This website has been feeling neglected. I see that it is over two months since I posted here and those who read the last message might imagine that I was stung into silence by the lashes I had to bear from my severest critic. Far from it: I am not scared of him. I have not been idle – or, rather, I was wonderfully, blissfully idle all too briefly when in vacanze beneath the deep blue sky of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. My silence has been occasioned by the opposite of idleness: I have been working hard on several projects which have provided new nuggets of information that I have honestly been intending to share with you, if only there were a spare moment. The findings could provide a set of pithy interventions for Notes & Queries — indeed, it seems to me that the internet, properly organised, can provide a space probably more appropriate now for that sort of learned comment or minor revelation than old-style paper periodicals could. Imagine: an on-line journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.
The first of these little discoveries I will mention is also the most recent. Yesterday, following up a lead from the major on-going publication of the catalogue of illuminated manuscripts in Cambridge college collections, I entered the cyber-world of Corpus Christi’s Parker Library. I have already commented on how rich a resource this is – and I do so in full consciousness of the criticisms some have levelled at it, not all of them unjustly: it is expensive, it does need more updating than it presently receives, but it does provide such a wealth of primary material, making it possible to engage with a manuscript and coax it to offer up some of its secrets without even holding it in your hand.
One of the manuscripts which I viewed was MS. 409, a mid-fifteenth-century Italian humanist copy of Cicero’s De finibus. As I ‘turned’ the pages (perhaps that noun too needs inverted commas), I had a growing sense of a familiar presence lurking in the margins. One of the drawbacks of the on-line – or, at least, of my habits of use – is that I find it encourages one to progress through the volume, rather than as one would when picking up the book, begin by looking at the first and then the final folios (which are usually richest in provenance information) before turning over every leaf. So, it was only when I reached the last three or four images that my suspicion proved well founded. For, following the main text, in another hand which M. R. James describes charitably as ‘italic’, there is a short collection of epitaphs. I felt certain they are written by John Free, a Bristolian, the Wunderkind of English humanism, educated in the school of Guarino da Verona and then resident in Rome — it is said he was on the verge of being made a bishop when he died all too young in 1464. Some alleged foul play.
John Free was also, for a while at the turn of the 1450s to 1460s, the secretary of John Tiptoft, and I have sometimes seen them in company, with both annotating the same manuscript. As is apparent from other pages on this website, I have an ongoing interest in the library of Tiptoft, earl of Worcester and self-appointed heir to Humfrey, duke of Gloucester in his book-collecting and promised patronage of the University of Oxford. So, you will appreciate that it mattered to me to confirm or refute my impression that Free was at work in this manuscript. It did not take long to corroborate my first thought, but here is a salutary warning to us Google scholars: if I had confined my checking to on-line resources, it would have been difficult to find the evidence to clinch the case. There are few specimens of John Free available – the most accessible and extensive being the two pages of a manuscript he wrote for Tiptoft, now in the British Library as MS. Harl. 2639. While there are general similarities and some shared idiosyncracies between the bookhand there and the script in the Parker’s MS. 409, the latter is too cursive to make a firm identification with confidence. There is in Oxford’s Balliol collection a manuscript that includes Free’s own rapidly-written transcription of a Poggio translation; it is MS. 124 but that is not yet been photographed and uploaded by the college’s energetic archivist to her excellent flickr account. So, it is only by using hard copy reproductions that I could find a match so close to make the identification irrefutable. In other words, however tiresome we may find it, we always have to move away from our screen to make the most of what we find on it.
So, this manuscript shows that it passed through the hands of John Free. It also has other annotations which link it to the circle of John Tiptoft and we may, indeed, be able to associate it also with their friend in Ferrara, Ludovico Carbone — but I say that only tenatively until I have had chance to see the manuscript truly in the flesh. What my page-turning did reveal is that this manuscript does not contain any of the tell-tale evidence of the earl’s own handwriting, but, even without that, I suspect there is justification to suppose that it was in his collection. The main text ends with an added note in an English gothic script (fol. 81v) and it would be reasonable to assume that the volume was in England from the late fifteenth century and stayed here to reach, in the mid-sixteenth century, its donor to Corpus, Archbishop Parker. As we have seen, however, Free never returned to England and there is little sign that the books he himself owned did reach his homeland. On the other hand, we know that a large part of his former employer’s collection did come to England — not all, it must be said, and hardly any reached the institution to whom he had promised it, the University of Oxford. But there is certainly enough examples to show that the books he purchased on his Italian travels returned with him and, after his untimely death during the Lancastrian Readeption, were on the market. It seems likely that this was the fate of Cambridge: Corpus Christi College, MS. 409. Thus, it is now added, as 31.5 to the listing on this website of ‘probable’ manuscripts from Tiptoft’s library.
This, then, was a virtual find – the first, I think, I have made without the book physically before me. I might add, though, that the frisson, the breathless moment of excitement, is not much less than if I were sitting far from home in the library itself. I will admit that the quickened pulse and tingling sensation which comes with the act of discovery is what keeps me in the business — it is a drug, a stimulant or perhaps an aphrodisiac, previously only available in special collections rooms. I have also to admit that I am not quite sure how I feel about it becoming more readily available and (forgive the pun) free to use.
I find it hard enough at times to keep up with the Times Literary Supplement; I usually manage to finish reading the copy from the week before last, only to watch the next issue drop onto the doormat. Having been out of town in the heat of Florence, teaching the arcana of codicology to a set of bright graduate students, I am now woefully out-of-date. And so, it was only thanks to Kenneth Pennington’s recent letter that I was alerted to the provocative comment piece by Tony Edwards on the digitization of manuscripts. I say provocative since it patently provoked Prof. Pennington: he opens his correspondence by accusing Prof. Edwards of holding opinions ‘more suited to the age of M. R. James than to scholarship in the twenty-first century’. Some might take that as a compliment; it was certainly not intended as one. If I am a few weeks’ out-of-date, Edwards is accused of being much more so, and being nothing less than a technophobe.
Comparison of the letter and the article that caused it might suggest that there has been some unfortunate misunderstanding. Edwards’ purpose in writing was not to reject outright digitizations but to draw attention to what he sees as two negative consequences of such projects: a limiting of access to the manuscripts themselves and a lack of funding for conservation or training to assist making the books available safely to readers. Admittedly, his prose does not shy away from the mischievous, as when he asks ‘are digital surrogates not really just a new, more expensive form of microfilm?’. He might have predicted his comments could rile some or even specific individuals. It is certainly the case that ‘Edwards v. Pennington’ is not now in its first round. Three years ago, another article by the same distinguished English scholar in the same publication inspired a riposte from the same distinguished historian of medieval law. When Edwards drew up a balance-sheet of the pros and cons of digitizations, he singled out for honourable mention the Parker on the Web project which has placed high-quality images of the all the holdings of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge on-line (the launch of which I celebrated in a post). Pennington felt the need to respond: ‘in spite of Edwards’s cautious comments, there are almost no downsides to putting manuscripts and rare books on the internet’, he commented, pointing out rightly how many important projects are in progress in Germany; he then turned a rather less forgiving eye to the Parker project – ‘a sulphurous vision into the lowest regions of the Inferno’ he termed it – complaining about the subscription cost, in contrast to the free availability of German digitization, and adding, for good measure, that its ‘scholarly standards are abysmally low’ since it has put on-line the standard catalogue of the Corpus manuscripts, by M. R. James.
MRJ again. Pennington’s invocations of the ghost of the Provost of Eton and King’s provide a curious footnote in the history of his posthumous reputation. No one now would suggest that his manuscript descriptions are exemplary and the intention of at least one Cambridge college to replace his catalogue is to be welcomed. But Pennington’s implicit suggestion that the Parker project should not have mounted his records of the manuscripts on the web is surely not serious – even when his work is superseded, scholars will need to continue to check what he had to say, especially as he saw the books before the post-War campaign of re-binding (and cropping) which defines their present state. What Pennington presumably wanted was for the Parker Library and their backers, the Mellon Foundation, to have commissioned a new catalogue, produced alongside or as part of the digitization programme. He is certainly not alone in that wish, but it is a counsel of perfection. It would have been expensive – though it might be said with the overall price-tag of Parker on the Web (around $6 million), it could have been done for an extra 1% or, at most, 2% of that cost. It would have been time-consuming, potentially impossible to do well within the relatively tight time-span of the digitization, and it would have complicated an already grand project. None of these should stop us wishing it had happened, but they are practical considerations that surely weighed on the minds of the project managers when developing their ‘mission’.
Even if a new catalogue was not possible (or especially if), the other concern – the cost of subscription to the project – remains. The rates are very high and contrast, say, with the developing policy of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where a daily or weekly subscription is possible. Pennington chooses a different comparison, and contrasts the Corpus Cambridge approach to that of Munich, where what is digitized is freely available, a policy made possible by government support. Perhaps, in Germany, there is more public backing for mounting images of medieval books than there is, say, for bailing out Greece – and this, in fact, is at the nub of the debate. Both Pennington and Edwards would recognise that there are finite funds for which the decisions of how they should be spent are decided in the public arena. Edwards’ approach is to question whether large-scale digitization campaigns should be the priority. It is this attitude that disturbs Pennington; as he puts it in his most recent letter:
I write this letter because views like Edwards’s are dangerous for the future of scholarship and for extraordinarily important projects like the one in Munich. Almost all the major libraries are funded by government officials who have little or no understanding of these issues. As with climate change, politicians will embrace a contrarian who will help them to slash esoteric projects like the digitization of rare manuscripts and books. For a medievalist the issue is far from trivial.
I will admit that the last sentence in that quotation worries me. A medievalist may also be an engaged citizen, and a citizen anywhere in Europe might – to continue the contrast made a moment ago – consider saving the Euro to be more important than making more manuscripts available on-line in the near future. But that is not the point Edwards was making: his was not a suggestion that the funding for libraries should be reduced but that, within the available resources, careful choices should be made. ‘Digitization’, he would suggest, might be a fashionable concept, but is it really the top desideratum? It might be inferred that Pennington’s response would be that if the project is not fashionable, it is likely to receive less funding – but that second-guesses policy-making in a very passive manner. Libraries and academics (especially those who write in publications as much part of the public sphere as TLS) can do their part in shaping those fashions or, at the very least, help nudge them in the direction of the most propitious outcome.
The debate, in other words, is not whether to digitize or not, but, instead, one about the ideal pace of on-line developments and their place in the wider contexts of library priorities and developing scholarly practices. We are inclined to think that the virtual world is bound to develop exponentially, on an increasingly vertical upward curve. That would be a giddy, even nausea-inducing ride but there is no guarantee or requirement that the graph will be drawn thus. There is time to pause and think about how best to harness the resources that are developing – and, on that, I believe I have a few helpful suggestions which will form the core of my next post.
A facetious title for an event which really should be celebrated: the ambitious project to digitise the manuscripts of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge is now fully available on-line. As a click on the link will reveal, full access does not come without a price. Through the summer, the site has been teasing and tantalising us (those of us who get excited by such matters) with selected riches glistening for all to see. Now, any viewer can see for free complete manuscripts, but without zooming, and catalogue descriptions, but without bibliography or search facility. The other facilities are provided on subscription and any good university should be moving post-haste to sign up, if they have not already done so.
This site provides a resource the full potential for which will only become understood over time. The educational potential is immediately obvious, in the possibilities of both on-line palaeography tutorials and transcription exercises. The quality of the images will be a joy to those whose attention centres on illuminations. The search facility provides the ability for researchers to find their own route through the collection, hunting, for instance, for annotations by the Archbishop-collector, Matthew Parker himself, or by provenance (though, as always, some ingenuity is required in defining the right terms for a search). What the site also makes accessible are texts which have never made it into print. Let me give one example from my own area of study: the dialogue, written in England by Pietro del Monte, De Vitiorum inter se Differentia, has never enjoyed a wide circulation, and most would say justifiably so. As I discuss elsewhere it is a derivative work, lifting most of its text from Poggio’s De Avaritia. But how it takes that text and how it was read in England, to where its audience was nearly completed confined, are themselves interesting issues. The learned eighteenth-century successor to del Monte as Bishop of Brescia, Angelo Maria Querini, put into print a small section of the work, and its preface has received a modern edition, but now, for the first time the full text is available — admittedly, in a derivative copy, written in an uneven, though legible, anglicana cursive, but one which shows signs of Parker’s own interest, marked in his characteristic red crayon.
In other cases, what is now available on-line adds to the methods in which we can engage with a text. The Life of Henry V by Tito Livio Frulovisi is a work which those of you who read closely this site will know has been a recent focus of my attentions. It was edited in 1716 by Thomas Hearne, and that printed volume is available from Mr Google. Hearne worked from a transcription collating two copies, one in the Cotton collection and the other a manuscript in ‘Biblioteca collegii sancti Benedicti, sive Corporis Christi’, that is MS. 285 in the Parker Library. It is, in fact, the dedication manuscript of the work to Henry VI, written throughout in Frulovisi’s attractive littera antiqua script. I am an admirer of Hearne’s work but I know which version I will prefer to read in future.
In short, our bookshelves are changing. I still sit surrounded by wooden cases, which bow under the weight of hardback volumes. I would not want to give up the touch or the smell of that physical proximity. But new vistas for our libraries extend before us, as we can now complement what we have on the desk with what we view on screen. And what is on screen is not confined by the old economics of print circulation; there is a new age of manuscript culture.
These comments are only my first response to the potential of Parker on-line. Only over time will more become appreciated, as our own skills at ‘virtual discovery’ develop. But, for the time being, let me finish with a word to Christopher, Nigel and all those involved in the project: plurimas gratias vobis ago agamque.