14.04.03, Fisher, Scribal Authorship

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Nicole Nyffennegger

The Medieval Review 14.04.03

Fisher, Matthew. Scribal Authorship and the Writing of History in Medieval England. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2012. Pp. x, 221. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1198-4.
ISBN: 9780814292990 (CD).

Reviewed by:
Nicole Nyffennegger
University of Berne, Switzerland

Matthew Fisher explores the diverse ways in which medieval scribes became "scribal authors." Against the traditional and still prevalent trope of the incompetent scribe, he reconceptualises scribes as literate and competent readers, as correctors and translators who saved authors from their mistakes. Rather than just mechanically copying, he claims, scribes were involved both in the creative production and in the intellectual reception of medieval texts. Copying required reading and consequently, medieval scribes were the primary audience of their exemplars. As part of the intellectual elite, they were learned enough to compare texts, amend mistakes and make informed choices as to what to omit. In contrast to authors, scribes were also in the position to control the presentation of the text on the page and its situation in the codex. Fisher substantiates these important observations with his careful readings of what he terms the "derivative texts" of vernacular historiography of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. In such texts, composition, quotation and translation (both from one language to another and from manuscript to manuscript) cannot easily be divided. Consequently, neither can the roles of author and scribe. Fisher's meticulous work on the w Harley Scribe and on the Auchinleck manuscript provides many new insights into how scribal authorship can be conceptualised and underlines, once more, the importance of scholarly engagement with the materiality of manuscripts.

Fisher opens his study with an impressive intermedial reading of the unfinished initial (from London, BL MS Arundel 74, f. 2v) that was chosen for the cover of his book. The initial in question is an "N" which in itself is complete but which has in its centre the mere sketch of a conventional author portrait. The reason for this unfinished initial, Fisher argues, is the fact that the "N" is part of a faulty rendering of the beginning of Bede's Historia, reading "Nocciam insula" or "[i]n occiani insula" rather than, correctly, "Britannia Oceani insula" (4). Fisher suggests that somebody noticed this mistake and prevented the illuminator from executing the author portrait. Author portraits of this kind authorize the text and in this case, "the crafted presence of the author would be undone by the flawed work of the scribe" (6). A learned scribe read the text, spotted the mistake, and prevented the author from being associated with the bad work of another, incompetent scribe. With this reading, Fisher asserts both the detrimental power of incompetent scribes (which he identifies as a trope) and the productive power of the competent scribes that were, he claims, the great majority.

However, competent scribes, Fisher argues in chapter 1, were actually the greater threat to medieval authorship than the incompetent ones: "The danger posed by scribes was only rarely their incompetence: mechanical errors and errors of grammatical inanity can always be corrected, either physically by other scribes, or mentally by readers. The true threat of scribes was their competence, not only to provide textual corrections, but precisely their ability to make the 'improvements' snidely condemned by modern editors" (58). While the strict division between author and scribe has its origin in different medieval models of textuality, modern editors, Fisher claims, have contributed to the illusion of a clear-cut divide between author and scribe, between the one who composes and the one who writes. This illusion has lead to a focus on unintended scribal errors as opposed to motivated transformations such as revision, redaction, and rewriting (15). Fisher then explores, among others, Chaucer's strategies of de-authorizing Adam Scriveyn's work by drawing attention to scribal errors that can be amended rather than to those, more dangerous ones that cannot, such as scribal variation (31-35).

In chapter 2, Fisher focuses on "history writing's engagement with itself" (59). He discusses Bede's rhetorical strategies of authorizing his text (74-79). While I agree with Fisher that phrases such as "we have heard our elders tell" and "it is well known" (78) are meaningful authorial interventions, I contend that they in fact serve to distance the author from certain stories and thus save others (those which he does present as his own knowledge or knowledge gained from authoritative texts) from the doubts of his audience. Next, Fisher turns to later historiographers such as Henry of Huntingdon, William of Malmesbury, and Geoffrey of Monmouth and to the ways in which they negotiate Bede's textual authority. Geoffrey of Monmouth's presentation of his liber vetustissimus is an outstanding authorizing move. His source, inaccessible and unreadable as it is, transforms Geoffrey's own Historia regum into the only authorized text available to readers and subsequent historiographers (88). As Fisher remarks, "The historiographical tradition after the Historia regum becomes a comment on an always absent text" (91). Fisher makes very valuable observations on history writing in this and in the following chapters: Historiography is a fluid genre that includes elements of hagiography and romance and history and should therefore never be read as anything but literature (116-17). At the same time, history writing "is always a series of political decisions about the present" and scribes such as the Harley Scribe were well equipped to make these decisions (141).

In chapters 3 and 4, Fisher presents his meticulous readings of "some of the least-read texts in two of the best-known books written by two of the best-known scribes of early fourteenth century England" (100). His focus is on the "Harley Scribe" and on "Scribe 1 of the Auchinleck manuscript" whose scribal activities he explores in great and revealing detail. He does so especially, but not exclusively, with the example of the Short Chronicle as written by the two scribes. In the case of the Harley Scribe, Fisher challenges recent re-imaginings of Harley 2253's creation context (Birkholz) that present the scribe as a "static and dull figure" who functions as a rather mechanical relay between creators and audience (102). This, Fisher argues, "again deauthorizes and precludes a scribe from engaging in more substantive intellectual labor" (103). In chapter 3, Fisher discusses the Harley Scribe's interventions in different manuscripts against their historical and political background to show that this scribe had his own agenda of historical accuracy and that he "was not a man lacking in critical faculty or aesthetic appreciation" (133). One impressive example is the Harley Scribe's transformation of his exemplar's "fourti ger" (of Saint Alban's exile) into "Fortiger." Fisher interprets this change as the scribe's clever correction of the muddle of the Inge/Ronwenne story material (133-137). In chapter 4, Fisher argues that the Auchinleck Scribe composed the Auchinleck Short Chronicle from a position of "privileged access to a remarkably diverse and substantive selection of texts" (150-1). One case in point is the fact that the scribe seems to have had access to more than one exemplar of Richard Coeur de Lyon for his treatment of Richard I's reign in his Short Chronicle (158-165). Next, Fisher employs his discussion of wax tablets in the Legend of Pope Gregory as a self-reflexive expression of anxieties about impermanent writing (168-170) to lead over to a discussion of the "materiality of longer projects of composition" (171). In this part of the chapter, Fisher argues that some medieval texts, including those of derivative historiography, "were written directly on the manuscript page" (171). The example of the otherwise unknown Bauduin Butors, who almost certainly wrote directly on the page, underlines the fact that, just as scribes could be authors, authors could be scribes. Butors's errors, in turn, are a reminder "that mechanical errors do not only take place when scribes copy texts. Errors that are thought of as scribal can occur when an author composes directly on the page" (177). Likewise, the "complex intertextuality of the texts of the Auchinleck manuscript, some copied and some authored by Scribe 1, points to the innate materiality of scribal authorship" (178). Fisher concludes his study with the observation that the Short Chronicle "invited scribal authorship" and that the Harley Scribe and Auchinleck Scribe 1 "responded to that invitation to compose unique texts in dialogue with other texts of the manuscripts, and with the historical circumstances of the books' production" (187).

This is an important book that will transform the ways in which we discuss the literary contributions of scribes. Authorship questions, Fisher's knowledgeable study makes clear, cannot exclude questions of manuscript production and of the roles scribes played in it.

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Author Biography

Nicole Nyffennegger

University of Berne, Switzerland