The problem with finishing is that you never really do finish. You produce your text, replete with footnotes — and you think it is done. You feel that you should receive advice from your peers and betters, and so you importune others to read it, some of who do, and you revise (probably not as much as you should) in light of their feedback and your own re-reading — and you think it is done. You submit it, you receive further comments, you have it accepted — and you think it is done. You receive queries from the copy-editor and you are grateful for being saved from several slips and refine it accordingly — and you think it is done. You see the proofs and realise that there is more to be corrected and you work by the midnight oil to improve it at that late stage — and you think it is done. Of course, it is not. It remains imperfect and provisional. Your last word is only part of the ongoing conversation.
I have very recent experience of this, with the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, Oxford. This is the work mainly of Ralph Hanna, but I helped at a late stage, updating the descriptions and adding some more (of sixteenth-century manuscripts), as well as expanding the introduction. In that introduction, we survey what little is known of books of the previous institution, whose Norman buildings provide now the college chapel which doubles as Oxford’s cathedral. Until their dissolution in 1524 by Cardinal Wolsey, making way for his new foundation of Cardinal College, these were the buildings of the Augustinian priory of St Frideswide’s. As we say in the introduction, it was not known for being a place of learning, and only a few manuscripts are associated with it. We also say that ‘only a single literary manuscript has been identified as being owned by’ it, and technically that is true: the bible of English medieval institutional provenances, Neil Ker’s Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, now available on-line as MLGB3 (thanks to James Willoughby and Richard Sharpe), mentions only that codex as the one literary survival. I have now, however, convinced myself that another volume should really be added to that list and so should have appeared in our introduction.
The manuscript is hardly unknown: it sits in the Bodleian with the shelfmark MS. Digby 177. It is an obvious candidate for coming from the priory, as it provides a unique copy of a description of the miracles attributed to St Frideswide, said to have been compiled in the 1180s by Prior Philip of the Oxford house. In revising W. D. Macray’s nineteenth-century catalogue of the manuscripts given to the Bodleian in 1634 by Sir Kenelm Digby, Andrew Watson, working with the materials of the late Richard Hunt, addressed the issue of this manuscript’s provenance and expressed unresolved ambivalence: ‘it is possible that [it] comes from St Frideswide’s Priory, Oxford, but … it may be no more than a section with an Oxford interest which has been detached from a larger book with no Oxford connection’. It was, of course, Andrew Watson who provided the Supplement to Ker’s MLGB and he saw no reason there even to hazard the suggestion that it is expressed so tentatively in the revision of the Digby catalogue. What, then, persuades me that the issue should be reviewed?
First, against the suggestion that this manuscript was part of a larger book, Watson’s own comment can be quoted: ‘the last page looks as though it had been the final page of a unit on its own’. The last recto is, indeed, rubbed, and so is the first recto, suggesting that this fascicule travelled alone for some of its life. Morever, as Watson also notes, it reached Digby from the Oxford antiquary, Thomas Allen and it appears in his catalogue, listed alone as an item (‘fo. 7’), in contrast to the volumes entered immediately before and after it where multiple contents are listed. In other words, it is likely that Allen came by it in its present state, unencumbered with other material, and this may well have continued its prior existence, as a discrete codex.
The codicology of the manuscript is strongly suggestive of its Oxford provenance. The main part is written in an elegant bookhand on the cusp between so-called protogothic and a textura rotunda. The final columns (fol. 28vb– 30rb) are in a darker ink and by different hand, spikier and yet closer to being fully gothic. That addition provides the tale of an extra miracle which, it says, happened ‘in ciuitate oxoneforde eciam nostris temporibus’ — it appears, in other words, to be updating the collection with a recent occurrence. Even if the main text was not produced in Oxford, it would seem likely that this addition was made there.
In addition, the title added at top left of fol. 1 may be notable in its phrasing: ‘Incipit prologus domini philippi prioris de miraculis sancte fridwide’. That the author is known but it is felt unnecessary to state of where Philip was prior hints that this was written within the community. Moreover, there are signs of later use of the volume, not just notes in plummet the bottom margin of fol. 15v-16, showing that there was continuing interest in the text, but also at the top right of the final verso where an acrostic is added, in a thirteenth-century anglicana hand, on the name ‘Fridesuuida’. Wherever this was, there was a continuing devotion to a saint whose cult was localised to Oxford and centred on the priory named after her.
The clinching evidence would, of course, be an ex libris. It seems to me that there was once one, near the top left of the first folio, just right of the later shelfmark, ‘A 14’. I have tried checking it under UV but to little avail. Its secret remains, for the moment, just beyond our grasp, as frustrating as any branch of fruit with which Tantalus was tormented.
Even without that, though, I feel there is enough to merit at least proposing an association with St Frideswide’s as probable, though by no means certain. With, however, the proofs of the introduction of the Catalogue now back with the type-setter, it is too late to add a footnote, and so that work is out-of-date before its off the press. I have half a mind to beg them to stop and not complete the publication process: we all have a duty only to publish when we can place our hand on our heart and promise we believe a work is as polished as it could possibly be. As I have said before, if a work is half-decent, then that is not good enough. But assuming for a second that the publishers would even countenance a delay, it would not be a momentary pause: this one hypothesis creates several ramifications which deserve to be pursued. Pitted against that, our society piles on the pressure to see texts in print — it prefers something to be available than to be perfect. The result, of course, is that the threads woven together to form the text begin unravelling as soon as the fabric is complete. If we are to be finishers, we are to be the heirs not to Tantalus but to Sisyphus.
Addendum: the delight of the online is that one can, of course, update. Having completed this draft, I came across this talk by Andrew Dunning which I was not able to attend but which, using different evidence, makes a persuasive case for the manuscript I discuss here being Prior Philip’s fair copy of his collection of the saint’s miracles. I am pleased that there will be someone to point out the oversight in the Christ Church catalogue.
In my virtual post-bag has arrived this letter of complaint, from (it seems) my worst critic. I think it best to let you read it without further comment:
Someone who calls himself a Renaissance scholar really should uphold high standards of scholarship. I take no relish in pointing out to you how the research you have had the temerity to post on-line falls below what you should expect of yourself.
I refer to your discussion of Nicholas Cantilupe’s Historiola of the University of Cambridge and the manuscript of it now in Christ Church, Oxford, their MS 138. I congratulate you on identifying this as the copy used by Thomas Hearne in his printed edition of this little work – though one might wonder, with the antiquary Thomas Baker, whether Hearne did the opusculum ‘too much honor in giving it an Edition’. There is no doubt you are correct in that specific but in another you have made a grave error, and one which is obvious to see, thanks to the images of the manuscript that Dr Cristina Neagu of Christ Church Library has put on the web.
You claim that the inscription at the top of fol. 3 is in the hand of Hearne himself. I see also that you accept the description of that note as identifying the text ‘with reference to Leland and Tanner’. That, in itself, should have made you stop to think. Hearne, as you note (again, correctly), saw this manuscript in 1712; he released to the world his edition seven years later. Thomas Tanner, however, while he had compiled much of the information used in his Bibliotheca Britannico-Hibernica in the last years of the seventeenth century, did not complete the work by his death in 1735; it appeared in print, as you should know, in 1748. Hearne died in the same year as Tanner so how, do you suppose, could he have written a note referring to a work which had not yet been finished, let alone published?
As the note certainly is in an early eighteenth-century hand and, we can surmise, pre-dates Hearne’s edition (for if it were later, the learned reader would surely have cited it), we should realise there is a condundrum here. It is, though, one which is easily solved, if only you had eyes to see. If you look again at the note, you will (I fervently hope) kick yourself at the misidentification that you have perpetrated. The script there is clearly not Hearne’s but it is that of another antiquary, Thomas Tanner himself (for comparison, see the plates in that seminal article by Richard Sharpe in The Library in 2005 on Tanner). What is happening, then, is that the work was identified with reference to the Henrician bibliographer, John Leland, and the note signed by ‘Tho: Tanner OAS’. Those last letters should also have given you a clue to the dating of the note – OAS must stand for Omnium Animarum Socius, that is Fellow of All Souls, a position to which Tanner was elected on All Souls’ Day 1696. As Tanner left Oxford five years later, we can date this note to a short period – and thus appreciate that Hearne was not the first to identify the text.
I might go on to add that, in rushing to announce your little discovery (complete with errors), you did not wait to uncover the further evidence, which does exist, of Tanner’s interest in manuscripts in Christ Church, where he was later to be a canon. But I am aware that the information in question will be revealed in the catalogue of western manuscripts of that foundation which is nearing completion, where I also expect to see a more accurate discussion of MS 138.
Do you wish to attempt to defend yourself? Are you going to claim that your sin is less heinous because it was merely ‘pre-published’ on-line. I recognise you live in a culture where error is more readily condoned than non-publication, where it is thought better to put something into print, however incomplete or imperfect it is, rather than to allow the scholarship to mature until it is ripe to be read. You might point to others whose failures are yet worse – those who import citations into their footnotes without checking, those who copy information without doing the research, those who show little respect for the evidence in their keenness to develop an eye-catching argument. But you are not accused of their faults; your own are serious enough. I would have expected you to appreciate that you have a duty to hold yourself to higher standards, not to be drawn into the agenda for mediocrity that ‘research exercises’ and university league-tables have fostered. You are part of a culture that will publish and be damned in the eyes of posterity.
I am aware that you are fond of telling your students ‘we are historians, we trust nobody’. You should recognise that such healthy distrust must extend to yourself.
I am disappointed in you and am a little less respectfully yours,
Mea culpa is my post-script. This new discovery does mean that the files on the Christ Church Library website are inaccurate and out of date. They will be replaced soon – but with the former, imperfect file still present, as a monument to human error. Will that fate placate my alter ego? I will admit that I am still debating that.
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.