is judge these interventions as a not a textual but as palaeographical critic. But what would that mean? There is a negative – a polemical – and a positive answer to this.

This inaugural lecture made great use of specific letter forms – indeed, it was based around a conceit of looking at each letter of the alphabet. The study of individual letters is à la vogue in both Britain and in Italy but, as either Dan implied or I wanted to infer, that is a parody of palaeography. It is only by placing those letter-forms in context that we will understand a script and its significance. So, in the lecture, Dan moved from examples of individual strokes to images of whole leaves – an exemplification of the palaeographer’s art, moving back and forth between the formation of letters (the ductus) and the overall impact of the script (the aspect). We must note that the formation of letters is different from letter-forms: in a cursive script, the pen flows to form several letters in one gliding move across the page; in a bookhand, the pen is lifted between strokes before the letter is formed. The basic unit of script is not the letter, it is the stroke. That is the atom on which the molecule and the compound – all the organic chemistry of ink on parchment – is based.

So, if we return to Ricardus Franciscus and his elongated, playful ascenders, we should, with Dan, think not merely of their shapes but of their position in space: their context is that they intrude on the blank area of the upper border. This reminds us that a script, even at the level of its aspect, should not be read in isolation: it is part of the mise-en-page, it is a subset of the visual stimuli that present themselves when we see before us an opening of a book. What defines Ricardus’s ability to provide them is an aesthetic that has cleaned the margins of heavy commentary or annotation and is now repopulating them with new interventions. But those new interventions are not, on the whole, themselves text: ‘on the whole’, because as the professor this evening showed, Ricardus sometimes wrote words within the scrolls that were written around the bars of those ascenders. Except, of course, those ‘scrolls’ are themselves an illusion, created by a game of pen and ink. But if they are, are also the ‘bars’ of the ascenders or the ‘words’ written in them? And if those ‘words’ are, why not all others?

As I have commented before, a nagging query in my mind concerns whether western script can act with the force of an image. The visual power of script is potent in the Arabic of Islamic culture, but why has it seemingly not been so central in the European tradition? Perhaps precisely because we form the strokes so effortlessly in our mind’s eye to make letters that we forget all writing is an illusion. Perhaps we should let those letters dissolve into their constituent parts and so see their artistry the more clearly. Perhaps that it was Ricardus Franciscus realised. Or am I over-reading him?

Perhaps not. This brings me to the closing section of the inaugural lecture, which provided an inspired instance of that trick which is central to the palaeographer’s magic: the ability to reveal the scribe of one manuscript being that of another. It makes palaeography so useful to the disciplines to which it is sometimes considered ancillary that it can be mistaken for (so to speak) the only trick in the book. But, as the professor showed, scribal identification should not be an end in itself: it should set us asking further palaeographical questions. He presented us with two manuscripts in which, on the quick inspection we were shown, some of the letter-forms were markedly different (for instance, the g) but others were highly distinctive (I noted in particular the y) and other scribal habits could confirm to us that this was the same man at work. One of those habits was to add interlace patterns at the final folio of his work – interlace or, as Dan Wakelin rightly expressed it, maze-like drawings. I want to take this further than Dan had time to do last evening: we might see a binary opposition between writing a readable text and drawing a maze but was this how these scribes conceived it? We might instead think of these being on a continuum or sharing an essence. Both are work of the human hand holding a bird’s feather (quill) through which runs ink to paint on an animal’s skin (parchment). And, in a culture where literacy was a minority activity, would not the thickets of minims look to the many like impenetrable forests and the repeated loops like a no-go area of blind alleys? Was not script itself a maze? And, then, should we not accept that letters are not always or even, at times, primarily, about legibility?

Prof. Wakelin: congratulations on a performance where the flow of oratory could not hide the depth of thought. You have reminded us how the meaning of script can be much richer than the mere meaning of its words. May you long sit comfortably in your well-deserved professorial chair.