The Medieval Review 10.03.07

Connolly, Margaret and Linne R. Mooney. Design and Distribution of Late Medieval Manuscripts in England. Manuscript Culture in the British Isles. York: York Medieval Press, 2008. Pp. 352. $115.00 . 978-1-9031-5324-6.

Reviewed by:

Michael Calabrese
California State University, Los Angeles

In part driven and inspired by Linne Mooney's Pinkhurst work and the wide attention to manuscript study it has inspired, Connolly's and Mooney's DDLMME collects a series of micro-histories of scribal practice, book production, and manuscript distribution, each particular to the circumstance of individual texts and manuscript families, across a range of genres. The editors are right (and here prove) that "for a full understanding of medieval literature one must go back to the evidence of the original source materials, the manuscripts" (1). So little of what is discussed and acccepted in this book is at all in print anywhere, making the essays valuable and durable, both as models of archival work and repositories of information and descriptions to steer future study. Scores of illustration make the book not cheap but increase its value and accessibility dramatically; i.e., you can't really understand what the writers are talking about without seeing it.

The textual histories here recounted sometimes extend to the level of the graph, minim and stroke, purposeful or accidental, that emerge from scribal practice, as informed by physiology, psychology, memory, ergonomics, etc. The highly technical prose this (and other areas of inquiry) inspires, sometimes accompanied by graphic renderings and shading, makes clear that we are struggling as an academic culture to find the best way to explain and communicate the micro-histories of the texts, for even with reproductions the graphic events must ultimately be explained by a human voice. Writing about the events in and around medieval manuscripts does not quite compare to Borges's Library of Babel, where every possible book exists in an infinite labyrinth, but this type of textual study does take us into to realms that seem imaginary and surreal, as we contemplate a "h" that began as an "l" but was re-stroked by an unknown hand--yet sometimes mysteriously not re-stroked! Such inquiry into books as human labor and murky intention provides both the challenge and the near-absurdist literary excitement of reading this collection. The problem is how do we gain wisdom and apply what we learn to reach the "fuller understanding" the editors aver. Archeologists find a shard of pottery and anthropologists a chip of jaw and generate a vase about the Judgment of Paris or the biography of a 5-million year old girl who died of an infection. Both discursively and visually we are at a disadvantage because we are not so sure about what we are restoring or positing. If you attribute an error to ignorance or eye-skip, and even if you read the chap's journal (non-existent) and know that he was tired that day and had had just about enough of the damned Melibee, will we really be any closer to a final mapping of the scribes mind and/or the author's work? No one in this collection implies that we are or should be, and I register only what I hope is our collective frustration in charting scribal activity, error, correction, inconsistency, and inconsistent inconsistency. For those snake-bitten by these and other questions, DDLMME opens worlds of textual study that will mark our generation's engagement with medieval literature; more than just a collection of essays, it's a "state of the state" of the field workbook, compiling and charting what we can do with extant witnesses on the level of graph but also of the whole book, in order to understand the history of books and the people and cultures that made and read them. No scholarly ambition could be worthier or in better hands.

The book's major divisions concern "production and design" and "distribution," with the former divided into Chaucer studies and "individual and institutional" texts for devotion. The editors rightly notice "just how much can be learned from such study about authors, scribes, patrons, and audiences" and she also notes "just how much change was introduced" by the printing press (7). Several essays accordingly also relate manuscript history to early printers such as Wynkyn de Worde, as the historical cusp between manuscript and print receives ever more scholarly attention. The prose itself throughout is necessarily often bogged down in endless shelf marks, folio numbers, abbreviations, etc. and such detail is bound to be a greater value to those familiar with the individual corpuses and collections under particular study, but each author steps back well from the trees (or really the ridges in the bark) to show the forest as a whole, that is, the events and practices in human intellectual and religious history that we are trying to understand, whether it be how scribes worked for their bread, how desired books circulated knowledge in communities, or how man and woman practiced their faith through learning and art.

The details of the volume defy paraphrase, but a word or two about each essay is in order. First, Daniel W. Mosser studies the structure and composition of Canterbury Tales manuscript Hg in light of Mooney's identification of Pinkhurst, posing some startling questions about how the poet and scribe may have worked together in revision, even wondering if Supplementary Hand B is actually that of Chaucer; Moser mixes textual detail about exemplars and manuscript construction with circumstantial musing about exactly how the two men may have collaborated, and the supervisory role Chaucer may have had. Jacob Thaisen studies the Trinity Gower D scribe's work in Chaucer manuscripts, mainly Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 198 (Cp), exploring how orthography reveals transmission history, confronting one of the ambiguities that makes all textual study so difficult and provisional: the inconvenient fact that "exemplar influence...does not make itself uniformly felt on all elements in a scribe's language" and does not "remain constant throughout his copying of a text" (45). Thus "it is not easy to determine for any individual form what determined a scribe's selection of it at a given location in the manuscript, his written usage being...variable in itself as well as subject to a variety of local and global influences in addition to the number of exemplars and the order of copying" (59). In this universe of radical contingency, Thaisen points to the continued need for searchable electronic texts.

Takako Kato's "Corrected Mistakes in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.27 charts the psychic and ergonomic principles, mainly derived from Kane, that led to error and self-correction in this Chaucer manuscript. The issues are important as they point to the relationship among understanding, memory, habit, craft, and all the forces that put pen strokes on the page to create meaning; Kato concludes that the evidence indicates carelessness rather than "insufficient understanding" (87). The scribe's mind sometimes registers not the right word but only "its approximate shape, and not its meaning"; his gaze "can wander off and fall" (79); his mind can be "absorbed in other matters" (85). In some cases, "the scribe who saw a word with the letter "f" must have misinterpreted the letter as a long "s," and automatically changed it to "c"; he also changed s to c however, "when he was not supposed to." Kato could not be more correct, but add to all this the dizzying phenomenon of "double arrhythmia, consisting of the omission of a letter and the repetition of a word" ("me men," "worth worthy" etc.) (85), and we see just how daunting our attempt to chart the micro-history of the pen stroke can be.

Sherry L. Reames traces the "efforts at Standardization" in Sarum lessons for Saints' days, showing how, contrary to past scholarship, the texts show a pattern of narrative compression; Reames relates the narratives to issues in church history, associating the reduction of "colorful narrative" to Chaucer's Parson's shared "Wycliffite doubt" about the usefulness of story-telling in religious and moral instruction" (112). Scholars in this field will find useful Reames's table of manuscripts, and all readers will enjoy the generous quotations and her translations of the lessons, illustrating the simple but compelling narrative style of the saints lives, which hold the saint up "as a model to the clergy of its own day" (113). Amelia Grounds explores the "evolution of a manuscript," the Pavement Book of Hours, addressing its decoration and illustrations both original and later sewn in (some possibly from a souvenir marketplace) and detailing not only the interdependence of image and text but also the independent narrative and devotional power of the iconography itself; sharp sample images (roses, flower, the wounded heart) aid and convince here. Alexandra Barratt explores "Two Bridgettine Manuscripts" (London Lambeth Palace MS 3600 and London British Library Harley 494), the contents of which she exhaustively details, exploring their provenance and even one's (Harley's) possible later relations to the court of Catherine of Aragon; generous quotations from Middle English and Latin reveal the components, sources and interplay play of literacies inherent to these "popular" devotional books. Julian M. Luxford then studies the post-dissolution copying of a monastic chronicle from Tewkesbury, likely commissioned in the 17th century by someone associated with that monastery's patronage history, exploring how this oddity, a hand-made reproduction, eschews gothic features of composition in favor of "print" resemblances, possibly reflecting an "implicit critique of late-medieval monastic taste, which may extend to monasticism per se, and a concurrent, equally recognizable commendation of print culture" (163).

In the next section "Development and Distribution: Mapping Manuscripts and Texts," Mooney herself tries to "locate scribal activity in late- medieval London," surveying the many kinds of scribal positions and situations that could be held, both in and out of the guilds and the government, by Englishmen and foreigners, arguing, in part, that many scribes for literary manuscripts "were not members of the Textwriters' Gild...and even worked in their homes or lodgings rather than in shops;" this means, in part, that "the most prolific literary scribes of this period offer little evidence of mass producing manuscript books" (184). Like the work of Parkes and Doyle it so thoughtfully references, this essay will repay study in providing an advanced primer on who wrote vernacular literary manuscripts under what varied professional circumstances. Mooney digs into data but never forgets to tell a good story about work, guilds, and even the clerical marriages that led to moonlighting, giving us a vital sense of human labor involving freelancing and "after-hours work" (195).

Michael G. Sargent contributes "What Do the Numbers Mean? A Textual Critic's Observations on some Patterns of Middle English Manuscript Transmission." Though Sargent labors as a keen and informed archeologist, it's not so clear--he strongly acknowledges--how extant manuscripts can statistically reveal anything about the set of all made books that they have randomly been derived from. Yet Sargent is right to apply his formidable encyclopedic powers to the provocative inquiry and knows the contingencies of the key phenomena, "popularity," "importance" and "market saturation," that he posits. Sargent assembles these numbers to serve a larger evidentiary analysis of what was desired and read, a process that may re-write medieval literary and religious history; he argues for example that Wycliffite Bible's survival reveals that Arundel's constitutions were a "notable failure" (216). Notes on the Brut, the Prick and Piers, the Scale of Perfection, CT, CA, and Love's Mirror also point to future work in those fields. Lawrence Warner has noted in private correspondence from work in press to me that Sargent evidently misread Kane and Donaldson's dating of Piers MS. CUL Gg.4.31 (G) ("s. xvi[1]") ("The B Version", 8) as "s. xv[1]." If an engineer is off by a 100 something a bridge falls; when a textual scholar has a manuscript in his data off by 100 years, then what happens? It shows how fragile narratives based on scientific models are in textual study (one missed iota from a faded old Kane- Donaldson corrupts the pool), but Sargent, despite the statistical caste of his work here (and a reliance on ball-parking received mss. dating) mainly wants to trace patterns and provoke questions, from the fragmented evidence extant, about the mysterious corpuses that we know must have existed.

John J. Thompson adds a complementary essay on the prose Brut's relation to how "British history was imagined and utilized by vernacular English readers across three centuries leading up to the Act of Union" (245). Not lexical editing but "cultural mapping," this essay on the "Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English associations" of the Brut traces a history of reception in which the texts were variously neglected, or treated as "trophies" or "pored over and annotated" "often by later generations of readers rather than their original copyists, commissioners or first intended owners" (260). This essays redeems and reasserts the sometimes critically marginalized role of the supposedly popular and second-rate Brut in documentable British history (see 246-48). In part we learn that the work "was an important book to enjoy, to hold in one's hands, and to record one's name in" (250). Co-editor Connolly than "maps" manuscripts and readers of the Contemplations of the Dread and Love of God, exploring the "origins of the text" and its "audience" (262), showing its connections to the Carthusian order and that the text was mainly "available in religious houses" and read by the enclosed during the 15th century, making the text, which targets a lay audience, surprisingly absent from lay reading circles, perhaps related to the "climate of suspicion" post Arundel's Constitutions (274). No one compiles linguistic data as keenly and concisely while maintaining an accessible historical narrative about books and readers quite like Ralph Hanna, in his contribution about the dialect of the Northern manuscripts of the Speculum Vitae, which he was editing at the time of writing (since published). Scholars and students will do well to follow his model, humane prose: "The Speculum deservedly reached a very large audience because its author provided a single volume compendium of anything one would like to know about virtuous living" (279). Hanna then displays how "proximity" guaranteed "textual fidelity" among a group of Yorkshire manuscripts, locatable to where Hanna's analysis of rhyming forms places the poem's anonymous author.

The volume ends with George Keiser's look at "vernacular herbals" from 1350-1600 covering manuscripts and print, attesting to an ever "new and expanded audience of readers, professionals, and non- professionals" who needed vernacular texts (292) either in comprehensive or abbreviated volumes. The books obviously relate to a long and evolving medical history of practitioners pursuing the "daily business of helping and healing their contemporaries" (307). These final, kindly words of the collection fittingly end a magisterial volume of labors that will, not medically, but intellectually and professionally do the same among medieval textual scholars.