David N. Bell

title.none: Coates, English Medieval Books (Bell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0005.006 00.05.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David N. Bell, Memorial University of Newfoundland,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Coates, Alan. English Medieval Books: The Reading Abbey Collections from Foundation to Dispersal. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 211. $70.00. ISBN: 0-198-20756-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.05.06

Coates, Alan. English Medieval Books: The Reading Abbey Collections from Foundation to Dispersal. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Pp. xxi, 211. $70.00. ISBN: 0-198-20756-5.

Reviewed by:

David N. Bell
Memorial University of Newfoundland

De spite its title, this is not a study of English medieval books. It is, as is indicated by the subtitle, a study of some English medieval books from one particular abbey--Reading--and, after a brief introduction providing a succinct summary of research on Reading and its abbey from 1802, the book opens with a useful history of the foundation, dependencies, and later history of the celebrated monastery (Chapter 1). Chapter 2 then introduces us to the Fingall Cartulary book-list and is followed (Appendix A [pp. 25-36]) by Richard Sharpe's edition of the lists taken from English Benedictine Libraries: The Shorter Catalogues (CBLMC 4; 1996). Dr. Coates' argument (pp. 20-1) that the lists were compiled a little earlier than has hitherto been supposed--he suggests a terminus ante quem of 1191--is persuasive; but his discussion of the form and order of the lists, their purpose as a "master list", and his comparison with other late twelfth-century lists is too brief to be of great use. It would also have been better to have included Sharpe's numbering of the items in the lists, since Appendix F, a list of surviving books (to which we shall return in a moment), cites these numbers wherever possible. MS no. 23, for example (p. 148) is B71.133 and is to be found recorded midway down page 31; but to find it we have to count items or use the General Index, and that is unnecessarily tedious.

Chapter 3 brings us to a "comparison between the twelfth-century collections of Reading Abbey and those of other houses", the other houses being primarily Durham, Rochester, Burton-on-Trent, and Whitby. It is a useful account, but comparison with a wider range of catalogues would have proved beneficial. The author might then have concluded that Origen was by no means as rare as he suggests (40), and that R.M. Wilson was wrong in stating that the works of Gregory the Great were more "popular" than those of Augustine in monastic collections (39), though "popularity" is a subjective term. (39) The question of the presence or absence of medical titles in twelfth-century book-lists (37) is a difficult subject that deserves a study of its own; an interest in English and local historical material (42-3) is common in English abbeys; but the author is quite correct in his assertion that "Reading was acquiring the sort of works being recorded in the contemporary book-lists of other houses." (45).

In Chapter 4 we have an examination of the palaeography of the twelfth-century manuscripts and a useful attempt, on palaeographical grounds, to suggest the order in which they may have been acquired by the house. The author's conclusions cannot always be regarded as proven (for palaeography is an art, not a science), but his arguments are sound and interesting. It may be observed in passing, however, that the well-known Prognosticon futuri saeculi was composed by Julian of Toledo, not Julianus Pomerius. (57) The beginning of the chapter would also have profited from some pruning, since it is improbable that those who use this book will need to have "above top line" and "below top line" explained to them (47), or to be told that "early-twelfth-century English script is relatively easy to distinguish from that of other countries: it is a developed form of English Caroline minuscule." (49)

Chapters 5 and 6 (and their Appendices) take the history of the book collection into the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Here we enter the world of university studies and Dr. Coates provides an admirable account of the association of the Reading monks with the university of Oxford. Appendices B-D (pp. 81-86), again taken from Richard Sharpe, reproduce editions of later lists of books relating to Reading; and Appendix E (pp. 108-112), dealing with Greek studies in England, demonstrates, as we have suspected, that "the works of [Joannes] Serbopoulos never formed part of the Reading Abbey book collections." (112) Serbopoulos lodged at the abbey from 1489, he certainly copied books for scholars, he might have taught at the university, but he was not a member of the monastic community.

Chapter 7 deals with the acquisition (by donation and bequest) of the book collections, together with their housing and management. The first part of the chapter (pp. 113-8), discussing books given to the abbey, is of considerable interest; the second part (pp. 118-21) tells us little we did not already know, but that is not the fault of the author. As he observes, little evidence has survived for the use of books by members of the Reading community precisely because little evidence existed. (121)

The final chapter, which reads like a detective story, is concerned with the dispersal of the books at the Dissolution. It is a fascinating account, and although it is obviously impossible to summarize the details here, we may certainly agree with Dr. Coates that "a general study of this period [i.e. the years following the Dissolution] and its book collectors is long overdue." (123)

We come now to the final Appendix F (pp. 143-70), "The Surviving Manuscripts and Printed Books from Reading Abbey and Leominster Priory". Here we have problems. The list itself is indeed comprehensive, but the identification of a number of the items requires some correction. We have already seen the confusion of Julian of Toledo with Julianus Pomerius; Richard of Pr^Îmontr^Î (p. 147 #17) should be Richard the Premonstratensian (the abbey is not the Order); there is no need for "Berengaudus" (p. 148 #20) to appear in quotation marks; Haimo of Halberstadt (p. 149 #31) should be Haimo of Auxerre; Rufinus was not the author but the translator of the Historia monachorum in Aegypto (p. 153 #50); Macharius should certainly be Macarius, and very probably ps.-Macarius (p.153 #50); Augustine's De doctrina christianorum (p. 145 #6) is better cited as De doctrina christiana; sometimes translators are identified (e.g. Basil, tr. Eustathius [p. 147 #17]), sometimes they are not (e.g. John Chrysostom's In laudibus S. Pauli [p. 145 #5], which was translated by Annianus); a number of attributions are by no means certain (e.g. De fide catholica attributed to Gregory of Elvira; De lapsu virginis consecratae attributed to Nicetas of Remesiana); and so on.

It is true that Dr. Coates has not intended to provide us with a detailed account of the contents of the manuscripts, and that is understandable; but these unfortunate lapses inevitably denigrate from what would have been an extremely useful appendix. The study concludes with an excellent bibliography, an index of manuscripts, early printed books, and documents, and a good General Index which would have been better had the author not included the misleading attributions from Appendix F.

We cannot say, then, that this is a book without faults, but there is no doubt that the faults are outweighed by a great deal of solid and useful research. It is also (fairly obviously) based on a doctoral dissertation: in this case a dissertation submitted in the University of Oxford in 1991. But dissertations, like fruit trees, are improved by rigorous pruning, and if the author had been a little more rigorous in the pruning of his own thesis, it could have been happily cleansed of those appendages so necessary in a doctoral dissertation and so unnecessary in the work of an established scholar. But it is a good study which offers much of enduring value, and is certainly the best account available of the history and vicissitudes of the Reading Abbey collections.