bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Has the Age of Fragmentology arrived?

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 26 July, 2015

Fragmentology is a horrible word. It sounds like a shady cult (as in, ‘the fragmentologists gathered under the cover of darkness’). It suggests a pseudo-science (palaeographers donning lab coats and goggles to place a parchment shard on a petri dish). It breaks the grammatical rule not to form a word as a hybrid of Latin and Greek (but that did little to stop the march of the television). What is more, according to the OED, it does not yet exist – but it most certainly has been coined. Most recently it has been used in an on-line piece by Lisa Fagin Davis, discussing the state of fragment studies in the United States. And, reflecting on her stimulating post, and surveying what research is happening, I suspect that, however barbarous or cacaphonic it might sound, it is a term whose time has come and, like God in Voltaire’s aphorism, if it did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The studies of manuscript fragments is certainly du jour; my own little project – on which more in the coming days – lives alongside over a dozen other initiatives already on-going world-wide, with more in the offing. A useful overview of several of these is provided by a presentation made by Kaspar Kolk at the beginning of this year (it is freely available to download, and I thank Jürgen Beyer for bringing it to my attention); his list does not claim to be comprehensive and I intend to upload a set of links soon to which I hope others will add so that we can survey the panorama of research that is developing before our eyes.

We might wonder why there should be such a flourishing now. An obvious reason is technological: the opportunities provided by digitisation positively invite the uploading of fragments – particularly individual leaves, as in the example on which Lisa Fagin Davis concentrates in her post. The activity speaks to the wider museum fashion for ‘virtual reunification’ (a phrase which sounds a little too mid-1989 for my liking: an undercurrent of this post, I realise, is the worry that, though the innovations are exciting, they are not best served by the vocabulary being imposed on them). That wider agenda has its own logic which is part curatorial and part political: the digitisation of the fragmentary can have a conservation value, while the process of reuniting disparate elements does not only showcase what can be done on-line, it can also help tackle some – but by no means all – of the concerns of displaced ‘national’ patrimony. At the same time, we might wonder whether there is another, more emotional element which makes such projects attractive to funders and to the public: a romanticism about the incomplete, an element of ruin lust.

Romanticism has its attractions but it can also have its detractors. If we are seen to wallow in the fragmentary, it can raise a legitimate concern. There are, rightly, questions about what gain there is to scholarship in identifying and virtually reuniting elements from a codex which does not have any special philological or artistic significance. Lisa Fagin Davis puts it nicely:

Does the world really NEED another mediocre mid-fifteenth-century Book of Hours from Rouen? What do we gain from piecing Humpty Dumpty together again?

If the study of fragments could re-make Humpty Dumpty – and no more – the result might be little better than a curate’s egg. It is my conviction, though, that we can and should enunciate a stronger rationale for working with membra disiecta and that is precisely what fragmentology can usefully be: not the study of fragments itself but, if you will, its meta-discourse, developing the intellectual justification and scholarly standards which underpin that research.

I appreciate that I myself might sound like Humpty as he appears in Lewis Carroll, insisting that the word ‘means what I choose it to mean – nothing more or less’. I am sure the term will develop a range of nuances; I vaguely hope that it will be superseded by a phrase with more euphony. What matters, though, is not what we call it but that we recognise our responsibility to articulate the benefits of fragement studies. I have already started to attempt that in an earlier post; let me now provide more succinct expression:

Manuscript fragments survive, thousands upon thousands, but they have tended to be overlooked by scholarship which has, understandably, found richer pickings in the extant intact codices. There are notable exceptions to this but it is undeniable that there are legions of fragments that are uncatalogued and unidentified. Most of those are in public collections – often half-forgotten, sitting in other books’ bindings or kept in insubstantial folders or envelopes – but not all are; a proportion (we simply cannot say at the moment how significant) are in private hands. Their status makes them vulnerable: so easily overlooked, they are thus also liable to suffer further damage. If we add to this the truth that the dismantling of manuscripts is by no means over but, rather, is a continuing practice in parts of the rare book market, then it should be clear that there is a cluster of ethical and heritage imperatives to argue that making publicly available fragments by cataloguing and up-loading them is of intrinsic value.

This, though, still does not reach the core of what I see as their fundamental significance: they have the potential to transform our understanding of manuscript culture. We tend to write the history of that culture – certainly for its later centuries, by which I mean post-1100 and perhaps post-800 – by a concentration on those codices that have endured complete. The implicit assumption tends to be that what survives reflects what was produced, even though the evidence of book-lists sometimes suggest that the range and balance of books did not line up in the aumbry quite as they do on present-day shelves. The challenge is to test how representative what we have is against what is lost, and for that the key under-utilised resource are those manuscripts which live between the fully living and the utterly lost, the undead fragments.

What is more, the future of these studies lies not just in identifying and making available these remnants but also in creating a fuller understanding of the processes of fragmentation. As I have just mentioned, this is a history which is not at its end: that reality should encourage us not to be complacent but, at the same time, we can be confident that the early twenty-first century is not a high-point for dismembering of manuscripts. We can already identify those moments in the past when the habit was more prevalent but large-scale study of fragments should allow us to create a more naunced narrative and analysis of the process and its logic. The history of the book is not just about volumes’ lives but also about their demise.

There are a couple of implications of what I have just said with which I want to conclude. First, it should be apparent that to unleash the full potential which I have briefly outlined will require the collecting of ‘big data’ – so big that no one project can hope to achieve it all alone. This is what makes the plethora of initiatives occurring now so welcome. Of course, we would want some shared understanding of what is required from a digital catalogue; personally, I would be inclined to urge us to develop agreed minimum standards, rather a template so strict and detailed that it is unlikely all will abide by it. At the same time – and this is the second implication – if what I have suggested does provide an intellectual rationale (a fragmentology) for our practices, then it does have ramifications for how we would want to catalogue the evidence we have. As I have said elsewhere, the requirements for cataloguing fragments are subtly different from those for complete manuscripts and we should consider the principles involved. On that, more another time.