03.07.07, Taylor, Textual Situations

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Elaine Whitaker

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.007


Taylor, Andrew. Textual Situations: Three Medieval Manuscripts and Their Readers. Series: Material Texts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Pp. viii, 300. ISBN: 0-8122-362-4.

Reviewed by:
Elaine Whitaker
University of Alabama at Birmingham

The three manuscripts that Taylor analyzes are these:

Bodleian MS Digby 23 [Chapter 2] British Library MS Harley 978 [Chapter 3] British Library MS Royal 10.E.4 [Chapter 4]

This sequence is introduced by a chapter on "Medieval Materials," concluded by a chapter on "The Manuscript as Fetish," and augmented by "Interstice: The Minstrel and the Book" between the second and third chapters. The book concludes with almost sixty pages of notes, a discography/bibliography, and an index. It's a seriously good value for $55 (38.50 pounds sterling), as all three of these medieval manuscripts would, for one reason or another, appear on the short list of the pilfered-manuscripts from which something has been extracted and decontextualized. In the case of Digby 23, that something is the so-called Song of Roland. Harley 978 -- viewed by Taylor as a single bespoke book made in thirteenth century Oxford for a Benedictine Abbey at Reading (84) -- contains "Sumer Is Icumen In," a staple of anthologies. Yet, as Taylor reminds us, "the 'Summer Canon' is in fact a bilingual cultural artifact because there is an interlineated Latin hymn 'Perspice Christicola' ('See, O Christian') set to the same music" (79). A plate (Figure 8, p. 80) clearly demonstrates this. The last of the three manuscripts, Royal 10.E.4 -- best known for the endless fascination of the figures in its decorative borders -- houses an exhaustive compilation of canon law circa 1234. We know it as the Smithfield Decretals, due to its presence at St. Bartholomew Priory in Smithfield perhaps as early as the late fourteenth century. (The physical size of this book gained the petite Lucy Freeman Sandler a reputation for strength and agility, as well as scholarship, as she maneuvered in the British Library's old student room.)

To a specialist in early books, Taylor's main claim, that works are embodied in various texts and that texts are located in the material context of books, is unsurprising; it is also unsurprising that "the material support of the medieval text, which is not just the manuscript but also the social conventions that surround it, differs from that of the printed book" (2). Part of the lack of surprise, however, comes from praiseworthy essays already published by Andrew Taylor (e.g., two in Speculum, and "Playing on the Margins" in the essay collection Bakhtin and Medieval Voices). Part of the pleasure of reading Textual Situations comes from the fulfillment of the author's promise to explain "something of the way in which" the quotation above is true.

Textual Situations has broad appeal. It is as useful for deflating the pretensions of canonical works by placing them in their manuscript contexts as it is for elevating previously ignored or misunderstood adjacent works. The title is brilliant, pointing as it does to the situatedness of texts of literary works as evidence of their original (as opposed to subsequent and current) reception. Taylor synthesizes evidence from a variety of disciplines, and he provides textual evidence in its original language followed by his own translation. Thus, his argument is simultaneously scholarly and accessible to a wide audience. Taylor's ethos as a writer is persuasive, marked by humility and respect for his materials and for the cultures they allow him to reconstruct. His rhetorical voice can contribute positively to the larger conversation that is the project of Penn's Material Texts series, a general one "that explores cultural technologies of communication [...] with particular attention to the ways in which specific material forms affect meaning" (dust jacket).

My only desire as a reader of Textual Situations was to have been forewarned about the degree of reprinting, as I was astonished by repeated experiences of syntactic or turn-of-phrase deja vu. (If Taylor's prose style were not so distinctive, I might not have noticed.) These matters are covered on page 300, in acknowledgments that conclude, rather than precede, Taylor's text.

Works Cited and Unpublished Dissertation

Taylor, Andrew. "The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript." Speculum 66 (1991): 43-73.

---. "Narrative Minstrelsy in Late Medieval England." Diss. U of Toronto, 1989.

---. "Playing on the Margins: Bakhtin and the Smithfield Decretals." in Bakhtin and Medieval Voices, ed. Thomas J. Farrell. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1995.

---. "Was There a Song of Roland?" Speculum 76 (2001): 28-65.

Article Details

Author Biography

Elaine Whitaker

University of Alabama at Birmingham