Category Archives: Articles

Book Groups Beware

It will, of course, be no surprise to textual scholars and members of the Material Texts Network that textual variance is rife in works of contemporary fiction. However, for a number of reasons – pertaining to copyright, digitisation, and an assumption among many hermeneutic/theoretical critics that texts published around the world are self-identical – textual variance remains an under-studied phenomenon for those working on novels that are fresh off the (digital) press.

When I was recently working on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas [2004], however, I found a range of variants that exceeded my usual expectations of accidentals by quite some range. One of the chapters (‘An Orison of Sonmi ~451’) was almost totally rewritten in US and electronic editions of the text. I decided to investigate this further, even wondering whether the author had deliberately submitted different manuscripts to different publishers in an attempt to play a trans-textual game (the chapter in question does, after all, focus on storing the words of a death-penalty convict within a state archive for preservation and stability).

It turns out, as ever, that the differences are due to a social flaw in the editing process and not due to any technological aspect. Indeed, in 2003, David Mitchell’s editorial contact at the US branch of Random House moved from the publisher, leaving the American edition of Cloud Atlas without an editor for approximately three months. Meanwhile, the UK edition of the manuscript was undergoing a series of editorial changes and rewrites that were never synchronised back into the US edition of the text. When the process was resumed at Random House under the editorial guidance of David Ebershoff, changes from New York were likewise not imported back into the UK edition. In the section entitled ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451’ these desynchronised rewritings are nearly total at the level of linguistic expression between UK and US paperbacks/electronic editions and there are a range of sub-episodes that only feature in one or other of the published editions.

What I really wanted to know here, though, was what these edits actually did to the text. How would close reading be affected by these changes? What was actually different, and where? Since the extent of linguistic changes would be drastic, I compared functional questions and responses in this chapter (which takes the form of an interview). In other words, if, in terms of plot development, a Q&A was doing the same job in both editions, then I marked the sections as identical. I then modified the D3.js Sankey chart software to allow unlinked nodes and… hey presto, we can roughly visualize the changes to the syuzhet introduced through the editorial process.


Reading from top to bottom of this diagram on both sides allows us to see clearly reorderings and omissions between editions.

But… so what? “We” know that texts vary and that this is likely to be the case in the contemporary as much as in medieval studies. But that’s not the case for everyone. Indeed, as James F. English has noted, the canon of contemporary fiction in the academy is broadly determined by the literary prize culture circuit. Yet, with such variance, who can even be sure that all members of an international jury are reading the same text? What about online international book groups? What about local book groups where some readers are using a digital edition? What about the mass of academic criticism that has conducted close reading of one or other versions but never noticed these differences?




So much for close reading…






The full version of the article is available to read at: Eve, Martin Paul, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’, Open Library of Humanities, 2 (2016) <>


Prosthesis, ‘Et c’

Image from: Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf, Heilige Röcke, 'Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen', Regensburg 2013.
Image from: Charlotte Klack-Eitzen, Wiebke Haase and Tanja Weißgraf, Heilige Röcke,
Kleider für Skulpturen in Kloster Wienhausen, Regensburg 2013.

One of the possible afterlives of a medieval manuscript, if it did not end up as part of the bindings of a new book, or as lighter paper for a fire, was to end up recycled in the lining of a dress, as a recent post to the Bodleian Library’s Conveyor notes. These parchment-dresses present themselves to us as objects from the past requiring explanation (though the explanations are sometimes more prosaic than we would hope). They also lend themselves to theorisation about the relationship between the categories ‘material’ and ‘textual’, as words detach from their original function and literally become material with which to clothe the body. A recent symposium organised by Sussex’s Centre for Early Modern and Medieval Studies on Modified Bodies and Prosthesis in Medieval and Early Modern England suggested that clothes—most strikingly early modern dresses shaped by stays and corsets—are bodily prostheses (Jenny Tiramani); but so too is clothing inscribed with words, such as parchment charms worn on the body (Margaret Healy). Words, like clothes, can shape and supplement bodies and selves. The medieval and early modern phenomena of textual clothing and material texts, however, are not left to us entirely without comment, nor entirely without theorisation in their own age. That is to say, people then, as now, made parchment-dresses do intellectual work.

There’s a medieval tale of a Parisian scholar who appeared after death to his former master, ‘clad all in parchment written, with small letters written thereon’.1 Unsurprisingly, the dead scholar’s appearance raises questions for the master, one of which concerns the significance of the parchment-dress, and the words written on it: ‘what meant that garment that was so light, & the letters that was written thereupon’. If these things require explanation, the master’s question assumes that at least one thing about this strange scene can be taken for granted: that the garment is ‘light’. He thinks he knows, from experience, the feel and weight of parchment. Logical deduction, however, is precisely what this tale is going to confound. The scholar explains that, in fact, each of the letters written on the parchment ‘are heavier unto me than were the weight of this great church’.

‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris.
‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris.

The church in question is ‘Saynt German’ (the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Prés) in Paris. The weight of this vast and lofty edifice is the measure of the words of ‘sophisms & subtelties’ with which the scholar had occupied his time in life. So heavy, and so hot, is this dress that the scholar cannot describe, only demonstrate what it is like: he asks his master to put out his hand, onto which falls a drop—of sweat? a word?— which is so hot (or so heavy) that it makes a hole in it. Bearing the hole in his hand for the rest of his life, the master subsequently leaves off logic and becomes a monk.
How much does a medieval cathedral weigh? How many letters are on the parchment-dress? What’s the sum of each letter multiplied by the weight of the cathedral of Saint-Germain? Scholastic wisdom holds ‘sophisms’ (questions used in disputation for logic) and ‘subtelties’ (an extreme refinement of argument) to be, by definition, light: The Middle English Dictionary defines ‘sotilte’, for example, as ‘thinness, slenderness, smallness’. But the scholar’s experience after death shows them to weigh heavy indeed: a single letter is like to the stone and timber and lead of a great gothic structure. Salisbury Cathedral, for instance, was built of seventy thousand tons of stone and over three thousand tons of timber for the roof, which was covered with four hundred and fifty tons of lead. You can do the maths.

In medieval thought, words—even subtle ones—are always material, as another medieval tale found in the same collection shows: if due care is not taken in letting blood, words, along with blood, might accidentally be emptied from the body (See pp. 336-37). What the tale of the Parisian scholar also suggests is that words—spoken or inscribed on parchment—shape and alter the self. In some ways, then, this exemplary tale literalises the medieval understanding that words are material, exerting influence on material forms as well as immaterial selves, accruing and accreting to supplement the body and the way in which it signifies.

The form in which the tale of the parchment-dress survives, however, in turn materialises what is increasingly understood to be the always already prosthetic relationship between books and bodies. The tale ends by relating that the master ‘became a good man; & as long as he lived there was a hole through his hand. Et c.’ There are more words, then, but these are not recorded on the page, and so they are (to us) absent, immaterial, unweighable. Of eight hundred tales, one hundred and fifty end with Et c. Elsewhere Et c follows a rubric, or occurs mid-sentence—for example: ‘And thus because he trespassed in flesh & would not eat flesh when his abbot bade them therefore he was punished in flesh-eating, et c, for his inobediance’ (p. 452). The Et c suggests—what? That the reader can supply the Et c? That there is a generic way of carrying on reading that means the words don’t need to be given in full? Several times ‘ad libitum’ follows the ‘et c’: that is, ‘according to pleasure’. As you please. Whatever you like. However we explain it, the Et c here points out that the relationship between material book and embodied reader is always a prosthetic one, imagination or memory or desire bridging the animate and inanimate, the human and the object. Like the parchment-dress, Et c merely literalizes this relationship and makes the injunction to supplement, to fill in gaps explicit. By the same turn, it also leaves quantifying and qualifying out of reach. The weight of words, the multiple ways in which we wear the books we read, must always, finally, elude us.


1An Alphabet of Tales: An English Fifteenth Century Translation of the Alphabetum Narrationum, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, 2 vols. EETS o.s. 126-27 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1904-05), pp. 104-05. I have modernised the orthography.

Grandpa’s Books: A Catalogue

Recently I went to my grandparents’ house (Grandpa died in 2012 and Granny lived on alone there until her own death just a few months ago) and took things from it, amongst them two large bags of books, bound by my grandfather. On first arriving at my house, these books kept themselves to themselves; but now they are mixed with the ones that Grandpa gave me in his life, amongst them A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young and a Complete Works of Shakespeare from 1911 which, confusingly, belonged to my other grandfather and is inscribed to him on the fly-leaf. I can remember where each of the new books was in its old place, in their house: exactly where, on exactly which shelf and in which room. They represent probably about a fifth of the whole collection. I invented some criteria and made a selection.

I say ‘took’ because it felt like taking, like theft. Can the dead be robbed? I was there in advance of an antiquarian book-dealer coming to take the remainder. And so, if it felt like theft, it also felt like abandonment; there were other orphans that I couldn’t re-home. Selection felt unkind. I once had a student (working on medieval scatology) who told me that, when his father died, his mother kept one of his father’s stools in a sample tube in her handbag for three years (is all research that autobiographical?). Somewhere between that and complete renunciation must lie a reasonable mean.

I took literary books, barring the additional copies of Jane Eyre, Bleak House and Aesop’s Fables (of course it would be those three) and then a few things from the other categories: maths and science, history and geography and one Russian book. It was the Russian book which felt most illicit; I don’t read Russian. I also took a copy of the King James Bible, a Book of Common Prayer, and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which goes with the Bible because Grandpa, who wasn’t a religious man (‘religion just spoils what I think’, he once said to me), used them for the cryptic crosswords. That there were definite sections in Grandpa’s library reminds me that he also had criteria when he bought the books in the first place. Not only did he buy on particular subjects, but he also said that he would never pay more than £5 for a book, wouldn’t buy one that was less than a hundred years old, or that had a perfectly decent unbroken binding already.

He didn’t stick to these criteria, though. I don’t know about the price, of course, or what they looked like before he mended them beyond my memory of the poor flapping loose quires laid out on his work bench, but there are several that aren’t a hundred yet. The newest (and so oddest) is a now a beautiful, leather-bound copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, which would otherwise be a rather ordinary Wordsworth Classics edition from 1995, like a thing unaccountably put into the wrong box. But there are also editions of John Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga and A Modern Comedy, not first editions but early ones from the 1920s and 30s. tennysonThese newer books prick a memory of being a teenager and asking Grandpa to rebind a distressed copy of Tennyson’s poetry, from 1904, and feeling embarrassed. But it was nearly a hundred and he seemed to see what I saw in it, because he saved the art nouveau end papers and cut the avian cover design from the original binding and attached it to the new one. Later he gave me another, older copy of Tennyson’s verse, with a solid wood binding, mended rather than rebound. silkThere are several books within the new lot that have pieces of their old binding reincorporated into the new like those editions of Tennyson: Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, both have pieces of brightly-coloured washed silk over the end papers (Evelina’s is red, Cranford, yellow), although they’re not from the same series. There’s no date in either book but both, I think, are from around 1900-5. A pretty little, again undated, copy of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth retains parts of its first verdigris binding. And the one that I thought about as I was driving there to pick the books up, a 1882 copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, has its old gilded binding laid like lace work over the new.

Grandpa was a physicist (he studied at Manchester under Rutherford, Bohr and Hartree); he didn’t become a book-binder until his retirement. Perhaps the majority of books were on maths and science: on logarithms, the principles of measuring, Euclid’s geometry and other things. This not being my subject particularly, I took only two from this section: Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches and a book written for children. I had my own son in mind as its future reader: The Fairyland of Science, by Arabella Buckley (published in 1880) which has such magical chapters as ‘sunbeams and the work they do’ and a ‘history of a piece of coal’.

From the history section I took a little more, but not everything: an Atlas of Ancient Geography (1871); Frank Power’s Letters from Khartoum, Written during the Siege (1885); and a personal memoir of Tzar Nicholas I: What I Know of the Late Emperor Nicholas and his Family (1855). Which brings me back to the Russian book that I pilfered. Grandpa was a Russianist, being the only one who put his hand up when his wartime research unit were asked for volunteers to learn enough to translate Russian communiqués. ‘The New Lands’, Grandpa has helpfully embossed in English on the book’s spine and, in it, there are pictures of un-smiling, I think Siberian, people (1903). From the title and pictures I think I know what sort of book it is and I have friends and other family with Russian; so it isn’t stool- in-a-sample-tube crazy.

What else is there? Lewis Carroll; some Dickens; novels by all three Brontës; Trollope; Hardy; Austen; Eliot (George, of course, not T. S.) and Thackeray; The Diary of a Nobody; Mrs Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte; a copy of Gulliver’s Travels with chromolithograph frontispieces from 1864, which must have been new and unusual; and Rider Haggard’s She with a purportedly authentic ‘facsimile’ of the ‘sherd of Amenartas’. There is a nice copy of Delamotte’s Primer of the Art of Illuminations (although a reasonably late one from the 1920s). The oldest of the lot, I think, is a two volume copy of Arabian Nights from 1813.

Amongst my favourites are four miniature books, just hand-sized nineteenth-century editions of Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (undated); Aesop’s Fables (1854) with a long pull-out frontispiece of Aesop surrounded by the animals; St Pierre’s Paul and Virginia (1815) and Sheridan’s Dramatic Works (undated) full of fantastically opinionated remarks after each play, such as this, on Pizarro:

This far famed and popular play has enjoyed a reputation with the public, which good taste and judgment have uniformly united in decrying. As a regular drama, it is undeserving of any praise; and the pleasure with which its performance is commonly witnessed, can be ascribed only to the splendour of its scenery and decorations.

The tables had clearly turned; Julie A. Carlson describes it as the most popular play of the 1790s and the second most popular play of the eighteenth century (‘Trying Sheridan’s Pizarro’, Texas Studies in Literature 38 (1996)).

The Vicar of Wakefield has a rather formal inscription to:

Miss Gressier
A Mother’s gift
Feb 24 1849
1 Gt Charlotte St

Scouting around briefly on the internet I find a Jane Gressier (presumably the mother, rather than the daughter), from London House at that same Liverpool address, advertising in the Catholic Advertiser for 1840 (p. 154). There is a line drawing of London House above these words, which purports not to be an advert but evidently is:

Jane Gressier avails herself of this valuable medium to return her sincere thanks to her Catholic Friends, for the very liberal support she has received since the death of her husband, and begs to inform them that she is continuing the general Drapery Business at the above establishment, where she trusts by excellent of quality and reasonableness of Terms, to secure their future favours and recommendations.
N.B. Funerals completely furnished.

knickerbockerAmongst these hand-bound books I also picked up another, which is in its first binding and which Grandpa doesn’t even seem to have repaired. He must have bought it for itself. A History of New York, from Creation to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, purports to be by one Diedrich Knickerbocker and, if the author sounds fantastically named, that’s because he is, being the pen-name of Irving Washington. This edition (by Thomas Tegg and Son, in London) is from 1836, although the History was first published in 1809. This is a picture of the frontispiece engraving, ‘Dutch Weight’, by Cruickshank, which depicts a fat Dutch colonist, ‘weighing’ a load of animal pelts brought to him by a native American ‘Manhatto’, which should give you a sense of the book’s satirical slant . A mock colonial history, the title page advertises the History’s bombast contents, ‘among many surprising and curious matters, the unutterable ponderings of Walter the Doubter, The Disastrous projects of William the Testy, and the Chivalrous achievements of Peter the Headstrong’.

One of the best bits of this little volume is the ‘note on the author’ at the front which tells the story of Knickerbocker’s going missing from his hotel accommodation without settling the bill. When the landlord of the hotel, Seth Handaside, breaks into his room he finds the manuscript of his History, which he publishes to recoup his costs. Jerome J. McGann relates how Washington drummed up interest in his fabricated author, in advance of the History’s publication:

In October and November [1809], Irving wrote and planted in the newspapers a series of hoaxing press notices. These introduce the reader to the ‘mysterious disappearance’ of ‘a small elderly gentleman’ from the ‘Columbian Hotel’ in New York. The gentleman is subsequently revealed as a Mr. Diedrich Knickerbocker, and we learn that he left behind in his hotel room ‘a very curious kind of written book. . . in his own handwriting.’ The imaginary landlord of the imaginary hotel, Seth Handaside, informs the public that he intends to ‘dispose of [the] book’ in order to ‘satisfy’ Knickerbocker’s unpaid bill. And so it comes to pass that A History of New York is published in early December 1809 in two volumes by Inskeep and Bradford.
~ ‘Washington Irving, A History of New York, and American History’, Early American Literature 47 (2012): p. 350.

 This is all, obviously, completely wonderful in itself. Yet, on top of that, the inscriptions in the front of the History tell of the book’s interesting journey to my shelf. An inscription in the book indicates that it was in Leeds, the property of a Louis Taylor in 1857 but, in the First World War, it ends up, we know from stamps on the endpapers, in the War Library of the British Red Cross, in the recreation hut of No. 7 convalescent depot in Boulogne. There are some photographs taken by the war photographer Tom Aitken of one of these recreation huts and of men reading in it.messhut I look at these photographs and hope to see A History of New York if I look closely enough, but can’t. These were camps for the recovering wounded, on their way back to the front; I wonder what they made of the Knickerbocker History. Then somehow it got itself to Grandpa’s shelf and now it is here.

The first 40 of Grandpa’s other books, the maths and science ones that I left behind on his shelves, have just gone on sale at Portman rare bookshop in Tonbridge. I almost didn’t take, but at the last minute phoned my mother, tired from a night going over all the others I’d left, too, and asked her to also put the five volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson to one side. The ones I didn’t save will be up for sale soon: the books about Lancashire, where grandpa was born in 1916 and brought up; those alternative copies I mentioned and many others that I now can’t remember. Even as I put in this hyperlink I know that it is temporary, a virtual connection to dwindling stock that will one day bring up other books, bound by others, as well or instead of his. If you buy one, let me know so I can know it’s on your shelf.

emboss2I also took with me four boxes of embossing tools: a complete set of upper case and lower case letterpresses, full punctuation and numbers sets, plus fleur-de-lis and foliage presses. I remember using these as a child; my sister and I pressing our names into off-cuts to make bespoke bookmarks and labels for personalized boxes and notebooks. And when my son is old enough perhaps he will press his own name into a piece of leather and keep it warm in his pocket like a treasure; and maybe I will bind books in my retirement and keep these tools with jars of amber glue-beads and felt-lined vices, like Grandpa did.

As I drove away with my stolen property, I wondered about my own materiality, my need to keep and own these lovely things. Characters in books who, one way or another, survive their own deaths, often look down and laugh at that need, at our connection to things, our silly unspiritual side. Because, for the dead, things literally don’t matter anymore. And I thought about Grandpa up ‘there’ (in the eighth sphere or wherever else the dead go) looking down and, although he had a childlike sense of humour in life, I couldn’t bring myself to imagine him laughing. Instead, I could very clearly hear him saying: ‘you are absolutely right, Isabel; it is the books: the books are what life is really all about’.

The Smell of Vellum

As someone who researches olfaction in the renaissance, I’ll confess that vellum catches me off guard. I notice first its velvety smoothness, distinct from other archival materials. The difference is palpable: it is skin. That sensory shock is like others, utterly banal when one considers that most Renaissance books in archives today are bound in leather and yet still surprisingly visceral. It’s then that I notice its smell—distinctive, hard to describe, clinging to my hands after I leave the archive. Animalic, not unpleasant, faint, and unsettlingly familiar. It is skin.

Very young skin, to be exact, that is now very old. From the latin vitulinum and old french vélin, vellum denotes calfskin, though the term often refers to parchment made from sheepskin, goatskin, and perhaps even deerskin, pigskin, squirrel skin, and fish skin. Its supple beauty as parchment belies the sacrifice that came before it, a sacrifice not only of animals (some medieval books required over 500 animal skins to make) but also of humans. This sacrifice can sometimes be seen in the parchment itself. Blood in the animal’s skin at the time of death reveals itself as veins in the finished product, indicating that the animal was hunted and killed rather than slaughtered in a butcher house. Parchment-making was also difficult and skilled labor. Parchmenters collected preserved skins, selected the very best, and then endured the stench of lime-soaked flesh in colder climates and rotting flesh in warmer ones as they worked to transform it into parchment, scraping the hair and fat off of it before stretching it. The act of stretching wet skin as it dries realigns the three-dimensional structure of fibers into a flatter surface closer to the skin itself. The result is a material that is much stronger than leather when dry and much more vulnerable to moisture.

Environment is everything. Too wet and its collagen breaks down into gelatin. Too dry and it becomes brittle and easily breakable. Its smell will tell you a lot about its condition as well as where it has been. For instance, John of Gaunt in Shakspeare’s Richard II (1595) compares England to a book bound in shame “with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.” In his “Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning” (1598-1603), Nicholas Hilliard compares the very best vellum to the smoothness of “sattine” and goes so far as to suggest that one should only paint its surface in a space “wher neither dust, smoak, noise, nor steanche may offend.” But its smell can also deceive. The narrator in Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candlelight (1608), for example, warns readers of rogues, who specialize in selling poorly plagiarized books as expensive originals. Though the books are “engrossed in vellum, parchment, or Royall paper,” the work was copied out in an alehouse by an “impudent, ignorant fellow that runnes up and down with the Transcripts.”

Dekker’s warning raises questions about the sensory effects of vellum. But what kind of warning is it? Hilliard’s treatise was written on vellum; Dekker’s was printed on paper. Do such differences matter? What happens if we approach these texts not only as literary and cultural artifacts but also as olfactory ones? Does the smell of Hilliard’s treatise disrupt our understanding of his preference for vellum’s arid smoothness as somewhat fussy? And what of Dekker’s pamphlet, printed by a second-rate printer on cheap paper, also dedicated to a gentleman? Does its smell reveal a new way of understanding his dismissal of the sensory pleasures of better quality materials? Does it render it ironic? Put simply: what happens if we don’t just read Hilliard or Dekker’s books again and again but sniff them?

What I hope to suggest is that, if nothing else, the smell of vellum offers a material and visceral reminder that what we mean by the phrase “old books” varies greatly. The smell of vellum is rarely included in the usual paean to the smell of old books, especially those of pulp-based paperbacks (for which there are even a few fantastic perfumes that mimic it). The olfactory play on skin as medium is perhaps a bit too unsettling, even for perfume lovers, collapsing quickly into dark thoughts about anthropodermic bibliopegy. (Though a few servants in early modern drama embrace such a turn: Dromio of Ephesus in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors reminds his master Antipholus that although he does not remember striking Dromio, the mark of the blows remain on his skin like ink on parchment.) It’s also hard to generalize about the smell of vellum: each piece has its own unique aroma that denotes both its origins and its history. Its slightly spongy surface, especially on its flesh side, tended to absorb grease from handling it, so it was often dusted with pounce, chalk, ash, even powdered glass mixed with bread. But we smell it now as an amalgam of provenance, use, and preservation. Its perfume is both animalic and bibliophilic.

It’s easy to understand why the smell of new vellum is one of Hermione Granger’s favorites in the Harry Potter series, and why it is the scent that is most often used in historical novels to signal a medieval setting vastly different from our own. For those like me who encounter it in archives and libraries attuned to care and preservation (including relying on digital imaging as a way to protect the most fragile and rare manuscripts), it’s hard not to wonder about libraries and scriptoriums of the past and their smell. The rare book room comes close with its aroma of cedar-scented leather thongs, iron pegs, linen thread, wooden frames, traces of pounce, lampblack, glue, goldleaf, and perfumed leather, but it is also modern, with the smell of deodorant, plastic, pencils, notebooks, synthetic fabrics, and silicon mixing with those of the past. Key notes are (hopefully) missing: the stale air of book closets, the breath and sweat of scribes, and the smell of dust, mold, and fire.

For most of us, the experience of smelling vellum is rare and limited to the library (that wedding invitation you received most likely smells of cotton dipped in formaldehyde). Yet, even when it is only imagined, its smell evokes our deeply material connections to books, rooted in the sensory and aesthetic pleasures of reading. The smell of vellum varies and will continue to vary, absorbing the aromas of its environment even as it reveals traces of its past. Its skin, like ours, tells a story of contact. It is an intimate history of use, one we’ve only begun to grapple with as part of the complex history of books. But it is one richly redolent with possibility.

Skin and the Natural History of the Book

St Bartholomew flayed and carrying his own skin; Marco d’Argrate, Bronze; Milan Duomo (1562).Medieval pictures which depict flaying or flayed people are usually full of draped fabric, suggesting an association between skin and clothing so common as to be very easily evoked. Sarah Kay (JMEMS, 2006) has investigated the changing representation of St Bartholomew (who was martyred by being skinned alive), which suggests that the association between clothing and skin was central to his medieval but not his later manifestations. In the Early Modern period St Bartholomew became an échorché, carrying his own skin as in this mid-sixteenth-century Italian sculpture.

bart3In contrast, in medieval iconography, whilst he regularly carries his symbol – a flaying knife – and sometimes also his own skin, he is usually depicted before his flaying, with his skin still intact and dressed in heavily draped clothing.

ms royal 20In some other medieval depictions his bloodied skin is made to look like worn clothing, as in this illumination from a thirteenth-century book of French saints’ lives. St Bartholomew’s clothes, and then his skin, came off in the sixteenth century. Michelangelo’s famous depiction of the saint in his Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel represents a ‘half way house’ in which the saint wears no clothes (the drape of fabric he now wears was added later on the orders of the Council of Trent) but simultaneously carries and wears his own skin.

Michelangelo, detail from Last Judgement, Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome (1536-41).With the Early Modern divestment of St Bartholomew goes the ready substitution of skin and clothing. People’s proximity to industrial processes no doubt forged this earlier connectivity; there was a reflex understanding of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ states of animal products which made them into substitutes in medieval art and literature. ‘I wolde be clad in Cristes skyn’, wrote an anonymous medieval lyric-writer: gruesome clothes indeed.

Yet, as Sarah Kay reminds us, Bartholomew is the patron saint of parchment makers as well as leather workers, and a similar proximity between skin and parchment offered another set of prefabricated metaphors for medieval poets. The so-called ‘Charters of Christ’, a set of related late-medieval poems in which Christ makes a charter with mankind, are at the centre of a tradition of affective poetry which exploit the relationship between skin and parchment for Eucharistic meditation. London, British Library MS Additional 37049, fo. 23r. ©The British Library Board.In the long version of these poems, Christ (who is understood in scriptural metaphor as a kind of sheep, the lamb of God or agnus dei), having no parchment on which to write his charter, writes it on his own skin, using one of the instruments of his passion as a stylus. The ink is sometimes made of his blood and sometimes, anti-Semitically, of Jews’ spit; the charter is sealed with wax made from his heart. The description of the crucifixion itself – Christ’s scourging, stretching and drying – is also a recipe for making parchment and deploys the trade vocabulary of the parchmentiers. This long version of the poem survives in fourteen manuscripts, however its analogies were well enough known by readers of other medieval texts, that they could be fairly lightly referred to and yet the whole tradition evoked. So, for example, in the Short Charters the words of the charter are typically presented without the contextualizing narrative about Christ’s bodily substitutions for writing materials and yet the images which sometimes accompany them visually cite them.

This is true, for example, in the York Pinners’ Play, the part of the York cycle drama which depicts the crucifixion. In that play the soldiers who crucify Christ are depicted as labourers and the crucifixion is part of their everyday work, which they go about with little grace and much complaint about its arduousness. In their grumbling banter they place a special emphasis upon the effort of stretching Christ: ‘tugge’ and ‘[l]ugge’ they urge each other. Pinners, of course, made nails (‘nayles large and lange’, is how they are advertised in the play) and, although in the drama they are used to crucify, in medieval industry they were more typically used, amongst other things, for fastening skins to tenters (special stretching frames) to make cloth and parchment. When, late on the play, Christ finally speaks he does so in terms which are reminiscent of the parchment-Christs of the Charters, citing the same Biblical text (Lamentations 1.12) which also features prominently in the Charter poems. Like the Charter Christs, Christ in the Pinners’ Play asks for the audience’s attention: ‘take tent’, he commands. The Middle English word ‘tent’ is an aphetic form of ‘attent’, a cognate of modern English ‘attention’ and ‘attend’. Whereas modern English has forgotten the mechanical image in these words, medieval people would have associated them with the idea of stretching (the word comes from Latin adtendere, to stretch) and, like ‘nayles’, ‘tent’ would have been a common word in the pinners’ trade lexicon. Thus Christ asks the play-goers for their stretched attention; he asks them to imitate him, stretched out like parchment to dry on a frame.

When one starts to look, the imagery of stretched parchment occurs regularly in Eucharistic contexts. A weird little late-medieval story, that turns up in a number of places and is embedded for instance in a poem which explains ‘How to Hear Mass’, describes the way that the devil eavesdrops on, and writes down the chit-chat of women in church. He writes so much that he runs out of parchment and, whilst trying to stretch it further, snaps it, causing his head to smash into a pillar. Whilst lots of critics have discussed the way in which the story warns women against speaking in church, deploying a standard misogynist trope which is regularly seen elsewhere, for me, if this is all this story were, it oddly doesn’t work in the way that one might expect. The women aren’t punished; indeed, because they talk a lot the devil is more injured. St Augustine, who is giving the sermon in the story, and Pope Gregory, who has commissioned it, laugh to see the devil so confounded. The story is already set during the Mass and this, along with a medieval reader’s recognition of parchment as a figure for the body of Christ, suggests an allegorical reading, which is not often how it is treated in the modern critical literature.

In another example, when Thomas Hoccleve complains about the sufferings of writers, that their work is laborious ‘elengere’, that they must endure (‘dryen’) eye-strain, when they pore over the ‘shepes-skyn’, it is hard not to recall the metaphorical fields that I have limned out above. Hoccleve implies, without fully saying, that he has ‘taken tent’ of Christ’s commands and imitates his suffering in the physical act of writing. Hoccleve tells us, in another piece of his life-writing, that he once borrowed a book with which he intimately identified, which seemed to describe the very workings of his being but, then, before he had finished or properly remembered it,  had to return it. It is appropriate that this patchily read and remembered book is the model for his account of his erstwhile madness, in which (as he says): ‘the substance of my memorie / wente to pleye as for a certain space’. Books cover Hoccleve in a surprisingly material way: so that his absences and presences of mind depend on the vagaries of the physical circulation of particular manuscript books.

The material nature of parchment, then, was crucial for the way that medieval people read and wrote. Its animal nature meant that it was already metaphorical, even before it was written on. We might ask, because these Christological associations are so ubiquitous, whether medieval people could ever read, or write on parchment without them in mind. Today we are used to thinking about text in a somewhat unlocated way: we might read a text in this edition or in that one, electronically or in hard-copy; for medieval readers, however, the text was much more ‘locked down’ to particular pages, in particular books. Indeed, Mary Carruthers has shown that the sophisticated memory technologies of the Middle Ages relied extensively on people’s recall of particular pages and how they were laid out. Medieval people understood their books and pages to be material, not just in the sense of being tangible, but also of previously having had different raw states, states which suggested a cluster of metaphors for the acts of writing and reading. In contrast today we don’t tend to think much about the wood pulp or computer codes that have made up our ‘books’, and those raw materials figure very little in the metaphorical planes of their contents. I wonder what those contents would look like and what effect they might have on us as readers if they did?

For a longer discussion of these ideas and a fuller bibliography, see Isabel Davis, ‘Cutaneous Time in the Late Medieval Literary Imagination’, in Katie L. Walter ed., Reading Skin in Medieval Literature and Culture.

Raymond Roussel’s Portable Peepshow

‘Knew when to stop too – didn’t cut the pages.’
-The Great Gatsby

 Zo: Solitary ReaderHere’s one of the illustrations to Raymond Roussel’s poem Nouvelles Impressions d’Afrique (1932), one of fifty-nine engravings which Roussel commissioned for the work from the artist Henri-A. Zo. To Zo’s frustration, Roussel had engaged his services anonymously via the intermediary of a detective agency, Agence Goron, supplying Zo not with the whole poem, but with a series of discrete one-sentence descriptions of what was required in each image. The result is a set of images which, as one might expect, often seem somewhat uncanny, at a slight remove in their relation to the poem itself.

Zo’s brief for this particular drawing was: ‘A man seated at a table on which a book is placed vertically; he is parting two of its uncut leaves so as to read a passage.’ It’s certainly an unusual mode of reading, and in Zo’s representation we can surely get a sense of a curious eroticism at work: it’s there in the setting – a man alone in his study, a space cleared on the desk for his special book; in the tactility with which he holds the pages spread with his fingers; and in the glazed passivity of his expression – the pornographic gaze: a rictus half-smile masking absorption: the interior pleasure of the solitary viewer. This is a mode of reading which acts out Roland Barthes’s famous rhetorical question: ‘Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?’ Barthes answers his own question with some examples:

The intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.

In Zo’s image, the pleasure of the text is indeed in its intermittence: the between-two-edges of a passage obscured by the very paper on which it’s printed.

The lines which Roussel intended Zo’s image to illustrate come from one of the poem’s long list sections, in this case a list of correspondences, where something large and something small share a certain characteristic. Here, Roussel is likening the reader who peers between the uncut leaves of a book to a mother who peeks between the curtains of a cradle:

 …lorsqu’une mere, oseuse,
Ouvre un berceau, les blancs rideaux, pour deux feuillets
Non coupés qu’on disjoint.

[ …when a mother daringly
Opens a cradle, its white curtains, for two leaves
In an uncut book one prises apart.] (Mark Ford)

Daringly is a striking word here, even if we didn’t know about Roussel’s extraordinary mother-relationship: it sexualises the scene, accusing the mother of bringing a brazenness to her Fort-Da play with the child. The nominal formulation in the French is even more suggestive: oseuse, from oser, to dare: thus, a woman who dares (just as poseur, from poser, is a man who poses). Her twin roles then are listed side-by-side: ‘mère, oseur’: ‘mother, darer’. Barthes’s sense of the erotic as the ‘staging of an appearance-as-disappearance’ could hardly more explicitly represented: in Roussel’s table of comparisons the appearance-disappearance game of the brazen mother, using the curtains of the crib as theatrical props, becomes the writ-large equivalent of the book as portable peep-show.

To make things even stranger, Roussel’s lines and Zo’s illustration appear to be self-reflexive: the book best-suited for this model of reading-as-peering is Nouvelles Impressions dAfrique itself. Roussel’s poem is a long one by any measure, yet after fifteen years of creative effort, at fifty-nine pages long it still fell somewhat short of the book-length work its author had envisaged. Commissioning a set of illustrations, then, offered a way to pad the text out, and to redouble the effect Roussel took the unusual step of leaving all left-hand pages blank, while on the recto side the poem and the illustrations appeared on alternate pages. The fifty-nine page poem thus becomes a work of two hundred and thirty-six pages, and since the top edge of the paper was uncut, if one wanted to see any of the illustrations one would either have to cut the pages, or to hold the sheets open and peek between them in the manner described. When we look at image #28 then, holding the pages open to watch our man holding the pages open, perhaps he too is peering at another reader, a smaller man, peeping through a tiny Nouvelles Impressions dAfrique in an infinite regress. (And yet – this slight disconnect between image and text again – in Zo’s illustration we can tell that this is not the book which the man is reading: there is writing on the verso sheet, and besides Roussel’s brief for the artist explicitly states that the man is peering between the uncut pages not to view an illustration but ‘so as to read a passage’ [‘pour y lire un passage’].)

There are, to my knowledge, three English translations of Roussel’s long poem (one is really a composite: Ken Koch’s mid-sixties translation of Canto III was supplemented in the late-nineties by Andrew Hugill’s working of Cantos I, II and IV). Of these, Mark Ford’s, which eschews the rhyme and metre of the original for greater fidelity to the sense, is the most satisfying both as a poem and as a translation. And yet, in its presentation it comes as a straightforward octavo edition with its edges pre-cut and the verso pages used for explanatory notes and the original French text. Alongside it, then, textual materialists will need a copy of Ian Monk’s version, published by Atlas Press, which comes as the original 1932 Lemerre edition original would have, with its top edges uncut, so that we might, if the mood takes us and there’s no-one around, find a quiet space to set the book upright on the table and, holding the pages gingerly open, peep through at Zo’s uncanny illustrations.