Richard Marsden

title.none: Roberts, Guide to Scripts (Richard Marsden )

identifier.other: baj9928.0705.003 07.05.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Marsden , University of Nottingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Roberts, Jane. Guide to Scripts used in English Writings up to 1500. London: The British Library, 2005. Pp. xv, 294. $80.00 (hb) 0-7123-4884-0 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.05.03

Roberts, Jane. Guide to Scripts used in English Writings up to 1500. London: The British Library, 2005. Pp. xv, 294. $80.00 (hb) 0-7123-4884-0 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Marsden
University of Nottingham

Let us get it clear from the outset that this book is not a mere "guide"--that term makes the academic's heart sink, for there are too many of the species about, usually thin, soft-focused and cursory; rather, this can fairly claim to be an "introductory textbook" of English palaeography in the medieval period. As such, it is overdue and very welcome, for there has up to now been no "one-stop shop" for this subject. Those many of us who, though non- specialists in palaeography, regularly teach the subject in courses on various aspects of early medieval English culture know only too well the problem of finding suitable books to recommend. We end up producing, very laboriously, our own booklets of photocopies made from microfilms, books or, where they are available, online resources. Here at last we have a good range of facsimiles in one place, with exhaustive analysis and commentary. The material is accessible but the approach scholarly, and the hand (to use an appropriate metaphor) of a teacher who knows the material intimately is evident throughout. One should never underestimate the amount of sustained scholarship which goes into a serious textbook of this sort. With this resource, teaching "manuscripts" can actually be a pleasure, and an education.

There are 294 pages, with just over one hundred black-and-white facsimiles, eight of which are reproduced also in colour in a separate section. The main contents are as follows:

I. General IntroductionII. Insular BackgroundIII. Anglo-Saxon MinusculeIV. English Caroline MinusculeV. ProtogothicVI. The Gothic System of Scripts: Gothic TextualisVII. The Gothic System of Scripts: AnglicanaVIII. The Gothic System of Scripts: SecretaryIX. Afterword

The General Introduction gives an excellent overview of the development of English script, its historical context, and is full of essential information about the complexities of naming scripts, the terminology used to describe them, and the use of abbreviations. The Afterword rounds off the story with some remarks on the introduction of printing, the relative status of Latin and English, and lay literacy.

That story--of the evolution of the scripts--is told in the seven middle sections, II-VIII. Each has a introduction of three or four pages (that is, some 3-4000 words in this large-format book), which places the main script-type in its historical context, describes its characteristic features and variations, and so on. These essays are excellent in their detail and lucidity and constitute the main strength of the book. Though the subject is ostensibly English writing (mostly in forms of the English language, but also in Latin), sufficient information is provided in section II, on the Insular Background, to provide essential guidance on the Roman and Irish scripts out of which peculiarly English writing developed. All this is set out with clarity, and these pages now offer the best account available of the palaeography of the Anglo-Saxon period. After the introductory pages, there follow in each section the illustrative plates, between four and thirteen of them (the highest number being in section III). They are numbered continuously across section boundaries (1-58). The transcription opposite each facsimile is not restricted to an extract but is complete--text in both Old or Middle English and (if there is any) Latin is given, along with all punctuation, corrections, glosses, marginalia and rubrics. The accompanying commentary gives a detailed analysis of the scripts, punctuation and lay-out, and offers essential contextual and historical information. The detail which is cumulatively built up about each manuscript page is impressive: each repays a considerable amount of study time.

Most of the illustrative manuscripts are naturally from the Additional, Cotton, Harley and Royal collections in the British Library, but there is a small number also from other libraries. The latter include pages from the Exeter Book, the Stockholm Codex Aureus (a page with Old English additions), the Old English Bede in Tanner 10, Genesis B in Junius 11, Ormulum in Junius 1, Barbour's The Bruce in the same library's G. 23, the Morte Arthure in Lincoln, Cathedral Library 91, and Troilus and Criseyde in Cambridge, St John's College L. 1; the last plate in the book is a page from House of Fame in Fairfax 16, written in the fifteenth century, with seventeenth century additions. The British Library material includes pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels (the last page, with Aldred's colophon), the Hexateuch in Cotton Claudius B. iv, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Cotton Tiberius B. iv, the Ancrene Riwle in Cotton Titus D. viii, Hoccleve's The Regement of Princes in Harley 4866 (the page with a portrait of Chaucer), Lydgate's Horns Away in Harley 2255, and the York Plays in Additional 35290. Whole-page reproductions are nearly always given, with an indication of the percentage reduction in size from the original. Line-numbers are supplied immediately to the right of each page to facilitate reference. The quality of the reproductions is generally excellent, though there are a few puzzling exceptions, a page from the Peterborough Chronicle being one of them.

Despite what seems, superficially, to be a straightforward structure, the book in fact has idiosyncrasies which take some getting used to, although that is not adverse criticism of a textbook, which is for sustained study, not occasional hurried visits. For instance, in most cases, the main plates with their commentary, around which the narrative is structured, are supplemented by a further plate. This may be another view of the same manuscript, but as often as not it is of a different, though contemporary, manuscript. Apart from an indication of shelf-mark and title, however, nothing is said about it, and usually the manuscript index will offer no other location for information. This at first is confusing, but Roberts' introduction indicates that the supplementary plates are there to enable readers to pursue further their study of the particular script under discussion; that is no bad idea and the supplementary plates are, like the main plates, provided with line-numbers.

I have one or two quibbles. The two tables of abbreviations on p. 11, for instance, are simply not clear enough (and there seems to be an error in the lay-out of the first). This problem derives partly, perhaps, from the large format of the book; that is essential to allow an adequate display of the manuscript facsimiles and their attendant commentary but is a less happy environment for the conventional presentation of information. It is disappointing also that there is no general index, which need not have taken up much space. There is of course an index of manuscripts, along with extremely useful annotated indices, both of the people and of the places named in the plates and also of the people named in the commentaries, but that is not much comfort for the student who wants, say, to know where to discover what "bookhand" or "punctus elevatus" mean, or who needs quickly to locate an explanation of "half-uncial." I take the point made by the author in her introduction, that the contents pages are in themselves an index, but that is not enough, and I hope that, when the book goes into a second edition, this lack is remedied.

My admiration for this "Guide to Scripts" grew as I became used to it. It should be (and surely will be) on the shelf of every early medievalist. By today's standards, the hardback volume is not too expensive, but I trust that the British Library will soon issue a paperback edition also, at a far more attractive price, to ensure that it is accessible to the many students who desperately need it.