bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

#Receptiogate and gate-keeping

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 January, 2023

As I said in my previous post, the first topic I want to consider in reflecting on the so-called Receptio affair is what it tells us about the limits of the scholarly community. We can begin by noting what has been perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the controversy: the unravelling of the identity of the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition, of which Prof. Carla Rossi is Director. The Centre, which takes Receptio as an acronym for its full title, has an elegant website. On that was listed an impressive number of employees and associates. What became clear was that the photos used for some of those people were stock head-and-shoulders images that already had multiple outings elsewhere on the internet. It also became apparent that some of those mentioned were members of Prof. Rossi’s family. For others, it has proven difficult to verify their existence, including that of Prof. Rossi’s secretary. Meanwhile, other online searches focussed on the two addresses given on the site, with that for ‘in person’ visits being in London, and the ‘operative headquarters’ being in Lugano; in the UK case, there were doubts about how far this was an active office, and in the case of the Lugano address, about whether it was a private address.

None of these findings constitute evidence of an act of corruption. The stock photos could be explained by the Centre’s statement that its website is out of date; that is, for sure, an understandable problem, though it does raise the question of why some individuals agreed to be represented, even temporarily, by others’ faces. Engaging family members in an enterprise —however often it is taken in northern Europe as evidence of unacceptable nepotism — is not universally considered malpractice: after all, in the States, spousal appointments happen at universities without, it seems, any moral outrage. What it does suggest is that some involved were not appointed through open competition, as one would expect with a research centre. Likewise, there is nothing shady about working from one’s home, but it undermines the presentation of the Centre as an autonomous institution, with a life which is not dependent on its director.

Cumulatively, these details give the impression that Receptio is — in the sense that Peter Burke uses the term when discussing Louis XIV — a fabrication, or — to shift to Genette’s terminology — a hypertext. I use these terms not as a criticism but as tools of neutral analysis. Carla Rossi has made it clear that her designation as professor is merely titular, and she is in no way ‘un potente barone universitario’. In attempting to carve out a place for her scholarship, she has taken the concept of the research centre and moulded one of her own, complete with the various accoutrements one might expect. Arguably, the performance went too far —that a professor would have their own private secretary is, at least in the cash-strapped UK context, nearly unthinkable. In its pretensions to being an established scholarly entity, Receptio made itself into a parody.

There is a legitimate question of whether the fabrication had an intent to mislead, to convince others that it had some sort of official status. As I have said before, it is not my purpose to untangle that issue, beyond saying that the controversy amply demonstrates how a modicum of internet checking could thwart any attempt by Rossi to fool: this was no elaborate scam worthy of the protagonists of Ocean’s Eleven. What I want to concentrate on instead is the allure of the ‘official’. There is a danger that the reaction in some quarters will be to assume we should only trust ‘real’ research centres, established by universities which, for their part, give due oversight and ‘quality control’. What might save us from taking that route is realising that Receptio’s fabrication is a parody of a system of higher education which is itself beyond parody. That academic system rather takes on the character of a set of distorting mirrors looking in on each other, the concatenation of which mis-shapes its intention over and over again.

Here my critique chimes with that of Charlotte Gauthier. This is a system in which universities — bodies whose charitable status mean they cannot make a profit — ache to ape the habits of commercial businesses, with the result that its students are demoted to the status of ‘customers’. It is a system that lives by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), where its ranking by stars is a sort of TripAdvisor for academe, but with the added demerit of misdirecting hundreds of thousands of pounds (not to mention human time) which could be better spent in supporting research. It is also a system that places high value on ‘grant capture’ — terminology that conjures images of funding as roaming the land ripe to be snatched by highwaymen-lecturers — and so requires substantial energy to be spent not on research but on hunting in search of the rainbow’s end. It is a system which has become a pastiche.

I am very aware that these comments will strike some as parochial. The structure of universities as charities is a particular British feature, contrasting to both the French republican tradition of their position as part of the apparatus of the state, and the American model where many are private institutions focussed on their endowment.  I have talked to fellow academics in countries without a REF who wish they had one to tackle the problem of colleagues who spend more time building empires than engaging in research. I have also heard British colleagues say the REF is better than any alternative. It is certainly easier to diagnose ills than to offer solutions, and there is some comfort in hiding behind the mantra ‘I am not that sort of doctor’.

The comments are parochial in another way, one which reaches the heart of this controversy: they have intentionally concentrated on universities. Yet, all of us in established academic posts have a duty to remember that we are the lucky ones, however much at times we do not feel it. Lecturers and professors are not the scholarly community, they are one part of it. That community is enriched by the presence of librarians, archivists and curators, by ‘para-academics’, by those in short-term or part-time university employment, and by independent scholars — including the likes of both Peter Kidd and Carla Rossi.

Indeed, if there is a lesson in all this it is surely that those who do not have to follow the structures of universities should not feel the need to squeeze themselves into the painful strait-jacket. One interpretation of the Rossi affair (a generous one, I accept) is that Rossi felt she needed to don that strait-jacket, on the assumption that she would not be accepted otherwise. This is the most fundamental problem: to pretend that those in full-time permanent university roles are the only true scholars or even that they are inevitably the best ones. That assumption can create pressure for others to claim bona fides by appearing to be part of the university eco-system, and that is liable to create dubious practices. Perhaps, then, the hashtag Receptiogate, for all its unoriginality, has a use. If we read its last syllable anew, it can act as a reminder of the basic truth: beware of gate-keeping.

This is not to say that scholarship is a come-as-you-are, free-for-all party: it has its standards, and upholding standards is quite a different attitude from gate-keeping. One judges on the merits of what is written, the other uses proxies like employment status. Of course, there is an extra complexity: we each believe in our standards which we are determined should be upheld but, in truth, those norms of acceptable behaviour differ between and within disciplines; they are often defined by local tradition, or by generation, rather than by some translucent universal set of shared rules. There is no single habitus. If you doubt this, consider the range of practices used for citations with some willing to accept endnotes or even in-text author-date systems as ‘scholarly’. Perhaps, indeed, one of the attractions to some of the Rossi Affair was the belief that there had been uncovered a case of infraction of what (they assumed) was one of the few shared precepts of scholarship: you do not steal another’s work. Quite what constitutes plagiarism is a matter I want to discuss another day.

For now, my point is that the republic of letters has no generally agreed boundaries, just as it cannot have any centralised structure of authority, or border guards to police sanctioned crossing points. Gate-keeping is a problem because there are no gates through which to pass when entering this cluster of neighbouring — but often not neighbourly — communities. This lack of certainty is not a demerit; it is for many of us an attraction of this republic. It is also one which prides itself on not touching its forelock to status. There is admittedly much self-deception here as well as some continuing questionable practices: connoisseurship is out of favour, but the wider world still wants us to be able to express conclusive opinions ex cathedra. Whatever those continuing problems, it does mean that asserting status is not a route to acceptance as a scholar; on the contrary, it is symptomatic of the unscholarly — according to my standards, at least.


On the Receptio-Rossi Affair: a preface to some reflections

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 23 January, 2023

After the jollities, the hangover. Over the festive break, a corner of social media was abuzz with a tale of plagiarism, questionable business ethics and sloppy scholarly practices. It was played out in rapid instalments, on Twitter, Mastodon and I refer, of course, to the concerns first raised by Dr Peter Kidd, beginning on 24th December 2022, concerning the Research Centre for European Philological Tradition (which takes Receptio as an acronym for its full title) and the recent work of its Director, Prof. Carla Rossi. The affair has been dubbed, in depressingly unoriginal fashion, #Receptiogate — when will we stop naming everything with a whiff of malpractice after a 1970s American political scandal? That said, perhaps the cliché in the name is to the point, given as what, in part, is at stake is unoriginality. The existence of that hashtag is evidence of how the first revelations about possible unacknowledged copying precipitated quite a Twittersquall, in which further allegations were levelled at Receptio. They must have made it a very un-merry Christmas in the Rossi household. To judge from Twitter, many would consider that fair comeuppance.

The affair is not over yet; at present, there is a counter-attack by Prof. Rossi, claiming she is the victim of hate campaign and hinting at dark forces at work. Meanwhile, Peter Kidd reported on 5th January that one of his blog-posts has been removed without his agreement. There is something unedifying about what is happening now but so there was also in the glee with which Twitter assumed there was a moral certainty of Good and Evil in a manner which exists only in second-rate Hollywood films. Like remembering the unwise actions of the night before, we might prefer to forget and move on from them. There is, though, a use to taking some time to reflect because it seems to me that it teaches us some uncomfortable truths about the state of the republic of letters now.

I should preface my comments with a statement of full disclosure. Of the two main participants, I have known one for over twenty years but not met the other once. I have read some of Peter Kidd’s work closely, having been the series editor for his catalogue of manuscripts of The Queen’s College, Oxford. We may have had our minor disagreements, which we have probably both now forgotten and they certainly have not dimmed my respect for his scholarly acumen. As to Carla Rossi, I am not aware of having come across her name before this dispute, though I have now heard positive report of her. It is my impression that some have, from the revelations of the past few weeks, drawn the conclusion that there has been a campaign to deceive of which the Receptio affair is only the latest instalment. I do not intend to attempt to assess the veracity of that assumption. On the contrary, I aim consciously to avoid taking that position, for two reasons.

The first is the basic emotional one is that I do not want something so depressing to be true. Watching the fracas progress, I found myself feeling a smidgeon of sympathy for a fellow human being and her family. Few find it pleasant to be under harsh scrutiny, particularly at a time which most take for recuperation. A desire to counter-attack and to deny any fallibility makes psychological sense but she should have been better advised. It must to be said that Prof. Rossi has done herself no favours. Her early reaction was to act with unbecoming hauteur about social media, belittling Peter Kidd as ‘un blogger’ (I will return to this in a later post), but saw no irony in posting that statement on her page. Her more recent pronouncements have rarely helped her cause. If this is the villain, they are not very good at that role; she has become too easy a target for it be useful to pile more pressure on her.

There is, though, a more important reason for my reticence. My concern is that pretending to moral certainty and identifying a villain is at best a distraction, at worst a serious misdirection. We might think that by isolating the one individual considered responsible for malpractice and shame them into ostracization, then we have done a good deed to save our system. But what is that system? That is the question which interests me more than the rights and wrongs of the actions of a specific individual.

I sense that a desire to consider the wider implications is already developing: witness Charlotte Gauthier’s useful post on the affair, the positive response that it has received. My intention is to expand on her thoughts and to consider three aspects of what is happening. The first will be what it tells us about the nature of the scholarly community or what we might call (reviving a noble Renaissance phrase) the republic of letters. That then leads us into the issues of how this republic communicates in this digital age. Finally, I want to reflect on the central issue at stake in this debacle: the nature of plagiarism.

What I will not be doing is providing a narrative of what has happened. That can be followed not just by reading the various blog-posts and social media feeds. Particularly detailed are Peter Burger’s Dutch language interventions (you can navigate to them from here). It will also be apparent that I am not intending to touch on the element which relates most directly to my own research, that is the opportunity the affair give us to reflect on the nature of fragment studies as it stands at present. This is a matter to which I want to return but, for now, I will confine myself to stating that I support what Lisa Fagin Davis has said about the deficiencies in what Receptio has produced.

A final warning: the posts that follow are merely first attempts to step back and reflect on what has been going on in this affair. There may not yet be the distance to do that with perspective, and the issues may need a fuller analysis than I can provide here. In an attempt to gain some space to reflect, I will not be posting them in quick succession but over a set of weeks. It is time, though, to provide the first instalment.

The fragmentary is the norm

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 20 September, 2021

In these autumnal days, a return to normality is a fashionable topic — or (as the conversation often goes) perhaps it is the arrival of a new, subtly different, normality. One feature which suggests that times they are a-changing back again is the revival of in-person academic conferences, albeit masked and capped, and with no physical proximity (until the conference dinner). I have just returned from one such event, From Fragment to Whole, organised by the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies, and an invigorating day it was. At this near-normal event one of the repeated propositions was about normality itself: that, in manuscript studies, the fragmentary is the norm.

It was a claim with which I began my own paper; it is probably one which you consider needs its truth to be proven. What I can say is that, in my experience, an historic collection (a cathedral’s, or a college’s) is usually defined by this characteristic: it holds several handwritten codices which give the ostensible impression by their solidity of each being whole; however, if you inspect them closely, it will become clear that some begin or end in medias res, in others the texts are disrupted by loss of leaves, while some are otherwise not pristine because of damage or wear or vandalism or, indeed, repair (for instance, when cropping with rebinding has removed marginalia) — and are, in some way, now less than originally envisaged. These, indeed, are so numerous that they tend to form the majority of the collection. What is more, this relates only to those items with shelfmarks that begin ‘MS.’; in most libraries of several centuries standing, there are also early printed books, and it is likely that some of those have signs that, as part of their early modern binding, include manuscript ‘waste’ — or did once include them: there may now be only some offset and, if one is lucky, these pastedowns, flyleaves and reinforcing strips will be collected together in a guardbook, itself is given a MS number. A library, in other words, might have an integrity in itself but this whole is a home to the fragmentary.

My challenge to you is to provide an example of an historic collection where this does not hold true. Before you rush to respond, let me provide three further points: a counter-balance, an implication and a more philosophical query.

The counter-balance relates to what, for me, is one of the delights of working with manuscripts. We might say that they begin to decline from their original completeness from the point of production — that their history is an unavoidable move from whole to fragmentary — but we would also have to admit that their completeness can also be increased: they gain accretions through the addition of further items or the insertion of notes of ownership or by the interventions of readers, and the attempts to elongate its life, and to save that ‘original completeness’ often involves medieval or later conservation work which might replace its binding and add to it extra leaves which can themselves then receive written words or passages of whole texts. The endpoint of a manuscript’s production is rarely the point when it stops coming into being: the shape it takes before us is not the result of a single movement but of generations of interactions with it.

The implication can be briefly stated: not all that is fragmentary is a fragment. A manuscript which has had its initials cut out but appears otherwise complete is fragmentary in the text it provides but would hardly constitute ‘a fragment’. What precisely we might mean by that noun was the subject of stimulating discussions at the conference. How we might go about this was the subject of Daniel Sawyer’s paper, in which he noted the earlier comments on this by Peter Kidd. What became apparent was that there was a difference of perspective in the room on the basis of disciplinary research: for those with primarily literary interests, the fragment was an incomplete textual unit, even when it was intentionally inserted into a manuscript as an excerpt or abbreviation. For those of us approaching the material with a focus on the codicology, we conceptualise a fragment as something more exiguous. Literally, the term implies a remnant of breaking up, though, as I noted in my paper, some instances we would define as fragments were born that way: the writing out of a text which was abandoned because of an imperfection or redundancy, but survives because it was recycled, often as flyleaves in a medieval binding. Despite such cases, we can provide a definition that unites all the examples: we imagine a fragment to be an out-take, the remains of what was either intended to be a larger project or produced as one. We are inclined, then, to reserve the term ‘fragment’ for a leaf or a bifolium which shows signs of being re-used. Yet, as Daniel Sawyer, also said, we have to be aware that in wider parlance, a certain vagueness is bound to remain and is unlikely to be radically revised by academics’ attempts at reform. Given this, my reflection is that we should not waste effort on trying to police the terms but instead take care to using qualifying phrasing so we can clarify the sense each of us is employing them (so we might talk of a ‘part-leaf fragment’, say).

The question I have for you is, in fact, the primary reason for writing this post: why should the obvious truth that fragmentary is the norm need stating? Why might it surprise us? My hypothesis is that, in Western culture, we have a deep-seated commitment to the concept of the whole. In my talk, I suggested it was a latent neo-Platonism: if we can perceive that there might be a Platonic form of the manuscript, the fragment would surely be at several removes from that perfection — a mark of severe defect. For sure, there is also a Romantic tradition of prizing the ruin, with its sense of what was or might have been, and that undoubtedly feeds part of the attraction of fragments. Yet, even that ruin-lust plays with ideas of the once-whole or even the future-whole. What, I wonder, happens if we accept the evidence of how the ‘whole’ in manuscript terms is neither common nor the intended nature of the object — it is, as I have said, expected to mutate, to gain and to lose — and take the next step: dispense with the assumption that the world is made up of the complete or is some way complete in itself.    

My sense, at this moment, is that, if we did take that step, it would not immediately have a significant effect on how we work when we describe fragments. There could be changes in some details — for instance, as I have explained elsewhere, with a fragment, there is a use to measuring the space between the lines and the height of minims, and that might usefully be done for all manuscripts. A more substantial change would be to provide internationally agreed permanent identifiers for manuscripts digitally reconstructed from disparate fragments; again, I have commented on this before and suspect I will do again. This would have some wider consequences but still would have a relatively minor impact. Much more important would be the shift in our perspective. It would not simply be a case of releasing ourselves from assuming a fragment is a ‘failed manuscript’. It would encourage us to begin from the assumption that any manuscript we have before us, however weighty it may seem, is not to be interpreted merely as a ‘whole’. In this way, ‘fragmentology’ would not be a small field of study but, instead, working with fragments will help us revitalise manuscript studies more generally. How would that shift manifest itself? I have my own thoughts, as will be clear from what I have written elsewhere, but I would like to hear how you might take up this proposition and deploy it yourself.

Tower or Babel
Marten van Valkenborch, ‘Tower of Babel’, c. 1600 (private collection)

Piece of English Renaissance history going for a song

Posted in Auctions, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 28 May, 2010

A song might be pushing it: a whole opera or monumental mass. It is on sale at Christie’s at an asking price of £25,000 – £35,000. But, in comparison with other lots, that is a small change. And, like Henry IV’s Paris, it is certainly worth a mass.

I have Peter Kidd to thank for bringing my attention to the manuscript in question. It is a codex signed by a scribe whose character was as colourful as his books: Pieter Meghen, from the Low Countries, who worked for Erasmus, both in making books and in transporting letters, and whose calligraphical skill was not hindered — perhaps, indeed, it was assisted — by the fact that he was one-eyed (as he calls himself in this book: ‘monoculus’). Nor did his heavy-drinking stop him producing an attractive littera antiqua much in demand in Erasmus’s circle and particularly in England. One of Meghen’s earliest patrons was the Englishman Christopher Urswick, almoner to Henry VII and Dean of Windsor. The manuscript now up for sale in London on 2nd June appears to be the earliest dated manuscript made by Meghen for Urswick — and it is previously unnoticed.

That it seems to have hidden away from scholars is all the more remarkable as Meghen is by no means a forgotten figure and his association with Urswick specifically has been studied by no less a scholar than the late Joe Trapp of the Warburg. The texts that it presents in some elements confirm very comfortably with what we know already about Urswick and his collecting: it includes, for instance, a fourteenth-century text, the Speculum Edwardi III attributed to Simon Islip and now thought to be by William de Pagula (though there is reason to doubt that — but that is another story), which had some vogue for early Tudor ecclesiastics like Urswick. And, as in other Tudor manuscripts, it is coupled with other patristic and humanist works. Here, though, the humanist represented is one not otherwise known in either Urswick’s library or in Meghen’s oeuvre but who did enjoy a small popularity in England: Niccolò Perotti. Another author included is Baldwin of Canterbury who, again, is not an author Meghen transcribed elsewhere but who makes an interesting link back to an early generation of humanist book-production in England as a copy of works by him, now in Brussels, was made by Meghen’s countryman, Theoderic Werken, in 1453 for William Gray. Gray, bishop of Ely, boasted, with some stretching of the truth, of royal blood and for part of his career attempted to live up to his claim by his ostentatious lifestyle which included collecting manuscripts.

The book on sale at Christie’s, to judge by the images (for, as readers will know, I am exiled to Florence for a month — I can not complain), shows Meghen at his most accomplished, providing a very regular upright bookhand which would look starched if it were not for the playful majuscules and descenders that Meghen could not, on occasion, resist including. With all this, it also has a set of miniatures. A fine manuscript and one that adds to our knowledge of both the scribe’s career and the milieu of English Renaissance activities at the very start of the sixteenth century, while Thomas More was still mastering Greek. The asking price is not unreasonable, especially when compared to other items in the sale — I think in particular of a manuscript of Mandeville’s Travels, 64 folios without significant illumination, which surely can only justify its putative cost of £150,000 – £200,000 because vernacular texts have a certain cachet among manuscript collectors. There is a premium on early examples of the English language, which means that the history of our nation’s more learned culture is relatively bon-marché. Rush, while stocks last.