George Shuffelton

title.none: Scase, Essays in Manuscript Geography (George Shuffelton)

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.008 08.10.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: George Shuffelton, Carleton College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Scase, Wendy, ed. Essays in Manuscript Geography: Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xii, 294. $89 978-2-503-51695-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.08

Scase, Wendy, ed. Essays in Manuscript Geography: Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century. Turnhout: Brepols, 2007. Pp. xii, 294. $89 978-2-503-51695-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

George Shuffelton
Carleton College

The timely appearance of this volume in Brepols Publishing's Medieval Texts and Cultures of Northern Europe series confirms the deepening interest in studies of regional manuscript networks. This regional focus has been heralded by the "spatial" turn of scholars such as David Wallace and exemplified by the recent work of Ralph Hanna (whose influence on the volume under review is quite strong). Growing out of a 2003 conference held at Birmingham, this volume offers a good sense of both the rich promise and the potential limits of such "manuscript geography" (Scase's term). Readers seeking a thorough investigation of the reading cultures of the medieval West Midlands will be somewhat disappointed; the volume instead offers a series of valuable, loosely related studies of specific manuscripts, institutions, and families. Or, as Derek Pearsall notes in his useful epilogue, "questions of regional cultural identity take second place to the demonstration of the importance of the study of material manuscript culture" (274).

The first three essays, dedicated to manuscripts from the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, suggest the volume's broad interpretation of its regional focus. Elaine Treharne compares the English holdings of the Worcester Cathedral library under Saint Wulfstan to those of Exeter under Bishop Leofric. Treharne sees each bishop's interest in vernacular material as a result of the duty to preach rather than nostalgia or cultural politics. Like Treharne's essay, Bella Millet's sensible discussion of the Trinity and Lambeth homilies, both c. 1200, is only tangentially "regional" in its focus (and the Trinity manuscript falls outside the region in question). Millet argues that these homilies, often cited as examples of the lingering influence of older preaching styles and Old English prose, may be more "forward-looking" than previously recognized. Mary Swan's essay also considers the Worcester library, long seen as a major center for the production and preservation of vernacular texts in the centuries after the Conquest as exemplified in the work of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. But Swan suggests that attributing texts to Worcester has sometimes been merely a matter of convenience rather than firm fact, and she goes on to illuminate the ways Worcester relied on other institutions within and without the diocese, "either in collaboration or in friction" (42).

One of the most famous West Midlands manuscripts, Harley 2253, receives careful attention from Susannah Fein and Carter Revard. Fein's excellent essay offers an original and provocative account of the "general working principles of the Harley compiler" (69). She sees his selection and layout of the miscellany's contents as proof of his interest in different social registers (between and within the miscellany's three languages), and concludes that Harley 2253 was designed for aural performance: whether or not texts were read aloud, "The scribe has intentionally made numerous texts look like they are being orally delivered" (89). Revard's essay offers a slightly different view of the compiler's guiding principles, a view familiar from his other groundbreaking essays on the manuscript. Revard again argues that the scribe's main principle is the necessity of juxtaposition, "that we know everything by its contrary, so that to know anything we need to look also at its contrary" (107).

Another idiosyncratic West Midlands product, the genealogical rolls produced by the chaplain John Rous in celebration of the Earls of Warwick, forms the center of a pair of studies by Martha Driver and David Griffiths. Driver also examines the Beauchamp Pageants and the role of visual art within the Beauchamp affinity, focusing particularly on the likely patronage of Anne Neville, the disinherited Countess of Warwick. Both essays trace the lasting interest in these genealogies through the sixteenth century and beyond.

Ryan Perry's essay on the now-dispersed Clopton manuscript, another, less glamorous product of the Beauchamp affinity, stands as one of the volume's finest. The Clopton manuscript contains Piers Plowman, Mandeville's Travels and Handlyng Synne among other works, and Perry's essay will thus be of great interest to many readers. The essay investigates the complex networks of reading, patronage, and exchange within the large community associated with the Beauchamp family, and offers a highly valuable picture of the shared tastes of West Midlands families. Perry also questions the attribution of the manuscript to the patronage of Sir William Clopton, suggesting the Throckmorton family as more likely patrons of the volume before it ended up in the Clopton household.

Perry's essay demonstrates the rewards of studying reading networks and regional family alliances; Allison Wiggins offers another, equally rewarding geographic methodology in her analysis of the surviving corpus of romance manuscripts traceable to the West Midlands. Her conclusion suggests that regional identity may have been a "particularly aristocratic preoccupation" not shared by all classes, and that other readers happily adopted romances from the South and East of the country, especially after 1400 (254). Although the West Midlands have long been associated with the fourteenth-century alliterative revival, Wiggins's argument ought to prevent any overgeneralizations about regional tastes for alliterative romance (or any other kind).

Many of the essays in the volume expose the limits of any attempt to think in regional terms about medieval manuscript networks. Most explicitly, John J. Thompson argues strenuously against the idea of a definable Anglo-Irish identity. Using the "Kildare Miscellany," MS Harley 913, as his focus, Thompson describes the communities of the Pale as "polyglot, peripatetic, inherently changeable and unstable," and suggests that the same terms define the West Midlands. Thompson uses the overlapping contents of Harley 913 and Harley 2253 as a major basis of his argument, as well as the familial ties between the two regions. Though among the volume's most provocative and intriguing arguments, his is also one of the less convincing, as it meanders somewhat between history, codicology, and a series of polemics about the study of the Irish Middle Ages. And while Thompson begins by acknowledging the scant number of Middle English manuscripts securely traced to Ireland, this evidence is soon forced to serve a very large argument.

Two essays are dedicated to the volume's primary impulse, the Manuscripts of the West Midlands Project. This Web-based catalogue (available at offers searchable descriptions of approximately 150 manuscripts from 1300-1475, traced to the region on the basis of linguistic evidence. Rebecca Farnham provides a useful account of the project and its potential uses for scholars. Orietta da Rold proposes to use the catalogue as the basis for some much-needed work on identifying paper types. The recent fondness of funding groups like the British Arts and Humanities Research Council for databases and other online resources may have real drawbacks for future scholarship, but da Rold's proposal demonstrates how this trend can be made to fill genuine needs in manuscript study.

Reading across the volume exposes some interesting lacunae; these absences are not failures on the part of the contributors but simply opportunities for further research. For example, the first three essays (by Treharne, Swan, and Millet) focus on institutional libraries after the Conquest, but the essays on later periods rarely address the roles of such institutions in regional manuscript circulation. More broadly, the Manuscripts of the West Midlands Project's focus on localization by dialect has limited the scope of most essays in this volume to Old and Middle English texts (though trilingual miscellanies like Harley 2253 and Harley 913 make salutary exceptions). One hopes that future studies of regional manuscript networks adopt broader, more inclusive parameters, and include more Latin and French texts.

The volume has been carefully edited and thoroughly indexed, and Wendy Scase capably presents both a summary of the contents and a useful sense of the project's place in the directions of recent scholarship. Like the associated Manuscripts of the West Midlands project, this volume will serve as a useful resource for further studies in the region's manuscript networks and as an instructive model for those undertaking similar geographic studies.