This impressive and expertly edited volume contributes significantly to our understanding of one of medieval England's most important books. It is a worthy addition to the Texts and Transitions series published by Brepols, which is noted for meticulous and detailed scholarship (e.g., Mary-Jo Arn's The Poet's Notebook: The Personal Manuscript of Charles d'Orléans (Paris, BnF MS fr. 25458), published in 2009). It is also a major addition to scholarship on the Vernon Manuscript, considerably supplementing (and occasionally correcting) the essays published in Derek Pearsall (ed.), Studies in the Vernon Manuscript (Cambridge: Brewer, 1990). The great advantage of the present volume is that its contributors make extensive use of the digital facsimile edited by Wendy Scase, The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile Edition of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. poet.a.1, Bodleian Digital Texts 3 (Oxford: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2011). Contributors also draw from studies collected in the impressive Essays in Manuscript Geography: Vernacular Manuscripts of the English West Midlands from the Conquest to the Sixteenth Century, also edited by Scase and published by Brepols in 2007.
The volume is organized into three parts, the first collecting essays on "Copying, Editing, and Assembly of the Vernon Manuscript." Updating his earlier work (e.g., his introduction to The Vernon Manuscript: A Facsimile of Bodleian Library, Oxford MS. Eng. poet.a.1 [Cambridge: Brewer, 1987]), A. I. Doyle authoritatively establishes the manuscript's codicology, paleography, and provenance, and discusses its relationship to its "sister" in the British Library, the Simeon manuscript (MS Add. 22283). Simon Horobin's "The Scribes of the Vernon Manuscript" is similarly comprehensive and persuasive, detailing the characteristics of the manuscript's two scribes and associating its production with Lichfield. Jeremy J. Smith's "Mapping the Language of the Vernon Manuscript," which draws on the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval English, shows how "the varieties of language found in the Vernon manuscript exemplify well late fourteenth-century south West Midlands English" (57). To me the most interesting essay in this first part is by Ryan Perry, "Editorial Politics in the Vernon Manuscript," which questions the extent to which Vernon may be understood as a compendium of traditional orthodox vernacular texts. Exceptional among these essays--which unfortunately rarely venture into interpretive analysis--Perry studies both Vernon's and Simeon's selections on the "Sacrament of the Altar" from Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne, interpreting them in terms of Wyclif's radical opposition to contemporary Eucharistic theology. He concludes that "Although these manuscripts are regarded, rightly in some respects, as being 'provincial,' they should not be regarded as being insulated from the ideological battles more often associated with Oxford and London" (87). Part I then concludes with Scase's helpful "Rubrics, Opening Numbering, and the Vernon Table of Contents, which includes an insightful analysis of the function of the Table of Contents and the implications of its innovative provision of English tituli.
The second part includes essays on "Decoration and Illustration of the Vernon Manuscript." The topics of these essays are of great interest to this reviewer, but they are also somewhat disappointing in their rather mechanical treatment of decorative and illustrative materials. The volume's emphasis on describing in sometimes excruciating detail the manuscript's production, dialect, provenance, sources, and models occasionally results in essays that are basically extended--although still useful--catalog entries. Rebecca Farnham's "Border Artists of the Vernon Manuscript," for example, details at length evidence for nine border artists, concluding unremarkably that "The planning of the reading apparatus for the Vernon manuscript was both intricate and extensive, and the decoration was carried out by nine artists of differing levels of ability" (147). Particularly disappointing is the essay on "The Miniatures in the Vernon Manuscript" by Alison Stones. It is thorough, well-written, and engaging, but sadly Stones--an excellent art historian specializing in fourteenth-century manuscripts--misses the opportunity to discuss the various roles played by these illustrations and to consider their potential influence on the reception and meaning of the Vernon texts. How does it matter that some texts are introduced by miniatures and how do they affect our understanding of these texts? The miniatures themselves, in fact, do not receive serious analysis. Instead, we get a catalog of images discussed in comparison with primarily French manuscripts of the Miracles of the Virgin, certainly handy information, but lacking interpretive insight.
Similarly descriptive, the longest essay in Part II, Lynda Dennison's "The Artistic Origins of the Vernon Manuscript" summarizes stylistic features characterizing Vernon's two major illustrators ("Illustrator A," of The Estorie del Evangelie miniature cycle, and "Illustrator B," of the illustrations for the Miracles of the Virgin) and a third ("C") illustrator responsible for the historiated initial opening the Prick of Conscience. These three are compared with artists illustrating several roughly contemporary (i.e., in the 1390s) English manuscripts. The essay, which includes an informative overview of contemporary workshop practices, is essentially the visual equivalent of earlier essays focusing on scribal hands and dialects, because Dennison's goal, once again, is to localize and date Vernon, this time by identifying artists. It differs in its coverage, however, because it pays much greater attention to London and East Anglian (especially Norwich) manuscripts. This seeming geographic shift from the West Midlands is explained by the suggestion that the Vernon illustrators, probably clerical amateurs, were influenced by professional artists who "were peripatetic within a monastic, largely Benedictine, circuit with the monks facilitating the commissions for lay as well as ecclesiastical patrons" (203). Closing Part II, Wendy Scase's essay, "The Artists of the Vernon Initials," similarly shifts attention from the West Midlands, concluding that "we should consider more fully the possibilities of metropolitan provenance for the decoration of the Vernon manuscript" (226). An Appendix to Part II then follows, which provides a helpful listing of artists' hands and decorative types according to Dennison, Doyle, Farnham, and Kathleen L. Scott's Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles: Later Gothic Manuscripts 1390-1490, 2 vols. (London: Harvey Miller, 1996), 2:20-23.
Just as the first two parts conclude with essays by the editor, the third and last part ("Models, Analogues, and Patronage of the Vernon Manuscript") includes three essays by Scase that serve as conclusions for the entire volume. Closely related, the essays contextualize Vernon's patronage. The first, "Patronage Symbolism and Sowlehele," discusses the manuscript's lack of patronage symbolism, which is unusual for a manuscript that in its Table of Contents describes itself as "sowlehele," that is a book whose contents are intended to further the reader's salvation. Scase understands this lack of identifying marks of patronage as an ideological clue connecting the manuscript to contemporary critiques of religious patronage, and she concisely notes that the "absence of symbolism may be, in fact, symbolic" (238). The second of the three concluding essays, "Some Vernon Analogues and their Patrons," focuses on the patronage of manuscript anthologies from the West Midlands that are analogous to Vernon, particularly collections of Anglo-Norman texts. Scase notes "that Vernon (and Simeon) may be regarded as updating and developing the tradition of the Anglo-Norman collective vernacular book in response to this new fashion for large-format vernacular luxury books in English that was led by noble patrons and bibliophiles" (260). The final ("The Patronage of the Vernon Manuscript") is the best of these three concluding essays because it is both synthetic and thoughtfully speculative. In contrast to earlier scholarship that has focused on a monastic (perhaps Cistercian) house in the West Midlands, Scase emphasizes "the relations between clergy and lay patrons when discussing the patronage and production nexus of the Vernon manuscript" (288). Drawing on several of the volume's essays as well as her extensive knowledge of West Midland's religious and political culture, Scase makes a strong case for the patronage of William Beauchamp, the younger brother of Thomas Beauchamp, twelfth earl of Warwick. She sets forth substantial evidence of his support of vernacular texts and shows how his West Midlands connections were matched by his London interests, which included a home in Paternoster Row, the center of London's book trade. His London connections would have given West Midland clerics in his employ the opportunity to collect exemplars, transcribe texts, and arrange for their decoration, an argument that supports her view that Vernon may have been decorated in London. She also notes that "we are accumulating more and more evidence of material in West Midlands dialect being copied in London" (285). Scase emphasizes that her discussion is exploratory and pursues just one of several possible avenues to understand Vernon's patronage, but this innovative closing essay is refreshing in its marshaling and interpretation of evidence. It provides a model for future work on the manuscript.
Brepols should be congratulated on this handsomely produced volume, which includes forty color plates, sixty black and white figures, and two tables, as well as thorough bibliographies of manuscripts and scholarly sources (both printed and digital) and indexes of manuscripts and names. Its essays are superbly researched, thoughtfully organized, and clearly written. Unlike so many recent collections organized around loosely defined themes, these essays are highly focused and interrelated, and as a group they certainly meet the goal of examining in depth the making of the Vernon manuscript. One now looks forward to a similar collection of expert essays that build on the foundation provided by this volume in order to focus greater attention on the meaning of this remarkable manuscript.