bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

N. R. Ker and the palaeographer’s work ethic

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 March, 2018

I am not doing very well with keeping my New Year’s resolution, which was, my friends, to spend more time with you via this blog. As you will see, after a sprint-start in January, the dynamo ran low and all fell quiet. I could claim that my Lenten vow has been to give up on my resolution – but now I am even breaking that.

I could make my excuses. I could, with honesty, say that I have been prioritising: apart from my teaching and research duties, there have been three papers to give in as many months (I know, I know, I should learn to say no). The last of these was in Magdalen College, Oxford, and was on someone whose energy and productiveness puts me to shame, the doyen of mid-twentieth century British palaeographers, Neil Ripley Ker.

Ker’s name is well-remembered in scholarly circles, though it is over three decades since his relatively early death in 1982, at the age of seventy-four. Anglo-Saxonists still prize his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957, reissued 1990); the wider community of manuscript researchers continue to thank him for his monumental Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, of which two volumes appeared in his lifetime — the first in 1969 — the third following soon after his death, and the enterprise being completed thanks to Alan Piper and Ker’s executor, Andrew Watson. It was one of two major projects for which Ker had main responsibility that has become widely known by a four-letter acronym. Alongside MMBL, there sits MLGB, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, a listing of books for which provenance from a medieval British library can be traced; in the team that produced the 1941 volume, Ker was the most active (in part because, during the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector), and he also led on the significant revision which appeared as a second edition in 1964. The enduring importance of the work is attested by its transfer into electronic form as MLGB3, a version being provided thanks to Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby.

My talk in Magdalen, however, focussed on none of those works. It was designed to relate to the present exhibition in the college’s Old Library, which is an elegant and instructive display of music fragments. If you have not seen it yet, it is open each Thursday afternoon until 19th April 2018. It is the work of the urbane musicologist, Giovanni Varelli, and of the energetic librarian, Daryl Green — my only contribution to it was to offer a pun for its title, ‘Fragments of Note’. I was asked to speak in part because I am presently working on preparing the catalogue of the college’s manuscripts for print, and also because of my known interest in manuscript fragments. The most recent manifestation of that is the Lost Manuscripts website, but, a decade and a half ago, I was involved (with Scott Mandelbrote) in providing addenda and corrigenda for the reprint of Neil Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, which was first published by Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1954. Given that Ker himself was a Magdalen man, it seemed appropriate to talk about his work in producing a volume whose transformative potential for scholarship has not (I argued) yet been fully harnessed.

The title-page of the 2004 reprint of Ker’s 1954 volume.

It has been said that Pastedowns has a ‘wonderfully frumpy title’ and it may be that its lack of ostentation has been part of the reason that it is a publication often considered as one of Ker’s learned opuscula. That is not to say it has been entirely ignored: one of the reasons it was reprinted fifty years after its first publication was because it had been repeatedly cited in another volume that the Society had overseen, David Pearson’s Oxford Bookinding (2000). Pearson’s title suggests where the weight of attention has fallen: it is Ker’s exemplary discussion of the stamps and ornaments used in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that has garnered the most interest. That, though, was, in effect, an appendix to the main study, which was a listing of manuscript pastedowns — not, it must be noted, all fragments — found in those bindings. Ker’s purpose was to begin to understand the process of destruction of manuscript culture in an England overtaken by print and by Reformation. In that enterprise, he has not, I would suggest, had the followers that his subject deserves.

My intention now, however, is not to reprise my talk but to draw attention to three points about his method of working which struck me forcibly as I was preparing it. The first is the evidence for his practices provided by the surviving notes on which the printed book depends. They show him checking each volume in person, taking rubbings of the binding as an aide-memoire and making brief notes on the text of the fragment. This last element hints at what a remarkably retentive memory he had. Boxed into our Google-world, where ‘real-time’ checking on-line can be combined with digital photography to refresh our hazy recollection of the item itself, we are liable to underestimate what a feat it was for him to identify both texts and the relationships between fragments which were geographically dispersed.

A page from Neil Ker’s post-publication notes on pastedowns.

If that might make most of us mortals despair at achieving his level of scholarship, there is a second factor that is salutary. It is the amount of sheer legwork that was essential for Pastedowns to be produced. The published work is nearly entirely confined to examples available in Britain. That was not the end of his studies: the image above shows him working on pastedowns on a rare trip to the States in 1971, a decade and a half after the book’s appearance. The tracking down of relevant examples was an enduring interest of Ker’s and, indeed, forms the main source of the addenda provided in both Pearson’s Oxford Bookbinding and the reprint of Pastedowns. What, though, is more remarkable is the effort he put into researching his topic ahead of submitting the volume to the press. It is perhaps best demonstrated by the map I have compiled of all the places he visited.

It is clear that, while there is a concentration in the obvious locations of Oxford, London and Cambridge, Ker saw it as his duty to criss-cross Britain in tracking down other examples, in public libraries, in parish church collections, and in private hands. All this took time, and that is the third point I want to stress. Pastedowns was published in 1954 and the text as printed shows that additions were being made up to the last possible moment. The history that lay behind it, however, went back about two decades. Magdalen has in its archives the notebooks he produced on the fragments in his college, and I am able to date those to the second half of the 1930s. That is to say, this was a long-term project requiring sustained determination. There was none of the publish-and-be-damned culture that the REF encourages. I would like to submit Ker’s Pastedowns as a vindication of the principle of slow study.

Looking through Neil Ker’s papers is a humbling experience. It reminds one of the qualities needed for such scholarship. We often hear of the ‘palaeographer’s eye’, and Ker certainly had that. What is meant by that is an ability to detect the distinctive features on a page, combined a retentive visual memory. In addition, Ker shows how the research has to be both painstaking and patient, aiming at a comprehensiveness which does not brook over-hasty publication. He also epitomises both a love of detail and an ability to see beyond the mass of minutiae to their wider implications — and it is that vision in Pastedowns which I think we have yet fully to appreciate.

There is, then, much more we can do and the starting-point must be to return to Ker’s work. This is why, thanks to financial support from the Bibliographical Societies of London and Oxford, I am beginning a project to create an online searchable edition of Pastedowns, to be hosted on the Lost Manuscripts website. Not all the funding is yet in place (if you want to assist, let me know!), but the work on building the database is beginning. I hope you share a little of my excitement at the times ahead.


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.