18.09.27, Kwakkel, Vernacular Manuscript Culture 1000-1500

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Leah Tether

The Medieval Review 18.09.27

Kwakkel, Erik. Vernacular Manuscript Culture 1000-1500 . Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Book Culture. Leiden Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 2018. pp. 278. ISBN: 978-9-08728-302-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Leah Tether
University of Bristol

This collected volume contains six essays exploring medieval books written in vernacular languages. The scope of the series in which the book appears, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Book Culture published by Leiden University Press, is aimed at being 'broad' according to its dedicated website, and this is certainly true in the case of this item. Each of the essays in this pocket-sized book presents an excellent read, but their interconnectedness seems--for the most part--limited to the simple fact that their subjects for study happen to have been inscribed in the vernacular. The books studied are notably diverse, not only in terms of the types of books they are, but also in respect of the particular vernaculars in which they have been written, their respective uses and the times of their composition; even the reason for which each essay was itself written differs from chapter to chapter (some were conference papers, some written especially for the present volume).

The first chapter, by Kathryn Lowe, recounts the manuscript transmission of the Old English translation of Gregory the Great's Regula pastoralis, for which there are three witnesses extant. Lowe takes us on a fascinating journey through these manuscripts, and her analysis of the well-known Tremulous Hand's annotations as an indicator of contemporary reception of the text, specifically in Worcester Cathedral, is well judged and evidenced. She also successfully argues for Worcester's having had, despite its place as a centre of progressive learning, to look to Wales to source patristic texts in their original language. Nigel Palmer's essay on early prayers in Middle High German appears next in the volume. There is considerable extant evidence of such items, but it has barely been touched upon in scholarship, despite such manuscripts often containing bilingual Latin-German material, which suggests they may contain content to interest a wider set of scholars than just those occupied with vernacular prayers. Palmer's contribution here, therefore, is most welcome. Whilst Palmer's objective seems less to make a specific argument than to conduct a survey of the evidence, he still ends his chapter with an interesting nugget, which is that all of the thirteen manuscripts studied in the analysis contain evidence to suggest that their patrons may have been female. This notion is quietly stated, but it seems to me clear that there are potentially very significant connotations for scholarship. Palmer's article is an excellent basis upon which to build.

The third chapter, Godfried Croenen's study of rubrication in late-medieval French manuscripts, has a primary focus on the chronicles of Jean Froissart, as well as the Grande Chroniques de France, but the chapter's great merit is in its relating of the conclusions drawn outward to the wider context of rubrication in medieval manuscripts more generally. In this sense, this is a chapter that provides a model that might have helped a book such as this to feel more unified had it been applied in other chapters--about which more below. Croenen is to be applauded for attempting to bring more precision to the use of the term 'rubric', which he does by surveying and critiquing previous scholarship on the matter, but in the end it does not seem to this reviewer that the final use settled upon is any more closely defined--though it is useful to have explained in one place its varying permutations over the decades. This is not to suggest that this criticism should undermine the usefulness of Croenen's study, which is well executed and about far more than the definition of one term--merely it is to suggest that more needs to be done to get to a point where a tightly delineated definition of 'rubric' can be adopted more widely. Rolf H. Bremmer Jr's chapter on Frisian legal manuscripts is highly focused and specialised. Bremmer demonstrates that Frisian manuscript culture may have lagged behind other European centres in terms of its book culture--the legal books studied, for instance, seem not to have been formal 'publications' but may have been commissioned by peasant-landowners for private consultation. Bremmer thus hints at the idea that the wider culture of Frisia may be better understood through closer examination of book production.

Sheryl McDonald Werronen provides the penultimate contribution--a specially written chapter which surveys book culture in medieval Iceland. This is a very different kind of study from the others in the volume, in that it is not concerned with a particular manuscript or circumscribed set of manuscripts, but rather the wider environment in which manuscripts circulated in Iceland, homing in on individual manuscripts as examples of the points made. This was thoroughly illuminating and represents a very well executed introduction to Icelandic vernacular manuscripts, particularly in respect of manuscript production--it just sits slightly uncomfortably alongside the other contents, or they sit uncomfortably alongside it. The final chapter, by J. P. Gumbert(†), feels informal by comparison with the other chapters, as if still firmly a conference paper rather than a chapter for a volume such as this. I was unable to find a note in the volume as to whether Gumbert had been unable to undertake revision of the chapter--if so, it would have been useful to know it. The subject is an interesting one, though, in that it looks at the prevalence of thick quires in Italy. The well-explained analysis leads to a tentative suggestion that particularly thick or thin quires may owe their existence to a technical reason: whether the item is written on parchment or paper. This is an intriguing suggestion, and it would have been good to see it more robustly investigated.

The book itself has generally good production value--the colour plates are beautifully reproduced and a necessary accompaniment. The editorial is not without errors, with even the first line of the introduction showing a faulty agreement between objects (15). This does not detract significantly, but more care could certainly have been applied. As I think I have shown, too, the essays are individually worthwhile and well-written endeavours. Where I take issue is with the book as a collective whole, which does not seem to me to hang together as is intended. The editor, Erik Kwakkel, expresses in his introduction that the undertaking aims to see if key similarities or differences in vernacular manuscripts of different types can be identified through bringing together in one place diverse studies such as these (18-19), but it seems that the core questions he cites as central to the exercise do not filter through to the various chapters, since it is not upon the identification of such connections that these studies' objectives are predicated. Puff on the cover from Michael Johnston, similarly, suggests that the book's success is in bringing 'the manuscript traditions of various vernaculars into dialogue with one another'--but it is precisely this notion of dialogue that is missing from the product. As alluded to above, there are perhaps chapter models that would have worked better--such as those used by Croenen or McDonald Werronen--the former relates specific findings to a wider context, while the latter sets out to be firmly general in scope. If all chapters adopted either one of these approaches, it would have been far easier to make connections between them. As it stands, the chapters do not inter-refer, either explicitly or implicitly, and they are so different in approach, in method, in scope and in geographical spread that, without more resolute and plainly-stated connections of their findings, they unfortunately remain discrete items which, whilst revealing much about their particular subjects of study, cannot tell us as much as is claimed about vernacular manuscript culture in the round.

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