The Medieval Review 15.05.04

Stokes, Peter A. English Vernacular Minuscule from Æthelred to Cnut, circa 990 - circa 1035. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014. pp. 297. $99.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781843843696 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Felicia Jean Steele
The College of New Jersey

Anglo-Saxon paleography--which was once the specialized domain of manuscript scholars, editors, and collectors--has now become a more accessible field because of digital technologies that have resulted in improved access to manuscript images, particularly from the British Library, the Oxford Digital Manuscripts Initiative, and Cambridge Digital Library. The Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies (MANCASS) has been at the vanguard of paleographical studies that take advantage of more extensive access to digital images. Stokes's book joins important recent paleographical studies that also come from MANCASS, particularly Susan D. Thompson's two volumes on Anglo-Saxon vernacular documents and royal diplomas. This volume weaves together several topical threads in the MANCASS Studies series: paleography and manuscript study, as well as tenth-century reforms and the reigns of Edgar and Cnut. Stokes--the Project Director for DigiPal: Digital Resource and Database for Palaeography, Manuscript Study, and Diplomatic (a European-Union-funded project developed in the Department of Digital Humanities at Kings College, London)--presents a thorough description of all manuscripts containing English vernacular script dating from the reigns of Æthelred to Cnut (from approximately 990 to 1035); thus, Stokes discusses manuscripts that include the most notable pieces of prose written by late Old English writers, particularly Ælfric and Wulfstan, and manuscripts produced in the most important scriptoria: Canterbury, Worcester, and York. Moreover, the volume demonstrates the intersection of online digital humanities projects and traditional scholarly publication. Stokes's book is a highly technical introduction to the origins and developments of Anglo-Saxon scripts during this most productive half century, which will be most helpful to scholars and students using digital libraries for scholarly projects. Although Stokes relies heavily on the work of T. A. M. Bishop and D. N. Dumville, his treatment of the history of script type and the history of the manuscripts themselves is a substantial contribution to the field. Most importantly, however, Stokes points us toward a "middle way" in manuscript study. He demonstrates that computer-assisted paleography must not abandon close analysis of manuscripts for supposed quantitative rigor.

Stokes builds upon the catalogs of Neil Ker, Helmut Gneuss, and Peter Sawyer, as well as the Conspectus of Donald Scragg, which appeared as the twelfth volume in the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Stokes's work with DigiPal provides him with an expansive knowledge of manuscript hands, but he focuses here on a systematic description of the range of script types that occur in England during the period. His book, comprising of three major sections, does more than simply classify the hands. First, Stokes provides an introduction to the background of Anglo-Caroline vernacular hands as well as the localisation of those hands in the corpus of Old English manuscripts that he surveys. His paleographical analyses are based on the dating for Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, which depends largely on the evidence from Ker, although he does not require his reader to take Ker's word as gospel. Stokes explains in great (yet accessible) detail the nature of the evidence for dating and localization, clarifying the often obscure ways in which scholars use external evidence, such as compustistical tables and litanies, to assert the date and location of a manuscript. In this first third of the book, he also offers a historical introduction to English Vernacular Miniscule, a classification of the purposes of the script, and an account of the afterlife of the manuscripts through the Middle Ages, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and into their current collections. The second section of the book classifies the hands and identifies the most notable manuscripts that preserve them. Stokes follows Dumville's lead, dividing vernacular hands into two styles. Style-I Vernacular Miniscule, the elegant hand most associated with Winchester, is characterized by "long ascenders and descenders, a thin pen, long s, teardrop-shaped or very round a, an open and often angular tail of g, and frequent use of straight-limbed, dotted y" (119). The squarish Style-II retains "much of the aspect and many letter-forms from the tenth century" (162). He categorizes scripts through individual letter forms and provides tables that demonstrate the changes in letter forms through time. All illustrations from manuscripts appear in a section of figures and plates at the end of the book, and it is sometimes difficult to correlate individual images from the concluding pages with the text to which they correspond. The third section presents Stokes's conclusions regarding the development of the hands. He argues that tenth century reforms are central to the development of scribal hands in England and concludes that "[t]he question of whether a scribe wrote the first or second style of Anglo-Caroline [script] seems to have been decided by which reformer the scribe's scriptorium was associated with: Æthewold, Oswald, or Dunstan" (205). A very useful glossary and visual catalog of letter forms, along with illustrative plates of manuscripts conclude the volume.

Manchester University Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies and the Digital Humanities Initiative at King's College London have been at the forefront of recognizing the potential for digitally assisted scholarship of medieval manuscripts and texts. This volume provides a much needed bridge between traditional manuscript scholarship that relies on close analysis of individual manuscripts--where conclusions are shared largely in monograph form--and digital humanities projects--which have to date had more haphazard publication practices. Stokes offers an important corrective to presumptions that quantitative analysis of manuscripts necessarily suggests that close analysis must be abandoned. His book succeeds in demonstrating "a middle way, with close analysis of important examples" of scribal hands "alongside larger-scale, more statistical discussion" of letter forms and manuscript hands (3). Stokes's guide offers readers who wish to examine these digital resources much needed support as they read the documents in their original form and a much needed account of methods of localization and classification used in manuscript analysis.

Copyright (c) 2015 Felicia Jean Steele

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