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13.09.14, Kerby-Fulton, et al. eds., Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts

13.09.14, Kerby-Fulton, et al. eds., Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts

In Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, Kerby-Fulton, Hilmo, and Olson have quite simply raised the bar on guides to manuscript studies. That these three authors have accomplished this is perhaps unsurprising. Each has significant scholarship in manuscript studies to her credit, and they have collaborated before on important publications. I use 'manuscript studies' loosely here, because one of the crucial accomplishments of this volume is establishing without a doubt the very foundational nature of manuscript work to all scholarship on the Middle Ages. In a volume that devotes itself to a pedagogical mission, self-consciously unpacking its freight for both novices and experts alike, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts provides a great service to us all.

Before beginning a series of themed essays, the authors commence with what they call a "Bare Essentials" section. However, this title is a misnomer. While there are bare essentials here, there is also a miniature guide to crafting transcriptions and editions that gives food for thought even to those already practiced at weighing the various benefits of working with manuscript, transcription, and edition. Such issues are very much part of Kerby-Fulton's contribution to this project, and return in detail in her chapters. Next among these essentials is the guide to scripts, and this is forthright about concerning itself with Middle English literary manuscripts, and in concentrating on major authors. Therefore, like the rest of the volume, the guide to scripts highlights fifteenth-century cursive scripts particularly. Nevertheless, the authors do introduce the range of texturas also used in literary works.

Kerby-Fulton continues the 'Bare Essentials' theme in the first chapter, on manuscripts of works by Middle English poets from 1300–1450. Here she delves in greater depth into the anglicana script and into editing challenges. While revealing the extraordinary amount of work that goes into developing a modern edition, above all this chapter illustrates how much is lost in using such accessible, tidy modern editions. Of special note in this chapter is the reminder of the significance of compilatio and ordinatio to the medieval reading experience, and how these can rarely be captured in a modern standard edition. Important sections of her later analysis explore the medieval editing of Piers Plowman and the Canterbury Tales, thus exploring medieval more than modern editions. This provides a fresh approach, creates the opportunity to examine both well-known manuscripts and less-recognized exemplars, and avoids wading too deeply into decades-long debates about how modern editors approach such complicated tasks. Kerby-Fulton's second chapter elaborates on these topics, in particular exploring the issue of annotation and correction. As Kerby-Fulton illustrates, these are two types of para-text rarely indicated in modern editions and they offer important insight into reader reception. In her examples, Kerby-Fulton establishes the interests and goals of individual readers of Chaucer, Langland, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. Reception studies based firmly in manuscript research offers enormous potential to unlock contemporary views of canonical authors and works, as well as uncovering works which were canonical in the Middle Ages but which have fallen out of subsequent critical favor.

Moving beyond the "Bare Essentials" theme, Linda Olson provides the chapters on romance and monastic manuscripts, and demonstrates that this pairing is less paradoxical than it appears. Olson argues that romances attracted a range of audiences for various reasons. She acknowledges not only the now-traditional interest of the gentry in romances, but also that romances could be viewed as didactic and even moralistic as well. In this way she argues for young audiences, both boys and girls, for romances. In addition, that the portmanteau manuscripts in which romances are frequently found are the results of networks that crossed class, regional, and clerical lines must always be remembered. Olson's exploration into the Findern manuscript brings some of these networks to life as she posits exchanges between scribes, who are themselves part of a local network, over time. As scholars come to generally accept the commercialization of medieval book production in the fifteenth century, Olson's final chapter, on monastic manuscripts, provides a needed counterweight. From Chaucer to drama, Olson uses manuscript witnesses to show that monks and nuns read and copied a wide range of literature. Moreover, her examples extend through the Dissolution, and manifest that English manuscript production continued long past Caxton.

Maidie Hilmo covers the "visual approaches" of the volume's title most directly in her two chapters on illustration. Teaching art history through manuscript art may be a way to provide some art historical training to graduate students, and perhaps offer an entry-point for manuscript scholars, generally, as formal training in art history provides practice in seeing art and tools with which to discuss it. Hilmo concentrates on such strategies here, providing sample readings of the unique illustrations in important anthologies such as the Vernon Manuscript and also notable works such as those of the Pearl poet. In linking the illustrations of Piers Plowman manuscripts with a copy of the Prick of Conscience, Hilmo demonstrates how identifying artistic networks can aid literary criticism. Predictably her chapter on illustration in the Canterbury Tales considers both the author portraits and portraits of the pilgrim authors. Here Hilmo supports the tradition of Chaucer's literary canonization through analysis of the development of portraits of Chaucer, and traces the shift from a clerkly Chaucer to a classicized poet. Farther from art history's traditional focus, Hilmo's arguments become more speculative. For example, given English border art's overwhelming preference for abstract flora in the face of Continental interest in realism, it seems counterintuitive that they would select a single species, Lords and Ladies, to depict realistically and to deploy for metaphoric ends. Sometimes we may have to accept that a motif that looks a bit like a lily just looks a bit like a lily.

Overwhelming this volume points toward areas in which further interventions could be made, as the best field surveys do. The limitations of this volume result from necessary decisions the authors made. Certainly there is not much room for early print in a volume on manuscripts already tipping in over 400 pages, but as several of the chapters note, manuscripts of the second half of the century play roles in our analysis of these literary works and deserve attention, too. Likewise, the decision to concentrate on literary manuscripts is entirely understandable. However, in so doing it leaves out two of the most plentiful examples of Middle English manuscripts: the Wycliffite Bible and the Brut. In this way, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts may perpetuate the tendency of literary critics to concentrate on the unusual, rather than the popular or normative. Surprisingly, one of the strengths of this volume, the centrality of its authors to the field, sometimes becomes an unusual problem. As a whole, the footnotes are overwhelmingly helpful, but it can be frustrating how frequently the footnote cites a private conversation or research in a nameless forthcoming publication. I suspect that these lacuna reflect more the state of academic publishing than they do the authors, however, who clearly pressed onward with the greater good in mind. Like the lectern-sized Riverside edition Kerby-Fulton discusses, Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts will become a standard in the field for both teaching and research purposes, and will hopefully drive a new generation of scholars into manuscript study.