Catherine E. Karkov

title.none: Brown, The Book of Cerne (Karkov)

identifier.other: baj9928.9708.001 97.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Catherine E. Karkov, Miami University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Brown, Michelle. The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England. London and Toronto: The British Library Publications and University of Toronto Press, 1996. Pp. 252. $85.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-712-30486-X (The British Library Publications), 0-802-04113-2 (University of Toronto Press).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.08.01

Brown, Michelle. The Book of Cerne: Prayer, Patronage and Power in Ninth-Century England. London and Toronto: The British Library Publications and University of Toronto Press, 1996. Pp. 252. $85.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-712-30486-X (The British Library Publications), 0-802-04113-2 (University of Toronto Press).

Reviewed by:

Catherine E. Karkov
Miami University

Michelle Brown inaugurates the new British Library Studies in Medieval Culture series with a very ambitious book. Not only is this the first major study of the Book of Cerne (Cambridge, University Library. MS L1.I.IO), an insular Latin prayerbook of ca. 820-40, it is also a welcome introduction to the larger context of eighth- and ninth-century English prayerbooks. Aside from Cerne three such manuscripts survive: the Harleian prayerbook (BL, Harley 7653), the Book of Nunnaminster (BL, Harley 2965), and the Royal prayerbook (BL, Royal 2.A.xx). Michelle Brown's aim is to clarify the relationship between the four manuscripts through an admirably detailed analysis of the style, text, and context for production of each. This she does extremely well, although her focus remains, as it should, firmly on Cerne.

The Book of Cerne, as Brown makes clear, is particularly important because of its likely provenance as well as because of its quality and complexity. It was produced between the "golden ages" of the eighth and tenth centuries, most probably in Mercia, well outside the famous scriptoria of Lindisfarne and Wearmouth-Jarrow in the North, and Canterbury in the South. It is thus the product of an age and locale whose importance are only now coming to be understood.

The book moves clearly and logically from an introductory discussion of historical context to individual chapters devoted to codicology, paleography, decoration, text, and the context for the manuscript's production. However, within these chapters the clarity and eloquence of Brown's argument is frequently lost. The book grew out of her University of London Ph.D. dissertation and has not been sufficiently revised to move it from an uneven dissertation manuscript to a polished book. All the information is there, but it is presented in a manner that is often repetitive, poorly organized, and occasionally annoyingly abbreviated or ambiguous. Brown states on page 16, for example, that the central devotional theme of Cerne is the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints, but the topic once raised is dropped and not brought up again for another 93 pages, and a full discussion of the meaning of the Communion of the Saints and its applicability to Cerne does not appear until p. 147. At this point, however, she does provide a strong argument for the communio sanctorum being the book's central theme, mustering a wealth of internal evidence, as well as comparative evidence from the Ruthwell Cross, the Book of Kells, and a variety of contemporary manuscripts.

Brown's primary interest is in the text of the manuscript, both its paleography and content, rather than in art historical matters. Chapter 1 includes an excellent and very complete discussion of the history of scholarship on Cerne's text, provenance and patronage, but provides only a brief list of art historical studies (pp. 22-23). We are therefore given the art historians' conclusions, but little discussion of the what brought them to those conclusions, or analysis of the different arguments. This is particularly unfortunate in a book that argues for the "complex inter-relationship of text, script and image" (p. 17). Chapter 1 ends with a discussion of methodology and a list of criteria for distinguishing hands that will be particularly useful for students, less so for scholars familiar with the field. Moreover, as with the sudden switch from discussion of the history of textual scholarship to enumeration of art historical scholarship, the summary listing of working methods detracts from the flow of the book's argument.

Chapter 2, "The Archaeology of the Book," opens with a paragraph that simply repeats information provided in Chapter 1, but is otherwise exemplary in its clarity and comprehensiveness. In fact, this is arguably the strongest section of the book.

Chapter 3 is devoted to the script of the Book of Cerne, and opens with an important discussion of corrections, glosses and marginalia, which are particularly complex in Cerne. Brown does a good job of distinguishing the differing series of annotations and contextualizing each; however, as important as these additions may be, it is unclear why they are considered before the script of the main text. Had a discussion of the main hand come first, her treatment of the "near contemporary" hands would have been easier to follow. There are also areas of ambiguity, as for example in a discussion of 13th-century glosses added by a hand Brown identifies as the Cerne "trembling hand" (pp. 48- 9), and compares to the Worcester "tremulous hand." She writes: "An identification of the Cerne annotations with the tremulous hand is far from conclusive and is advanced here very tentatively (and on balance I would consider it a related hand rather than the same." Is she, however tentatively, suggesting identification with the tremulous hand or not?

The issue of women and Anglo-Saxon manuscripts is also raised in Chapter 3, one of several places in the book at which the subject is brought up only to be dropped again. In her discussion of the later correction of the feminine peccatricem to the masculine peccatorem in prayer no. 18, Brown notes that the prayer "was presumably written by or for a woman and was allowed to stand in its own right when incorporated into the Book of Cerne and when observed by subsequent readers and correctors, although there is no reason to suppose that it was necessarily in female use, until subjected to the attention of the 'Annotator'" (p. 51). However, instead of expanding on the possible implications of this prayer and other evidence for "female interest" in the Tiberius-group prayerbooks we are referred to her forthcoming article on the subject. It is not until p. 181 that we learn that compared to the other Mercian prayerbooks Cerne provides little evidence for either female use or ownership. A brief synopsis of the nature of the evidence ought to have been included if the subject was to be mentioned at all. Similarly, on p. 82 we are told that "the artist-scribe of Cerne is most at home among his (or her) 'pretentious worms'." Throughout the book scribes and artists are consistently referred to as male, and raising the possibility of a female artist-scribe at this point, and in this manner, reads as no more than a passing attempt at political correctness. This was certainly not Brown's intention and, again, a few sentences of explanation are all that would have been required to make her point effectively.

Chapter 4 is devoted to "Decoration as Elucidation," a title which reveals the chapter's main thesis: the intimate relationship between decoration, script and text in Cerne. Brown's argument for the unity of scribe and artist and her own elucidation of Cerne's unusual iconography are both first-rate, and fully supported by her illustrations. Yet in this chapter too the dissertation behind the book is all too apparent. We are provided with very detailed coverage of possible sources of and parallels for almost every aspect of the manuscript's illustrations and decorative motifs, but a greater synthesis of the material is needed. Many sources and parallels are cited--Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian-- but it is not always clear why or how specific connections might have existed, or even why they are being suggested. For example, on p. 75 why is the Cerne portrait of John so closely linked to the Breedon carving of Mary? (And is it Mary? The fact that the identification has been questioned is not noted until p. 117.) There is a general similarity between the two figures, but it could in fact be argued that the separated fingers of the hand of Mark make it, rather than the hand of John, more like the blessing hand of the Breedon figure. The Whitchurch, Hants. gravemarker is then brought into the argument, but more as a parallel to the Breedon figure than the Cerne evangelists. After citing a variety of possible sources of and influences on the Cerne evangelists Brown concludes:

Thus it may be seen that the Cerne evangelist miniatures have not copied one type of exemplar (although a major exemplar may have been used and "modernized" in accordance with other models), or simply revived the Hiberno-Saxon tradition of full-length terrestrial symbols or of symbols with attributes, although the latter play a major role in their iconography. The artist of Cerne has drawn upon Late Antique, Eastern, Continental and Insular sources to form a new series of evangelist images. This is not simply a revival of a Hiberno-Saxon type, but represents a conscious assembly of imagery from a variety of sources. (81)

This may be true. She has shown a plausible range of possible sources for the miniatures, but she has not established that this is a conscious assembly of imagery.

The final chapter brings the different threads of Brown's study together in a conclusion that returns to the questions of date, provenance, and the possible intentions of the manuscript's patron. Her summary of the evidence supports her suggestion that the book was produced in Mercia ca. 820- 40, possibly under the patronage of Bishop Aedelwald of Lichfield. She wisely notes that the evidence for a specific patron is inconclusive at best, although the complexity, unity and quality of the manuscript all argue for a powerful, wealthy, and highly-educated patron who was likely to have played a central role in the manuscript's production.

In spite of its stylistic and organizational problems and its occasional unsupported statement, the wealth of factual evidence included in this book is impressive. Brown's close and detailed analysis of the individual elements of the Book of Cerne, particularly its codicology, paleography and text; her demonstration of the interrelationship of text, script and decoration; and her discussion of the historical context in which the manuscript was produced make this book a must for anyone interested in Insular manuscripts.