16.09.07, Conti, et al., eds., Writing Europe, 500-1450

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Pierre Chastang

The Medieval Review 16.09.07

Conti, Aidan, Orietta Da Rold, and Philip Shaw, eds. Writing Europe, 500-1450: Texts and Contexts. Essays and Studies 2015. Woodbridge: D.S.Brewer, 2015. pp. xv, 198. ISBN: 9781843844150 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Pierre Chastang
University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

The essays in Writing Europe, 500-1450, Texts and Contexts deal with a variety of questions (the materiality of writing, the development of medieval literacy, the epistemological and methodological changes in the context of digital humanities, etc.) as opposed to a specific problem. Despite the relative heterogeneity, most of the essays are relevant and present the state of the art and new interpretations on research fields related to the history of writing during the Middle Ages, especially during the last five centuries of this historical period.

The core of the published papers were presented during a 2012 conference organized in Bergen entitled "Writing in Europe before 1470." The editors have selected some of these papers and invited other researchers to contribute. In their introduction, the editors briefly discuss the variety of methodological approaches applied to the study of medieval writing (xiv) as well as the tension between unity and diversity in Europe from a cultural perspective. This does not contribute to any sense of focus and the reader is left to chart his/her own path.

Two different themes and a relevant methodological proposal appear in the book. Let's start with the latter. The second article (S. Brookes, P. A. Stokes, M. Watson and D. Marques de Matos, "The digital project for European scripts and decorations") offers some elements for an epistemological critical evaluation of the place reserved by the academic tradition to scholarly disciplines dealing with the materiality of the texts. Following A. Derolez's proposals in his volume on the paleography of Gothic manuscripts--books concerning the paradoxical position of paleography, which relies on an authority based on scientists considered as connoisseurs rather than on the discipline's own capacity for producing evidence shared by a large community--the authors defend the necessity of creating the conditions, with the help of digital tools, for an appropriation of paleographic knowledge by medievalists. The pooling of interpretative and classificatory methods has already begun to produce a rationalization of knowledge based on shared standards of description and on the capacity of each researcher to test and improve the objectivity of constructed classifications concerning the manuscripts' scripts.

The first theme evoked above concerns the impacts of a "digital shockwave" (20) on the humanities, especially on manuscript studies. Indeed, the first two articles (the one quoted previously and Orietta Da Rold and Marilena Maniaci's "Medieval manuscript studies: An European perspective") question the methodological and heuristic consequences caused by the growth of digital tools in the approaches to medieval texts: scans, TEI editions, databases, etc. The first level of change concerns the increasing availability of huge textual corpora, which enables studies based on quantitative approaches, or at least on larger series of documents. It promotes a less inductive logic in knowledge production. It seems to the authors that this evolution benefits particularly to codicology, which has started to change, since the 1980s, with the rise of quantitative or structural codicology [1], and its interests in standardized protocols for describing manuscripts. Concerning paleography, the evolution is less coherent. The vocabulary usually used by researchers remains poorly unified, which makes any comparisons embracing a large European space difficult. But digital tools can remedy this weakness and promote interdisciplinary practices among the medievalist community, especially those concerning the erudite knowledge of texts. To assess the increasing importance given to the materiality of objects and texts in medieval studies, and consequently the potential receptivity of new digital tools, it would certainly have been profitable to make a greater use of the studies on literacy and written culture that lie at the interface between history and social sciences.

The DigPal project (focused on Anglo-Saxon minuscule scripts), and its extensions to other corpora produced in other European cultural areas (Scandipal in Sweden and Norway, Sephardipal for a group of medieval Hebrew manuscripts produced in the Iberian Peninsula) propose a very impressive tool by means of which comparative and sociohistorical studies of scripters, scriptoria, and forms of literacy can be conducted, while "the idea of the paleographer as a repository of authoritative knowledge" (31) moves away. This is fundamentally due to the capacity of the on-line tools to provide a standardized descriptive protocol for any script, which transforms the user into an autonomous paleographer with the skills and abilities traditionally reserved for the happy few. Thus, the researchers use the tool to contribute to different questions such as the scholarly debate over native scriptoria in Scandinavia before 1100, or the allegedly conservative nature of the Sephardic scribal practices.

Almost all the other papers collected in the book demonstrate the importance to be given to manuscript studies for shaping a cultural history of the Middle Ages. They use different ways to achieve this common goal, which is to describe the unity and the diversity of a European written culture, including spaces located on the outskirts of Europe. Thus, the majority of the papers bring out the cultural connections between the Latin written culture and the forms of local productions and compositions in Latin or vernaculars. Many textual, graphic and scriptural creations are borrowed from models broadcast by monastic networks, which proves the intensity of cultural exchanges between the heart of Europe and its northern margins.

Aidan Conti's article ("Latin composition in medieval Norway"), following the creation of a website on "The Medieval Nordic Literature in Latin" which offers an overview of the Latin texts composed in Nordic countries, reveals the dynamism of the production in Latin during the 12th and 13th centuries. In the following centuries, Latin continued to be widely used in Sweden and Denmark, and not so much in Iceland and Norway; it was not replaced by Old Norse and even expanded as a language for pragmatic writing. Since the preserved texts are not so abundant, it would be pertinent to study more precisely the sociology of the writers and the literate and political contexts of the use of written texts, irrespective of their pragmatic, poetic and heuristic dimensions.

In his article dedicated to Frisia ("Isolation or network? Arengas and colophon verse in Frisian manuscripts around 1300"), Rolf H. Bremmer Jr describes a literate landscape which nuances the conclusions exposed by O. Vries in his publications. Frisia was a literate country before 1300. The demonstration is based on the analysis of a corpus of diplomatic preambles and colophon verses, which attests the presence of rhetorical formulas circulating elsewhere in Europe. Above all, the local scribes had sufficient skills to adapt the texts to the local context. Copying was not simply duplicating.

Annina Seiler's paper ("Writing the German languages: the early history of the digraphs , and ") is in a way the last part of a sort of Nordic trilogy. The author proposes a history of three digraphs commonly used in Old English and continental Germanic languages from the 8th century onward. Contradicting the hypothesis of an Irish influence, they were "a fixture of Merovingian orthography" (119). Since the Merovingian scribes used these digraphs for onomastic purposes, the graphic transfer did not involve plurilingual skills.

Helen Fulton's article ("Translating Europe in medieval Wales") deals with another outskirt of Europe: Wales. After the political changes, which occurred in 1282, the new governing class linked with the royal power of the king of England Edward I was deeply transformed. The old aristocracy of the Welsh princes gave way to a new group, which "established itself in a multicultural environment" (161). Literary works were translated from Latin and French into Welsh for a chivalric audience. Here again, the translations were "remediation" works, an understated job that created locally the cultural and social positioning of the Welsh uchelwir. Literate culture, the uses of languages and political changes are shaped together and the local history of Wales is connected to the rest of Europe, thanks to the translations and the metastory of the Trojan Legends.

Nadia Togni's article ("Italian giant bibles: The circulation and use of the book at the time of the ecclesiastical Reform in the eleventh and twelfth centuries") aims to describe the production and circulation of giant bibles during the second eleventh century linked to the spread of Gregorian values and strengthening the implementation of clerical reforming networks in specific European areas. The inventory of subsisting manuscripts and the localization of their production are very accurate and show the weight of books circulation and exchange networks in the Gregorian dynamics. The link between the specific form and layout of the biblical text in such giant books, previously produced during the Carolingian period, and the body of reformative values is unfortunately not discussed.

Finally, Svetlana Tsonkova ("Charms among the chants: verbal magic in medieval Bulgarian manuscripts") studies the books of occasional prayers written in Bulgaria between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, which contain, collected together without margins and blank spaces, canonical and non-canonical texts with an obvious indifference to their institutional value. These volumes contain verbal charms. They are formulaic and practical documents, which testifies to the continuum between the priests' canonical and non-canonical practices, especially regarding the efficiency granted to the writing practices and the use of the texts in rituals dealing with supernatural forces. However, apotropaic texts are not specific to eastern European countries and a comparative perspective could probably provide food for thought. Another interesting question with this kind of documents is their textual and material circulations, especially the material and intellectual process of collection building.

But to be fair, the lack of introductory remarks and the absence of a clear thematic thrust does not diminish the interest of the papers, which, as one expected, demonstrate that manuscript studies and the consideration given to textual materiality are not old quirks for old scientists. They further new approaches to documents in the digital context and take part in epistemological changes and methodological innovations, transforming history as a scientific discipline.



1. Cf. the state of the question in Marilena Maniaci, Archeologia del manoscritto: Metodi, problemi, bibliografia recente (Rome: Viella, 2002).

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