12.06.12, Robins, Textual Cultures of Medieval Italy

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Carrie Beneš

The Medieval Review 12.06.12

Robins, William. Textual Cultures of Medieval Italy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. Pp. 350. ISBN: 978-1-4426-4272-0.

Reviewed by:
Carrie Beneš
New College of Florida

The last twenty years have seen both the decline and the resurgence of traditional auxiliary disciplines such as codicology, palaeography, and textual editing. University positions and courses specifically in these subjects have disappeared as faculty have retired and departments have been reorganized, yet paradoxically--as William Robins observes in his introductory first chapter to Textual Cultures of Medieval Italy--"the 'ancillary' disciplines...have become bearers of considerable theoretical and methodological reflection" (27). Scholarly trends from New Historicism to postcolonial studies have increased scholars' awareness of the texts and artifacts they study as well as their own biases and assumptions in approaching them. The processes by which medieval manuscripts were copied and modern critical editions are created no longer seem straightforward. The nine essays under review demonstrate emphatically why this is a good thing.

Like many collections of essays, Textual Cultures is the result of a conference, in this case one held at the University of Toronto in 2005. Unlike many such volumes, however, the book is carefully edited, and the contributions of a uniformly high standard; more importantly, the contents are diverse enough to be thought-provoking while retaining a strong theoretical coherence. The volume begins with an overview chapter by the editor called "The Study of Medieval Italian Textual Cultures," which provides a helpful and mostly jargon-free explanation of what he and his fellow authors mean by "textual cultures." He explains the traditional scholarly divisions between the "grunt work" of transcription and editing and the "real" intellectual work of interpretation, and how in the course of the twentieth century they have been folded together to produce a "semiotics of textual culture"--explorations of both "how communities bestow meanings on texts," à la Armando Petrucci, and "the way that texts help to create communities," à la Brian Stock (21). The idea that medieval texts both construct and are constructed by their historical, intellectual, material, and social milieux has been given any number of titles, such as Leonard Boyle's "integral palaeography," Richard and Mary Rouse's "social history of the book," Armando Petrucci's Scrittura e civiltà. Yet through them all runs the insistence that neither textual production nor textual editing is a transparent, objective process, and that closer attention to their mechanical details will be richly rewarded.

Explaining his choice of subject, Robins characterizes medieval Italy as being "particularly precocious and complex with respect to the kinds of textual cultures to which it gave rise" (5), pointing to its high levels of literacy (practical and otherwise), economic complexity, and many heterogenous systems of local administration. Yet the book covers a great deal of scholarly ground, encompassing eight centuries; the entire Italian peninsula from Otranto to Aquileia; the settings of the university, the convent, and the commercial courts; and textual genres from letter-writing to monumental inscriptions, legal opinions, and poetry. In doing so it reflects recent emphases on interdisciplinary approaches not only in cross-disciplinary programs like classics and medieval studies, but also within traditional disciplines. Theoretical trends of the last fifty years--especially the role of semiotics in the assignment and interpretation of cultural meaning--have aligned many different types of historical evidence as vehicles of signification, so that scholars now speak of the "textuality" of artistic and material objects as well as the material and visual qualities of texts. More specifically, the notion of the manuscript as a simple container of a historian's documents, a literary scholar's poetry, and an art historian's images has dissolved in the face of new studies of how the physical manuscript, its textual contents, its visual presentation, and its historical context all inform and affect one another.

In his introduction, Robins explicitly acknowledges that the eight essays that make up the body of the volume (chaps. 2-9) could have been arranged in any number of different orders, such as according to chronology or discipline. Instead, he opted for a set of quasi- functional groupings, each of which contains two essays: "Forms of Textual Exchange," "Materials of Textual Communication," "Administrative Textual Cultures," and "Collaborative Textual Cultures." While these titles are somewhat abstract, the juxtapositions between the essays in each section are useful and thought-provoking. For example, in part 2 Linda Safran's reading of public inscriptions and Maria Bendinelli Predelli's inquiry into the roots of the cantare (a genre of narrative poetry) consider two completely different examples of how audiences experienced public texts--and how that experience both reflected the processes of their creation and affected how their audiences received them.

Each essay in the volume thus has a particular perspective to contribute to the whole, the lesson of which seems to be the inherent complexity of textual creation and interpretation, from performativity and inscription to modern editing and scholarship. Considering the volume as a whole, I was particularly struck by three insights into the larger problem. The first of these is the injunction to move away from traditional judgments of the historical or literary "worth" of a particular text or genre. Christopher Kleinhenz, for example, observes that the tenzone, a poetic duel or contest between two or more lyric poets, is usually considered a minor genre in the corpus of early Italian vernacular poetry, yet its "occasional nature...may be less bound to literary conventions and thus closer to the quotidian reality of Duecento and Trecento society" (105). Similarly, Linda Safran rescues public inscriptions (here from the Salento region) from a chasm of neglect between the concerns of art historians and textual editors, stressing the integration of the inscription's textual message and visual imagery, the interesting effects of spoken language on written text, and the cultural value of the written word even for the illiterate. Luca Boschetto's study of the records of the Florentine Mercanzia (the city's most important commercial court) reflects many of the same concerns: the Mercanzia's precocity in requiring that its records be kept in the vernacular as early as 1355, the social implications of that directive (such as the ability of women to appear in court), and--due to Florentine court records being maintained in the vernacular by a corps of non-Florentine notaries--the records' unique witnessing of the "linguistic babel that characterized the commercial milieu of late medieval Italy" (239).

As Boschetto's example of non-Florentine notaries copying the statements of Florentine litigants suggests, the collection's second insight is the crucial role that process plays in textual inscription (by which I mean not the creation of monumental inscriptions but the process by which texts are written down, in whatever form). Dealing with highly multilingual environments, both Boschetto and Safran analyze how different varieties of spoken language can be discerned in the written texts they leave behind, while Kleinhenz reflects on the process by which individual poems were assembled into the "great verse collections" (82) that transmit the bulk of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian lyric poetry. Confronting a question of genre rather than language or codex, Maria Bendinelli Predelli explores the tensions between the performed and the written poetic text in the development of the genre of narrative poetry known as the cantare over the course of the fourteenth century. The last two essays in the volume, by Dominique Poirel and Susanne Lepsius, are stunning examples of this emphasis on process, as each interprets a particularly complex manuscript tradition as reflecting the work's creation by a community of individuals rather than a single monolithic author. Poirel, for example, argues that the Liber Angelae, a hagiographical work narrating the visions and death of Angela of Foligno, is not merely a collection of notes and commentary by Angela's confessor, but the triple product of Angela, her amanuensis confessor, and the Franciscan communities of Foligno and Assisi over the course of years. Poirel describes it as "less a duet [between Angela and her confessor] than a song where the voice of the soloist is accompanied, enhanced, and continued by the musical backing of the community of Foligno" (280). For Poirel, the long composite process by which the Liber Angelae was composed--as different voices mediated, added, and edited Angela's words and experiences--explains the complex manuscript tradition that survives today. Exploring a similar case in a very different environment, Susanne Lepsius considers the case of Bartolus of Sassoferrato's Tractatus testimoniorum, a treatise on witnesses that the great jurist left incomplete at his death in 1357. Using her own editorial experience in reconciling textual witnesses of three different lengths and several different sets of chapter divisions, Lepsius demonstrates that "the importance of Bartolo cannot be separated from the historic impact of his ideas (the Wirkungsgeschichte)" (307), since every copy of the work reflects Bartolus's readers trying to reconcile, interpret, or combine different versions of Bartolus's "original" (unfinished) text. In particular, Lepsius notes, "almost every manuscript displays individual features indicative of the interest of particular readers, and these might be just as important for legal historical research as the original words of the author" (315).

Lepsius' demonstration of the collaboration between Bartolus and his readers raises a third point of interest: the importance of historical nexus points where textual communities collide and intersect to create innovation. Nicholas Everett's analysis of Paulinus of Aquileia's Sponsio episcoporum (c. 790-802) demonstrates this clearly. As a prominent member of both the Italian church (as patriarch of Aquileia) and the Carolingian court (as a participant in the Frankish reform synods of 792-6), Paulinus integrated the concerns of both communities into his work, along the way balancing different conceptions of the proper relation between the spoken and the written word, and between ecclesiastical and secular institutions. Similarly, Ronald Witt attributes the development of the ars dictaminis in eleventh- and twelfth-century Italy to the collision of traditional book culture (with its classical models of grammar and clerical schools) and Italian legal culture (with its rudimentary Latin, formulaic models, and lay instruction). Witt places these tensions in the contemporary context of the Investiture Contest, the vicissitudes of which weakened the cathedral schools even as they intensified in the Italian population an awareness of the importance of reading and writing.

Each of these themes--"minor" works, the process of textual creation, and overlapping textual communities--furthers our understanding of the role of reading and writing in medieval Italy. It also, however, affects the work of the present-day editor. One major contribution of the volume is in highlighting the fallacy of the traditional division between editing and the "real" academic work of literary or historical interpretation, for it demonstrates clearly and precisely how the historical interpretation of a text cannot be separated from an understanding of the manuscript tradition and the modern scholar's editorial choices. Whether (as in Kleinhenz) the ways in which poems were assembled into manuscript collections has affected our assessment of their value, or (as in Poirel) the complexity of the manuscript tradition offers little hope of establishing a "pure" text, or (as in Lepsius) the attempt to separate the work of the great author from that of his readers is both hopeless and a bit of a red herring--these authors' reflections on how historical circumstance affects present editorial decisions draw attention to the scholar's eternal challenge: to present his or her material in a manner simple enough for patterns to be visible in the data, yet complex enough not to misrepresent that data.

The book's overall emphasis on the processes of textual creation (by the medieval writer or composer, and also the modern scholar) thus raises a number of extremely difficult and highly abstract intellectual questions. Yet to its credit, the volume is generally unpolemical and free of jargon, and the individual essays address particular cases that demonstrate explicitly the complexity of those abstract questions. In some cases, they propose intriguing solutions to some of these problems through the use of new media. The volume is not totally comprehensive--it was surprising, for example, to see so little of Rome or Norman Sicily--but this merely brings us back to the difficulty of balancing between oversimplification and oversaturation. A truly comprehensive volume would have been both indigestible and unpublishable. In the end, this is a book that manages to survey a complex landscape while keeping its feet on the ground. It will repay the attention of the ambitious undergraduate, the casual scholar, and the specialist alike.

List of Chapters: Chap. 1 (11-49): William Robins, "The Study of Medieval Italian Textual Cultures."

Chap. 2 (53-79): Ronald Witt, "Rhetoric and Reform during the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries."

Chap. 3 (81-111): Christopher Kleinhenz, "Adventures in Textuality: Lyric Poetry, the Tenzone, and Cino da Pistoia."

Chap. 4 (115-44): Linda Safran, "Public Textual Cultures: A Case Study in Southern Italy."

Chap. 5 (145-64): Maria Bendinelli Predelli, "The Textualization of Early Italian Cantari."

Chap. 6 (167-216): Nicholas Everett, "Paulinus of Aquileia's Sponsio episcoporum: Written Oaths and Ecclesiastical Discipline in Carolingian Italy."

Chap. 7 (217-62): Luca Boschetto, "Writing the Vernacular at the Merchant Court of Florence."

Chap. 8 (265-93): Dominique Poirel, "The Death of Angela of Foligno and the Genesis of the Liber Angelae."

Chap. 9 (295-324): Susanne Lepsius, "Editing Legal Texts from the Late Middle Ages."

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Author Biography

Carrie Beneš

New College of Florida