16.10.15, Steiner and Ransom, eds., Taxonomies of Knowledge

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Jessica Berenbeim

The Medieval Review 16.10.15

Steiner, Emily, and Lynn Ransom, eds. Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. pp. x, 163. ISBN: 978-0-812-24759-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Jessica Berenbeim
Magdalen College, Oxford

The scholarly edited collection is a type of book that invites the kind of analysis this one offers: namely, reflection on a volume's organizing principles. Like many, this one is occasional: the papers were presented in 2012 at the Fifth Annual Schoenberg Symposium for Manuscripts in the Digital Age (apart from one, which was presented at the 2008 Symposium). As the forum would suggest, the aims of this endeavor involve capitalizing on the currency of digital humanities in the study of manuscripts. In the first instance, the authors avail themselves of its resources: many of the manuscripts they discuss are accessible on digital databases, such as Swiss e-codices, Penn in Hand, and Parker on the Web. Additionally--implicitly if not explicitly--the authors approach their subject matter with concepts suggested by the language and processes of computing and computer networks.

The authors here deal principally with the later Middle Ages, and Emily Steiner introduces the volume as emerging from the Symposium's discussion of "two fundamental questions: how medieval manuscripts transmit knowledge through genealogies, diagrams, commentaries, rubrics, finding aids, book lists, maps, and so on; and how medieval manuscripts themselves function taxonomically, that is, as systems through which knowledge can be organized, classified, and used" (1-2). These essays therefore address manuscript context, and principally involve the analysis of structure rather than content.

The essays themselves appear to fall into three distinct categories. Two contributions address most directly the theme of classification, both with respect to different aspects of the study of poetry. Elizaveta Strakhov's "The Poems of 'Ch': Taxonomizing Literary Tradition" (7-36) concerns a manuscript of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century--Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 902--with fifteen lyrics marked Ch. The author responds to a previous argument (James Wimsatt, Chaucer and the Poems of "Ch", 2009) that this designates attribution to Chaucer. While she does not categorically reject this qua attribution, she argues against it as an organizing principle: "The dominant taxonomic principle behind the Penn manuscript is...not authorship but rather the formal characteristics of the lyrics included in the compilation" (30). The essay by Mary Franklin-Brown, "Poetry's Place in Scholastic Taxonomies of Knowledge" (56-79), brings several kinds of evidence to bear on her problem, combining discussion of theoretical works, encyclopedias, and inventories.

Two essays look at questions of manuscript transmission or reception. In the paper originally part of the 2008 Symposium, "Manuscripts of Latin Translations of Scientific Texts from Arabic" (80-89), Charles Burnett considers how Arabic exemplars might have played a role in the disposition of their Latin translations, identifying a number of examples in which "the Latin translator had the book in front of him...[and] not only paid attention to the words of the text; he was also influenced by features of the layout and the images that accompanied the text" (87). Sara Poor's "'Life' Lessons in Anna Eybin's Book of Saints (ca. 1465-1482)" (136-53), looks at a manuscript of saints' lives compiled and written by a fifteenth-century nun. Here, the author emphasizes what her medieval protagonist changed, rather than preserved, looking at the ways in which Anna Eybin altered and adapted her sources for a particular audience.

Finally, two essays concentrate in large measure on visual culture. Alfred Hiatt's particularly perceptive and helpful contribution, "Worlds in Books" (37-55), looks at the place of "pictorial world images" in manuscripts of two related types of texts: encyclopedias and universal chronicles. Such images frequently appear in both types, but not according to any consistent pattern; Hiatt looks at these manuscripts for clues as to what kind of thing a map was meant to be; in other words, context as a diagnostic for classification. He also addresses the problem of a map's "searchability," and the interpretive consequences of alphabetic searching (46-48). In "Reading Step by Step: Pictorial Allegory and Pastoral Care in Piers Plowman" (90-135), Katharine Breen addresses a fundamental structural question about the work: "what does it mean that William Langland's Piers Plowman is a poem divided into passus, units that take their name from the...Latin noun meaning stage or step?" In her response to this question, the author suggests that the work's construction as an itinerary echoes the visual tradition of the pastoral diagram.

The volume's title, introduction, and included essays deploy a number of terms and cultural comparisons, with distinct associations and implications. Two of these title words refer to structure, and two to content. The term taxonomy evokes both eighteenth-century Linnaean organic taxonomy and twenty-first-century website taxonomies (although the term is in fact of nineteenth-century origin--see OED, s.v. "taxonomy," first use 1819, borrowed from French; see TLF, s.v. "taxonomie," first use 1813). These two eras surface elsewhere in the volume, in references to Wikipedia, Diderot, Google Earth, etc., as well as to encyclopedias more generally and to searchability. The suggestion is that the later Middle Ages were an "information age" like our own, with a systematic approach to knowledge more often associated with the Enlightenment. Like taxonomy, the term order deals with the relationship among terms, but relates more to sequence than to classification, and as both word and concept is much closer to contemporary medieval language and thought. As for the two content terms: a helpful clarification of their distinctions--and of how "information" can be a useful term of analysis for pre-modern historical study, despite its possible anachronism--can be found in the introduction of Ann Blair's Too Much to Know (2010), which speaks of information as "a kind of public property distinct from personal knowledge." [1]

Although clearly influenced by the language and concerns of digital humanities, the approaches represented by these essays also follow very much in the tradition of earlier scholarship. Steiner's introduction cites the work of Richard and Mary Rouse in particular, and there are significant schools of research in many fields--palaeography, intellectual history, material text studies, the history of archives and record-keeping, critical theory--that deal with structures of knowledge, in manuscript sources and elsewhere, medieval and beyond. Two important questions therefore seem to be raised by this volume: first, how the terms and references discussed above, with attention to their (sometimes subtly) different valences, can bring new perspectives to the subject matter; and, what distinguishes one "information age" from another?



1. Ann M. Blair, Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (New Haven, 2010), 2.

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