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.

The Infantilization of the Book?

Posted in Future of Books by bonaelitterae on 11 August, 2011

Is the book returning to its cradle? We call the products of the first five decades of print incunabula – a seventeenth-century re-use of the Latin for swaddling-clothes or cot, to signify their witnessing to the technology’s tentative first steps. In the established chronology, the so-called coming of the book was followed by the coming of age of the book. But is the book now reaching a second childhood? It is a question that was much on my mind as I met with a group of librarians for an Oxbridge Academics study week late last month.

I have been struck by a cluster of phenomena. Let me outline three vignettes. First, the librarians, mainly from American schools, described the use of computers, the internet and Kindles in their establishments, sometimes alongside, sometimes replacing books. They explained, in particular, how parents wanted their young children to learn from hard-copy books, with computers the preserve of the more mature child.

Second, I have been re-reading some of the coverage over the controversy in Britain of some local councils’ plans to close some public libraries. It is hardly a surprise that authors should line up to rail against those plans. One statement which succeeded in arousing its own hoo-ha was that of Alan Bennett, describing (more than once) the closure as an act of child abuse. An intentionally hyperbolic phrase surely designed to gain the publicity which it did. But what seems not to have been discussed is how Bennett has implicitly defined the public library not as a place for all but a sanctuary for the young. Children are by no means the only users of these libraries, whose existence is not intended to be (and should not be) simply an extension of school book-provision. Those of pensionable age often are borrowers too – Bennett could equally have talked about granny-bashing, but it is the association of reading and childhood that he chose to stress.

Third, Oxford is presently bidding to be World Book Capital in 2014. You would think it would be an obvious choice but what I want to highlight now is how the organisers of the bid present Oxford’s associations with books. The press release launching the bid emphasised:

For centuries, Oxfordshire’s authors have provided people of all ages around the world with timeless tales of imagination, passion and adventure, from Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ to Pullman’s ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy or Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

Leave aside the mis-spelling of one author’s surname (Oxford’s bid for World Proof-reading Capital may be less than successful), ignore even that the three examples cited cover only about 150 years, rather than justifying the phrase ‘for centuries’ (reference to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would have done that better). What is notable is that, in a city which produced the premier English Dictionary (and, for that matter, those for Greek and Latin), a city of poets like Gerald Manley Hopkins and Matthew Arnold, a city of scholars including – to mention only two among the living – Richard Dawkins and Diarmaid MacCulloch, it is the contribution of Oxford residents to the genre of fantasy literature and particularly children’s fantasies that is prized most.

Why, in all three instances, is there a particular association of books with childhood? We could read this positively, as part of the enduring legacy of nineteenth-century progressive liberals who dreamt of universal literacy: the expectation that everyone should be able to read one language with ease, plus the recognition that the learning process must begin at the youngest possible age, is so embedded in our culture that the artefact manifesting the written word is necessarily associated with the child. That association is understandable but has it become so engrained that we link the young with the book at the expense of fully appreciating its significance to other ages? To put it another way, we need books written for children as well as for adults, but what happens when the child becomes perceived – in more senses than one – as the primary reader? What does that then do to our perceptions of acceptable literacy, to the expected breadth of vocabulary and style of presentation that is considered the social norm?

I also wonder about the psychology behind those school parents who expect their young children to sit with books in front of them, before their learning process concentrates on the wonders of the screen. Is this a reflection of the parents’ own memories – or myths – of childhood, a time when books were part of the cocoon of safety and comfort enveloping one’s early years? And does it imply a sense that books are something one moves beyond – a relic to be retained as quaint, when life has found other ways to communicate?

But, then, how do those other ways to communicate relate to literacy? You are reading these words (a very few of you – and you are noble for it), but when you look at a screen, you are as much interacting with icons and with word-formations. We talk of different types of ability to read and prize functional literacy: but how functional is literacy going to be?

St Paul talked of when he thought as a child and spoke as a child – might we also now say, read as a child? When I became a man, I put away childish things. But are we in danger of storing away those very things that we take as definitive of our civilization by the very process of associating them with the under-age. Do we now see the full potential of the book through a glass, darkly?