16.09.15, Snijders, Manuscript Communication

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Teemu Immonen

The Medieval Review 16.09.15

Snijders, Tjamke. Manuscript Communication: Visual and Textual Mechanics of Communication in Hagiographical Texts from the Southern Low Countries, 900-1200. Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 32. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. xviii, 493. ISBN: 978-2-503-55294-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Teemu Immonen
University of Turku, Finland

The era between the tenth and the twelfth century was the heyday of monastic hagiography. New lives were composed in abundance, translations were made from Greek to Latin, and there was a fresh interest in old texts. Consequently, ever more cults entered the liturgical calendar and hagiography captured a larger role in the liturgical life of religious communities than before. An integral part of the phenomenon was the growth in the creation of manuscripts containing hagiographical texts increasingly tailored to specific contexts. The overall scope of this new phase in hagiographic production has been studied abundantly; however, most research concerns either the composition of individual saints' dossier or the developments within a specific genre, such as the emergence of the lives of hermit saints in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to name but one. While such research is highly important on its own right, it nevertheless seldom addresses the questions about the societies that created them: what kind of entity hagiographical texts copied and read in an individual religious house formed? How were the different components of the entity communicated to the community? And how this entity reflected and influenced the policy of the community?

Tjamke Snijders' study is a cross-section of such questions and, as such, a welcome new opening on the field. The book analyzes all hagiographical literature present in the high medieval abbeys of southern Low Counties in their manuscript context. In the introduction, Snijders lays the basis for the study with the argument that the contents and the external features of hagiographical (and other) manuscripts are a result of a deliberate choice. These manuscripts were copied as a part of a specific communicative strategy, and within the walls of a monastery, they participated in shaping the collective identity of the community as well as also sought to affect the world around the community. How, exactly, this happened, is the subject of this book.

Following the introduction in chapter 1, the following two chapters flesh out the background and methodology for this study. Chapter 2, "Black Monks in the Southern Low Countries," sketches the historical development of monasticism in the area in the High Middle Ages. Snijders depiction is a story of a monastic landscape originally dominated by individual Eigenklosters under the supervision of a lay abbots that gradually evolves through introduction of regular abbots and the Rule of Benedict in the tenth century; the evolution continues through individual reformers such as Richard of St.-Vanne in the early eleventh century, and later through the increasing influence of Cluny in the second half of the century into the creation of extended monastic networks, Cluniac and Cistercian, in the twelfth century. The picture Snijders draws is adequately comprehensive albeit she could have seized the opportunity to incorporate general church history and political history to the discussion more markedly. At the present, these phenomena which deeply affected the writing and copying of hagiography are discussed only towards the end of the book, in chapters 7 and 8. Especially chapter 7, "Contextualisation and Monastic Networks," contains material which either is overlapping with Chapter 2 or would have deserved to be discussed already within it. For example the discussion on the role of the Investiture Contest on pages 263-264 would have served the reader already earlier.

Where chapter 2 outlined the historical background of the study, chapter 3, "Research Parameters for Manuscript Analysis," is an in-depth survey of manuscript layout. In this section as throughout the book, Snijders' command over codicology is on display. With a steady hand, she guides the reader through the practices of high medieval manuscript production to the extent that the chapter can be recommended as an introduction to codicology for anyone interested in the topic.

The first three chapters lay many solid building blocks for analysis, and Snijders is also able to build interesting and convincing arguments on these foundations constantly throughout the book. One would have welcomed, however, a fuller discussion of the key concepts "hagiography" and "hagiographical manuscript." For the definition of hagiography, Snijders refers to earlier scholarship. Interestingly, one of the two articles she mentions is Felice Lifschitz's seminal "Beyond Positivism and Genre. 'Hagiographical' Texts as Historical Narrative" (Viator 25 [1994], 95-113). Lifschitz called into question the feasibility of hagiography as a genre altogether maintaining that the demarcation between hagiography and other genres, especially historical, is elusive or even non-existent in this period. Snijder does not enter into discussion of the ramifications of Lifschitz's criticism for her own work, but merely states to have generally followed Bollandists' judgment, which texts they have considered hagiographical, and that it is not her objective to re-evaluate existing classifications in the present book. By taking an amorphous and in many respects outdated definition of hagiography, the volume fails to evaluate the problems inherent in one of its core topics.

The concept of "hagiographical manuscript" involves similar questions of demarcation. Snijders defines hagiographical manuscript as "any manuscript that contains at least one scriptum that concentrates on the deeds of a saint" (13). It follows that many such manuscripts contain also, and in some cases mainly, what Snijders has defined as non-hagiographical material and thus their layout and other external features are not necessarily dictated by them being "hagiographical manuscripts" in the first place. This overlapping is not an issue when the discussion concerns what kind of manuscripts included hagiographical scripta; Yet, if the focus is on the changes in the role of hagiographical manuscripts in the communicative strategy of medieval abbeys by tracing changes in manuscript layout, it should seek to carefully distinguish those changes that depended on hagiography and those that had other underlying motives.

The second part (chapters 4-7) forms the core of the book. Here Snijders concentrates on the four central questions of her work: 1. how did layout influence a manuscript's communicative potential; 2. was manuscript communication influenced by its composition; 3. how did the instability of scriptoria and manuscripts influence their communicative function; and 4. how did the position of the monastery within the monastic landscape influence manuscript communication? Snijders draws a picture of how hagiographical (and other) manuscripts changed over time and within specific monasteries. Also here Snijders' mastery over codicology shows, yet at times the reader is left to wonder whether the discussion concerns manuscripts in general or hagiographical manuscripts in particular and what is the relation between the two. For example, on page 101 the reader learns the specific percentage increase in the surface area, coefficient exploitation, and the writing intensity of hagiographical manuscripts between 900 and 1200, yet it remains unclear how this differs from other manuscripts and how the different manuscript genres in which hagiographical texts can be found affects the results.

Chapter 5, "The Composition of Hagiographical Manuscripts," discusses manuscripts genres. First of them are libelli, manuscripts that contained material concerning just one subject. Some libelli contained an illuminated life of the patron saint of the monastery and counted among its most precious manuscripts, but lesser saints too might have their own, less sumptuous libelli. Snijders counts among hagiographical libelli also Auctoritas libelli (manuscript containing works from an individual author) that contain at least one hagiographical text. Typically this is the life of the author whose works are present in the manuscript, such as Anselm of Canterbury or Bernard of Clairvaux. In Snijders classification, the other genre besides libelli are hagiographical lectionaries that includes also legendaries and passionaries. It is a pleasure to read Snijders analysis of lectionaries which demonstrates her detailed knowledge over monastic liturgy and the liturgical manuscripts. She draws a sharp image of the use of legendaries in the liturgy and demonstrates how their layout reflected their function. She calls attention to how the reading in the dim candlelight during matins in the dead of night required relatively large script and how on the other hand legendaries as practical manuscripts did not require rich decoration.

Yet, in the discussion of the genres we face the same dilemma as occasionally elsewhere in the book, whether the changes in hagiographical manuscripts observed by Snijders are typical to the genre or to other manuscripts in general at this time. For instance, are the features present in Auctoritas libelli derivative to them being hagiographical manuscripts or to them belonging to the group of more general auctoritas libelli, some of which do not contain the life of the auctor? Similarly, one should compare liturgical legendaries to other lectionaries such as liturgical homiliaries to understand whether their evolution is understandable in the light of hagiograpichal manuscripts or not.

Chapter 6 addresses rewriting and copying of texts. Much of the chapter is devoted to terminological and methodological discussion. Snijders considers the applicability of quantitative approach to the analysis of the changes that take place in the rewriting and demonstrates in practice what kind of results can be achieved that way. Chapter 7, as noted above, concerns the history of the monasteries in southern Low Countries. In the focus there is the role of hagiography in the relations between different houses and in the creation of monastic networks between early tenth and late twelfth century.

The third part consists of a case study of the monasteries of Anchin and Marchiennes in the episcopate of Arras (chapter 8), and of a chapter that reviews the changes in the number and nature of manuscripts between the tenth and twelfth centuries (chapter 9). The latter chapter contains a good discussion on hagiographical genres and valuable inputs on the reasons behind the changes within these. Snijders describes how the development led from manuscripts containing all kinds of hagiographical texts towards more sophisticated collections intended for different uses within and beyond the community. Furthermore, she traces out how the changes in manuscript culture reflect the changes in the reading habits.

The theme of the book and the approach chosen provide significant interpretative potential for our understanding of both the role of hagiographical texts in the formation of medieval monastic identities and the manuscript context in which this materialized. The author ably examines the general change in the manuscript culture from 900 to 1200, the multiplication and specialization of manuscript genres as well as the evolution of layout. Beside the general evolution of manuscript culture, the author carries the history of hagiographical culture along throughout the book. How these two were intertwined and what was their relation, would however have called for slightly more nuanced discussion at times. In a similar vein, the un-problematized definitions of the key terms occasionally hampers the analysis. Fortunately, many of these concerns are resolved in the last chapter of the book, where the author's recapitulation of the theme renders the main traits of the evolution clearly visible for the reader.

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