09.05.13, Brown, Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age

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Mildred Budny

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.013


Brown, Michelle P.. Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Age.. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007. Pp. 184. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9096-6.

Reviewed by:
Mildred Budny
Research Group on Manuscript Evidence

Dr. Brown had the challenging task of producing a brief book "intended to introduce readers to the history, culture and art of the Anglo-Saxons by means of a survey of many of their surviving manuscripts," as the first sentence proclaims. There are glimpses of Dr. Brown's knowledge of those manuscripts and hints of a more comprehensive account, which would have benefited from less severe editing. Its current form offers little to tempt the specialist and much to confuse the novice.

This quarto-size book by a former Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts at the British Library contains a page-long "Introduction," four short chapters of eleven, four, eight, and four pages respectively, and 144 illustrations, mostly in color and often full-page. Usually the illustrations follow each chapter in sections of plates, with unnumbered illustrations elsewhere. There are a Bibliography, Index of Manuscripts, and general Index--which oddly also includes the manuscripts. There is no conclusion, notes, maps, glossary, nor list of plates.

The volume is essentially a picture book. As such, its value lies in its range of illustrations. The accompanying text does not do adequate justice to the pictures, so that the book fails to achieve its stated intention. It may be of value to historians skilled in other periods, aware already of the difficult choices to be made in selecting manuscripts for a survey publication, and seeking a glimpse of the range of surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and some of their relatives.

The volume gathers illustrations of materials usually considered in dispersed publications, partly due to the customary divisions of the Anglo-Saxon period into shorter segments. As a British Library publication (distributed in North America by the University of Toronto Press), the illustrations include many examples in that collection. Representatives from elsewhere come from institutions in the British Isles, the Continent of Europe, and the United States. A few cases are deemed to merit more than one illustration.

Mostly the ensemble encompasses manuscript and documentary materials assembled for two major exhibitions hosted by the British Museum and the British Library: The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066 (1984) and The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture, AD 600-900 (1991). The Bibliography cites the catalogue only for the former. Many of the plates are the same, but more images are reproduced in color, and Dr. Brown's evaluations incorporate some updates corresponding with advances in research and her particular interests. The subjects of her Ph.D. dissertation and her other publications, such as the Book of Cerne and Lindisfarne Gospels, receive extra attention. Her publications claim the lioness's share in the Bibliography. It is unsurprising that the choices are dominated by the holdings of the British Library and the author's research interests, but trotting out the usual stable of images simply duplicates other publications.

Grouped principally by periods and regions of activity, the chapters introduce each section of Plates (1-33, 34-62, 63-100, and 101-140). They address 1) "The Insular World: Celts, Britons and Anglo-Saxons," 2) "Southumbria: the Rise of Mercia and Wessex," 3) "Shaping England: from Alfred to AElfric," and 4) "The Second Viking Age: Cnut to the Conquest." The so-called First Viking Age affects Chapters 2 and 3.

The brevity of the text prohibits detailed consideration and restricts nuanced observations. Although the captions for the illustrations offer scope for further information, many opportunities for clarification were missed. Here, too, the descriptions would have benefited from less severe editing. For example, providing a link for the caption "Chi-rho page" or "Chi-rho" (Plates 10, 30, 31, 35) to "Christi" and Matthew 1:18 would supply the context for readers outside the field. A transcription or line-references in the caption on page 12 would have aided a novice to identify the cursive letter g of St. Boniface's distinctive script mentioned in the text. The caption for the Durham Cassiodorus (Plate 37) mentions textual additions that do not appear on the selected image.

In text and captions alike, some declarations express more certainty than the evidence permits, which can mislead an unsuspecting or uninstructed reader. Opinions are usually expressed as fact. Requirements of brevity do not excuse the repetition of assessments that have long been disproved, nor the introduction of new interpretations that are untenable.

For example, a long-discredited assessment misrepresents the manuscript activities of St. Dunstan (circa 909-988). Plate 82 depicts the renowned frontispiece of his so-called "Classbook" in Oxford. The caption states that its "drawing of St Dunstan kneeling before Christ" and the "accompanying prayer" are "both executed in his own hand." Forensic analysis conducted in the British Library conservation laboratory with a video-spectral comparator (when the manuscript came for the 1984 exhibition), and published in 1992 in a volume devoted to the saint, establishes that the situation is more complex, whereby Dunstan was responsible only for writing the prayer and adding the red-pigment embellishments. The nature of his collaboration with the scribal artist, responsible for the drawing and its original captions, illuminates an important early stage in the Late Anglo-Saxon revival of religious observance, education, and book-production. Plate 18 (the Douce Primasius) contains not only "annotations by St Boniface" but also many annotations by Dunstan worthy of mention.

Some new interpretations make no sense. For example, the magnificent Royal Bible (Plates 52, 53, and 117), a close relative of the Book of Cerne, is said on page 11 to have contained "a whole series of full-page illustrations (now lost), including the Annunciation to Zacharias and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (the 'Quadriga')." Those Horsemen cannot be that Quadriga. Decades ago, in a detailed codicological examination of the manuscript (cited in the Bibliography), the lost illustrations were reconstructed from surviving pigment offsets, textual contexts, and Latin inscriptions. The full-page inscription in gold and silver capitals at the front of the Gospel unit extols the beneficent speciosa quadriga ("resplendent team of four") who, "with harmonious voice, celebrate in song the miracles of God." Such a description pertains to the four evangelists or their four symbolic creatures--as in some comparable surviving early medieval illustrations at the front of Gospel units--but in no way to the disruptive Four Horsemen of Revelation 6, bringing conquest, war, famine, and death.

The selection, presentation, and layout of the plates demonstrate the chief strengths and weaknesses of the volume. It is useful to have together so many illustrations, including so many in color, which can reveal aspects either hidden or ambiguous in black-and-white. Problems with their presentation, both visual and textual, diminish the benefits.

The illustrations variously show full pages, double-page openings, or part-pages of manuscripts, as well as one book cover and other written objects. They comprise a set of Irish wax tablets and seven Anglo- Saxon documents, including one with its seal. Mostly the choices display elements of illustration and/or decoration, although some focus on script, as with the documents, the wax tablets, and some historically significant texts.

Most Plates show only one image, representing one page (or a part thereof) or the facing pages of a book. Two Plates (1 and 121) contain two images. Twice a single image spans two facing Plates (38-39 and 40-41), to show the facing pages of a manuscript, which obscures within the folds of the printed volume some elements of the manuscript pages. These cases pertain to the Vespasian Psalter and Stockholm Codex Aureus. Their captions fail to report that neither of these openings is original to the manuscript, because other pages (now lost or rearranged) formerly intervened between the verso at the left and the recto at the right. Some plates on facing pages illustrate pages which face each other in one manuscript (Plates 28-29, 76-77, 86-87, 88-89, 122-123, 125-125, and 138-139), to give a semblance of the appearance of the opened volume. Sometimes the original rectos or versos appear in that position in the Plates.

The selection endeavors to indicate the wide range of genres, texts, scripts, approaches to decoration and illustration, and degrees of luxury exhibited by the extant manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon period, said to extend "between the official Roman withdrawal from Britain...and the Norman Conquest in 1066 and its aftermath." Among them figure manuscripts made outside the Anglo-Saxon realms, but brought thence during the Anglo-Saxon period, as with the sixth-century Gospels of St. Augustine of Canterbury imported from Italy (Plate 29) and various Irish and Continental books (as with Plates 6, 14, 15, 74, 76, and 77). Some examples never reached Anglo-Saxon realms, but serve to illustrate the influence, in one direction or another, between Anglo-Saxon realms and the Continent or other areas of the British Isles at various stages in the history of the production, collection, use, and reuse of written materials in the Anglo-Saxon period. Many plates include annotations and other additions made by hands postdating the Anglo-Saxon period. Plate 70 illustrates a sixteenth-century transcript of a lost original.

The contents of the plates belie the declaration on the dustjacket that the book "illustrates in colour over 140 examples of the finest Anglo-Saxon books." Other defects similarly exhibit disdain for accuracy in the finished product, and perhaps for the intended audience. For example, both Indexes contain errors, inconsistencies, and redundancies. The Index of Manuscripts lists manuscripts by location and shelfmark, followed by the familiar or common name (as with "Paris Psalter" and "Corpus Glossary"). The general Index lists those names among others of persons, places, and things ("Alfred," "Ravenna," and "chirograph form, [sic] of document"). Both Indexes provide illustration-citations, cited not by Plate- but page-number (in italics). The second Index also provides page-references and the first provides a few page-references. Neither mentions the illustrations in the front matter. Other signs of haste appear, for example, in the Bibliography, which cites a place of publication as "Philadelphia?"

Such features call into question the intentions for introducing materials as a foundation for the future of the subject. Many disciplines recognize the considerably greater difficulties in re-educating initiates improperly instructed than in instructing them correctly at the outset.

The size of the plates varies considerably, sometimes to appropriate effect, although the small illustrations which stand alone on full pages seem a waste of space and opportunity. A glaring case is the lonely detail in black-and-white from a page in the St. Petersburg Bede (Plate 25). The reproductions convey or distort, by turns, the differences in scale of the originals. Thus, for example, the pocket-sized Stonyhurst Gospel of St. John has two diminutive Plates (19-20) alone on their pages alongside full-plate specimens of the large-format Ceolfrith Bibles (Plates 21-22). Some double-page openings are much reduced to appear upright at about half-plate size (as with Plate 23 from one of those Bibles and Plate 8 from the Book of Durrow), so that they stand discordantly opposite full-plate pages from the same books. These overly small reproductions could have benefited, with less compression of detail, from the same layout as the two large documents reproduced longways, with the baselines of their script aligned to the right (Plates 59 and 150).

Some Plates (as with 4, 5, 19, 36, 38-41, 58-59, and 132-33) reproduce some or all of the uneven edges of the original pages, whereas most Plates arbitrarily crop the images to neat rectangles. The cropped distortion misrepresents the originals, removes some of their original features from the viewer, and prepares the way for an inauthentic experience of perceiving the objects. By definition, a central characteristic of manuscript materials is their individuality, which includes their unevenness and all. Celebrating the pages in reproduction should not be marred by haphazard design in a given publication. Beginners and others alike deserve to see the full object, replete with the edges that its makers have provided or history has preserved for us.

The captions of the numbered plates and some unnumbered plates cite the dimensions of the originals, with a useful guide to the printed scale, given the wide disparity in the sizes of the originals and the scales of reproduction. (The caption for the detail on page 90 of Plate 93 repeats the same dimensions without adjustment.) The different degrees of fidelity in the color printing have no such correctives. Like the author, this reviewer has had the opportunity of examining directly almost all of the materials here illustrated, so that the disparity between them and these reproductions is knowable. Increasing restrictions in access to the originals ensures that few students can have such opportunity nowadays, so that the images however reproduced assume an identity or appropriate a reality of their own.

The more that images of medieval manuscripts proliferate in the digital world--in itself a blessing--the more that such images, with their own new artificial "artifacts," may mislead viewers into assuming that they have access directly to a world of reality, whereas the principal reality of such images is a distortion of the originals to some extent. Such observations could be important to convey to beginners of whatever sort. They would empower observers in the relatively new world of digitally-enabled publications to understand precisely what it is that they observe when they do. That ability could prepare the foundation for significantly valuable advances in knowledge of the evidence of manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon period, as well as all others.

Finally, I wonder if books like this one have become a dying breed. The references provide no URLs--surely by now most readers' first choice for further information. A publisher may argue that a hardback volume may outlast an ephemeral Web Page, but with many major institutions, including the British Library, committed to Internet access for readers, this choice seems short-sighted--not least because many of these sites provide full facsimiles of the manuscripts rather than the scrapbook presentation here. Perhaps such sites are now the places to which principally to turn for "an introduction to the history, culture, and art of the Anglo-Saxons by means of their surviving manuscripts." To ignore such resources in an introductory publication on the subject nowadays may be hard to justify.

Article Details

Author Biography

Mildred Budny

Research Group on Manuscript Evidence