12.10.19, Pahta and Jucker, eds., Communicating Early English Manuscripts

Main Article Content

Stephen J. Harris

The Medieval Review 12.10.19

Pahta, Päivi and Andreas H. Jucker. Communicating Early English Manuscripts. Studies in English Language. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xxii, 290. ISBN: 978-0-521-19329-0.

Reviewed by:

Stephen J. Harris
University of Massachusetts

The book is described by its publisher as "the first book to focus on the communicative aspects of English manuscripts" (and thus the first to investigate "how the authors and scribes of these manuscripts communicated with their audiences"). For anyone familiar with the methods and aims of Handschriftenkunde, the generations-old study of the making and use of manuscripts, this publicity statement seems a little late to the party. But the editors intend "communicative aspects" to be understood as technical, linguistic jargon. Their declared purview is the field of pragmatics, a vaguely defined area of semiotics focused on language users. And so, the first thing that should be said about Communicating Early English Manuscripts is that it is directed at linguists, not at medievalists. The editors' introduction tells us that manuscripts are "produced by hand (Lat. manu scriptum) on parchment prepared of animal skin" (3). We are informed that a text may exist in different versions (3). We are told that with the advent of printing "it became possible to produce large numbers of identical texts" (4, with references). And the editors note that Galen was "a Greek physician."

In a volume so highly conscious of the issue of audience, one can only surmise that the editors are not writing for medievalists. The editors are writing for linguists. They express some anxiety at how the study of pragmatics limits evidence to spoken language, and only recently permits of "written material as legitimate data for pragmatics" (10). The editors conclude that the volume "illustrates a number of ways in which written materials from early periods can provide insights into the history of human interaction and its development across time" (10). (The aim is vast to the point of unmeaning; and one might balk at the implication of progress in the word "development.") One observes how deeply many of the contributions have been shaped by this institutional aim. Medievalists know that generations of paleographers have tested the limits of the sorts of questions that can be asked reasonably of manuscripts. The challenge this volume faces by virtue of its claim to novelty is to answer new questions, or to extend the reach of methods currently in use. In terms of medieval paleography, this reviewer is not confident that the volume achieves methodological novelty. I cannot speak to the field of pragmatics, within which the volume may well achieve such novelty. That said, many of the essays are very interesting, and promise to be useful to medievalists.

The volume contains sixteen chapters by thirty contributors and an introductory essay by the editors. There is a comprehensive index and, most welcome, a complete, twenty-three-page bibliography of works cited for which the editors are to be commended. Also included is a list of manuscripts, thirty-four in number. The essays are divided into four sections. The first section includes five case studies of medieval manuscripts and one study of Old Bailey trials, 1674-1834. The second section offers four examinations of epistles, medieval to nineteenth-century. The third section comprises five studies of printed texts and their manuscripts antecedents. And the fourth section comprises two essays, one on salutations and valedictions in the Canterbury Tales, the other on the Salem witch trials. The essays are as follows: "Communicating manuscripts: authors, scribes, readers, listeners and communicating characters" (Andreas H. Jucker and Paeivi Pahta); "Commonplace-book communication: role shifts and text functions in Robert Reynes's notes contained in MS Tanner " (Thomas Kohnen); "Textuality in late medieval England: two case studies" (Gabriella Del Lungo Camiciotti); "The significance of now- dispersed Bute: a mixed-language scientific manuscript" (Patricia Deery Kurtz and Linda Ehrsam Voigts); "Communicating attitudes and values through language choices: diatopic and diastratic variation in Mary Magdalene in MS Digby " (Maurizio Gotti and Stefania Maci); "Constructing the audiences of the Old Bailey Trials" (Elizabeth Closs Traugott); "A defiant gentleman or 'the strengest thiefe of Wales': reinterpreting the politics in a medieval correspondence" (Merja Stenroos and Martti Maekinen); "Sociopragmatic aspects of person reference in Nathaniel Bacon's letters" (Minna Palander-Collin and Minna Nevala); "Poetic collaboration and competition in the late seventeenth century: George Stepney's letters to Jacob Tonson and Matthew Prior" (Susan Fitzmaurice); "Handwritten communication in nineteenth-century business correspondence" (Marina Dossena); "The relationship between MS Hunter and the edition of Chaucer's works edited by William Thynne" (Graham D. Caie); "The development of play- texts: from manuscript to print" (Jonathan Culpeper and Jane Demmen); "Communicating Galen's Methodus medendi in Middle and Early Modern English" (Paeivi Pahta, Turo Hiltunen, Ville Marttila, Maura Ratia, Carla Suhr and Jukka Tyrkkoe); "Prepositional modifiers in early English medical prose: a study on their historical development in noun phrases" (Douglas Biber, Bethany Gray, Alpo Honkapohja and Paeivi Pahta); "The pragmatics of punctuation in Older Scots" (Jeremy Smith and Christian Kay); "Greetings and farewells in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales" (Andreas H. Jucker); and "Attitudes of the accused in the Salem Witchcraft Trials" (Leena Kahlas-Tarkka and Matti Rissanen). Ten of these essays deal with the medieval period specifically, although others may do so incidentally.

As a consequence of the variety of areas of professional competence collected in this volume, medievalists expecting manuscript studies will find the contributions uneven. (I suspect linguists will, too, for similar reasons.) It would be churlish to complain of shortfalls in cross-disciplinary studies, more so in cross-disciplinary studies that attempt new ground. And it seems to me capricious to pick out essays for praise, especially since my very limited knowledge of pragmatics comes from a textbook written by one of the contributors.

So, it remains to be said that each of the contributors works at the highest pitch of his or her area of professional competence. The editors have assembled an outstanding group. Readers are likely to find something of interest, as well as exciting connections one expects of a cross-disciplinary study. Until the generic limits and methods of historical pragmatics are properly distinguished from what Leonard Boyle called "integral paleography," medievalists are likely struggle with the defining spirit of this volume. Nevertheless, one cannot but be grateful that Pahta and Jucker have challenged medievalists to explore in finer detail and with more linguistic rigor the connection between philology, broadly understood, and the social contexts of books.

Article Details

Author Biography

Stephen J. Harris

University of Massachusetts