Modern and Medieval Books: A Review Essay

By Brantley, Jessica | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Modern and Medieval Books: A Review Essay


Brantley, Jessica, Philological Quarterly


A growing bibliography in medieval studies is beginning to take whole books seriously. As manuscript studies in general have flourished, scholars have been increasingly interested not only in extracting texts from manuscripts for modern editions, but in understanding how material contexts help create textual meaning: the alignments of texts within "miscellanies," the interactions of texts with images, the layout and organization of texts as visual objects in their own right. One could mark the start of this interest, or at least a new phase in it, with a 1993 conference at the University of Pennsylvania, whose proceedings were published under the title The Whole Book: Cultural Perspectives on the Medieval Miscellany. (1) The papers collected in this volume explore entire medieval manuscripts as a way of understanding such important issues as miscellaneity and authorship. But it the contributors to The Whole Book have taught us to consider medieval books in their totality, the modern studies that treat medieval manuscripts have remained resolutely fragmentary. It is rare for scholarship in manuscript studies to take the form of a monograph, and even rarer for a single manuscript of literary interest to receive the sustained attention and developed argumentation of a book-length study--elsewhere, of course, the dominant standard of scholarly production. But the study of manuscripts, even the study of "whole books," can usefully be conducted through the medium of the monograph, and doing so provides a new kind of access to the experiences of medieval readers. (2)

As Bernard Cerquiglini eloquently describes the field of philology (closely allied with traditional manuscript study), "the fastidious study of the noteworthy bit is given most importance." He continues, "philology's great fondness for notes, short papers, and critical analyses is well known. In the bibliography of great philologists, besides editions, how many small notes devoted to a dialectal characteristic, how many brief remarks on three lines or on a variant are listed!" (3) Literary manuscript studies have similarly been conducted in the form of articles that exalt "the noteworthy bit," only sometimes assembled into volumes that nonetheless tend towards the miscellaneous. Conference volumes provide valuable venues for publishing important essays, for example, but even a conference with a thematic focus on manuscripts usually offers nothing beyond that to bind the disparate contributions together. (4) Some especially significant medieval books--for example, the Vernon Manuscript (Bodleian Library MS Eng. poet a.1), British Library MS Harley 2253, and the Ellesmere Chaucer (Huntington Library MS EL 26 C9)--have been the subject of useful essay-collections by a number of hands, but although the subject of these volumes is unified, their arguments usually are not. (5) Other books on manuscripts honor the career of a manuscript specialist: a festschrift, for example, or a gathering of the important work of a single scholar. (6) Sometimes an individual's body of work, though it ranges over a number of different artifacts, nonetheless retrospectively implies large arguments about medieval reading culture. Ralph Hanna's Pursuing History, for example, essentially a collection of previously published articles, has been carefully edited and introduced so as to illuminate "the Middle English literary condition." (7) But more often these volumes, though they are inspired or even governed by a single intelligence, collect studies that have no necessary coherence beyond the circumstances of their authorship. Even a book like Kathleen Scott's recent Tradition and Innovation, where the separate chapters come from her Lyell lectures and therefore share an occasion as well as an author, offers case-studies of five different manuscripts rather than a sustained argument; in Scott's words: "they were truly books that I liked and that had not been discussed before." (8)

There are reasons for this piecemeal state of affairs, some of them related to the risks of studying "whole books" at any length. …

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