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, the 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.