bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Trump the Merovingian

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 25 February, 2017

Satire is a potent tool in the face of the arrogance of power. Laughter punctures pride more fatally than any righteous anger. And it has not gone unnoticed that one of the winners of the election of the latest US President has been humour itself — laughing at him, not with him. Print media have, for instance, noticed the twitter phenomenon that is Donaeld the Unready, recasting the new incumbent of the Oval Office as an Anglo-Saxon bretwalda. My own favourite is this one:

However, I want to suggest to you today that if the President is a reincarnation, his former self was not content to live in the alter orbis which was the British Isles; he was surely a denizen of mainland Europe. How can I know this? By invoking the noble art of palaeography.

trump-signatureThere are some things, of course, which are beyond satire – and that includes Donald Trump’s signature. Graphologists have had a field day with this, though I am not convinced by some of the claims, like the suggestion that it shows him to be protective of the family. I cannot see that and, instead, find it hard to avoid concluding that there is something psychotic in his willingness to overwrite not just the typed words but his own letters — look at that final p which is turned into ascender crossing over the bowl of the letter. It looks assertive but it also is self-destructive. This President unwrites himself.

That jagged motion of final p creating a pointed hat worthy of the Ku-Klux Klan serves no necessary purpose beyond ostentation: it is what palaeographers would call an otiose stroke. Such features were often produced with a turn of the nib to create a thinner or even hair-line stroke. In Trump’s handwriting, though, there is no differentiation between thick and thin, just as the straight lines are rarely combined with any curved movements of the pen. For instance, a letter like n is formed with a diagonal joining the two minims (rather than the linking it the top). There is little variation and no subtlety here.

Let us, though, consider President Trump’s approach to mise-en-page when placing that signature on an Executive Order.trump-signing-executive-order

Note how his script insists on taking up space, being equivalent to five or six lines of typed text. This is by no means unprecedented. It reminds me, for instance, of cases of Henry VII of England adding his name in large thin gothic letters below the beautiful italic of his secretary, Pietro Carmeliano (whom I have discussed on this site recently). In such instances, the royal writing looks ungainly in comparison to the script above but that serves only to enhance the impression that the monarch is emphasising his taking ownership of the page, even as he compromises its calligraphy. Its purpose is to show that the king does not need to master penmanship for he is the master of those who have done so.

Yet, that is not the only historical parallel one can draw. Over the long tradition of script, the balance between the minims (eg m and n) and the ascenders of tall letters (eg d and l) has shifted: in the bookhand promoted in the Carolingian empire, when there was an expectation of clarity of writing, a minim would be about half the size of an ascender; in late medieval culture, the gothic aesthetic which saw beauty in the uniform aspect of a page, ascenders were reduced to being often little more than residual. President Trump has decided to reject both of those practices: it seems that he feels his hands must make ascenders, and bigly. They dwarf the minims by a ratio of about 3:1. Once again, though, such a contrast is not original to him. It was a frequent habit in medieval charters, particularly on the top line. It is seen, for instances, in specimens of Merovingian chancery script, though when I mentioned this in conversation with an eminent palaeographer, she accused me of making a comparison that was slanderous to Merovingian civilization.

I would certainly not want to give the impression that this sense of proportion was confined in time or location. It was not only a habit of chanceries drawing up official documents but was also seen in certain bookhands. The example below is in many ways more elegant than anything achieved by a pen wielded in the 45th President’s hand — it knows the value of combining curves with straight strokes — but it shares an affection for extended ascenders.


Paris: BnF, MS. lat. 9427, fol. 19v

It is a famous manuscript, a lectionary from the Abbey of Luxeuil in southern Burgundy. We have several witnesses to this script which was developed in that cloister. We also have an end-date for their production: in 732, the abbey was burnt to the ground and its monks massacred by a daring raid by Muslim Moors. Do not tell that to President Trump.



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.

What is palaeography?

Posted in Historiography, Manuscripts, Renaissance Studies by bonaelitterae on 21 November, 2011

‘What is palaeography?’ asked a young Albinia de la Mare, and the rest of her career demonstrates that she stayed for an answer. But not only that: her own work transformed how we should answer the question. It is an appropriate time, in the days following the Warburg conference commemorating her nigh on ten years after her death, to repeat the question she ingenuously asked at the beginning of her graduate career.

The simple answer – one I have given in the Oxford Companion to the Book – is that the term now signifies two activities, both intellectually valid. The first concerns the process of localisation and identification of scripts, using the panoply of evidence available in a codex, and thus encompassing those skills called codicology as well as the study of its handwriting. Within this definition is the ability to make alien scripts readable, which is the first way in which many students first encounter palaeography – or ‘adult literacy’ as I have heard it called. The second approach to palaeography is to place the book itself in its cultural context, to see the codex – and other graphic evidence – as a way into the mentalities of previous generations.

In an understated way, the research of Albinia de la Mare (Tilly, as she was known) wrought magic in palaeography in both its senses. The conference paid repeated tribute to Tilly’s ‘prodigious photographic memory’ aided, as Jonathan Alexander pointed out, by the invention of the photocopy. Supported by her copies of images and her capacious collection of notes (now under the tutelage of Xavier van Binnebeke), Tilly developed an ability to identify particular scribes and – a source of even more awe – to date manuscripts within a scribe’s career. These skills made her an oracle to many scholars in different disciplines, some of whom were involved in the conference that has just taken place. A question that remained unasked within the community of Renaissance scholars who gathered at the Warburg was how transferable was Tilly’s skill. I mean, in the first place, whether there is something particularly revealing about humanist scripts which makes them open to analysis in a way that may not be possible for other scripts. To some extent, it must be true that gothic bookhands, where the emphasis is on uniformity of letter-forms, also have a further homogeneity of aspect – in short, that they are less individual than the manifestations of humanist bookhand known as littera antiqua. At the same time, from what little work I have done on French fourteenth-century manuscripts, it seems to me that the possibility of a similar process of identification is present, if only the full range of details – codicological as well as narrowly palaeographical – are used.

But the question of how transferable were her skills should also be taken another way: to put it bluntly, who else can do what she could? I do not pretend to judge who can consider themselves her heirs – and (what the scholarly community might find even more entertaining) who not. Instead, I express this as a warning about the curse of the legacy of genius. Tilly demonstrated that, in naturally gifted, trained and experienced hands, a manuscript could offer up its secrets to an extent that few had imagine. In her wake, it is natural to hope that what she achieved should become the standard rather than the apogee. The result, though, can be dangerous: over-confident identifications of hands on tenuous grounds will take scholarship down corridors of the labyrinth that are no more than wrong turnings, leaving the next generation to unravel previous errors before it can actually make progress. Let us remember that Tilly herself recognised the importance of being tentative and (as her notes on her late masterpiece ‘New Research’ demonstrate) changed her mind. Even Tilly would not live up to the ideal that others would claim for her and for themselves.

I said a moment ago that Tilly worked her wonders with palaeography in both its definitions. I remember when I was a graduate student her reminding me of the importance of not looking only at the letter-forms but at the whole page – a truth I pass on to students by describing palaeographical investigation as a repeated change of viewing, for the ductus to the aspect and back again. If, by analogy, we can talk of palaeography in the first definition as the ductus, then the aspect, the larger picture, is provided by the discipline in its second definition – a consciousness of what manuscripts can tell us about the culture in which they were created. This is where the level of specificity that Tilly achieved – localising manuscripts to specific towns and to specific decades – could be so fruitful. As Vincenzo Fera described at the conference, her interest from the time of her thesis in Vespasiano da Bisticci opened up a world populated by scribes, certainly, and their patrons, but also by the book-sellers and readers of these manuscripts. From the residue of ink left upon the prepared skin of a dead animal it became possible to conjure up a sense of human associations that was not a mere handmaid of history, it was the stuff itself. If, as historians, we fail to appreciate the evidence not just of the words but of the book in which the words appear, we will only be able to tell an impoverished and hollow history. In this sense, we have a duty to follow Tilly’s example, even as we are humble enough to realise that we cannot emulate it to her level.

What is palaeography? It is, I would suggest, a box of skills, of talents and of insights which can so enrich our understanding that the revelation of them is akin to the gift of fire – a simile that (I realise and do not blush to write it) makes Albinia de la Mare our Prometheus.