bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Good Night, Prof. Sharpe

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 5 April, 2020

This site takes on at times the nature of a necrology. It already includes half a dozen reminiscences of departed scholars whose path I was lucky to cross. Now I have to add another, but with this one we move down another generation. It is a fortnight since Richard Sharpe, Professor of Diplomatic at Oxford, died of a heart attack. He was in post, a couple of years shy of retirement, and I for one anticipated that some of his most productive decades lay ahead of him.

I do not pretend to any special knowledge of him. He was, for all his ability to assert himself in public, a private man, and few, perhaps, can claim with truth to have known him well. At the same time, he did nurture a cohort of scholars, and any of them knew him much better than I did. He has, though, been part of my universe for all my adult life, and perhaps I can add to the richer recollections that others will provide by giving a few vignettes which may hint at some of the elements of his many-sided personality.

It happens that I saw him the morning before he died. I was walking through Oxford’s Covered Market and heard, over my shoulder, the greeting ‘Good Morning, Dr Rundle’. I turned to see Richard’s back, striding on, and so the last words I spoke to him were ‘Good Morning, Prof. Sharpe’. We might think the brevity of that contact was a symptom of the social distancing for which 2020 will be remembered, but from my experience I would say that such curt courtesy was characteristic of him.

Curt could undeniably at times be cutting. I never felt the full brunt of that but I still smile at the thought of one occasion when he was brutally honest with me. A couple of years ago, we were both attending a conference at the Bodleian and, in an interval, we talked of one of the projects he oversaw, the digital version of the classic Medieval Libraries of Great Britain. There was a technical issue about inputting a specific set of information, and I thought I had a solution for him. I explained for a few minutes until he stopped me with the sobering line: ‘I am not listening to a word you say’. I thanked him for his sincerity.

With that honesty came an absence of feigned praise. Richard prided himself on exacting standards of scholarship, and he saw as integral to that being sparse with words of encouragement. I once observed to him that he was readier to criticise than to compliment; I think the precise wording of his response was: ‘That’s right. If I see someone doing a good job, I think that best thing I can do is keep quiet and let them get on with it’. Something of this attitude is at the heart of my favourite anecdote about him. In the course of a bibulous college dinner, I revealed to him that some of his graduate students had given him the sobriquet Magister Acutus. His reply: ‘I would prefer to be Acer’.

That tale, however, is not the memory I cherish the most. That comes from several years earlier, when I was a young graduate student. I had already made his acquaintance when I was an undergraduate, but that was through his involvement in politics — while he worked at the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources, he was also Liberal Democrat councillor for the main student area of the city, Central Ward. A couple of years later, he — alongside Malcolm Parkes — was the first to induct me into the arcana of palaeography, and also of diplomatic. He was an exacting tutor, but my most vivid recollection is not of a seminar. It was of a day in spring 1992 when I was sitting in one of the bays of Duke Humfrey’s squinting at a copy of William de Pagula’s Summa summarum. It was one of my first encounters with a manuscript, and I was attempting to deploy the skills I had been taught but was wondering at the mass of abbreviations that appeared to end each section of text. Richard happened to walk past and he stopped, came over and asked what I was studying. I showed him the manuscript and its challenges, and he began to unfurl the complexities of the canon law references which were bemusing me, even taking the time to lead me upstairs into the Upper Reading Room to show me where to find the Corpus Iuris Canonici and how to consult it.

As I write, the more I appreciate how he has informed my practice, for good or ill. I try in my own teaching to emulate those minutes of scholarly generosity, in the realisation that they can be more enlightening and encouraging than any number of hours in the classroom. I suspect I have also inherited from him a certain reticence about giving praise — and believe I sense the virtue he saw in it: its concomitant is to suppress one’s own desire to be praised and to seek instead to be spurred on always to do yet better.

What I also now realise is how much more I want to hear from him. As I said, I would not consider myself ever to have been close to him but he has been a constant of my adult life. Nearly a decade after the incident I have described in Duke Humfrey’s, he was appointed my mentor when I was J. P. R. Lyell Fellow in Palaeography. That role ended in 2004, but subsequently we found ourselves often at the same events. For one year (2017-18), we taught Oxford’s new graduate historians alongside each other, Richard dispensing his expertise in diplomatic and documentary scripts, while I introduced them to bookhands and codicology. The following year, I was able to attend only the first of his Lyell Lectures in person but watched the rest from afar by the wonders of podcasts (or aptly named Bodcasts); our last face-to-face conversation was about them and Richard’s plans for their publication. Most recently, he had agreed to speak this June at an event, on the Legacy of Oxford Palaeographers, which I am organising with Colleen Curran. He has left us in medias res, and my overwhelming sense now is of a conversation interrupted. We still have so much to learn from him.

These few memories also hint at something else about Richard. He was not shy of taking on ambitious projects: his listing of Anglo-Latin writers, his work on Medieval Libraries of Great Britain and his oversight of the Corpus of British Medieval Library Catalogues (on these last two, he was ably supported by James Willoughby) are only three examples from a longer list. I mention these because they signify something important about his intellectual career. He placed himself in a grand tradition of bibliography, one which had flourished particularly in Oxford in the mid-twentieth century through the work of Neil Ker, Roger Mynors and Richard Hunt. Their work had been continued by Andrew Watson, who was allowed to enjoy a long and productive retirement in Oxford, and to whom Richard was literary executor. To all these scholars, Richard was not only heir; he, more than anyone, ensured their tradition of learning progressed into the new millennium. It is a tradition which demonstrated how medieval studies needs to be based on precise study of the manuscript evidence, informed by the skills of palaeography, codicology and diplomatic. We look to others to continue that legacy. They will be standing in a long shadow.

N. R. Ker and the palaeographer’s work ethic

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 March, 2018

I am not doing very well with keeping my New Year’s resolution, which was, my friends, to spend more time with you via this blog. As you will see, after a sprint-start in January, the dynamo ran low and all fell quiet. I could claim that my Lenten vow has been to give up on my resolution – but now I am even breaking that.

I could make my excuses. I could, with honesty, say that I have been prioritising: apart from my teaching and research duties, there have been three papers to give in as many months (I know, I know, I should learn to say no). The last of these was in Magdalen College, Oxford, and was on someone whose energy and productiveness puts me to shame, the doyen of mid-twentieth century British palaeographers, Neil Ripley Ker.

Ker’s name is well-remembered in scholarly circles, though it is over three decades since his relatively early death in 1982, at the age of seventy-four. Anglo-Saxonists still prize his Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957, reissued 1990); the wider community of manuscript researchers continue to thank him for his monumental Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, of which two volumes appeared in his lifetime — the first in 1969 — the third following soon after his death, and the enterprise being completed thanks to Alan Piper and Ker’s executor, Andrew Watson. It was one of two major projects for which Ker had main responsibility that has become widely known by a four-letter acronym. Alongside MMBL, there sits MLGB, Medieval Libraries of Great Britain, a listing of books for which provenance from a medieval British library can be traced; in the team that produced the 1941 volume, Ker was the most active (in part because, during the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector), and he also led on the significant revision which appeared as a second edition in 1964. The enduring importance of the work is attested by its transfer into electronic form as MLGB3, a version being provided thanks to Richard Sharpe and James Willoughby.

My talk in Magdalen, however, focussed on none of those works. It was designed to relate to the present exhibition in the college’s Old Library, which is an elegant and instructive display of music fragments. If you have not seen it yet, it is open each Thursday afternoon until 19th April 2018. It is the work of the urbane musicologist, Giovanni Varelli, and of the energetic librarian, Daryl Green — my only contribution to it was to offer a pun for its title, ‘Fragments of Note’. I was asked to speak in part because I am presently working on preparing the catalogue of the college’s manuscripts for print, and also because of my known interest in manuscript fragments. The most recent manifestation of that is the Lost Manuscripts website, but, a decade and a half ago, I was involved (with Scott Mandelbrote) in providing addenda and corrigenda for the reprint of Neil Ker’s Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, which was first published by Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1954. Given that Ker himself was a Magdalen man, it seemed appropriate to talk about his work in producing a volume whose transformative potential for scholarship has not (I argued) yet been fully harnessed.

The title-page of the 2004 reprint of Ker’s 1954 volume.

It has been said that Pastedowns has a ‘wonderfully frumpy title’ and it may be that its lack of ostentation has been part of the reason that it is a publication often considered as one of Ker’s learned opuscula. That is not to say it has been entirely ignored: one of the reasons it was reprinted fifty years after its first publication was because it had been repeatedly cited in another volume that the Society had overseen, David Pearson’s Oxford Bookinding (2000). Pearson’s title suggests where the weight of attention has fallen: it is Ker’s exemplary discussion of the stamps and ornaments used in Oxford bindings of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that has garnered the most interest. That, though, was, in effect, an appendix to the main study, which was a listing of manuscript pastedowns — not, it must be noted, all fragments — found in those bindings. Ker’s purpose was to begin to understand the process of destruction of manuscript culture in an England overtaken by print and by Reformation. In that enterprise, he has not, I would suggest, had the followers that his subject deserves.

My intention now, however, is not to reprise my talk but to draw attention to three points about his method of working which struck me forcibly as I was preparing it. The first is the evidence for his practices provided by the surviving notes on which the printed book depends. They show him checking each volume in person, taking rubbings of the binding as an aide-memoire and making brief notes on the text of the fragment. This last element hints at what a remarkably retentive memory he had. Boxed into our Google-world, where ‘real-time’ checking on-line can be combined with digital photography to refresh our hazy recollection of the item itself, we are liable to underestimate what a feat it was for him to identify both texts and the relationships between fragments which were geographically dispersed.

A page from Neil Ker’s post-publication notes on pastedowns.

If that might make most of us mortals despair at achieving his level of scholarship, there is a second factor that is salutary. It is the amount of sheer legwork that was essential for Pastedowns to be produced. The published work is nearly entirely confined to examples available in Britain. That was not the end of his studies: the image above shows him working on pastedowns on a rare trip to the States in 1971, a decade and a half after the book’s appearance. The tracking down of relevant examples was an enduring interest of Ker’s and, indeed, forms the main source of the addenda provided in both Pearson’s Oxford Bookbinding and the reprint of Pastedowns. What, though, is more remarkable is the effort he put into researching his topic ahead of submitting the volume to the press. It is perhaps best demonstrated by the map I have compiled of all the places he visited.

It is clear that, while there is a concentration in the obvious locations of Oxford, London and Cambridge, Ker saw it as his duty to criss-cross Britain in tracking down other examples, in public libraries, in parish church collections, and in private hands. All this took time, and that is the third point I want to stress. Pastedowns was published in 1954 and the text as printed shows that additions were being made up to the last possible moment. The history that lay behind it, however, went back about two decades. Magdalen has in its archives the notebooks he produced on the fragments in his college, and I am able to date those to the second half of the 1930s. That is to say, this was a long-term project requiring sustained determination. There was none of the publish-and-be-damned culture that the REF encourages. I would like to submit Ker’s Pastedowns as a vindication of the principle of slow study.

Looking through Neil Ker’s papers is a humbling experience. It reminds one of the qualities needed for such scholarship. We often hear of the ‘palaeographer’s eye’, and Ker certainly had that. What is meant by that is an ability to detect the distinctive features on a page, combined a retentive visual memory. In addition, Ker shows how the research has to be both painstaking and patient, aiming at a comprehensiveness which does not brook over-hasty publication. He also epitomises both a love of detail and an ability to see beyond the mass of minutiae to their wider implications — and it is that vision in Pastedowns which I think we have yet fully to appreciate.

There is, then, much more we can do and the starting-point must be to return to Ker’s work. This is why, thanks to financial support from the Bibliographical Societies of London and Oxford, I am beginning a project to create an online searchable edition of Pastedowns, to be hosted on the Lost Manuscripts website. Not all the funding is yet in place (if you want to assist, let me know!), but the work on building the database is beginning. I hope you share a little of my excitement at the times ahead.

Andrew Watson, scholar and gentleman

Posted in Obituaries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 25 September, 2017

It was Saturday evening and I was standing in baggage reclaim at Heathrow, just returned from a holiday the restfulness of which was enhanced by a self-imposed purdah, with no access to e-mail or social media. Two weeks, in other words, of cold turkey — not, though, that it had cured me of the curse of internet addiction. Waiting for our suitcases, I could not resist scanning a fortnight’s worth of messages, and found among them the announcement of the death of Prof. Andrew Watson on 15th September. He had been ill for some time, so this could not considered a shock, but that did not reduce the immensity of the sadness. I felt the cavernous hall contract around me, a little air drawn out of the world. We have lost a scholar whose erudition was both remarkable and characteristically understated, for he exemplified a concept now hardly remembered: of Scottish birth, he was quintessentially an English gentleman.

Andrew was professor at University College, London, but he was also the torch-bearer for a grand Oxford tradition of scholarship in manuscript studies. Though most medievalists will have used at least one of his works at some point in their research, he is perhaps less lionised than Malcolm Parkes, who had a gift for programmatic expression (reflected in his last volume, Their Hands before Our Eyes) and for categorisation (witness his invention of ‘anglicana’). Andrew may also not have quite the international reputation of Tilly de la Mare (whose work on humanist script has made her legendary in Italy), though he was certainly highly regarded by continental colleagues in his field. His importance, however, is equal to both of them, encapsulating most fully the bibliographical scholarship of which Neil Ker was the acknowledged doyen of the mid-century. Andrew was Ker’s literary executor, editing his essays after his early death, and providing both the final volume of Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries (2002) and the valuable supplement to Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (1987), now incorporated into MLGB3.

This should not be taken to imply that he lived in Ker’s shadow. His own contributions to how we perceive scholarly study of manuscript culture are manifold. He was the first British promoter of the international enterprise to develop the precision of our palaeographical understanding by cataloguing dated and datable manuscripts: he provided the volumes for the British Library (1979) and Oxford (1984), both treasure-troves of succinctly expressed insights. He also produced the catalogues of the medieval manuscripts of two Oxford colleges, All Souls (1997) and Exeter (2000). These were not the first to replace Coxe’s mid-nineteenth century listings with fuller descriptions — they were preceded by R. A. B. Mynors for Balliol and Parkes for Keble — but they did provide a model for presentation which was followed by Ralph Hanna’s catalogue of St John’s and is also the inspiration for the volumes now being published by Oxford Bibliographical Society (Queen’s and Christ Church to date, with Trinity soon to follow).

These are substantial works but perhaps they are not as significant as his writings on the post-medieval lives of medieval manuscripts (to paraphrase the title of his collected essays, 2004). John Dee, Walter Cope, Matthew Parker, Everard Digby were among those who received his attention, often working with colleagues. He provided meticulous studies, editing catalogues and tracing the manuscripts where they still exist, but it is their cumulative effect which is of prime importance. What lies beneath the work is the realisation that we cannot fully appreciate the world of medieval manuscripts if we confine ourselves to the centuries which we call the Middle Ages. What exists for us has been shaped by later multiple destructions, intentional (as in the Dissolution of the Monasteries) or accidental (witness the fires that the Cottonian collection has suffered), and by the work of a few to save some of the artefacts from death. As we touch a codex we might feel an immediacy of contact with its creators and earliest readers but, Watson reminded us, we have also to understand how it has come to be available to us in the library where it now resides. Put most basically, he taught me that the first question to ask when working with a manuscript is: why is it here?

I say that he taught me; I cannot claim to have been fortunate enough to have been a formal pupil of his. But he was hugely helpful to me when I was working on my doctorate, and in subsequent years. I learned palaeography from Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe, and Parkes also guided my first steps as I attempted to catalogue manuscripts, but it was Andrew who provided the closest attention to my attempts to describe a codex. He did most to shape my practice in this field, and, in so doing, he helped me appreciate the importance of studying the whole codex. It is important to add that he acted as my mentor without there being any duty to do so: by the time I knew him, he was already retired. He did it not because it was required but that it was in his character to be supportive. A generosity of spirit defined him.

Andrew will be remembered for his writings but they do not constitute the sum total of his legacy. Those of us who knew him cannot forget the kind heart that beat in his slender frame. We can only attempt to emulate the extent of his kindness — but try we must, to be true to the memory of a true gentleman.

 

 

A manuscript possibly from St Frideswide’s, Oxford

Posted in Manuscripts, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 2 March, 2017

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.

oxford-bodleian-ms-digby-177-fol-1-frideswide

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Digby 177, fol. 1

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.

Hearne, Tanner and Cantilupe, or why David Rundle is not to be trusted

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 31 May, 2014

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:

Dear Sir,

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,

David Rundle

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.

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.