bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Ker’s Pastedowns online

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 23 April, 2021

St George’s Day is celebrated in several countries around the globe — Ethiopia, Georgia, Portugal for example. In 2021, there is another reason to consider it a red-letter day: it sees the launch of the online edition of Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, with its supplements.

I have discussed before on this site the remarkable nature of Neil Ker’s work on manuscript fragments. You may notice that post was written in March 2018 when I announced my aim of producing an online edition of Pastedowns. It has taken some time to secure funding but heatfelt thanks are due to the Bibliographical Society of London and to the Oxford Bibliographical Society — the original publishers of Ker’s volume — for providing the support which allowed me to enlist the help of James Willoughby for organising the data into a spreadsheet and Tom Gillett of We Write the Web for making the technology work.

Only two points remain for me to say now, one of them minor, one of them of more significance. The first is to explain why the online edition is introduced to the world with the sobriquet POxBo. Pastedowns is best known by its author’s surname (even if there are disagreements about how to pronounce it) and his name is used for the website’s search function. We could not, however, publicise it as ‘Ker’ for two reasons. First, this is only one publication among many with which he is intimately associated, and those who studied pre-Conquest vernacular literature, for instance, will think of something else when they hear his name. Second, POxBo includes not solely his work but also the supplement published in 2000 by David Pearson as well as the corrigenda and addenda provided to the OBS reprint of the volume in 2004, compiled by Scott Mandelbrote and someone called David Rundle. I would like to thank Dr Pearson for allowing us to include his supplement in this database.

POxBo, then, is intended to signify that we are working with the tradition established by Neil Ker but are not confined to his 1954 volume. I do appreciate that, for other Ker projects, the expectation is that there should be a four-letter acronym: MMBL or MLGB, though the latter is now online as MGLB3. Following its lead, our abbreviation is five characters long because I wanted to emphasise a key feature of the work which is sometimes overlooked: its remit was not to collect together all fragments reused in bindings but only those pastedowns found in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. That was because the habit of using manuscript ‘waste’ for pastedowns lasted longer there than elsewhere in England and because the scholarship available on bindings from that university town allowed a plotting of the development of the practice with some precision.

This last comment relates to the more important thought I want to share. POxBo exists partly because there is an enduring use to Ker’s listing of fragments which is increased by making it searchable online, with all its supplements included. There is, though, another rationale and that is a sense that we have not yet fully understood how useful his work can be.

It is pleasing to see that a manuscript catalogue of an institution cannot appear now without due regard to the fragments in the collection. In many cases, however, the fragment alone is mentioned, with reference to its number in Ker’s Pastedowns. There is less attention paid to the binding from which it came but this provides crucial evidence. The date of publication of the printed book and the tools used to stamp the binding can provide a narrow date-range for when the manuscript from which the fragment comes was dismantled. This is crucial evidence for its history.

Why might this information be overlooked? A cataloguer might respond that their interest is in the fragment itself not in its wider context. Or they may point out that traditional practice privileges the medieval history of medieval manuscripts, with less attention given to what happened to them after c. 1540. They might also with justice provide the defence that they cannot include everything. I have come to realise how superhuman the challenge of cataloguing a manuscript fully can be: it requires more eyes than Osiris had. I do want us, however, to reflect on the fact that cataloguing often considers a manuscript from the standpoint of its creation, rather than its later life. What I am urging is that we look back from the present moment and focus on unravelling how the codex in front of us — either whole or in small parts — has come to be how it is.

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Good Night, Prof. Sharpe

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 April, 2020

This site takes on at times the nature of a necrology. It already includes half a dozen reminiscences of departed scholars whose path I was lucky to cross. Now I have to add another, but with this one we move down another generation. It is a fortnight since Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, died of a heart attack. He was in post, a couple of years shy of retirement, and I for one anticipated that some of his most productive decades lay ahead of him.

I do not pretend to any special knowledge of him. He was, for all his ability to assert himself in public, a private man, and few, perhaps, can claim with truth to have known him well. At the same time, he did nurture a cohort of scholars, and any of them knew him much better than I did. He has, though, been part of my universe for all my adult life, and perhaps I can add to the richer recollections that others will provide by giving a few vignettes which may hint at some of the elements of his many-sided personality.

It happens that I saw him the morning before he died. I was walking through Oxford’s Covered Market and heard, over my shoulder, the greeting ‘Good Morning, Dr Rundle’. I turned to see Richard’s back, striding on, and so the last words I spoke to him were ‘Good Morning, Prof. Sharpe’. We might think the brevity of that contact was a symptom of the social distancing for which 2020 will be remembered, but from my experience I would say that such curt courtesy was characteristic of him.

Curt could undeniably at times be cutting. I never felt the full brunt of that but I still smile at the thought of one occasion when he was brutally honest with me. A couple of years ago, we were both attending a conference at the Bodleian and, in an interval, we talked of one of the projects he oversaw, the digital version of the classic Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. There was a technical issue about inputting a specific set of information, and I thought I had a solution for him. I explained for a few minutes until he stopped me with the sobering line: ‘I am not listening to a word you say’. I thanked him for his sincerity.

With that honesty came an absence of feigned praise. Richard prided himself on exacting standards of scholarship, and he saw as integral to that being sparse with words of encouragement. I once observed to him that he was readier to criticise than to compliment; I think the precise wording of his response was: ‘That’s right. If I see someone doing a good job, I think that best thing I can do is keep quiet and let them get on with it’. Something of this attitude is at the heart of my favourite anecdote about him. In the course of a bibulous college dinner, I revealed to him that some of his graduate students had given him the sobriquet Magister Acutus. His reply: ‘I would prefer to be Acer’.

That tale, however, is not the memory I cherish the most. That comes from several years earlier, when I was a young graduate student. I had already made his acquaintance when I was an undergraduate, but that was through his involvement in politics — while he worked at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, he was also Liberal Democrat councillor for the main student area of the city, Central Ward. A couple of years later, he — alongside Malcolm Parkes — was the first to induct me into the arcana of palaeography, and also of diplomatic. He was an exacting tutor, but my most vivid recollection is not of a seminar. It was of a day in spring 1992 when I was sitting in one of the bays of Duke Humfrey’s squinting at a copy of William de Pagula’s Summa summarum. It was one of my first encounters with a manuscript, and I was attempting to deploy the skills I had been taught but was wondering at the mass of abbreviations that appeared to end each section of text. Richard happened to walk past and he stopped, came over and asked what I was studying. I showed him the manuscript and its challenges, and he began to unfurl the complexities of the canon law references which were bemusing me, even taking the time to lead me upstairs into the Upper Reading Room to show me where to find the Corpus Iuris Canonici and how to consult it.

As I write, the more I appreciate how he has informed my practice, for good or ill. I try in my own teaching to emulate those minutes of scholarly generosity, in the realisation that they can be more enlightening and encouraging than any number of hours in the classroom. I suspect I have also inherited from him a certain reticence about giving praise — and believe I sense the virtue he saw in it: its concomitant is to suppress one’s own desire to be praised and to seek instead to be spurred on always to do yet better.

What I also now realise is how much more I want to hear from him. As I said, I would not consider myself ever to have been close to him but he has been a constant of my adult life. Nearly a decade after the incident I have described in Duke Humfrey’s, he was appointed my mentor when I was J. P. R. Lyell Fellow in Palaeography. That role ended in 2004, but subsequently we found ourselves often at the same events. For one year (2017-18), we taught Oxford’s new graduate historians alongside each other, Richard dispensing his expertise in diplomatic and documentary scripts, while I introduced them to bookhands and codicology. The following year, I was able to attend only the first of his Lyell Lectures in person but watched the rest from afar by the wonders of podcasts (or aptly named Bodcasts); our last face-to-face conversation was about them and Richard’s plans for their publication. Most recently, he had agreed to speak this June at an event, on the Legacy of Oxford Palaeographers, which I am organising with Colleen Curran. He has left us in medias res, and my overwhelming sense now is of a conversation interrupted. We still have so much to learn from him.

These few memories also hint at something else about Richard. He was not shy of taking on ambitious projects: his listing of Anglo-Latin writers, his work on Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and his oversight of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (on these last two, he was ably supported by James Willoughby) are only three examples from a longer list. I mention these because they signify something important about his intellectual career. He placed himself in a grand tradition of bibliography, one which had flourished particularly in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century through the work of Neil Ker, Roger Mynors and Richard Hunt. Their work had been continued by Andrew Watson, who was allowed to enjoy a long and productive retirement in Oxford, and to whom Richard was literary executor. To all these scholars, Richard was not only heir; he, more than anyone, ensured their tradition of learning progressed into the new millennium. It is a tradition which demonstrated how medieval studies needs to be based on precise study of the manuscript evidence, informed by the skills of palaeography, codicology and diplomatic. We look to others to continue that legacy. They will be standing in a long shadow.

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.

Andrew Watson, scholar and gentleman

Posted in Obituaries, 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.



Into the fragmentary

Posted in Digital History, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 17 May, 2015

Let me entice you into the half-light, into the region inhabited by manuscripts which are no longer fully alive but which have not disappeared entirely – the world of undead books. I have become convinced that working here could have the power to be transformative of our understanding of manuscript culture. I want to encourage you to travel with me on this adventure.

All of us who work with manuscripts – or, indeed, with the earliest printed books – are conscious that we deal with only the minority that survives and can only dream of what once might have been. Early on in our researches, we come across those shards of evidence that exist between the two states, often collected in guardbooks or in boxes, though sometimes loose or hidden within other books –  fragments. I first engaged with them when working on my doctorate and I could not resist their lure. On the emotional level, there is something tantalising about this evidence of what we have lost; on an intellectual level, it is hard not to relish the challenge of identification.

Perhaps the fascination of them is why I have allowed myself to be seduced back into studying them time and again. When, in 2003, I became an Editor for Oxford Bibliographical Society, my first task was to oversee the reprint of Neil Ker’s classic Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, first published in 1954 and the classic study of a corpus of fragments whose place of dismemberment is localisable, since, in sixteenth-century Oxford, binders (more often, it is said, than anywhere else) strengthened and prettified the bindings they put on books by gluing a section from a discarded manuscript to each of the book’s boards. The reprint was not simply a reproduction. It involved providing some light updating, based on Ker’s own notes, those of another hero of Oxford manuscript studies, Richard Hunt, and the work of David Pearson, who had already supplemented Ker’s work in his own Oxford Book-binding 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2000). It resulted in the thirty-page addenda and corrigenda, work which made me conscious of how much more could be done with these broken survivors of an era of destruction.

Even at that point just over a decade ago, the potential of an on-line database of fragments was already imaginable. (Indeed, a review of Codicologica from 1983 threw out the suggestion of a ‘computerized information bank’). In the years since working on Ker, I have mused with friends and colleagues about the opportunities there might be for doing just that. Now, thanks to the University of Essex, ‘seed-corn funding’ has been made available for a pilot project which, in the coming months, will see created a digital catalogue, with images, of a particular set of fragments, in situ as strips, flyleaves and pastedowns in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), Archbishop of York and son of Colchester, who left his library to the town; those books are now in the safe keeping of the University of Essex. The intention, after this pilot, is to move on and to build up a larger database of fragments in the British Isles. How that will be done is not what I intend to discuss here. Instead, I want to consider the intellectual requirements and possibilities of such an undertaking.

Of course, the digitising of fragments now has a plethora of precedents. Juergen Berger has helpfully pointed that a listing of some of these has recently been provided by Kaspar Kolk, who is himself working on manuscript fragments in his native Estonia. His survey suggests the range of endeavours occurring across Europe and in North America. The El Dorado for many of these ventures is the aspiration of bringing together elements from one manuscript which are now dispersed. How attractive this possibility can be is suggested by the interim result for a small poll related to my own project: I invited viewers to help name the enterprise and, to date, the preference is for my jocular suggestion of Fragments Reunited (that will teach me to try a joke).

To achieve any reconstruction, however, requires some painstaking research and the scholar needs all the help both the Internet and hard-copy sources can provide. The ability to identify a text is unimaginably greater – I mean simpler and quicker – than in the mid-twentieth century when Neil Ker was at work. But so many fragments are little more than scraps and thus defy identification by text alone. And when the words are susceptible to being pinned down to a particular work, there remains the issue for every piece of parchment – even if it represents the most uncommon text – of ascertaining whether it does come from the same codex as any other fragment of the same composition.

I say this not to arouse your sympathy for the hard-pressed archival archaeologist but, instead, to raise an issue of how we catalogue fragments. One of the most important websites being built at present is the Inventory of Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Norway. They have done sterling dectetive work in organising extant sections of leaves by their original manuscripts. In doing this, they have used the rules for cataloguing developed by J. P. Gumbert. His guidance provides the noble principle that each fragment is a manuscript in its own right, worthy of being given the same treatment as a full survival. At the same time, another guiding principle of his inventory approach is the need to work at speed, with each entry being as pared down as possible. If, though, we are going to maximise our chances of making accurate identifications, I would urge that we need to include details which are not always necessary for a description of a complete manuscript, while also ensuring other data are fully searchable. So, it is not usual to measure the space between lines in a conventional description (though this can be deduced by dividing the height of the written space by the number of lines) nor the height of minims but, as a cutting is likely not to provide the full text block, these have the potential to be important diagnostics. Similarly, if the cutting is from the centre of a bicolumnar folio, we will not know the dimensions of the columns but we can measure the width of the central reservation, which might well help us make an identification. This last is a datum that should always appear in a description but if, in a database it is recorded only as one part of the dimensions, its ability to act as a comparator is all but lost. In other words, if it is going to be fully searchable, the information recorded needs to be broken down to a level of detail not usually considered necessary. My own experience is that entering these data does not slow down the process of cataloguing by more than a few seconds – and can reduce substantially the time needed later for compiling the incomplete jigsaw that are the related fragments.

It will already be clear that I am not certain that we have fully realised what we need if we are to make the most from fragments. That is likely to be because we have not yet appreciated the entirety of their potential. To give these battered remnants the attention they deserve, we needs must adopt the mantra that a fragment is a manuscript but, in an obvious and fundamental way, that is untrue and, on my submission, can even undermine our recognition of each scrap’s significance. A fragment is not an island entire of itself, nor is a cluster of them simply an archipelago. Or, rather, if it is, we are like marine geologists looking for the submerged mass which connects the elements together. That is to say, each fragment (however tiny) is a witness to a whole manuscript and should be taken as an invitation to envisage how that codex would have looked. Faced with an insignificant and scruffy survival, it may seem hubristic to think we can move from that to conceptualising the pristine object, but, if we use all the information available, and work both by extrapolation and analogy, it is not impossible to glimpse, at the very least, the original codex. This is why I would urge that, when we record fragments, we should in effect provide a double catalogue, once as the individual piece, respecting its present condition and location, and once as a testimony to a recovered manuscript – the section that, in the database I am developing, will be called ‘Babel’.

You might ask whether it is worth the effort spending the extra time on that process of reconstruction. If the potential stopped with the completion of the catalogue entry, perhaps – in many but not all instances – it would not be. That is not, though, where our work should end, for the greatest gains are to be had by analyzing the gathered weight of data that a sustained project can provide. If we continue for the moment thinking about the fragment as witness to the lost manuscript, a question that will press itself on us is how the volume came to be dismantled and half-discarded. We may think we know the answer: we can explain that, in various societies, there have been moments of destruction in their history, and we might cite as an example England in the mid-sixteenth century. That, though, is not precise enough: we should ask ourselves what we can learn about the details of the individual journey each single manuscript took from wholeness to dismemberment. If a fragment sits in a binding, we can often tell in what book-shop it must have been torn apart and we might then ask how it could have reached this bookseller (who so loved books that he broke up old ones to strengthen the new). Were all books used, for instance, in Oxford bindings in the sixteenth century pulled from local resources? We cannot know that – yet. Our goal, I am suggesting, is that we should see an endpoint of working with fragments to be about gaining a sharper understanding of the processes and levels of loss that have occurred. This matters because, as we all know, the surviving complete manuscripts that we have are a minority of those that were produced in medieval Christendom. We are faintly aware that what survives is probably unusual; what we surely need to do is to have a stronger sense of how unrepresentative the extant full codices are of the manuscript culture that existed. The study of fragments invites us to move beyond the comfort of what we have and to develop a history that more fully recognises what we have lost.