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15.09.09, Doležalová, Obscurity and Memory in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture

15.09.09, Doležalová, Obscurity and Memory in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture

Obscurity is not obscure. It is not the recovery of the recondite, the esoteric, or the barely significant that is the subject of Lucie Doležalová's study, but the conscious use of obscurity--the deliberate concealment of meaning--as a tool precisely to stimulate learning and memorization. This is obscurity in the sense that a crossword puzzle is obscure. Uncovering the meaning from intentionally cryptic phrases, within which it has been deliberately concealed, turns the task of entering words in set spaces, in itself quite boring, into an intellectually engaging and even enjoyable pastime. The mnemonic and didactic potential of this kind of obscurity was not lost on medieval schoolmen: nor on their antique forbears, as Doležalová shows neatly in her introduction. Augustine held that the many obscure passages of Scripture did not contain secret knowledge but simply concealed what was legible in plain sight elsewhere, if only the exegete were clever enough to discover it. The intentional obscurity of the scriptural text reminded the proud of their limitations; it also precluded a dismissive attitude towards Scripture as simple to understand, and therefore eminently ignorable. Conversely, the scriptural text was often clear, so that it could not be regarded as uniformly impenetrable and so ignored by the reader who had lost heart in the challenge. Most importantly for Augustine, it rewarded the reader who had penetrated the obscurity and grasped the meaning with the enjoyment of an intellectual triumph, and an aesthetic appreciation of the careful crafting of the text.

It is this potential to reward the reader for labour invested that the texts under examination here sought to exploit, focusing the mind in an intellectually stimulating pursuit through which the underlying content was consequently memorized. Their purpose was not to convey a particular message, in the way that Augustine had thought of obscurity in Scripture, but to facilitate the acquisition of massive bodies of material: principally (though not exclusively) the content of the Bible itself. They were, in other words, an exercise in knowledge management. Sex prohibet peccant Abel Enoch archa fit intrant, egreditur dormit variantur turris it Abram read the first two lines of the Summarium Biblie: not, in fact, gibberish verse, but a key to the first twelve chapters of Genesis ("Six--he forbids--they sin--Abel--Enoch--the Ark is made--they enter; he goes forth--he sleeps--they are made different--the Tower--Abraham leaves"). The entire Bible, with the exception of the Psalms, was encompassed by this method in the Summarium Biblie. The scriptural text, in narrative sequence, was made memorable. The mind was made to work even with the very familiar events of Genesis: in the first two lines the reader must grasp that he who forbade (God) was not he who went forth and also slept (Noah), and that they who sinned (Adam and Eve) were neither they who entered (Noah and his family) nor they who were made different (the generations of Noah's sons). It worked: Doležalová identifies some 336 manuscripts of the Summarium Biblie, and notes that the real total number is likely far higher. As none yet known predates 1300, the text may well be a product of the early fourteenth century.

Case studies of the Song of Songs and of Esther explore in more detail the ways in which the Summarium Biblie worked, and the level of (in)consistency with which the text was copied and adapted by successive scribes. The work is contextualized concisely with respect to medieval reworkings and summaries of the Bible in prose and verse, and to similar mnemonic works like the Cisioiani (verse texts that facilitated memorization of the ecclesiastical calendar). Careful examination of the manuscript transmission reveals that the text of the Summarium Biblie was equipped with various types of glosses, which formed links of different mnemonic valency to the scriptural text itself. The great variety in the layout of the text upon the manuscript page, and in the names by which the text is designated, serves to support the significant contention that a major vehicle for the conservation and transmission of the text might have been the memory, not the manuscript: hos versus adolescentulus cordetenus studui ('"As a boy, I learned these verses off by heart"), wrote one scribe of the Summarium Biblie in 1453 (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 1027, fol. 6v). It is further excavation of the manuscript transmission, however, which furnishes the material to understand the place accorded to the Summarium Biblie on the one hand as a companion to the text of the Bible itself, and on the other as a component item in collections of mnemonic works. The latter enables further detailed investigation of other mnemonic texts, like the late antique Cena Cypriani ("Cyprian's Feast"), which seems to have begun life as a curious collection of riddles, but was rewritten by Hrabanus Maurus in the ninth century and became known to the Middle Ages as a systematized allegory of biblical narrative with mnemonic function.

This is a fine study of the pragmatic dimensions of memory, of learning and education, and of knowledge management. It is essential reading besides for anyone interested in the place and use of the Bible, in manuscript culture and scribal practice, and in the literary history of allegory and 'obscurity' in the later Middle Ages. It required revision of the English prose by a native speaker, copy-editing, and proper indices: there is a list of manuscripts containing the Summarium Biblie (only the shelfmarks, not the folio numbers), but that is all. But as the book is quite short and clear in its structure, this is not the problem that it might be. Thus far the author's responsibility. The publisher must take the blame for a low-quality book as a material object: it is bound too tightly in thin paper covers; the text is set too close to the gutter and is otherwise not well laid out on the page; the resolution of the reproductions is low, and some are just too small to see their content; the book is only available by application to the society responsible for its publication and the price is nowhere stated (see The front matter acknowledges subventions from public funds in two countries to publish the book, which must confer at least a moral obligation on the publisher to ensure an ease of purchase and at least some level of marketing. Now apparently three years after publication, only two libraries in the United Kingdom (the British Library and the Warburg Institute) have acquired a copy. This does not do justice to the exceptional scholarship and considerable import of this thoroughly interesting study. Readers of this review should ensure that their institutional libraries make the effort to purchase this book.