Author: bonaelitterae

That EU Referendum: the limits of history

This post was originally published on this site

However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.

You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.

You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?

That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.

What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?

Tagged: Alessandra Petrina, English Reformation, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Jonathan Woolfson, Padua, William Shakespeare

Parliament and the Vellum Debate – the final word (for now)

This post was originally published on this site

On Wednesday, the House of Commons finally found an hour and half to debate whether to abandon the practice of printing the official copy of statutes on ‘vellum’. At the end of the ninety minutes, 155 MPs – just under a quarter of the House – voted on the issue with a large majority in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the reasoning given on both sides of the argument.

It is often said – most often by MPs, but also by others among Westminster’s village-people – that the level of informed debate held in the Commons is impressive. If that is so, then the Members of Parliament were having a collective bad day on Wednesday. Most of the interventions revealed ignorance, revelled in irrelevance and resorted to hyperbole. The item at the heart of the debate – ‘vellum’ – was not well understood by many who considered their opinion should be heard. As I have explained before, the terminology has an innate ambivalence and its history is the subject of debate. A small example of this is my own mention in an earlier post of uterine vellum, a particularly smooth surface because (it is said) it is made from the skin of an abortive or neo-natal calf. My friend, Mary Garrison at the University of York, dropped me a line to point out that recent research demonstrates that there is no reason to assume that what was called, in the Middle Ages, ‘abortive vellum’ did actually come from such young animals: it may well instead be a matter of how the skin was prepared. There is, in other words, some doubts over details in scholarly circles, but there is nothing like the confusion MPs showed. Vellum is not, as Sir Paul Beresford would have it, a ‘very similar material to parchment’ – vellum simply is parchment. The term, as I have explained before, can have special connotations and, indeed, at Parliament’s parchmenters, William Cowley, it is used particularly to signify a writing surface made of calf-skin (I thank Patricia Lovett, the leading calligrapher who has campaigned hard on this issue, for confirming this). Vellum – etymologically connected to veal – is the calf-skin sub-set of parchment. This eluded some of those who rose to speak who talked of laws being printed on goatskin. This was a claim made in the 1999 debate on the issue, and recently repeated on television by young Jacob Rees-Mogg, but is no more than an error: goats can be used for the making of parchment, as can sheep, and both are utilised at William Cowley’s but not for the highest-grade material that is sold to Parliament.

The ignorance about what they were discussing was not confined to one material. The putative replacement is ‘archival paper’ which, according to Paul Beresford, has been used by Parliament since 1510. This conjures up an image of a clerk to Henry VIII visiting a paper-maker and insisting ‘I don’t want any of your run-of-the-mill stuff…’ – except, of course, there was no such distinction between types of paper in the sixteenth century and, anyway, in 1510 a royal clerk could not have simply have walked across London to find a paper-mill: there was none in England at this point or until the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. We might wonder how many of the speakers relish the idea that those early paper records were all written on imports from our continental neighbours.

This is not to say that all historic paper is as liable to destruction as some of the speakers claimed. Chris Skidmore, himself trained as an historian (did I not teach you one term, Chris?) and author of history books, described his visits to the National Archives at Kew. He was right to say that many of the early modern records on paper are fragile and unavailable to touch – but he surely also knows that there are others of the same date which have survived and show no sign of disintegrating in the next few years. The quality of paper varied and what is perhaps surprising is that some of the more ephemeral records written on thin paper not intended to last are still with us. It is not the case, as was claimed in the debate, that paper cannot last 500 years – just as we can have no certain evidence that, as James Gray moving the motion to retain vellum claimed, parchment will last 5,000 years. We have no examples of that age and, indeed, the city of Pergamon, most likely did not exist and certainly had not invented parchment (the city’s name is the origin of our term) in 3,000 BC.

Exaggerated claims, however, were not the preserve of those wanting to continue the use of vellum. On the other side, the amounts of money to be saved do not bear scrutiny. In an impassioned speech condemning the motion as a ‘vanity project’, Paul Flynn claimed £100,000 a year could be saved by moving to paper copies. This is more than double the figure of the cost of the vellum in the year of highest expenditure, and the amount paid to William Cowley, by their reckoning, is usually closer to £20,000. Like so many predicted government savings, this is likely to be one which does not materialise and then requires the costs of an investigation to find out why it did not.

Other speeches combined mistakes with misdirection. Michael Ellis noted that ‘Torah scrolls are printed on vellum’, except that the Jewish tradition requires the handwriting of the Torah (not printing) and, as the MP himself later noted, the ‘vellum’ was not produced by England’s one commercial supplier. What would be valid is the larger point that parchment still has uses beyond the copies of record of statutes – but whether that is a point which would commend itself to those MPs in favour of continuity is doubtful.

The reason for doubt is the implication of the central argument used for continuing the practice: a resort to tradition. Ronnie Cowan spoke eloquently against this mantra, hinging his contribution on a quotation from Woody Allen: tradition is the illusion of permanence. For some in the debate, it certainly seemed that the construction of an illusion was the value of vellum. Several speakers referred to Magna Carta, presumably because it continues to be so much in the public imagination following the 2015 celebrations; the argument usually ran that it would not have survived if it had been written on paper – overlooking the copying and re-copying which has been part of its success. On the other side, the importance of the Great Charter was taken to stand in opposition to the tawdry mundanity of much latter-day legislation. In riposte, the wittiest intervention, by David Warburton, contrasted the importance of Domesday Book with the ‘equally wondrous’ Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016 but by mentioning them in the same breath intended to emphasise a sense of connexion – they are all part of the legal fabric of our nation and so all deserve to partake in a tradition of respect. In this logic, one would expect the processes of respect to be shared by all elements of that fabric but also confined only to them. Might we hear next of an attempt to make the use of vellum exclusive to those products of the genius of our MPs’ minds, the statutes of the realm?

I have said before that the argument that parchment should be used for printing records because it evokes tradition and stability suggests something worrying about how we construct our state, with recourse to mystique rather than reasoning. The cause of law on ‘vellum’ seeks for the physical material itself to express something of the ineffable spirit of our unwritten constitution. Is there no better argument? There surely is, but it was not expressed on the floor of the Commons. If, though, Parliament, for its own ill-informed and illogical reasons, wishes to provide a small subsidy to keep alive Britain’s one parchment-maker, then that does some good. The Commons may have had the wrong reasons but it reached the right decision – this time.

Will this be the end? In the normal run of things, we might expect to be saved from another debate for at least a decade. But, then, these are not normal times. Imagine (if you dare) this scenario: the EU referendum is won by those who want Britain to leave the Union. As a result, that other Union, between England and Scotland (which, by all accounts is solidly in favour of remaining in the EU) collapses, since it would be tyrannous for one partner to insist the other be bound to its own descent into squalid isolation. In that context, the newly English Parliament, faced with not just a political but also an economic crisis of its own making, would need to consider all savings possible. In that context, what would the fate of ‘vellum’ be?

Tagged: parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley

A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae

This post was originally published on this site

One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.

We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.

A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal,  Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?

These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.

Tagged: Bodleian Library, Christopher Urswick, Cicero, maniculae, Pieter Meghen, Thomas Candour

Confession of a Manuscript Researcher

This post was originally published on this site

Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.

Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.

You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.

I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.

I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.

Tagged: Bryn Mawr College, Caesar Master, David Cast, Humfrey duke of Gloucester, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Pieter Meghen, Roberta Ricci, Thomas Candour, Vatican Library

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part II

This post was originally published on this site

To continue from yesterday’s post, where I discussed the tensions in the debate over whether British statutes should continue to be printed on vellum for the copies of record.

5. In the internet we trust?

The transformation of the world wrought by the invasion of the internet is, of course, the most significant change since the issue of parchment versus paper was last discussed on the floor of the House. Some, indeed, have pointed out that both sides in the debate seem antiquated: real change, it could be argued, would come with using the internet as the primary form of record. There would be worries about interoperability, that is the future availability of the texts as technology continues to revolutionise itself. This, though, is not the fundamental problem: ‘real change’ would be change to the virtual; the word of the law would be an apparition on screen, a vision – or a mirage. Is there yet enough trust in the gods of the internet who can conjure up words before us to let those things we considered most precious out of our grasp, to become intangible? It is improbable that such a future would commend itself to the honourable members of the Commons. Whatever presence a statute has on-line, it is likely Parliament will want to have the reassurance of a physical copy. This appears to be the consensus which hides behind the division of opinion – and not only that: there is a common acceptance among the law-makers that the form the copy of record takes should be of a quality to reflect the respect due to the law. This is, it should be stressed, not the only position that could be taken. In fact, a different approach was proposed by the Assistant Clerk to the House of Commons in 1837, when he noted that:

…the durability of the [copy of record] itself is of less consequence, when the permanent preservation of evidence of its contents is sufficiently secured by the multiplication of copies by printing, in case of the destruction of the original…

In other words, replication itself could stand as the guarantee of longevity. Admittedly, this reveals an ignorance of the frequency with which a printed work can disappear completely but what is more significant is that, in the nineteenth century, there was a trust in technology which could envisage an alternative to reliance on the specific copies of record. Of course, his argument was rejected: the insistence on durability and appropriate quality won then and will win now, whatever the outcome. It is not the only logical solution available but that it is seen as logical should give us pause to reflect.

6. More than skin deep

There is a paradox at the heart of the issue: the on-line would be consider insufficient because it is intangible but, equally, for the vast majority of the population, the physical copies of record are not within their reach. For each statute, there are two copies, one held in the Parliamentary Archives, and the second sent the National Archives at Kew. Any citizen can travel to Kew to check that record – but very few would bother. Most of us prefer, instead, to have confidence in the process and not to test it. We might consider ourselves cynical of those in power and about the workings of the state but, at some level, we look to it for reassurance. That reassurance lies not just in the fact that there are established methods of doing things – rituals of mundane bureaucracy – but also in a belief that there has been and will be continuity, that they have lasted and will be durable.

The rhetoric of durability, that is to say, is not simply or primarily a practical consideration: it speaks to the fundamental expectation that government provides stability. The party in power may change, policy and legislation itself may be overturned or revised but beneath that – we are being reassured – lies a more basic constancy. In creating that aura, however mendacious it might be, the choice of material on which to preserve the law of the land is part of the rhetoric, an element of the arcana of the state. In this context, parchment has a special advantage: it exudes archaicity and rarity. Perhaps even more than that, the idea of writing on the skin of animal hints at something visceral or elemental. The argument might go: while medieval kings hunted beasts in the royal forests, the rights of their subjects were written in charters on parchment. That ‘vellum’ – and now we may see the full import of the preference for that term – symbolises tradition certainly overlooks the greater changes that have occurred in the recording of legislation, but its continuing use creates or fabricates a sense of tradition.

This is heightened by the very fact that parchment is now rare: the message being given is that Parliament is so committed to showing respect to the law that they will seek out materials of the highest quality, however difficult they are to come by. That there is only one company in Britain commercially producing parchment is very much to the advantage of this rhetoric. If there continued to be as lively an industry as there was in the nineteenth century, this would have less traction. Parliament, then, should thank William Cowley of Newport Pagnell for being the sole survivor of that industry: in the years in which Parliament has relied on them for the supply of ‘vellum’, the apparatus of the state has, I would suggest, gained more in aura or charismatic capital than the company in financial return. For that reason alone – whatever doubts or suspicions we might have as citizens about the aura created – Parliament surely owes a debt to William Cowley; £40k a year sounds like a rather small subsidy to keep alive the only representative of an industry. If, though, that still seems excessive and the honourable members want to cut costs further, they might think of a more radical solution and one which would allow them to spend more time in their constituencies: pass fewer laws.

Tagged: parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley of Newport Pagnell

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part I

This post was originally published on this site

Given the momentous and quick-moving issues at stake in politics this year, a question of stationery might hardly register. But when, this coming Thursday (10th March 2016), the House of Commons debates the future format of the copies of record of parliamentary statutes, there is something more going on than a simple choice between parchment and paper. Here is a palaeographer’s guide to the issue, brought to you in two instalments.

1. Some background

At the very middle of the nineteenth century, in 1849, two significant innovations were made concerning the official record of legislation. Up to that point, the ‘copy of record’ of each statute was written by a scribe on a parchment roll, the length of which varied – some rolls were over 400m long. The decision was made to dispense with tradition: in future, ‘with the view to preventing the chances of error’ the record would be printed, and the format would be a booklet, not a scroll. The one element that did not change was the material on which it was to be produced – it remained parchment or, as the parliamentary record constantly terms it, vellum.

The question of whether there should also be a change in material was (as the Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, Elise Uberoi, has shown) considered in these discussions but, it seems, rejected at the last stage. In that sense, what is being discussed now could be seen as a piece of unfinished business. It is also, though, very much interrupted business: it was over a century later, in the later 1950s, that the decision was to taken to print Private Acts on paper; in 1957, a wider move for all legislation was rejected. There was further discussion in the mid-1980s, and, in 1999, the House of Lords proposed reform but this was also rejected in the Commons after a debate. The issue was revisited last year, and the process became byzantine: a Committee report recommended the change but there was no vote in the Commons; it was then announced a month ago that the decision had been made to end printing on parchment on 1st April. The Cabinet Office, however, has intervened to offer to cover the costs of continuing the practice, and the debate now set for Thursday is intended to provide a resolution to the matter.

2. Vellum versus Parchment

We should clarify terms. Parliament’s preferred term, ‘vellum’, and ‘parchment’ are often used interchangeably to describe the skin or membrane of an animal which has been prepared in such a way that it can be a writing surface. Strictly speaking, ‘vellum’, which is related to ‘veal’ should signify parchment from the skin of a calf, but many of the leaves used for statutes have been goat-skin. There is, though, another connotation to ‘vellum’: as the best quality parchment is considered to be that of ‘uterine calf’ (that is – and the squeamish should turn away now – from stillborn or neo-natal cows, where the hair has not had opportunity to grow and so the skin particularly smooth), the word can also imply the highest-grade of animal skin. It would seem that it is with those overtones that the term was used in the nineteenth-century discussions – a contrast is, at times, drawn between ‘vellum’ and ‘parchment’. Though, in the present debate it goes unstated, something of that sense of quality lingers in the continuing insistence on the less common and so more evocative term.

3. Modernisation versus Tradition

Reporting on the previous Commons debate in 1999, the BBC commented ‘this is one battle the modernisers have lost’. The idea that a change would be modernisation is curious and not just because a shift to a technology first introduced into Europe in the thirteenth century is hardly cutting-edge. Behind talk of ‘modernisation’ usually hides an implication of improvement but even the most rabid supporters of paper would not claim it was superior in durability or feel to parchment. Indeed, for most of its history, paper has been the poor cousin of writing surfaces. When the printing press was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, it proved a more conducive surface than supple parchment on which to stamp metal type, but even with that advantage, it was considered of lower quality: Johann Gutenberg himself had the Bible he printed produced on paper but with de-luxe copies on parchment. The practice was to continue in the following centuries. One late example of it which fascinates me is the twentieth-century tradition of churches in England commissioning manuscript books listing those from the parish who fell in war: out of respect for the dead, these are not only calligraphic masterpieces, they are most often on what many would call vellum.

On the other side of the debate, there is a similarly questionable assumption underlying some of the statements. The inclination to cite tradition as a reason might warm the cockles of conservative hearts. While it is never a sufficient rational argument for the status quo, in this case it is especially suspect. It can hardly be claimed that the printing statutes on vellum is itself a habit that has endured centuries, considering it began in 1849. A variant on ‘it has always been done like this’ could be ‘it is everywhere done like this’ but that would be demonstrably untrue. While the practice of printing on parchment was used in the United States for the copy of a Congressional bill sent to the President for signing, since 1947, the requirement has been only that the copy should be ‘printed on parchment or paper of suitable quality’. The question, in Britain, is whether paper can constitute ‘suitable quality’ – and whether the quality of parchment comes at too high a cost.

4. Price versus durability

The discussions in 1999 and in 2015-16 have been stimulated by a desire to save money. The claim has been made that using parchment is unjustifiably expensive, both because it is rare and costly product and because it requires a ‘highly specialised form of printing’. It is certainly the case that, in Britain, there is a monopoly on the industrial production of parchment: the one company in business is William Cowley of Newport Pagnell (for whom supplying Parliament plays a major role in keeping them in trade). The second claim, though, is surprising: certainly, as has been mentioned, printing traditionally has found parchment a less usable surface than paper but with the developments in technology to the extent that 3D printing would allow you to build your own tank or replica art masterpiece, it is implausible that fairly cheap methods of printing on parchment are unavailable. Overall, the claim has been made that moving from parchment to paper would save £80k but opponents of the change, led by the energetic calligrapher, Patricia Lovett, have estimated that the real difference is £37k per annum.

Against these financial calculations is set the issue of ‘quality’ or, more specifically, durability. A perennial problem for the reputation of paper has been that the suspicion that it will not survive in perpetuity. In the thirteenth century, the Emperor Frederick II banned the use of paper for recording his laws precisely because pages made only a few decades earlier were already disintegrating. It seems that the durability of the material was improved later in the same century in the Italian town of Fabriano which became the first major centre of the paper industry. In recent discussions, one argument has been that the ‘archival paper’ proposed to replace parchment is designed so that it should be able to last five hundred years. It was also pointed out, in the 1999 debate, that if a fire were to occur both parchment and paper would perish. This is only partly true, as anyone knows who has worked with manuscripts once owned by the seventeenth-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton which were then subject to a fire in 1731. Some were destroyed completely but others survived in a fragmentary state, the parchment translucent, contorted and brittle but often still legible. The reality is that paper is quicker to burn, just as it is more susceptible to water damage. What is undeniable is that, while parchment is more durable, that is not in itself a guarantee that it will withstand all the possible disasters that can befall a physical object. If you want endurance, perhaps we should be looking beyond the physical.

Click here to read Part II.

Tagged: Johann Gutenberg, parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley of Newport Pagnell

How to read a research article

This post was originally published on this site

At the University of Essex, where I teach, we have introduced a new assignment to help our second years with their preparations for choosing and researching a topic for their undergraduate dissertation. It involves each of them taking a research article and writing a short report on how the author would have gone about defining their topic and building up the evidence on which it is based. We appreciate that this could be a challenging task and so, in suggesting a couple of articles they could study from my reading lists, I have included one of my own articles with the offer of explaining how I came about writing the piece. I now realise that was rash: if the task of writing a report is challenging for them, it is all the more difficult for an author to think back to where they were intellectually a few years ago: the moment has passed and none of us, I imagine, would write now precisely how we did then.
What I can do which should be of some help is to give some hints of what an historian looks for when analysing a research article. So, here are some tips, meant to be of more general use, but which grow out of some reflections on an article entitled ‘Humanism across Europe: the structures of contacts’ which was published in 2012.

Not all research articles are equal. There is no one formula for a ‘research article’ – the term covers a range of styles of writing, and appear in a variety of publications. Some discuss the results of an investigation in a single archive, usually drawing out conclusions at the end. Others are more argument-led, with the research likely to be more eclectic. This is not simply a binary opposition: it is more like a spectrum, and my article falls closer to the ‘argument’ end than the ‘research’ end. As we shall see, however, no article can omit either of those two elements. You might well ask how you judge the article’s place on the spectrum – the basic answer is to pay attention to its content and how it is constructed but there is also another element which sometimes can help.

Be aware of the context. An article never appears on its own; it always appears in a larger publication. The classic format is for a research article to appear free-standing in a learned journal – in that case, it is unlikely for there to be dialogue between it and others in the same issue – but some journals increasingly produce ‘special issues’ where a set of essays discuss a related theme. This is similar to the collection of essays, like that in which my article appeared. In such a case, the author of the article you are reading may well be aware of what the other contributors have written and be engaging with them, even if it is by consciously bringing a different perspective. Look at where my article appeared and notice who was the editor of the volume: as it was the same person as the author, you can be sure that the chapter was written in full knowledge of the other contributions. You might even conclude that its purpose was to provide an overarching interpretation, placing the chapters that preceded it within a wider argument.

Check the date. Part of the issue of context is to understand when a work was written. We know that time’s arrow travels in only one direction: an article cannot be influenced by scholarship that appeared after it – and even the most assiduous academic may not be fully up-to-date with what has been published. So, the date of publication gives something like the cut-off point (the terminus post quem non) of possible influence – but it is only approximate. How long did it take the work to reach print? Was it written as a conference paper and the revised for publication, pushing the date of original composition back further? Are you using the original version or a re-print? Make sure you understand this element of the context: in a collection of essays, the preface will help; in an article, there is often a first footnote, listing acknowledgements but also, sometimes, explaining the origins of the work. Paying attention to these details will help you appreciate where the work sits in the historiography – that is, at what point it inserted itself in existing debates. That takes us to the next and perhaps most important point.

Find the debate. Historians are argumentative (and if one of them denies that this is the case, they have proven my point). Historians thrive by placing themselves in a debate, by detecting or creating disagreement so that they can then construct a new perspective. Any article, then, is more than its research: it forwards a position. How an article does this differs. Some might not even seem to be intent on making an argument, and some might be written as if what it has to say is not open to debate. In those instances, it is your essential task to detect how it fits into the historiographical scene and how it can be used to enlighten the big issues of scholarship: this creates the possibility that you, as an historian yourself, can use an article in ways the author might not have expected. But, as historians prize argument, it is unusual not to have the position being taken placed in the foreground. Admittedly, it is rare nowadays to find an academic in our discipline launching a full-frontal attack on another (‘Prof. X shows a shocking inability to do justice to the evidence…’) – and some would say we are better for that, even if it makes scholarship less entertaining for the readers. Some might even not mention an opponent by name in the text – my own style is often to talk about ‘the standard narrative’ or to remark ‘it has been argued…’. When that happens, how do find out who they have in their sights? The solution is to heed the next piece of advice.

Follow the footnotes. The text of an article and its footnotes relate to each other like the two hands on the piano. To read an article without paying attention to the notes is like hearing a melody without its base line – or, rather, an argument without its basis in evidence. The footnotes reveal what the text might hide: they reveal the author’s debts and disagreements – but they do more than that. They do not only help you more fully understand where the historian sits in a debate; they also make explicit the evidence – the research itself – on which the article and its argument is based. This is why footnotes matter so much to historians and why we disparage other disciplines which think that citations can be confined to a brief bracket at the end of a sentence: historians live by the demonstration of sound research their footnotes display. Or, sometimes, they fall because of their poor quality; more than one scholarly reputation has been damaged by the revelation that the author’s footnotes are inaccurate or, worse, borrowed – a kind way of saying plagiarised – from others. In my own area of study, footnotes most often cite unprinted primary sources (and so list a manuscript or document by its present location), though in the article I have set my references are more often to published editions.

Evaluate the evidence. By reading both the text and the footnotes, you can build up a fuller sense of the research that lies behind the article – and you can also begin to judge the strength of its argument. You will want to ask yourself what types of evidence are used and what range. Some articles will be tightly focussed on one set of materials, others will range more widely – but always with a sense of coherent whole to them. In my article, you will find several different types of primary material used, as well as what the social sciences call ‘secondary research’; that is, some statistics based on data-sets compiled by earlier scholars. As you think about how the author developed their article, you will also want to ask yourself: what is the most significant evidence used here? Remember that the way an article is written is very rarely an unfolding of the story of how the research was conducted. It is constructed after the research was completed and will order the evidence in a manner that makes it as convincing as possible, with the result that the most significant material is unlikely to be at the very beginning (or very end) of the article. So, what you are doing is understanding how the results of the historian’s time in the archives has been organised and deployed in order to make their argument persuasive.

Sense the sections. The consequence of this is also that an article is – like an essay you write should be – a set of steps. The author needs to lead the reader through the stages of the argument as the evidence is unveiled. Sometimes (but only in a minority of cases), these steps will helpfully be flagged up by sub-divisions in an article: these might involve sub-titles or numbers or (as in my article) simply an extra line-break. By being aware of these, though, you can get a better sense of how the author has arranged the information they have gathered. Of course, it is up to you as reader to consider whether the evidence could be organised differently or supplemented by other material, with changes to the argument as a result. When you do that, you move from being a reader to being a potential author, ready to do your own research and enter the sand-pit of historiographical debate.

Good luck.

Tagged: footnotes, Humanism, plagiarism, research

Vanity publishing, the early modern way

This post was originally published on this site

Here is a jolly scene of music-making:

Thomas de Keyser, 'The Music Lesson' (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

Thomas de Keyser, The Music Lesson (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

This early seventeenth-century Dutch painting sits at the end of one wing of the Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen. Amidst that gallery’s riches – including a superlative Gerard David – the rather generic scene could easily be overlooked. What caught my eye (it may not surprise some who read this blog) was its depiction of books. In their rush to create a workable environment, the musicians had created an impromptu pile of books, intended to prop open the long, low shape of the score at the right page. Limp leather bindings sit one upon another, but look also what is underneath them. At the bottom is a sturdy wooden book-rest but that did not suffice for our lute-player who, to gain the right distance from his music, had placed open a heavy volume – we see the thick binding which looks as if leather over wooden boards, replete with two substantial clasps – at the edge of the rest, and layered the other volumes on top of it. That cannot be good for its spine. Here we have an example of that well-attested phenomenon, the abuse of books in art.

This is not the only example in Rouen’s collection – in another Dutch piece by Lambert Jacobsz, St Mark rests his heavy elbows on some pages. What made me stop to think about de Keyser’s picture, however, was the juxtaposition with it of another small canvas in the same room. Turn ninety degrees and this memento mori stands before you:

'Vanitas', c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

‘Vanitas’, c. 1630s (Rouen, Musee des Beaux Arts)

The skull presides over a scene reminding the viewer of the futility of human endeavour. The globe at the left wills us to ask ‘what shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and lose his own soul?’. This man, though, has perhaps only dreamt of distant lands, and whiled away his time in the frivolity of violin-playing. The transient nature of the sound of music is reinforced by the flimsy score on which the skull lies, its pages and limp binding dangling over the side of the table, creating a trompe l’œil. Its material echoes that of the ragged broadsheet on the wall: paper is used as the epitome of impermanence.

The juxtaposition brought home to me what I should have realised in the first place: de Keyser’s scene is not simply a naturalistic rendering of a domestic setting but is freighted with similar moral messages to the ‘Vanitas’. The event it depicts is not simply a moment of happiness but, in its show of careless abandon, is one of danger to the soul, in which the frivolous is privileged and presses down upon the weightier, as the limp leather bindings sit and obscure the heavier tome.

The reason I share this with you is not simply as an exploration of a single painting seen on my holidays. It raises larger questions about how early modern users of book responded to different types of construction, how conscious they were of the quality of paper, what signification a style of binding may have had in their mind. Did a sense of their own ephemeral nature touch them as they fingered the pages of a thin, limply bound booklet? Did they expect true learning to come in thick-set folios? If so, what failure to appreciate the vanity of life must have lain there! This is to say, does an ordering such as that presented, by inversion, in de Keyser’s painting, collude in a belief that some human knowledge has more chance of being lasting? Thus we hide from the enormity of death.

This takes me to my final point: history, it is sometimes said, is about an attempt to cheat death, to live on beyond our mortal span. Historians, certainly, are memorialisers entrapped by previous generations’ attempts to be remembered. We are part of a cult of permanence or, rather, of the forlorn hope that we may be able to escape being ephemeral. As, though, we cannot, has not the time come that we should write the cultural history of impermanence? That could be a truly monumental volume.

Tagged: life of books, Rouen Musee des Beaux Arts, Thomas de Keyser, vanitas

Remembering Jenny Wormald

This post was originally published on this site

E-mail is such an impersonal way to learn of someone’s death. The very distance it creates makes the realisation of the loss of a human – someone you heard speak and laugh – all the more bitter. It was by opening of my inbox this morning that I learnt of the death of Jenny Wormald.

Jenny Wormald, historian of Scotland and of early modern Britain, tutor at St Hilda’s College, Oxford – I owe her so much. I remember the seminars I had with her in my final year as an undergraduate: one set in Cliff Davies’s rooms in Wadham, the other looking out over the gardens in her own college. What was a constant in those sessions was her willingness to provoke, to encourage reticent students into conversation and debate. I was to learn that this was a characteristic of her scholarship, a gift of making us continually re-think our assumptions, much as she insisted she herself must do. One of the last times I heard her speak I remember the author of the justly celebrated ‘James VI and I, one king or two?’ shock her audience by announcing that she had changed her mind: ‘he was a terrible king’.

It is also to Jenny that I owe my first job, standing in for her at St Hilda’s for a term. I remember well her room there, which I occupied for that Michaelmas, and its impressive range of books. My knowledge of her – I can hear her now being strident with me when I hesitate to assume it was friendship – was deepened by the fact that I was also at Christ Church with her then husband, Patrick. As that marriage collapsed, I heard both sides. And, at Patrick’s untimely funeral in Oxford’s Catholic Chaplaincy, I – like so many – could not hold back the tears as Jenny gave the eulogy with such eloquence and dignity.

It is perhaps that event which I remember most, though it was not the last time I saw her. I think that was in the run-up to the 2010 General Election when she was in Oxford for a while, and was palpably excited about the prospect of a LibDem break-through in the forthcoming vote. She was, I fear, disappointed both with the outcome and with the inglorious aftermath. Perhaps, though, there is something fitting about that memory and fear: she would be the first to remind us (as she took a drag on her cigarette and eyed you sideways) that you have to take all that comes and, through it all, survive. She no longer does but, in us, the memory of her and the traits we learnt from her will live. That is, I hope, no small legacy.


Tagged: Jenny Wormald, Patrick Wormald

More Lost Manuscripts

This post was originally published on this site

In between the various commitments of a teaching term, I have been working on the release of a second batch of entries for the Lost Manuscripts project – and today is the day they are launched upon the world.

As you may remember, the pilot project involves cataloguing and digitizing the manuscript fragments found in bindings of books once owned by Samuel Harsnett and now resident in the library of the University of Essex.The rationale has been to treat each fragment both as an object worth describing in its own right and as witness to a manuscript which once existed but is now lost to us. In doing this, then, it engages with the developing and exciting practices of ‘virtual reunification’ – the process of bringing together on the internet elements of a work of art which are physically dispersed. Its manuscript variant is sometimes called ‘fragmentology’, an undeniably unlovely term (but I have complained about that before now). What the project hopes to bring to the metaphorical table, beyond a set of new examples, is thinking about the standards of cataloguing we might require for fragments and how they may differ from those for complete codices.

The intention of the Lost Manuscripts site is to make the images and the descriptions freely available. The bulk of the work for the pilot project was done in the summer of this now-closing year, but the pages are being released in small batches to allow for checking and the addition of further information. So, today is one step on a journey, and a small one at that. In the first batch, there were twenty ‘lost manuscripts’; in this, only eight. That is partly because this group includes several fragments which do not meet the rules we have set for creating a lost manuscript: if only one remnant remains from which it is impossible to extrapolate what might have been, then it is not allowed into that virtual realm of reborn codices we like to call Babel. So, a stray strip of music, or a single scrap of a copy of the Digest stands beyond that city’s gates. Of course, in those instances, our hope is that more work and more discoveries will allow us to link up that lone fragment with others – and then the doors will be opened to them.

All the same, there are some interesting finds in the fragments now there to view. Some of these are discussed on the Highlights page of the site. They include an example I have mentioned before of how some binders chose to save not the text from a manuscript but precisely those parts which provided virgin parchment. There is also a useful reminder that, while the process of dismantling manuscripts is, in English history, particularly associated with the disruption of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the reformers by no means invented the practice. The fragments involved in that case are a personal favourite at the moment because several come from one medical manuscript for which we have been able to identify precisely from what text they come: it is painstaking and, indeed, thankless work which, in this instance, involved learning more about the varieties of urine than any layperson could ever really want to know.

As the project develops, what is also coming into sharper focus is the range of questions we should be (funding permitting) asking at the next stage. We can detect a variety of practices that took place in different binderies – what were the reasons for those differences and how did they develop from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century? We also know that a broad sweep of medieval texts were ripe for cutting up, but did the variety of manuscripts and the balance between them shift over the sixteenth century? What, fundamentally, was the logic of the destruction of manuscript culture in the early modern period? These are big issues which will need ‘big data’ to begin to answer them – but they are ones that are surely worth asking.

Tagged: fragments, Lost Manuscripts, Samuel Harsnett