The Designs of English

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Designing English, the present exhibition curated by Daniel Wakelin at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is an undoubted triumph. If you have not seen it, do not miss your last chance: go before it ends on 22nd April 2018. Its display of manuscripts skilfully encourages the viewer to look beyond the text and see the page. It also encourages the visitor to think beyond the page and appreciate the extent of medieval graphicity — in graffiti or an inscription moulded onto a bell. What, however, has made the gallery are frequent haunt of mine in the past months is a realisation of how the exhibition is wonderfully subtle and, in the best sense of the word, ambivalent.

The show opens in apparently celebratory mood with a case (re)uniting the Alfred Jewel, usually held in the Ashmolean, with one of the earliest manuscripts (MS. Hatton 20) of the Anglo-Saxon translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, attributed to Alfred himself. It is a combination that alone, as they say, is worth the entrance fee (there is, in fact, no entrance fee, which makes this exhibition a particular bargain). It also, though, hints at some of the problems of its topic. In the confrontation of intricate metalwork and relatively simple layout on the page, there is no contest: the manuscript cannot have the same mastery as the jewel. This contrast is, in part, an issue with the difficulty of displaying books in cases. The power of a book is its plurality: it is itself an object but each opening within it is an object for the eye’s gaze. This multiplicity can only but be denied by the static presentation that an exhibition usually requires. It must be said that ‘Designing English’, in common with the recent and equally excellent ‘Colour’ at the Fitzwilliam, does well to help the visitor appreciate the mechanics of manuscript-production and, thus, remember the book’s dynamics.

That a book comes off worse in a comparison with the Alfred Jewel is not, though, entirely about the necessities of presentation. Turn your back on that case and you are faced with a rather different approach to the page – before you now is the intricate mise-en-page of the Macregol Gospels (MS. Auct. D. 2. 19).

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Auct. D. 2. 19, fol. 127 – the Macregol Gospels (Ireland, s. ix in.), glossed in Anglo-Saxon (s. x2).

This is one moment when a manuscript shows it can take on a jewel-like quality. The Gospels are on display here not for their illumination or for its Latin text but for the interlinear glosses added in Old English. We are not here to consider the medieval book as a whole but to note the presence of the English language (in its various varieties) within it. It is a presence which is often marginal. Of course, as Alfred’s Pastoral Care bears witness, the Anglo-Saxon tongue had a remarkable heyday from the late ninth to the mid-eleventh century, sitting alongside Latin as an appropriate language of written communication. After the Norman Conquest, English was not to enjoy the same status again until… quite when is a question that hangs over this exhibition.

One obvious answer would be that English regained its glory with Chaucer, and some of the display here demonstrates the regard in which he was held. So, for instance, in one manuscript (MS. Rawl. poet. 223), the opening displayed has a running header announcing the author’s surname. What is striking with these pages is that the English language is presented in a cursive bookhand with substantial continental influence. This should remind us that England was by no means the first country to prize writings in the local vernacular: we can think of thirteenth-century Castile or the fourteenth-century construction of the tre corone of Florence. A precedent which was better known in England was the culture of French writing around the Valois court of Paris, and later also in Burgundy. In its patriotic fashioning of local language as literature, fifteenth-century England was playing catch-up. Even when emphasising its specific identity, England was indebted to what had been going on elsewhere in Europe.

If this surprises a visitor, they cannot complain that they were not warned. Daniel Wakelin’s introductory panel draws attention to the limited presence of English in this world where Latin dominated. The fully literate — the literati — did not just write in it, they spoke it and they thought in it. They were certainly not the majority: they were, in fact, a tiny minority in England, though their presence was unevenly spread. One of the images which acts as back-drop to the cases brought this forcefully home to me: I had a moment of recognition, seeing before me the hall of Christ Church, where I had been an undergraduate and my mind’s ear could hear myself reciting the Latin grace before dinner that I had been called upon to read. The hall was built in the later 1520s by Thomas Wolsey for his foundation of Cardinal College. The statutes for that college survive; they are derivative of earlier examples in many respects, including in their stipulation that over dinner the students should speak in Latin (or, if they stumbled, Wolsey allowed them to turn to Greek instead). Later in the sixteenth century, that same hall, now a central space of the royal foundation of Christ Church, was host to royal visitors who would be entertained by plays written by students in Latin. There is, in other words, an irony that ‘Designing English’ is taking place under the aegis of the University of Oxford, an institution where for centuries being learned was being Latinate — being conversant, that is, in something more than what would have been called dismissively the mother tongue.

This exhibition, then, is a triumph not only in its beauty and, indeed, in the artistry of its design. In the ancient Roman procession that gives us the term, triumph, beside the victorious general would stand a slave repeatedly saying in the victor’s ear ‘Remember, you too are mortal’. Likewise, this exhibition celebrates but it also whisper to us when we think of the book and of the extent of English: ‘Remember the limits’.

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

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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.

Littera antiqua as a cosmopolitan enterprise

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One advantage of teaching palaeography at King’s College, London, this year — apart from the enthusiastic and inquisitive students, of course — is that it is a short hop to the Eurostar. So, having introduced the groups to the delights of textualis yesterday morning, I am now in Paris to speak at the conference. Its title is L’Humanisme à l’épreuve de l’Europe (XV e. -XVI e siècles) and my topic is ‘The Renaissance of littera antiqua: a cosmopolitan enterprise’. At the risk of forfeiting what suspense there might be to my paper, let me share with you one small part of what I will discuss.

Littera antiqua, otherwise known as Roman hand or humanist minuscule, is famously an invention of Florence, c. 1400. Poggio Bracciolini (my old friend) and his colleagues called their innovation ‘ancient letter’ because they saw themselves reviving a script older than what had recently been fashionable. They insulted that fashion by labelling it not just modern but also ‘gothic’. That term implied that the contemporary bookhands, with their compressed, uniform-looking script, were an imposition on Italy by barbarian foreigners who knew no better. Poggio and those who encouraged him wanted to liberate their countrymen from this tutelage, and looked back to the scripts that preceded gothic to find a style of writing they considered more legible and more elegant. In this way, the humanists’ campaign had an element of local pride, of asserting an Italian-born cultural identity against the invasion of northern European habits.

The humanists’ nomenclature has stuck, and with it also some of the assumptions that underlie it. In particular, littera antiqua, like the other forms of script that the humanist came to promote, has been seen as an Italian product which was sometimes exported in the years after its invention and then slowly adopted in countries beyond the Alps, by the barbarians themselves. Thus, it is considered a safe assumption that a manuscript in a fine humanist minuscule was manufactured by an Italian, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Sometimes there is, in fact, such contrary proof, for it is known that there were some non-Italians who adopted the humanist scribal habits, even in their homeland. So, for instance, Poggio tutored other copyists in the new style and these included one Frenchman, with whom his master was pleased — and his ability to emulate Poggio’s hand was so successful that it has sometimes proven difficult to distinguish one from another.

The ‘good French scribe’ is thought of as the exception, and in Florence, this has some truth. A. C. de la Mare’s seminal listing of seventy-two Florentine humanist scribes includes only eight who were non-Italian. That, though, does constitute a proportion of over one in ten. I have, previously in print, extrapolated from the data provided by Albert Derolez for a larger group of humanist scribes active across Italy and shown that the proportion there is one in six. It would, in other words, seem that in the city of littera antiqua’s birth, the engagement of foreigners in the humanist agenda was below the average.

There is one city which is certainly known to have been highly cosmopolitan and that is Rome. Elisabetta Caldelli, in a rich survey of scribes in the papal city, has drawn attention to the fact that about half of those whose identities we know were visitors, often long-term residents, from other countries. Caldelli’s figures, however, range across all scribes, not just those who adopted humanist practices. It would be plausible to assume that those who came from ‘gothic’ cultures would continue to deploy that style in which they were originally trained, and so that a lower proportion wrote in littera antiqua. In preparing my paper, I investigated her data further, organising those with a stated origin by geographical areas as they would have been contemporarily defined, and identifying the usual style employed by each of the copyists, both Italian and non-Italian. Of Caldelli’s 138 scribes, I find that 126 can be defined by national origin (my figures and designations differ slightly from hers; she organises them by modern countries). Of those, it becomes clear that only a minority — a third — of the total list were expert in littera antiqua, but that, of that minority, exactly half were non-Italian. Here is the information in detail:


All scribes

Scribes of littera antiqua


















TOTAL 65 out of 126 scribes (51.5%) 21 out of 42 scribes (50%)

[Data extrapolated from E. Caldelli, Copisti a Roma nel Quattrocento (Rome, 2006)]

Naturally, these figures need to be used with caution: they are based on named scribes, and not all were ostentatious enough to announce their identity. More did so in the Quattrocento than in previous centuries, but still only a small proportion of manuscripts have a revelatory colophon. It may be that scribes from afar were more likely to state their nationality, though I must say that I know of several non-Italian scribes active in Italy who did not feel the urge to do so. It is also the case that the figures make Rome exceptional, as Florence also was: nowhere else in the peninsula could claim to have a community of humanist scribes that was so cosmopolitan.

Even with those caveats, there is a very striking implication of these figures. The usual assumption, as I have said, is that a manuscript in littera antiqua should be taken to be by an Italian hand until proven otherwise. If, though, a volume hails from Rome, that assumption is patently not sound: it is equally likely that it was by a foreigner. That said, it is not always easy to localise a codex to a particular city and, that being the case, it raises further complications. In most places, only a minority of humanist scribes were non-Italian but the proportion was rarely negligible and, that being so, is it legitimate to continue to hold the traditional assumption? More broadly, is it not time to reconceptualise the history of the impressive pan-European success of littera antiqua?

This, as I have said, is only one small part of my talk and, in describing to you, I have glossed over some of the interesting features: I have not mentioned the split between nations; I have also left aside the issue of humanist cursive and of its most elegant sub-type, the italic bookhand (the proportions are strikingly different from the ones I have just outlined). There is more to say — but, then, I do need to leave some revelations fresh for the conference audience.


The Biggar Issue: the duty of the academic in public debate

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It is not often I am kept awake at night by something an academic has written. At the start of this year, I have found my sleep interrupted on consecutive nights by disquiet about a brief article. It appeared last week in the Oxford Magazine and is by Nigel Biggar.

The Magazine is, as it explains, ‘not an official publication of the University of Oxford’ and the presence of a piece in its pages does not imply the support of the editors, let alone any official endorsement by the University, for its position. The author in question may, as the saying goes, need no introduction, as his name appeared in headlines late last year. Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, he is the lead investigator in a project established last June to study ‘Ethics and Empire’. The views he has publicly expressed on the issue of morality of imperial actions have created a controversy and the article just printed takes the opportunity to reflect on that. It is in a manner that will not close down the debate but, instead, ensure it continues. It may be that should be welcomed, as deeper reflection on the legacy of empire could be salutary. My purpose in writing is not to engage directly in that important discussion but to consider the style in which the discussion is occurring. What has disturbed me and what makes me feel I cannot stay silent is that this most recent article displays the ‘rhetorical indiscipline’ its author finds unwelcome in others — or, rather, in its deployment of certain rhetorical techniques, it seems to me to be guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

This is not a claim that I wish to level against anyone but the printed text makes it difficult to avoid that conclusion. If one were to believe Prof. Biggar’s description, the controversy was created by an unwarranted attack on him and his research by an open letter, signed by fifty-eight Oxford academics. We have here an attempt to appropriate victimhood to himself, but this is no more convincing than the assertion of Cabinet Ministers during the 2016 Leave Campaign that they were ‘the people’ versus ‘the establishment’. He calls the open letter ‘a declaration of war’ but its immediate casus belli is not mentioned: that was a comment piece in Prof. Biggar’s name which appeared in The Times on 30th November 2017. It ran under the strapline ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’. Prof. Biggar himself would obviously not have been responsible for that title but he has at no point disavowed it. Many a casual observer would have assumed from those words that the article saw positive value in the British Empire, a position which is already a stock-in-trade of reactionary politics. It cannot sit well, then, with the University of Oxford’s efforts to emphasise that it is not, by its nature, a reactionary institution but, on the contrary, an inclusive place for all, whatever their ethnic or social background. The timing, appearing just before the Oxford admissions process was taking place, when those efforts have an especial importance, could not be more damaging. In that context, it is unsurprising that many responded to an article with exasperation or even anger.

Reviewing the fracas that followed, Prof. Biggar complains: ‘none of the signatories had take the trouble to raise their objections with me directly, face-to-face.’ This would have some traction, if it had been shown how Prof. Biggar had attempted to engage with these colleagues in the preceding months or if he had described how he had solicited opinions of his article for The Times before publication. That he has not provided any such evidence leaves open the worry that this is another rhetorical manoeuvre.

The deployment of these argumentative techniques is disappointing because it distracts from the valid points that Prof. Biggar has to make. For instance, he notes that the lead author of the open letter, Prof. James McDougall, has stated that moral assessments are ‘for most historians, irrelevant as well as inadequate’. Prof. Biggar responds by rightly points out how difficult it is for any scholar not to approach a subject with their own moral assumptions. In fact, if the study of the past requires dispassionate analysis, we might say that some topics are so laden with present resonance — are so unavoidably political — that the defy the distance and perspective that historical assessment requires. Those areas of study cannot, though, be sealed off from research and, of course, it is on those very issues that there is a public thirst for intellectual reflection. As a result, we have a duty to investigate, as conscious as possible of our own presuppositions, making them explicit and helping our readers appreciate the thought-processes which move us beyond prejudice to informed and rational assessment. It seems to me that such a method has been sadly absent in this debate.

This leads me back to the article which originally sparked the controversy, that in last November’s Times. It is perhaps in the nature of a comment piece which a newspaper is willing to publish that it is expected to be stronger in asserting a position rather than building up a tentative argument — and there possibly lies a fundamental difficulty for any academic in the public eye. The necessary caveats, the reservations, the expression of probabilities rather than certainties — these are too rarely what public discourse want to hear. The fourth estate turns to ‘experts’ so that they provide ex-cathedra statements which then can be waved as if they were piece of evidence or, equally as often, derided as merely the opinion of an expert. This obviously has become the fate of Prof. Biggar’s piece, but how it is written did little to protect against that fate.

As with its title, it may be that the text of the article has been mauled out of recognition from its first draft by the work of sub-editors and the demands of being confined to column inches. Even taking that into account, there are two elements to it which are so fundamental that they must come from Prof. Biggar’s pen. One is the certainty with which a position is asserted. The article is written less than six months in to the five-year project on ‘Ethics and Empire’ but it sounds as if the major conclusion of that project has already been reached. The article reads as post-rationalisation of an attitude already engrained, rather than a raising of questions for further investigation through the course of the project.

The second element involves the sense of the present use of the conclusion. Prof. Biggar suggests that shame at Britain’s imperial history is a negative emotion which should be counter-balanced by the positive quality of pride. ‘We British’, it is said, can take ‘pride at the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, for example’. Leaving aside the debate this claim has created about a ‘balance-sheet’ of good and evil acts of empire, my concern is the concept of ‘we British’. We are a nation enriched by the influx of Irish after the Potato Famine, Jews fleeing oppression from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s, passengers on the Windrush, post-War émigrés from the Indian subcontinent, Eastern Europeans who have taken up citizenship since 2000, as well as recent refugees from oppressive regimes. For a substantial proportion of ‘us British’, an imperial past has little relevance or, if it does, it is as the colonised rather than the coloniser. For them, the imposition of an identity that focuses on empire will alienate rather than embrace. To talk of ‘we British’ in a manner which assumes a monocultural tradition is, at best, woefully outdated.

Prof. Biggar, in response to the controversy, has stressed his right to freedom of speech. It is the case that academics should ask difficult questions and should not shy from saying what is not popular. There is, at the same time, for an intellectual who is trained in standards of evidential and logical reasoning, a responsibility to display those skills in debate, whatever the provocation to do otherwise. My fear is that this has not occurred in this case, that point-scoring has taken precedence over careful development of a valid point. Perhaps this is difficult to avoid when the quality of public debate at the moment is too often woeful. Academics have a duty to improve that, rather than to coarsen it further. We must suggest a solution, not be part of the problem.

Mandrakes in the Library

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One of the items which belongs to the Library of Christ Church, Oxford, is a silver box, in fine filigree, possibly an early eighteenth-century Parisian product. In it sit two mandrakes which look so much like miniature long-faced humans, complete with unkempt hair, that it is hard not to think of the sunken heads from a very different tradition that sit across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum. These mandrakes fascinate viewers but they also disconcert. That is not just because they hint at the magical qualities that lore claims these roots hold but also because their presence in a library seems so out of place. Indeed, in the mid-twentieth century, when the circumstances of their arrival in the Library was recognised, what was considered worthy of attention was the box in which they had been donated; the mandrakes themselves were all but ignored.

Christ Church Library Mandrakes

Christ Church Library’s mandrakes in their filigree box

The mandrakes set us a challenge. That they should have been given to a library and that the Library of this learned foundation should keep them — both facts seem decidedly odd. We know that a library, particularly in such a place of education, is a home for tomes, carefully classified and arranged on shelves. What shelfmark could a mandrake be given? How dare they offend the order of the place? It is not, though, these things alone: coins, clothing, instruments (scientific and musical), paintings, pottery and toys, all have come to live in Christ Church Library. All may appear incongruous interruptions or, worse, blemishes, specks of dirt in the system. To think like this is to find our sense of order colliding with that of the space itself, its genius.

The challenge, in other words, is to question our own perception of what makes a library. We know that it is formed not only of books; the volumes have to be corralled into order, with labels and a catalogue. We expect also furniture: shelves, desks, chairs. We know there must be sources of light (without endangering the books), so windows and, nowadays, electric lamps. We also know that other items are considered appropriate: works of art, for instance. If these things, then why not others? The decisions about what is suitable will change with time but a constant will be this: the other items put the books in context; the un-books make this book space. They are not in conflict with the library; they are constitutive of it.

The mandrakes and their box did not arrive alone. They were part of a bequest given in 1686 to the Library by the executors of Christ Church’s late dean, John Fell. He, who had presided over the building of Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, had himself been a towering figure in Oxford. His whole life had been associated with Christ Church: he was the son of Dean Samuel Fell, who had been ejected from his position at the end of the Civil War. John never gave up his royalist and Anglican allegiances, making him a suitable candidate to be eventual successor to his father following the Restoration. He set about constructing Christ Church’s identity as a bastion of the restored establishment, committed to both tradition and educational advance. He continued as dean even when he was promoted to the role of bishop of Oxford in 1676. His passing was the end of an era.

What his executors considered a suitable bequest to the Library was eclectic. The donation included three printed books, as well as the ‘Two Mandrakes in a Silver Box’; in addition, there was ‘The Picture of King Henry 8th’ and ‘Libr. palmeum ling. Selanensi’, that is, a book on palm leaves in the Ceylonese language. The list suggests something of the range of items that were thought appropriate for a library. Its walls could be adorned with portraits and there was no more fitting act of piety than to display an image of Henry VIII, founder of the institution (if, though, there was not one in situ before this gift, that would be striking). Likewise, its books did not have to confine themselves to the Western tradition, and thus the book on palm leaves could take its place in the collection. This should give us pause for thought.

ChCh MS. LR 1 fol. 198a

Oxford: Christ Church, MS. LR 1, fol. 198a (detail): part of the record of the bequest from John Fell, 1686

We know a library is about the possibilities of intellectual interaction with the written word. We recognise that there might be volumes in its collection which may be in a language or in a style of writing we cannot decode but we are confident that they are there because somebody else will. What happens, though, if that polyglot decipherer of texts does not arrive? What if the words are so obscure to be permanently illegible? In the case of Fell’s Ceylonese book — which was perhaps testimony to his encouragement of missionary work — we can certainly doubt that he, with all his wide learning, or anyone else in Oxford at the time, could have sat down to read it. That being the case, was it status so very different from that of an object like the mandrakes? This book too borders on being an un-book. If this is so, it did not stand alone in the collection. To acknowledge that the supposedly out-of-place items in a library have a rationale for being there is to begin to ask how many of the books are considered merely or primarily repositories of texts and how far they had greater charisma as objects.

These are the questions which the new exhibition in Christ Church Upper Library is addressing. The display coincides with the publication of the Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, up to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford by Ralph Hanna and myself (published by Oxford Bibliographical Society). It grows out of the research undertaken for that work’s introduction, in which the changing place of the western manuscripts within the wider collection was reconstructed. The exhibition, curated by Cristina Neagu and myself, gives a sense of the array of objects that have, over time, become part of the Library’s identity and asks visitors to consider what that history can tell us about what we expect a library to be.

Tagged: Christ Church Oxford, Cristina Neagu, Henry VIII, John Fell, mandrakes, Ralph Hanna, un-books

Andrew Watson, scholar and gentleman

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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.



Tagged: A. C. de la Mare, Andrew Watson, Everard Digby, John Dee, Malcolm Parkes, Matthew Parker, Neil Ker, Oxford Bibliographical Society, Richard Sharpe, Sir Walter Cope

The Books and the Wall

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I read, in past days, that the man who ordered the construction of the nearly infinite Wall of China was that First Emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who likewise ordered the burning of all the books before him. That the two gigantic operations—the five or six hundred leagues of stone to oppose the barbarians, the rigorous abolition of history, that is of the past—issued from one person and were in a certain sense his attributes, inexplicably satisfied me

I read again today Borges on the first Emperor of all China and, as rarely happens with that consummate miniaturist, I was left less than satisfied. Borges approaches an explanation, in which the intention of the building and the burning is, in some secret way, to counteract each other but then he steps back, denying his own ability to explicate. Borges’s art, however, is always to take us beyond his own words and to hint to us at whole worlds. So, perhaps, we should take the imperfect cadence on which his essay ends as an invitation to begin.

Let us imagine, then, that one day Shih Huang Ti received a visitor. The wandering Jew had heard the tales of his grandiose achievements. Ushered forward by the counsellors, he narrates to the emperor a story from the history of the far west, telling him of Nimrod and his tower at Babel. The Emperor smiles: ‘I am greater than Nimrod. He attempted more than he could achieve and so his tower was never completed. But I am capable of what I will and, look, my wall is done.’ The Jew raises his sad eyes, momentarily catching the imperial stare. He hastily lowers his gaze again, as he gives a slight shake of the head and mutters: ‘but that is not your Babel’. And so he leaves, avoiding the fate of those, alchemists or Confucians, whom the Emperor orders to be buried alive.

The Emperor gives no sign of having heard the Jew’s response. If he had (his counsellors assume), he would have brushed it aside: how ridiculous; of course, it is my Babel; if not, then what else? They talk among themselves about what might have been meant, and one says what the other dare not: of Shih Huang Ti’s twin deeds, the more gargantuan task, so great that its accomplishment was implausible, was the destruction of all the books. The removal of written records should have killed off Confucius, but his fame has not died.

The counsellors, so close to their master, are still liable to misjudge him. In the corridors of his own mind, a chill breeze of recognition has brushed his cheek. No, I cannot destroy all books, but at least I have my wall. It is a consolation for my failure.

Years after the visit of the wandering Jew, when that day could hardly be remembered, the burnt books take on an added meaning for the Emperor. He is old and does not want to end his days. Timor mortis conturbat me. He seeks the elixir of life and seeks, ever more desperately. During this, his last challenge, he reviews his past life and reasons to himself how right he had been to cast out all those memorials of previous times. To remember is to live before birth and beyond death – but to do so is necessarily to acknowledge the temporal limits of life. To forget is immortal.

New light on George Hermonymos in England

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Encountering the unexpected is the thrill and the curse of research. A thrill because it provides the frisson — no, that is too coy: it provides (as I have said before) a hit and a high as strong as any hallucinogen which keeps up going through the dull days when the sources turn up the same old material again and again. It is a curse because it reminds us that our work cannot be done and our conclusions only ever provisional. And if we imagine that we have conquered the archive and have panoramic knowledge of what is there, then the unexpected appears to remind us that the archive itself is always incomplete.

In my case, what offers up the unexpected is often an auction house. Perhaps, like the character in The History Man, I should be able to predict the unpredictable because, looking over my notes, I see the unexpected comes up for sale with some frequency. There have been four instances of previously unknown codices relevant to my research turning up for sale during the lifetime of this blog, so that it is an average of just under once every two years. But they do bunch together: the year 2010 was a bumper one (and not just because it was when I married — nobody thought of buying one of these as our wedding present): a previously unknown manuscript by the one-eyed Dutch scribe Pieter Meghen, and another by an earlier compatriot of his, Petrus Lomer. The following year Sotheby’s revealed to the world a volume associated with the English humanist, John Shirwood, protégé of George Neville, bishop of Exeter and subsequently archbishop of York. The latest addition to the list of manuscripts that have lurked in private hands unknown to scholars also has a connexion with George Neville, brother of the Warwick the kingmaker who fell into disfavour and into prison after Edward IV returned to the throne after Warwick’s failed coup against him. It is a pocket-sized codex, in its original binding of velvet over boards, by an itinerant Greek scholar, George Hermonymos, who was sent to England to secure the release from prison of Neville, only to end up in gaol himself. It is to be auctioned on Wednesday, 12 July, as lot 17 in the Christie’s sale. The asking price is beyond my meagre means but it is my birthday coming, so I can dream…

As the catalogue says, this volume is the twin of a known manuscript, London: British Library, MS. Harl. 3346, a set of gnomic sayings of ancient philosophers, compiled in Latin by Hermonymos. In that manuscript, the work opens with a dedication to Archbishop Neville, decorated with an English style of bianchi girari initial inhabited with grotesques, known from other manuscripts; preceding it on the opposite verso is an illumination of two angels holding Neville’s coat-of-arms (but with a glaring error that quarters them with the arms of the see of Canterbury). The new manuscript has the same layout, though here the dedicatee is, instead, William, abbot of St Albans – who precisely that was is unclear since, in the year that the Greek humanist came to England, the position changed hands from one William (Albon) to another (of Wallingford). The coat-of-arms in this manuscript (sable, three covered pitchers argent) does not help, either. The Christie’s catalogue considers them to be overpainted but when I inspected the manuscript, it struck me that there is absolutely no sign of a previous coat and that any removal has been very careful, leaving in place the angels’ fingers holding the shield. It is, then, more likely to be the only coat-of-arms painted but, as far as I have been able to find so far, we do not know the heraldry of either of these abbots.

If that sounds to be a dead end, there are ways in which the manuscript opens up new routes of research. It is a twin to that intended for Neville not just in its presentation but also in its text: the dedication to the work is nearly identical in wording, with only a few changes reflecting the lower status of the abbot (so ‘reverendissimus’ becomes ‘reverendus’). I have previous acquaintance with this text, because I edited it for the appendix I produced for the fourth edition of Roberto Weiss’s Humanism in England — a work available on-line and, I am assured, about to be printed (you can pre-order a copy). That, of course, has now become slightly outdated by the discovery of this new copy and so I have revised my own work which I offer to you (most learned reader) as an attachment.

As I note in the headnote to that appendix item, there is another codex, London: British Library, MS. Harl. 3348, which also has Hermonymos’s work, though it is damaged and so lost its opening. That means we cannot know for whom it was made and the assumption has been that it was an abortive attempt at a presentation copy for Neville, superseded by MS. Harl. 3346. Certainly, the preface addresses its recipient with the same superlatives (‘reverendissmus’ etc), while the script in this manuscript is a gothic bookhand rather than the humanist littera antiqua of MS. Harl. 3346. However, the fact that we know now that Hermonymos produced another version for another dedicatee raises the possibility that, in fact, he was having multiple copies made in a somewhat scatter-gun approach at seeking patronage. Famously, Erasmus was later chided for what was seen as a humanist habit of recycling one dedication for another recipient, and it is manifest that the visiting Greek was involved in this practice. It was not for that reason, we should stress, that he ended up in prison — that would have been a harsh penalty. We might wonder for whom MS. Harl. 3348 might have been intended: the form of address suggests that it was a high-ranking cleric, at least a bishop. Could the error in Neville’s copy, with the arms displaying those at the see of Canterbury, be a muddle with what was supposed to appear in this manuscript, making the other recipient Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, archbishop of England’s southern province?

I talked in the previous paragraph of Hermonymos having multiple copies made and this is where we can advance scholarship a little further because of the manuscript about to be sold at Christie’s. I have already mentioned that the two Harleian volumes are in different scripts but they are, I suspect, both by the same hand. I believe the work can probably be identified with a small group of three manuscripts (now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford) in which the style shifts between gothic and humanist — the identity of the copyist is elusive but we do know he produced those books for John Shirwood, Neville’s associate with whom we know Hermonymos had contact while in England. There is a further piece of evidence that needs to be added: while the main text of the presentation copy to Neville is all in one hand, the opening title is inserted by a different person, as can be seen in the image provided by the BL’s Illuminated Manuscripts Catalogue. The handwriting of that title is a match for the complete text of the ‘new’ codex.

This raises a possibility. It is common practice in humanist manuscripts that the person over-seeing the scribe adds the headings. If these volumes conform to that, it would suggest that the person who has control of the enterprise is the scribe of the copy made for the abbot of St Albans. This might seem counter-intuitive: would not the most care be taken for the volume planned to be given to the person of highest standing? Indeed, that is likely but that does not mean the overseer would take responsibility for the copying, particularly if they thought a more professional scribe was to hand. The tentative conclusion to which this thinking is reaching is probably already apparent: might not the overseer be the mastermind of the text itself, George Hermonymos?

Hermonymos has been well studied as a scribe in his native language of Greek; his Latin script is less known. The only certain examples are in a humanist cursive which is less formal than that in the manuscript up for sale. One of those is in the Bodleian, as MS. Grabe 30, Hermonymos’s own notebook, where he signs one entry in Latin.

Oxford: Bodleian, MS. Grabe 30 fol. 112v, with Latin and Greek scripts by George Hermonymos

We cannot make a direct match between that and the codex for the abbot of St Albans: not only are they in different styles of script but that in the Bodleian manuscript is less certain. We might hypothesise, of course, that Hermonymos would be in his private notebook more experimental and less confident than in a presentation manuscript. There are, moreover, some similarities of aspect — the similar slant of long letters — and of letter-forms, the pronounced foot of the r and the curve on the h, for instance. In short, the only firm conclusion must be that it cannot be ruled out that the small manuscript about to be sold at Christie’s is a rare example of its author’s Latin bookhand.

Oh dear, have I just increased the asking price? With that, another of my dreams recedes further from the realms of realisability.



Tagged: bianchi girari initials, Cardinal Thomas Bourchier, Christie’s, George Hermonymos, George Neville, John Shirwood, Pieter Meghen, St Albans

Fragmentary futures

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Next week, there is a one-day conference in Cambridge which is a positively mouth-watering prospect — at least for those of us who are fascinated with manuscript fragments. The organisers, Stephanie Azzarello and Kate Rudy, have brought together an impressive list of speakers, and then there is me, rounding of the day with a talk entitled ‘Utopia, Babel and Dsytopias, past and present’. Ahead of that, I was asked to write a post for the conference’s micro-site and it has just been published. In it, I ask some questions about what the drivers may be for the recent upsurge in interest in fragments. I do not pretend to have answers and would be interested to hear your views.

Tagged: fragments, Kathryn Rudy

The Mysteries of the Wolsey Lectionaries

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Last week saw the launch of an exciting new website, The Wolsey Manuscripts. Its primary purpose has been to bring together the two gorgeous lectionaries produced for Thomas Wolsey in the late 1520s. They have, since the seventeenth century, lived in the same city, but in different institutions, one at Magdalen College and the other at Christ Church. Their libraries might be only a few hundred yards apart but, as anyone who knows Oxford well will attest, the High Street marks a cultural separation to compete with Paris’s divide between the rives droite and gauche. The books, as a result, have rarely been seen together and this project, energetically overseen by the two librarians, Daryl Green and Cristina Neagu, has provided the opportunity to reunite these long-separated twins — both in the flesh for a few days and permanently on-line.

The launch on Thursday involved a jolly evening event with a set of short talks; mine was on ‘Pieter Meghen, Scribe, Drunkard, and a Waste of Space’. I was accidentally introduced as Meghen himself; to add to the audience’s disappointment, I had to admit I could not compete with him in all regards — I am no scribe. The following day, the morning was given over to an academic roundtable discussion of the manuscripts, which I chaired. I opened it by reflecting on how, though the manuscripts are so beautiful and so famous, there are so many mysteries about their history. The symposium itself demonstrated how much there remains to be considered but also how the new website can help us. I want to draw attention to that by discussing here two details.

The lectionaries have traditionally been assumed to have been commissioned for Wolsey’s Oxford foundation of Cardinal College, the forerunner of what is now Christ Church. However, both James Carley (who was present) and myself have come independently to the conclusion that this is unlikely: the rota of feasts to be celebrated does not fit precisely with those Wolsey’s statutes required for his college, and the choice of saints says more about Wolsey’s construction of his own identity, suggesting they were for his private chapel. There was around the table no appetite for reviving the claim for a Cardinal College provenance but I thought we should at least air it. The internal evidence for it is taken to be the rather unusual presence of an image of St Frideswide in both manuscripts — Frideswide, the local saint of Oxford, adopted by the university as its saint and whose shrine was to be housed in Cardinal College. With the wonders of Mirador, we called up each of the miniatures to sit appear alongside each other, and the result led our conversation in a different direction. If you do it yourself, using the viewer to show fol. 12 of the Christ Church Epistolary and fol. 14v of the Magdalen Gospel Lectionary, you will see that, while the overall structure is the same, the details and the style of rendering is different: what we have here is evidence of two different hands at work.

This confirms what is a reasonable supposition — that the manuscripts were illuminated by a workshop rather than a single individual. Exactly where that workshop was remains unknown. In the forthcoming catalogue of the manuscripts of Christ Church, written by Ralph Hanna and myself, it is suggested that it was in Westminster, partly on the stylistic proximity to charters for Cardinal College produced in the same years. In particular, it seems to me that the same hand has written in gold the motto on the garter that appears in one of the charters and repeatedly in the manuscripts (for instance, at Magdalen MS. lat. 223, fol. 14v and Christ Church, MS. 101, fol. 20); note, for instance, the rather fat shape to the ‘O’:

Kew: The National Archives, E24/6/1, detail.

At the roundtable, however, Scot McKendrick was firmly of the opinion that the illumination could not have been executed in England because of evidence of ‘Antwerp mannerism’. The proposal that the manuscripts were sent across the Channel to be decorated is inherently plausible — we know that the sea acted more as a thorough-fare than as a barrier, and, of course, Meghen as a Dutchman himself, had good contacts in his homeland. Such a scenario does, though, create questions of its own: in the Christ Church manuscript, there are blank pages interrupting the text, raising questions about why an incomplete volume would have been sent overseas to be illuminated. It is also well-known that the Magdalen manuscript has different iconography from its twin, as it — but not the accompanying texts — celebrates Wolsey as bishop of Winchester (a see he received in early 1529); was this volume sent later with instructions of its own or were revised instructions rushed across the Channel?

In thinking about these matters, there was another detail that sharp-eyed Daryl Green brought to our attention. We zoomed in close on the initial at Christ Church MS. 101, fol. 33v and saw that the letter ‘p’ descends into the illumination just below. It is, in fact, not the only occasion on which this happens: looking through the manuscript itself with new eyes, I noticed a parallel to it at fol. 26v (there are, though, no equivalents in the Magdalen manuscript). This suggested to us at the roundtable that the rubricated titles must have been added after the illumination, complicating further the order and process of production. That was, in fact, a false hypothesis, as I can say now having used the website further. For, while there does seem to be over-painting in those two instances, there are also occasions when the edge of the  border has been interrupted to allow space for the title; in other words, in this case, the illumination must have happened after the rubrication. You will see a good example of that if you go to fol. 40 — and you will also see that the top of some of the ascenders on the first line (the ‘d’ and the ‘ct’ ligature) have been painted over by the illuminator. So, in these cases we have one sequence of work; do we have the opposite at fol. 33v? This is where the high resolution allowing us to zoom in very close is revealing in a way that peering at the page itself is not. Call up that folio again and zoom right in on that ‘p’: look closely and you will see that the gold circle surrounding the ‘E’ below stops at each side of the descender. You will also see that the colour of the descender does not change. These details demonstrate that the artist was actually painting around the letter, and is even making a feature of it. So, thanks to this technology, we can be certain that rubrication did occur before illumination but we also come to understand the care with which the artist interacted with the script.

The two insights that I have discussed here have become possible because of the capabilities of the new website. It is now your turn to tell us what you discover. I await your comments eagerly.

Tagged: Cardinal College Oxford, Christ Church Oxford, Cristina Neagu, Daryl Green, James Carley, Magdalen College Oxford, Pieter Meghen, Scot McKendrick, St Frideswide’s Priory Oxford, Thomas Wolsey