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13.09.09, Scase, ed., A Facsimile Edition of the Vernon Manuscript

13.09.09, Scase, ed., A Facsimile Edition of the Vernon Manuscript

Scase's edition at last makes the glories of Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Eng. Poet. A.1 accessible to a wide scholarly audience. A "select" manuscript, the Vernon is off-limits to most visitors to the Bodleian. The previous facsimile (published by D. S. Brewer in 1987, and itself owned by a limited number of libraries) was reduced in size and in black-and-white, except for some colored plates. Apart from Vernon's significance as a compendium of Middle English texts--from 373 to 385 texts, depending on how one counts--the manuscript is impressive because of both its size (measuring 544 mm by 393 mm, or 21.5 x 15.5 inches, and weighing about 22 kg) and its decoration, with extensive borders and initials, and a number of column miniatures. Although an electronic edition necessarily entails losing the sense of physical scope offered by the size and weight of even the reduced-size 1987 facsimile, the enlargeable, full-color views of each page more than compensate for that loss. The images are clear and crisp even at maximum magnification (400%).

The software, designed by Nick Kennedy, is standards-based to allow the program to run in various web browsers. I have tested it in both Internet Explorer and Firefox; other supported browsers include Apple Safari 4.0+ and Google Chrome 5.0+. The program can be loaded to a hard disk for more efficient use. Individual images can be saved and manipulated with another program, such as Paint, although the Vernon program itself does not allow pages to rotate. I have found some glitches in Firefox: although the set of thumbnail images and the set of pages with miniatures both load in Firefox, clicking on a thumbnail image results in an error message, and it is necessary to return to the Full Page View or Transcription View in order to load individual pages. In Internet Explorer, clicking on an individual thumbnail loads the page at once.

Apart from that minor problem, the program is very easy and intuitive to use. The menu page lists editorial content, various views of the manuscript itself, instructions on "How to use this Programme," and the three accompanying essays on "Aspects of the Vernon Manuscript": A. I. Doyle's "Codicology, Palaeography and Provenance"; Rebecca Farnham's "Art and Artists"; and Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith's "Language." The essays and introduction are all available as PDFs. The essay on language seems definitely aimed at experts, with careful consideration of the role of A Linguistic Atlas of Later Middle English, many comparisons to other manuscripts, and assumptions of familiarity with Ancrene Wisse and other ME texts. The other two essays seem to imagine wider audiences; a motivated undergraduate would probably be able to follow them, perhaps with a little extra glossing/introduction from a professor. Doyle's comparison of the cost of Vernon's materials to the annual salary of a parish priest, for instance, is the kind of contextualizing detail that appeals to students. All the essays are detailed and valuable studies.

The images can be viewed as "Full Page" (the image alone) or in "Transcription View" or "Page Description View." In the latter two views, a separate window for the transcription or description hovers to the left of the page image; when a new image is selected, the description or transcription automatically updates to accompany the new page. Images maintain their position: that is, if you are looking at the bottom of a page and scroll ahead, you will see the bottom of the next page. This is useful for examining bas de page decoration, but perhaps less so for reading the text. The diplomatic transcriptions are remarkably accurate, in keeping with the stated goal of the edition: "Accuracy has been prioritized over level and quantity of detail." A single reviewer cannot check every one of the over 700 pages, but I found no errors on the pages I did check.

The descriptions are detailed and individualized to each page, considering borders, initials and rubrication as well as the miniatures. Remaining guidemarks are signaled, as is marginal commentary, however slight (it sometimes took me a good deal of searching to find a tiny "nota" mark on a page where a marginal entry was signaled). The edition includes a glossary for art historical terms such as "background," "balls: gold," "filigree" and so on, with small illustrations for each term, taken from the Vernon MS, with folio citations for these. When the descriptions and separate essays about the manuscript use terms in the glossary, they often include hyperlinks. In cases where Scase and Farnham disagree with previous scholars' views of what the miniatures show, those differences are scrupulously indicated. Similarly, four different opinions on scribal hands and illustrating hands are given: those of Lynda Dennison, A. I. Doyle, Rebecca Farnham, and Kathleen Scott.

The menu bar across the top of the page contains the following selections: Menu (for the full menu page), Text (toggles the transcription or description windows on and off), Search, Exterior/MS views, Thumbs (for thumbnail images); the folio currently displayed; magnification; and a set modifying the current display: Hot, Mag, and Nav. "Hot" highlights visual elements that have received special attention in the description; "Mag" magnifies these items without increasing the overall magnification of the page; and "Nav" shows a thumbnail of the entire page, giving a sense of scale. Twelve views of the exterior are included.

The Search function offers a list of areas to search (editorial, transcription, etc.), a selection of special characters such as thorn and punctuation marks; and a box for search terms. Regular expression searching is supported, but the program does not explain what "regular expressions" are or how to use them. The special characters used are not the same as those that may be familiar to some readers from the Middle English Dictionary's wildcards. For a single wildcard, use ".", as in the string "pla.e" which yields playe, place, plawe (etc.). For longer strings, use [a-z], as in "[a-z]at": this finds words containing "at" with a variable number of preceding letters, such as what, creature, Pathnucius. Square brackets containing a selection of letters will yield words with one of those letters in the spot marked by []: "pla[cy]e" will produce playe and place. A question mark indicates zero or one of the preceding letter: "ih?esus" will yield a list of pages with both Iesus and Ihesus spellings, though only iesus is highlighted, and it is necessary to search using Control-F to find Ihesus in the transcription. An asterisk means zero or more of the preceding letter, so "all*" produces words with both "al" and "all," but also schalt, kalendes, paleis, and so on. Wikipedia's guide to regular expressions guided me in this experiment with searching. It would have been useful to include in the "How to use this programme" section a page listing some of these expressions and how they work.

The achievement of a full-color digital facsimile of the Vernon manuscript is a great service to scholarship. The facsimile allows literary scholars to appreciate the layout and decoration of the texts, and gives art historians unprecedented views of the manuscript's details. Scase, Kennedy, and the rest of the team that contributed to this work are to be highly commended and heartily thanked.