In Introducing English Medieval Book History, Ralph Hanna offers a series of master classes, based on his Oxford lectures on paleography and textual criticism, using key texts in various fields of medieval English studies to illustrate the issues that arise when manuscript contexts are taken into account. As Hanna points out, the field at large has reached a point where the material and cultural situatedness of texts can no longer be ignored, and his densely learned explications will persuade any reader of the valuable perspectives (and intriguing research directions) these contexts make available.
Although the "case study" approach to learning about manuscripts is not new, Hanna organizes his discussions around an unusual and challenging principle, which he labels "lateral analogical thinking" (xiii). Rather than offer a standard, sequential explanation of what manuscripts are, how they are made, different genres of manuscripts, who used them how, and so on, Hanna plunges straight into one complex scenario after another. His assumption is that the information and skills picked up in learning about one situation will carry over (laterally) to other situations where analogous issues are involved. Learning becomes a cumulative, associative enterprise, where the tools of comprehension are picked up as needed and grow familiar with use.
The Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv) is the first of Hanna's seven chapters. As with all the chapters that focus on a particular codex, Hanna supplies a formal, two-page manuscript description (4-5), then in discussion demonstrates the value of the technical information such descriptions supply. Hanna credits Kevin Kiernan's Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript (1981) with provoking "something like a revolution" (1) in Beowulf studies by arguing that the poem was composed not during the period of Bede or earlier but was contemporary with its eleventh-century manuscript, which he also dated some years later than most scholars. Having said this, Hanna then proceeds to take apart the historical and codicological grounds of Kiernan's thesis, in the process demonstrating how such issues are argued and assessed. The enduring contribution of Kiernan's book, Hanna concludes, was that in examining the manuscript's collation as part of his argument about dating, Kiernan reminded scholars of the context of Beowulf within what Kenneth Sisam, in 1953, had labeled a liber monstrorum. As he does in many of the chapters, Hanna augments the central point with forays into related issues. Thus he spends time exploring the role of Cassiodorus as the pioneer of medieval miscellany-making, en route to concluding that the monster tales among which Beowulf appears cast a shadow on the Geat's alleged heroism. In this chapter as in those that follow, learning, for the reader, indeed proceeds laterally as well as sequentially; by the end, the learner feels she has not only absorbed a great deal of information but has also begun to intuit the webs of relationship in which various kinds of information subsist.
Chapter two takes on the Middle English "Benjamin," or "A Treatise of the Study of Wisdom." This short prose translation from Richard of St. Victor allegorizes the biblical Jacob as God, and his wives and concubines, and their children (the favorite of whom was Benjamin), as various mental or spiritual qualities. Hanna examines the editorial history of this work as another example of the perils of excerpting texts from their manuscript context, and as an example of the challenges of producing an edition out of multiple, differing witnesses. In fact, on Hanna's showing, the work's 1955 editor, Phyllis Hodgson, seems to have overcredited the manuscript context of this work. Having found it associated in three anthologies with the Cloud of Unknowing, Hodgson based her edition on one of these--London, British Library MS Harley 674--and ascribed the text to the author of the Cloud. Yet in a wider sense Hodgson did fail to respect context since, as Hanna shows, "Benjamin" appears in at least twelve other manuscripts without the Cloud. Some of these have better texts than Harley 674. Hanna notes the usefulness of comparing translations to their Latin source, when searching for a best text, and pulls in linguistics to demonstrate the dominance of northern forms in the textual corpus (whereas the dialect of the author of the Cloud associates him with the northeast Midlands). Unfortunately, the oldest and most northern--thus possibly the most authentic--text of "Benjamin" (in Harley 1022) is full of gaps and errors. At the same time, Harley 674 is interesting in itself, as representing a later, Carthusian redaction. A complete listing of the manuscripts and contents follows the chapter.
Having addressed miscellanies as harboring particular texts, Hanna in chapter three focuses on the miscellany as a manuscript genre, choosing Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.285 as a particularly complex and intriguing example. Rawlinson contains eight texts (some of them florilegal collections of short extracts or texts), in four booklets. These were copied by four scribes, with the last text/booklet added later; two other scribes wrote material onto previously blank folios; and the whole is further embellished with manicules, glosses, and comments from scribes and readers. Cross-checking contents in the Index of Middle English Verse and Index of Printed Middle English Prose allows Hanna to identify two later manuscripts that present the same contents as Rawlinson, and were thus probably copied from it. The fact that each of these also has texts not surviving in Rawlinson suggests that Rawlinson originally had these texts as well. A name--John Marshall--on a Rawlinson flyleaf opens the door to further illustrative speculation about how to track down former book-owners. Hanna concludes: "Books subsist, and their histories are marked by often unpredictable interventions, all of potential interest" (95).
With chapter four, the focus moves to geography and readership. "The team responsible for BL, MS Cotton Galba E.ix," Hanna says, "provides one visible entree into a collocation of book artisans engaged in the production of multiple libraries for a probably localised community of readers" (96). Galba, again, is in booklets, including unique copies of Ywain and Gawain and of Lawrence Minot's poems, as well as the Seven Sages, the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Prick of Conscience, and shorter pieces. A stemma of the Prick reveals a "twin" and other manuscripts, linked by shared production techniques. Further investigation reveals nine scribes and at least five artists working on multiple related manuscripts, with three scribes and two artists appearing in more than one book. The texts share a particular focus on Cursor mundi, the Northern Homilies, the Prick of Conscience, and Speculum vitae, with individual clients responsible for adding other texts to the mix. Based on this assiduously collected information, Hanna deduces the activity of a "highly structured and closely supervised" group of clerics (127), abetted by freelancers, working in, perhaps, Ripon (Yorkshire).
From the implications of a highly uniform manuscript format, chapter five sends us into the dilemma of one scribe producing two highly dissimilar, highly important codices. The not very surprising conclusion is that scribes did whatever they were hired to do; but en route to that revelation we get a vigorous discussion and much educated guessing about how Adam Pynkhurst, otherwise known as Scribe B, went about his work on Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 392D and San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9--the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  Famously, the first is small, scruffy, unillustrated, and incomplete, with the tales in an unsatisfying order--but it has the best text. Meanwhile, the Ellesmere is big, gorgeous, illustrated, has all known Canterbury Tales elements, in what has proved the most attractive order--and provides an egregiously "improved" and less good text. Hanna's hypothesis in the first case is that Hengwrt "may well have been produced for a very interested party who commissioned Adam Pynkhurst to construct a Canterbury Tales from in-progress drafts circulating among various members of the poet's coterie" (159). He goes into a lengthy recreation of the process behind the Ellesmere, imagining the "meticulous planning" of a "production team" that created an elaborate layout, with a text achieved via "apparently extensive trolling among available copies that might be used as exemplars" (160). Hanna steers a careful course around the claims and critiques generated since Linne Mooney's identification of Pynkhurst with Scribe B in 2006.  Rather than seeing Pynkhurst as the master-hand that shaped the Chaucerian corpus, as some other scholars have implied, Hanna envisages him as a jobbing scribe taking instruction from the manuscripts' "production teams" (164).
Chapter six takes up the theme of the scribe-patron relationship through the lucky survival of a detailed commission issued by John Forbor to "Robert Berkeling scribe" (168). Forbor's status as a vicar choral of York Minster allowed him to have the contract enrolled in a minster register, rather than in the more usual, and less durable, form of an indenture. Every detail of the Latin psalter Forbor wanted is spelled out, especially the many kinds of decorated initials suitable to different levels of text. Hanna relates these elements to the divisions of the psalter, and goes on to an enlightening analysis of the scribe's pay: almost £1 (not counting clothes and bedding), at a time when a rural curate would have earned about £5 a year.
Chapter seven ends the book, appropriately, by thinking about who owned all these manuscripts. Monastic institutions provide the most evidence, but Hanna moves on quickly to lay magnates such as Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester (d. 1397). The inventory of Thomas's books created after his attainder records service books probably kept in a chapel; devotional and other texts possibly associated with Thomas's wife, Eleanor de Bohun, and her famously bibliophilic family; law books in practical use; and everything else from theology through Aristotelian ethics, specula principum, histories, chronicles, encyclopedias, and romances of Arthur and other worthies. After a brief review of the translations commissioned by Thomas, Lord Berkeley (d. 1361), and the diverse books owned by Sir Thomas Chaworth (d. 1459) and the Willoughby family, Hanna closes with samples of three surviving medieval booklists: from John Erghome, Thomas of Woodstock, and "the lord Wells."
Hanna's long and extensive study of Middle English book history, with his persistent emphasis on its close relationship with the literature preserved in the books, speaks through all of these chapters, and should in itself be an inspiration to aspiring students in the field. The success of his strategy of teaching via "lateral analogical thinking," however, will depend on these students being very patient and thorough readers. Terms of art are introduced randomly--in the text, in footnotes, or in plate captions. There is no glossary and no general index, only an index of manuscripts cited and of scholars cited (substituting for a bibliography). If one missed the definition of "quire" in footnote 5 on page 6, for instance, one would have to resort to someone else's glossary or to Google. Other terms are used without definition, such as "anglicana," "textura," and "secretary," or "unique" as "sole surviving copy" (and liable, left undefined, to be confused with "unusual" or "special").
"Lateral thinking" extends to seizing opportunities to insert information interesting in itself but not always clearly relevant to the discussion at hand. So plate 5, offered as an example of prose text in BL MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv, also provides a chance to explain the history of scriptio continua. The fifth chapter, which is about Chaucer manuscripts, contains two extraneous plates, with commentary, of Piers Plowman texts. The sixth ends with a transcription, translation, and discussion of a document previously reproduced to illustrate what an "indenture" is--a topic never very relevant to the discussion, as Forbor's commission was not an indenture. Longer passages in foreign or unfamiliar languages are translated, but many shorter phrases are left as they are, such as balzanum se woerđesta ele (25, pl. 6), in ilka sted (107), or De praeparatione animi ad contemplationem liber (32).
Issues that seem to need more exploration sometimes go without. Despite the emphasis on "miscellanies" in the first three chapters, and despite a footnote to well-known sources (27-28, n. 24), the term is never defined, and never distinguished from "anthology" or "compilation." As suggested in the synopsis of chapter five, Hanna consistently presents scribes as working under the orders of supervisors and/or patrons, rather than as independent entrepreneurs sharing credit for the "making" of English literature. As it happens, I agree with Hanna, but the "scribal authorship" point of view has been popular in recent years, and surely the students Hanna is writing for would benefit from hearing about the alternate perspective and learning why Hanna does not accept it.
Some of Hanna's assertions also seem improbably weak. The scarcity of English-language books in the Thomas of Woodstock inventory leads Hanna to remark: "At what one imagines the most sophisticated social levels, whether clerical or lay, English never seems to have played any very central role in cultural thinking" (208). I'd have to guess that this linguistic distribution says more about Thomas, or the Bohuns, than it does about the general situation--given the ownership of, for example, Chaucer, Gower, and Hoccleve manuscripts by such near relations of Thomas as John of Gaunt, Philippa of Lancaster, and Henry V and his brothers. Hanna brings similar pessimism to the translations commissioned by Thomas, Lord Berkeley, about which he concludes that "English was to find its way among extended local communities like these [Gloucestershire and northern Somerset] (and only secondarily those engaged in central institutions)" (210). This is a perplexing comment in light of Hanna's own masterly demonstration, in 1989, that Berkeley had exemplars copied in Westminster or London for distribution among his peers. 
For practical pedagogical purposes, one would probably be better off assigning a more traditional introductory work on medieval book history, such as Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, and Linda Olson (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013). I wouldn't hesitate, however, to send the more motivated students to Hanna's book, while any scholar interested in the manuscripts he discusses would find rich reading in this intense and challenging work.
1. Scribe B: from the nomenclature proposed in A.I. Doyle and M.B. Parkes, "The Production of Copies of the Canterbury Tales and the Confessio Amantis in the Early Fifteenth Century," in Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts and Libraries: Essays Presented to N.R. Ker, ed. M.B. Parkes and Andrew G. Watson (London: Scolar, 1978), 163-210.
2. Linne R. Mooney, "Chaucer's Scribe," Speculum 81 (2006): 97-138.
3. Ralph Hanna III, "Sir Thomas Berkeley and His Patronage," Speculum 64 (1989): 878-916.