The Medieval Review 14.04.38


Wilcox, Jonathan. Scraped, Stroked, and Bound: Materially Engaged Readings of Medieval Manuscripts. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 23. Turnhout: Brepols2013, 2013. Pp. xvi, 240. €80.00. ISBN: 978-2-503-54549-3.



Reviewed by:


Tjamke Snijders
Ghent University/Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO)
tjamke.snijders@ugent.be

On 4 November 1966, the River Arno in Florence flooded. In what is considered the worst flood in the city's history since 1557, many people died and millions of manuscripts and works of art were damaged. Rescue teams nicknamed angeli del fango or "Mud Angels" were immediately assembled and worked for months on site. The historians and librarians among them took thousands of manuscripts back to their workshops to be repaired. This gave them the opportunity to closely examine the structure of all these codices while they were trying to preserve and restore them. This led to a new appreciation for the profession and a new standard of scholarship. Conservators developed a methodology for codicological analysis, and the public interest in their work led to the emergence of the "book arts" as an art form.

This volume seeks to reunite these two forms of book-related practices that came out of the Florence disaster. "What if," editor Jonathan Wilcox asks himself in the introduction, "a group of scholars with interest in specific medieval manuscripts were to come together with contemporary book artists?" (4) Apparently, this resulted firstly and foremost in an assault on the senses. In a two-week gathering, scholars and artists together attempted to re-create a medieval manuscript, starting with the preparation of the parchment. "There was a smell of blood and sex and death coming from the skin while whitened squidgy stuff flew everywhere, yet we looked on captivated, and some brave souls tried their hand at the process" (4-5). They scraped, pegged, stretched, and finished the parchment; whereupon they tried their hands at the re-creation of medieval letterforms. While "the philology of smell" came to be used as shorthand for the broad sensory engagement with manuscripts that they were undergoing, they were seeking ways to bring back those senses to an understanding of medieval manuscripts. The collection of papers in this volume represents their achievements.

The first three articles focus on "Scribes in Action." Cheryl Jacobsen--who calls herself a "contemporary scribe"--describes how she attempted to reproduce the hand of the Exeter Book. She argues that the process of re-creation makes one differentiate between writing characteristics that are personal quirks, conscious choices, or the result of faulty material. As a result, the scribe's viewpoint can be crucial for a good understanding of a manuscript.

Two further contributions focus on the habitus of scribes. They proceed from the notion that writing is a "technique of the body," and therefore conditioned by education, culture and ideology. This implies that even when a scribe tried to alter his writing style, something of his habitus always remained visible, which provides valuable research opportunities. Matthew T. Hussey examines an eighth-century manuscript, Würzburg, Universitätsbibliothek M.p.th.f.79, as an example of scribal habitus. He argues that a competent scribe who was trained in half-uncial script nevertheless wrote this manuscript in an uncial script with clear northern French characteristics, even though he had great difficulties reproducing the script. He also used typically Frankish eight-leaf quires instead of the Anglo-Saxon usage of ten-leaf quires arranged hair-side out. Hussey argues that manuscript exchanges between England and the continent had made Anglo-Saxon audiences familiar with these Frankish manuscript usages, and rightly or wrongly concludes that they would recognize this manuscript as an attempt to imitate Frankish customs. Hussey concludes that the scribe was consciously trying to produce a book that expressed Frankish ideological connections.

Patrick W. Conner, in one of the most technical contributions to this volume, investigates the problem of matched scribal hands. Every paleographer has on occasion been confronted with the fact that one hand can be written by multiple scribes, who all try to subordinate their personal styles to the requirements of homogeneity. It is important to find out how many scribes participated in the creation of one hand, because the discovery that two or more scribes participated in the creation of one manuscript can greatly aid in the localization and dating of said manuscript. In this chapter, which serves as a prolegomenon to a larger study on this subject, he inquires after the standards required to identify two hands as "matched" and distinguishes between matched hands in temporal, spatial, and discursive terms. Temporally speaking, scribes can have a synchronic match if they work together in an active scriptorium and try to "empty themselves" of their own usages to adopt the usage of a superior. There is also the possibility of a diachronic match, when scribes from later era's attempt to match an earlier hand. From a spatial point of view, Conner distinguishes between hands that are located next to one another on the same page (contiguous) and those that are located in the same unit of the manuscript, but not juxtaposed on the same page (complementary), which makes it more likely that scribes altered rulings and used other tricks to achieve complementarity. Thirdly, the discursive axes can be subdivided into a linguistic domain, which requires scribes to share similar approaches to the use of abbreviations, prefixes and affixes and so on. Least persuasive, perhaps, is Conner's speculation that from a social point of view, scribes may have felt the need to repress personal pride and individuality within the context of a Benedictine monastery, thus turning the act of writing into the meticulous imitation of a model, and therefore a religious act. Given that flexibility and attention to individual needs was always one of the most important aspects of Benedict's Rule, that many early- and high medieval monasteries actively resisted the organized homogeneity of Cluny and others, and that heterogeneity in manuscripts is far more common than the presence of carefully matched hands, one might wonder whether it was not the act of writing itself that was considered to be sacred, rather than the attempt to produce matched hands. Conner, however, is of the opinion that homogeneity is one of the marks of an effective scriptorium, and concludes that "A scriptorium is a community and matched hands are a measure of the degree to which the community has transmitted its shared practice to its members," and subsequently applies his findings to a number of short case studies (57).

Three articles concentrate on writing supports. Jesse Meyer, a parchment maker from Pergamena in New York, lists the steps of preparing parchment, starting from "1. Selecting Skins," over soaking, fleshing, deliming, and neutralizing, to "16. Trim and Measure."

Jennifer Borland examines Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS Clm. 1133. This manuscript contains an illustrated Life of Margaret, yet almost every illustrated scene displays one or more damaged figures. The "bad guys" in the story are dismembered and beheaded by aggressively scraping with a sharp object, whereas the figure of Margaret herself is left intact. One might think that a reader simply objected to the representation of evil in a manuscript, but Borland's hypothesis is that the reader(s) who did this "in a sense re-enacted the heroic, saintly acts of Margaret" by symbolically incapacitating the story's antagonists (111).

Timothy Barrett actively undertakes to merge artisanal and scholarly perspectives on manuscript production. He investigates the material aspects of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century paper-making, arguing that the inventiveness of Italian entrepreneurs was crucial for paper's success in beating parchment and papyrus as the writing material of choice. Before 1500, the Italians used gelatin sizing and other methods to create a kind of paper that worked as a credible imitation of parchment, at a fraction of its cost. After 1500, the printing press no longer required imitation parchment, so they started to develop an entirely different and cheaper material in its own right: paper.

Frost, Ellis and Berman examine codicological structures. Gary Frost, a library conservator in Iowa, focuses on the mechanics of medieval bookbinding. He discusses issues such as the control of transmission, the motion derived from leverage of the board, and sewing supports. He notes that the medieval book exemplifies the reliable transmission of knowledge across time and cultures, and wonders whether online sources will prove as reliable or, on the contrary, will be seen as the cause of a "digital dark ages" in the future.

Art historian Elsi Vassdal Ellis investigates conservators' changed priorities in preserving and/or restoring manuscripts. She starts her discussion by noting that Islamic and Hebrew bindings were always preserved because one does not simply discard the cover to a Qur'an or a scrap of the Torah; whereas Western books were being recycled on a grand scale and tended to be "restored" without much concern for the original state of the codex. She goes on to trace the concepts of "restoration" and "preservation" in the history of western manuscript conservation, assigning much importance to the 1966 flood of the River Arno and describing the institutional structures within the flourishing field of book arts in the United States.

Constance Berman revisits Trent 1711, the manuscript that contains one of the oldest "original documents" of the Cistercian Order, and which was a key element to her thesis that the Cistercians were not created as a fully-functioning Order in the 1120s (see Berman, The Cistercian Evolution and the discussion that followed it). She re-explains her arguments for dividing the Trent manuscript into the early Trent One and the later addition called Trent Two, and explains that the "original documents" of the Cistercian Order are only present in Trent Two and thus do not reveal much about the earliest history of the Cistercians. However, the customary in Trent One does reveal much about the early Cistercians, especially through a comparison to Udalric's Cluniac customary. Berman notes that the Cistercians had fewer chapters on office-holding but more chapters on physical labor. These typically Cistercian customs can thus be dated with certainty to the earliest years of the Order.

In a final section, two scholars focus on the manuscript as a whole. Karen Louise Jolly studies Durham, Cathedral Library MS A.IV.19, a service book that probably existed as an unbound collection of folios in the tenth century. On the basis of a detailed codicological analysis, she reconstructs the working methods in the scriptorium. She argues that the manuscript served as a place to collect texts that were of interest to the community. As "Durham, Cathedral Library, MS A.IV.19" only existed at this point as a collection of loose booklets, stylistic homogeneity was not of primary importance to the scribes, who allowed their differences to be on display.

Finally, Martha Rust edges into the late Middle Ages with her study of Oxford, St. John's College Library, MS 94. This manuscript was produced by John Lacy (fl. 1407-1434), an anchorite in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She shows how intertwined Lacy was with his book, which was constructed from local materials, contained his own, personalized liturgical Use, and played on his position as an anchorite, dead to the world.

In these papers, the dividing lines between book artists and manuscript scholars are never fully overcome. In the camp of the book artists, the focus lies on overarching analyses of historical methods of bookmaking; whereas those with a background in history or English tend to work through finely delimited case studies with copious footnotes. The two camps gingerly try to interact, but do not always succeed. Nevertheless, the volume does manage to "enact the value of crossing scholarly and artisanal boundaries, of engaging manuscripts with a full sense of their materiality" (13). It convincingly argues that a material reading of manuscripts is essential to their full understanding and proper interpretation, and will hopefully lead to several further studies on the same subject.



Copyright (c) 2014 Tjamke Snijders



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