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22.12.01 Warren, Holy Digital Grail

22.12.01 Warren, Holy Digital Grail

In Holy Digital Grail: A Medieval Book on the Internet, Michelle R. Warren offers an illuminating exploration of the social, economic, and political factors that influence the production and transmission of manuscripts, editions, and digital editions, using Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 80 as a case study. Warren’s book is praiseworthy not just for her knowledge about MS 80, but also for her detailed understanding of the work involved in creating digital editions and the clarity with which she explains (what may be) unfamiliar technical terminology and processes to the reader. Warren’s focus on the paratextual features of the manuscript, along with the attention she pays to processes of editing, collating, and preservation, make a thoughtful contribution to publishing studies in highlighting much of the unseen (and frequently unacknowledged) work that shapes audience interactions with medieval manuscripts. The insightful expansion of this conversation to include the work involved in creating and preserving digital editions of medieval texts shines a light on the myriad of social and economic priorities that continue to dictate modern interactions with MS 80 (and, indeed, all other “medieval books on the internet”). Through drawing attention to the unseen work and workers involved in the creation and preservation of medieval manuscripts, Warren encourages an audience to interrogate the concealed priorities, influences, and decisions that underlie each edition of a medieval text. The six perspectives through which the history of MS 80 is examined provide six distinct but interlaced narratives, each of which highlights the relationship between the medieval manuscript and digital resources.

In the introduction to the monograph, Warren uses her own interaction with MS 80 as a framework with which to outline the different formats in which the manuscript could / can be accessed (in the original manuscript, as a microfilm, and via Parker Library on the Web). In the course of this discussion, attention is drawn to some of the issues underlying access to medieval manuscripts in their physical form and digital facsimiles of these manuscripts. Warren discusses what she terms “tech medievalism” (10), discussing both positive perspectives (as can be seen, for example, in the term “digital vellum” [4]) and negative ones (such as the descriptor “Digital Dark Ages” [16]). This includes a thorough and insightful discussion of the effect that the development of technology has had on the way in which people can now experience medieval manuscripts and texts, using the Archimedes Codex as an example of the impact what she describes as the “geopolitics of survival” (23). Using the same example, Warren draws attention to the materiality of a medieval manuscript and outlines one of the book’s key arguments: that the medieval text should be viewed as a multifaceted artifact: “at once a filing cabinet, several printed editions, hundreds of photographs, and thousands of digital files” (25).

Chapter 1: “Translating Arthur: Books, Texts, Machines,” focuses on the translation and transmission of the Arthurian legend. Starting with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, Warren draws attention the relationship between translation and empire, using the terminology translatio studii et imperii (43) as support. While references to the origin of the Grail story in the book’s introduction omit the Grail’s first appearance in Chrétien de Troyes’Perceval, Warren draws attention to the relationship between French and English romances during the Central and Late Middle Ages to suggest that MS 80 is “an eminently fifteenth-century romance, the kind of text sought out by many at the time” (44). Warren underpins this argument with an analysis of Lovelich’s narrative style and concludes by highlighting the dynamic nature of both the translation and reception of texts. Warren’s assertion that while translation processes do matter, sense can still be transmitted through less accurate translations explores the different ways in which knowledge is transmitted and provides a literary foundation for her later explorations into the dissemination of manuscript images.

Chapter 2: “Performing Community: Merchants, Chivalry, Data,” discusses the factors that shape Lovelich’s text and influence an audience’s interaction with it. Through a central focus on the Skinner’s Guild (to which Lovelich belonged), Warren considers MS 80’s position as reflecting fifteenth-century social and economic interests. Building upon her discussions of the transmission and translation of the Arthurian legend (and the Grail story in particular) in chapter 1, Warren argues that Lovelich uses Arthurian material to combine civic and chivalric concerns in English, thus inviting new audiences into the “textual community” (79) of readers of Arthurian romance.

Turning from creation to reception, Chapter 3: “Marking Manuscripts: Makers, Users, Coders,” explores the way in which paratextual features document and influence an audience’s interaction with MS 80. Through a chronological analysis of the notes, annotations, marks, and markers that have been left on MS 80 over time, Warren argues that marginal marks document “an entire systems of social relations, textual interpretation, cultural classification, and technological infrastructure” (114). The wide chronological focus of the chapter, which explores both early annotations and the “marks” left by coders in the creation of navigable digital editions, highlights continuities between the ways which individuals have handled MS 80 across time. In turn, Warren’s analysis suggests that individuals involved in the digitization of MS 80 become part of the “textual community” (79) of readers of Arthurian romance.

Chapter 4: “Cataloguing Libraries” explores the role that collectors, curators, and librarians play in an audience’s interaction with books (in both print and digital forms). Warren documents the impact that various individuals’ interests have had on the genre under which MS 80 has been categorised. Throughout the chapter, Warren describes the text’s journey from being viewed as a historical text of national significance, containing evidence that the English church grew independently from Rome, to being defined as an example of Middle English romance. Warren provides an enlightening exploration of the effect that the physical shelving of the manuscript has had on audiences’ categorisation and perception of the text, and analyses the way in which the digital platforms Parker 1.0 and Parker 2.0 draw on the earlier catalogues to provide different degrees of accessibility to MS 80. In this chapter, Warren’s discussion draws attention to the physicality of MS 80, highlighting the role that spatial proximity and movement can make to the reception of a text in a way that is not often critically discussed.

Chapter 5: “Editing Romance: Poetry, Print, Platform” documents the technological journey that Lovelich’s text makes from manuscript through to printed editions, digital editions, and print-on-demand books. This is a particularly strong chapter, which draws upon the earlier discussions of genre and empire to provide a detailed description of MS 80’s publishing history. The attention paid both to the editing processes employed by Furnivall and the political ideals that underpinned the Early English Text Society provide a clear and robust example of the impact that editorial priorities can have on the kind of texts that are published, and the form that these texts take. It also engages with the impact that empire and national identity have had on the publishing of medieval narratives, factors that have become increasingly important for medievalists to address in the current academic climate. The chapter closes with an examination of the role that digital platforms and POD editions have played in the continued dissemination of EETS books, again connecting the priorities of earlier audiences to present day audiences and projecting forward to consider the ways in which future audiences might encounter the text of MS 80.

Chapter 6: “Reproducing Books” explores the role that digital technologies have played in disseminating images of medieval manuscripts. This is the only chapter that does not have a wide chronological focus, instead starting with the re-binding of MS 80 in 1956 and considering the economic factors that drove governments and universities to start creating images of rare books and manuscripts in the first half of the twentieth century. Through this analysis, Warren suggests that digital repositories “are defining new canons of material culture by exposing patterns of selection” (238). Building upon her example of the EETS in Chapter 5, Warren exposes the colonial, imperial, and racist priorities that have underlain the interest in and selection of medieval manuscripts for preservation. In her description of the decoration of the entrance to The Project Room at Dartmouth College Library, Warren also exemplifies the need for conscientious and responsible scholarship, highlighting the relationship between the acts of conservation that allow scholars to access the microfilm of MS 80 and the acts of violence that have made this access possible. Coming at a time when universities are being asked to broaden and diversify curriculums, Warren’s final chapter draws overt attention to the way in which some scholarly materials have profited on the back of the exploitation of indigenous peoples. In the final pages, Warren broadens her focus to include a discussion of the relationship between climate change and the conservation of rare books, asking the reader to address the often-uncomfortable price of preservation.

Warren concludes the book by weaving the six narratives of MS 80 back together to create a single “short story” (273) of the text. She asserts the temporality of editions through suggesting that “the book is multiplying, but it can still get lost. Each time it is found, it’s different from the time before” (273). Through a consideration of the way in which digital access to MS 80 has changed even since this book went to press, Warren reminds the reader that the way in which medieval texts are viewed depends upon present socio-economic sensibilities as well as historic ones.