bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

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.