bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Andrew Watson, scholar and gentleman

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 September, 2017

It was Saturday evening and I was standing in baggage reclaim at Heathrow, just returned from a holiday the restfulness of which was enhanced by a self-imposed purdah, with no access to e-mail or social media. Two weeks, in other words, of cold turkey — not, though, that it had cured me of the curse of internet addiction. Waiting for our suitcases, I could not resist scanning a fortnight’s worth of messages, and found among them the announcement of the death of Prof. Andrew Watson on 15th September. He had been ill for some time, so this could not considered a shock, but that did not reduce the immensity of the sadness. I felt the cavernous hall contract around me, a little air drawn out of the world. We have lost a scholar whose erudition was both remarkable and characteristically understated, for he exemplified a concept now hardly remembered: of Scottish birth, he was quintessentially an English gentleman.

Andrew was professor at University College, London, but he was also the torch-bearer for a grand Oxford tradition of scholarship in manuscript studies. Though most medievalists will have used at least one of his works at some point in their research, he is perhaps less lionised than Malcolm Parkes, who had a gift for programmatic expression (reflected in his last volume, Their Hands before Our Eyes) and for categorisation (witness his invention of ‘anglicana’). Andrew may also not have quite the international reputation of Tilly de la Mare (whose work on humanist script has made her legendary in Italy), though he was certainly highly regarded by continental colleagues in his field. His importance, however, is equal to both of them, encapsulating most fully the bibliographical scholarship of which Neil Ker was the acknowledged doyen of the mid-century. Andrew was Ker’s literary executor, editing his essays after his early death, and providing both the final volume of Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (2002) and the valuable supplement to Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1987), now incorporated into MLGB3.

This should not be taken to imply that he lived in Ker’s shadow. His own contributions to how we perceive scholarly study of manuscript culture are manifold. He was the first British promoter of the international enterprise to develop the precision of our palaeographical understanding by cataloguing dated and datable manuscripts: he provided the volumes for the British Library (1979) and Oxford (1984), both treasure-troves of succinctly expressed insights. He also produced the catalogues of the medieval manuscripts of two Oxford colleges, All Souls (1997) and Exeter (2000). These were not the first to replace Coxe’s mid-nineteenth century listings with fuller descriptions — they were preceded by R. A. B. Mynors for Balliol and Parkes for Keble — but they did provide a model for presentation which was followed by Ralph Hanna’s catalogue of St John’s and is also the inspiration for the volumes now being published by Oxford Bibliographical Society (Queen’s and Christ Church to date, with Trinity soon to follow).

These are substantial works but perhaps they are not as significant as his writings on the post-medieval lives of medieval manuscripts (to paraphrase the title of his collected essays, 2004). John Dee, Walter Cope, Matthew Parker, Everard Digby were among those who received his attention, often working with colleagues. He provided meticulous studies, editing catalogues and tracing the manuscripts where they still exist, but it is their cumulative effect which is of prime importance. What lies beneath the work is the realisation that we cannot fully appreciate the world of medieval manuscripts if we confine ourselves to the centuries which we call the Middle Ages. What exists for us has been shaped by later multiple destructions, intentional (as in the Dissolution of the Monasteries) or accidental (witness the fires that the Cottonian collection has suffered), and by the work of a few to save some of the artefacts from death. As we touch a codex we might feel an immediacy of contact with its creators and earliest readers but, Watson reminded us, we have also to understand how it has come to be available to us in the library where it now resides. Put most basically, he taught me that the first question to ask when working with a manuscript is: why is it here?

I say that he taught me; I cannot claim to have been fortunate enough to have been a formal pupil of his. But he was hugely helpful to me when I was working on my doctorate, and in subsequent years. I learned palaeography from Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe, and Parkes also guided my first steps as I attempted to catalogue manuscripts, but it was Andrew who provided the closest attention to my attempts to describe a codex. He did most to shape my practice in this field, and, in so doing, he helped me appreciate the importance of studying the whole codex. It is important to add that he acted as my mentor without there being any duty to do so: by the time I knew him, he was already retired. He did it not because it was required but that it was in his character to be supportive. A generosity of spirit defined him.

Andrew will be remembered for his writings but they do not constitute the sum total of his legacy. Those of us who knew him cannot forget the kind heart that beat in his slender frame. We can only attempt to emulate the extent of his kindness — but try we must, to be true to the memory of a true gentleman.




Malcolm Parkes RIP

Posted in Obituaries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 May, 2013

I will not pretend to have known Malcolm Parkes well but, like so many, I owe him such a debt of gratitude that I cannot leave his passing on 10th May unremarked: he was a giant of palaeography. The breadth of his learning was always on display in his writings – indeed, he disdained those who concentrate solely on one script or one chronological period (and, so, presumably, I fail his high standards). This was a scholar who could range across the centuries, as comfortable with the Chanson de Roland as with the manuscripts of Chaucer and Gower, and who could make associations which few would have had the eye to see. What, though, I will most remember him for is his generosity of spirit.

When I began my graduate studies in Oxford, I went to two sets of palaeographical classes, one in my own Faculty of History, by Richard Sharpe, and one in English, by Malcolm Parkes; later in my doctoral work (and less formally), I was to learn much as well from Andrew Watson. Most student medievalists considered the task of palaeography as a matter of comprehension – what Richard Sharpe describes as ‘adult literacy skills’; some of us left the lectures, however, inspired by the possibilities of what palaeography in its widest sense (including codicology) can teach us about the book itself. The ability to hold a manuscript in your hands, to turn it over and to take all the elements of its construction to create a vivid history of its production, use and journey from creation to present – that is an invigorating and potent skill which Malcolm Parkes could convey with wit and clarity.

Central to learning how to do that is being able to write a technical description of a manuscript and, addition to his palaeography classes, Prof. Parkes provided instruction in that practice. Fired with interest by what I had half-learnt, I went off to describe some manuscripts and sent my rough attempts to him. I was not in his Faculty and there was no reason why he should have given me attention; all I could offer him was dinner in my student house in Jericho. But he accepted the invitation and sent me back my descriptions covered by pencil notes which I can still recollect twenty years later and which, in their wise advice, have informed how I developed my own practices of cataloguing.

I also remember him as an engaging lecturer, a master of the vignette and also of the obiter dictum. One, in particular, I recall from his Lyell lectures: ‘it is easy to imitate another’s letter-forms, it is much more difficult to imitate their spaces’. It is an insight suggestive of his own way of working, his own sense of the practicalities or technology of script that enabled him to provide such lucid analysis of (in the title of those Lectures) their hands before our eyes.

There are two other details that come to my mind. One involves an occasion early on in my graduate life when I was working in Duke Humfrey’s – so this was, perhaps, in 1992 and from my memory’s image of the light streaming into Selden End, late summer or early autumn – and Prof. Parkes walked in, cap in hand, to meet a lady sitting opposite me. They proceeded to converse without any attempt to lower their voices, so angering me that I walked out, little appreciating that, if I had had the sense to stay and listen, I would have learnt about the latest discoveries each of them had made, and not realising that the lady in question was destined eventually to be one of my doctoral examiners: the Professor of Palaeography at King’s London and former doyenne of Duke Humfrey’s, Tilly de la Mare.

I mention this tale because of the insouciance it suggests Malcolm Parkes had in the places that were his natural habitat. It extended also to dealing with manuscripts – no white-glove man, this, he would fairly plonk a volume down on its foam-rest. For those of us beginning our career and so daintly touching these half-hallowed objects, this was a liberating revelation. I rationalised his practice in my mind as a recognition that manuscripts, written on parchment and bound in leather over wooden boards, are fairly sturdy things – sturdier, it must be said, than the frail human body. And so, indeed, Professor Malcolm Beckwith Parkes has left us, but there survive many manuscripts which will outlive you or I, and which can say that they have been touched, enlightened and enlivened by him.

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.