Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
09.07.12, Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes

09.07.12, Parkes, Their Hands Before Our Eyes

Malcolm Parkes's new volume, Their Hands Before Our Eyes, delivers precisely what its subtitle promises: a closer look at scribes. This book will be of particular interest to scholars who work with medieval books and documents, and especially to those who already have a good foundation in the basics of paleography and are interested in a study of writing that goes beyond a description of various hands to an analysis of writing as a process imbedded in, and responding to, various cultural contexts.

The book is divided into four parts: "Scribes in their Environments," "Scribes at Work," a set of appendices (glossary, indexes, lists of named scribes, and bibliography), and a set of plates. In Part I, Parkes extends the traditional portrait of the "monk scribe" in his cloister to include female scribes, friars, secular clerics, and commercial copyists working in a variety of religious and secular settings from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages. He also discusses changes in religious attitudes toward scribal work across this long period, and the intellectual and material conditions under which many copyists worked. Most interesting in this section is Parkes's analysis of the development of the book trade in the central and late Middle Ages. He cites economic crises, plague, war, and other catastrophes as catalysts for a second-hand book market, and increasing levels of literacy (which produced not only a growing number of readers, but readers who could also copy their own books), as factors that could decrease the demand for new, professionally produced books from the fourteenth century on.

Part II, based on Parkes's 1999 Lyell Lectures at the University of Oxford, opens with "Which Came First, Reading or Writing?," an essay in which he analyzes the allied processes of producing written language and decoding it. He frames his observations here with his own influential concept, the "grammar of legibility," the parameters of any graphic system within which a scribe must perform if his or her work is to be intelligible to readers. Parkes does not present the work of scribes as a set of static images, but as the performance of a limited repertoire of pen movements (rotations, vertical movements, lifts) that contribute to the character of a scribe's ductus, constrained by the "grammar of legibility". His comparison of a sixth-century Italian exemplar and a ninth-century copy by the scribe Hrannigil from Rheims beautifully highlights the complex process of moving back and forth between source text and copy; here we see Hrannigil transferring his attention from source to copy in units made visible by discrepancies in his word spacing, and pausing to check the spelling of a difficult word, which resulted in a slight misalignment of the letters of the word in question. Parkes likewise analyzes the cursive handwriting, to which he turns in "The Hasty Scribe," as a process, a "way of writing rather than a particular style or script..." (85). In this essay he discusses the production of fast writing, a process that was inherently mutable, because it favored momentum and continuity. The gradual acceptance of the new letter shapes that such rapid writing produced, he argues, led to the emergence of new cursive scripts, more quickly than in the case of more formal handwriting.

In "Set in Their Own Ways," Parkes highlights the tension between scribal individuality, expressed through the use of variant abbreviation forms, punctuation marks, and other details that contributed to the particular aspect of a scribe's work, and the prevailing "sense of decorum" (100) that constrained it. Medieval writing is, for Parkes, a form of interpretation that necessarily sought equilibrium between attention to the formal constraints of a particular alphabet and a scribe's unique ductus, level of experience, and training. "Features of Fashion" explores a similar equilibrium between individual copyists and constraining convention. Here the author demonstrates that new varieties of script emerged through a dynamic exchange between imitation and innovation, particularly in connection with prevailing fashion, and, from the mid-thirteenth century on, driven in part by a growing demand for deluxe manuscripts that reflected the tastes of wealthy patrons.

In the final essay, "Through the Eyes of Scribes and Readers," Parkes argues convincingly that handwriting might not only mediate a text to a reader, but also might convey a message visually. A particular book hand could come to embody or to communicate a particular kind of authority. To support this assertion, he cites the example of Uncial as the hand of choice for producing the biblical texts that replaced the many books destroyed during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian. Responding to the authority associated with, and conveyed by, this form of writing, Anglo-Saxon scribes often chose Uncial for producing authoritative texts. Also interesting in this context is the use of "archaizing hands," hands that "attempt to imitate a script current at a date earlier than that at which the scribe was writing" (141). As Parkes argues, the use of such hands confirms the importance attached to handwriting as image in the Middle Ages.

The Glossary of Technical Terms in Part III contains clear definitions of many of Parkes's key concepts, such as "cues for legibility" and "personal idiom," which are fundamental to his analysis and argument but that may be new to, or confusing for, the reader. The sixty-nine plates in Part IV, without which the volume simply would not function, are (mostly) clear and well reproduced. These will also be useful for teaching paleography in the classroom, even to beginners not yet ready to work through all of the volume's detailed analyses.

This is an important work by a distinguished scholar of medieval handwriting, a study that highlights the critical role that the art of paleography continues to play in shaping our understanding of the religious, intellectual, and artistic contours of the Middle Ages. As I worked through Their Hands Before our Eyes, moving back and forth between the author's description of the work of various scribes and the corresponding plates, I was reminded of a tour I once took of the Cloisters in New York City with an expert art historian who was intimately familiar with the collection. I saw old, familiar objects in new ways, and noticed features and details that I had missed on my own, even after many visits. Parkes has a similar gift for showing those of us who work with medieval manuscripts and documents new ways to see what we had thought was familiar.