A short film has been made about the rediscovery of four medieval books in the Birkbeck library.
Watch the film here:
Image credit: © 2016 Birkbeck Media Services / Dominic Mifsud
A short film has been made about the rediscovery of four medieval books in the Birkbeck library.
Watch the film here:
Image credit: © 2016 Birkbeck Media Services / Dominic Mifsud
Animation artist Shay Hamias and Birkbeck academic Professor Anthony Bale have been awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust for a ten-month residency by the artist, to be based in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Their project will explore medieval manuscripts as a source, inspiration, and critical intertext for contemporary animation.
The project takes as its cue the idea that illustrated manuscripts sought to ‘animate the letter’ – that is, to bring the word to life through visual and media effects. Working with the medieval manuscript holdings of Birkbeck’s library and of other London institutions, Hamias will explore what animation can bring to the vibrant, lively world of the medieval page.
Hamias and Bale are both interested in questions relating to design, ways of reading, and the status of media. Can animation help us see what we can no longer see in medieval books? Can we activate the emotions of a contemporary viewer in similar ways to how our medieval predecessors responded to the illuminated manuscript? What techniques did medieval artists use to animate the mind and communicate via the eyes? What techniques and illusions were used to evoke visual or intellectual ‘movement’? Might animation offer a translation of a medieval mode of viewing, one which is more comprehensible to the modern viewer but based on medieval imagery?
The main outcomes will be
Shay Hamias will take up his residency at Birkbeck in January 2017. For examples of his work click here.
For more details about the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence scheme click here
This is a video of an event held at Birkbeck, University of London as part of Birkbeck Artsweek (a week of free public arts events which runs annually). It features Professor Anthony Bale and Dr Isabel Davis talking about the Birkbeck manuscript collection, which was recently rediscovered in Birkbeck college library. It was an event held for a general audience. If you’re interested in this, you might also be interested in Anthony’s previous blog post about the books.
Introduction to the event – Isabel Davis
The Birkbeck Books – what they are and where they’ve come from and how they got lost – Anthony Bale (00:56)
Medieval Books of Hours – what they are, how they were used – Isabel Davis (26:00)
When an email came through announcing Professor Elizabeth Robertson’s Matthews lecture in the Senate House on ‘Chaucer and Wordsworth’s Vivid Daisies’, the opportunity to enhance the occasion by displaying a couple of books to allow Chaucer and Wordsworth to speak for themselves through the printed word seemed too good to miss. After all, Senate House Library has strong literary collections, which we want people to be aware of and use.
Selecting an edition of Chaucer for the praise of the daisy in his ‘Legend of Good Women’ was easy. The first edition in which it appeared, the Workes of 1532, appealed to the eye by virtue of being printed in black letter, and exercised all the attraction of the earliest appearance of the work.
This copy of Chaucer’s Workes formerly belonged to Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958), and the Sterling Library of first and fine editions of English literature turned up trumps again with Wordsworth. But the first edition of Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807), containing his three ‘Daisy’ poems, could not as a drab duodecimo volume be expected to exercise quite the same aura as the Chaucer folio. We played with the idea of showing the facsimile of the manuscript of Poems in Two Volumes, a good way to indicate the creative process, and also to showcase Senate House Library’s palaeography collection. Manuscript facsimiles constitute a significant proportion of this, and this Wordsworth book provides a salutary reminder that these are not exclusively mediaeval. Ultimately I chose A Decade of Years: Poems by William Wordsworth, 1798-1807 (1911). This is a selection of Wordsworth’s poems, mostly composed between 1798 and 1807, arranged to present ‘as a whole and subjectively those special characteristics which make Wordsworth pre-eminently the poet and interpreter of the mysticism of nature, to wit, his own mysticism & oneness with the spirit of the universe, “that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, & rolls through all things” …’ (p. ). The volume was printed by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Press, the private press he established with Emery Walker in 1901 to print works of great literature in productions rendered beautiful with type alone, devoid of illustration and other ornament.
The Matthews Lecture is being delivered by Professor Elizabeth Robertson (University of Glasgow), at 5pm 18th November in Beveridge Hall in Senate House, London, WC1E 7HU. It is followed by a wine reception. This event is free and everyone is welcome but you must book a place. You can view the exhibition of books mentioned above in Beveridge Hall.
When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.
Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.
This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.
It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.
The books are:
The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.
MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.
MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententiae Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.
Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.
One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).
The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.
NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.
This post introduces an exhibition to coincide with the Biennial London Chaucer Conference on the theme of Science, Magic and Technology. It runs from 29th June to 12th July at Senate House library.
Senate House Library often puts on displays to support conferences. It’s a win-win situation: the conference is enhanced by the books or manuscripts shown, and the Library demonstrates a sample of the richness of its holdings and the relevance of its material for research. This is the second time that it is supporting the biennial London Chaucer conference. Last time it exhibited a range of editions of Chaucer, from Richard Pynson’s 1492 printing of the Canterbury Tales onwards, and including private press editions noteworthy for their production as ‘books beautiful’. This time we broadened the display to fit the theme of ‘Science, Magic and Technology’, focussing on the science – more specifically, on astronomy and astrology.
We still showed a couple of early editions of Chaucer: his Workes from about 1550 (ESTC S122266), open at the ‘Knight’s Tale’ because that tale is rich in astrological symbolism, and the Workes from 1532 (the first complete edition of Chaucer) because it provides the earliest printed appearance of Chaucer’s Treatise of the Astrolabe. And we fetched out some other examples of medieval literature: a 1554 edition of Gower’s Confessio Amantis (in part imbued with astrology), and an illustrated edition of Dante’s Comedy from 1544, showing Dante’s paradise of nine concentric circles around the earth.
But we also used early scientific works. Possibly the rarest item, and the item with the most illustrative appeal, is Philosophia Naturalis, by Paul of Venice (ca 1368-1428), printed in Paris in about 1515. Despite its comprehensive title, this book comprises just one work, De Compositione Mundi – an abbreviated Latin version of the thirteenth-century monk Ristoro d’Arezzo’s Composizione del Mondo, written in about 1282. The Composizione, itself based on work by Ptolemy, Aristotle, Averroes and others, is the first astronomical work to have been written in Italian; a further claim to fame is that it may have influenced Dante, who influenced Chaucer.
Visit the exhibition at Senate House Library (4th floor, Senate House), 29 June – 12 July 2015. Available during Senate House Library opening hours: Mon. – Fri. 9.00-17.45; Sat. 9.45-17.15.
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’.
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.
The page above seems unremarkable: devoid of textual content, described as “blank” in the accompanying British Library description, it appears to have been written only by the unguided hands of time and decay. The stains and other marks attest to the use of this parchment folio as a flyleaf, the first of two at the start of a fifteenth-century manuscript. Flyleaves were often left at the beginning and end of a manuscript to protect the rest of the text from damage; while many remain blank, others became a prime location for ownership inscriptions, rough drawings, and other doodles (manuscript scholar Erik Kwakkel has recently blogged about flyleaves here).
At some point in this folio’s early history it was prepared for text; rulings for a text block in red crayon are faintly visible at the top of the folio and towards the bottom right corner. While this text block remains unfilled, the writing on the verso side of the folio shows through on the recto, its spectral presence emphasising the enduring absence of text on this side of the folio. More recently, a British Museum stamp has been added close to the centre of the page, a mark of the manuscript’s final resting place and, by extension, its incorporation into modern schemes of foliation, description and cataloguing. Despite its designation as “blank” in the online catalogue then, it would seem that there are still things to say about pages like that of fol.1r of British Library, Royal MS 2A xviii.
The page above has been something of a departure point for work I have been doing recently on the blankness of medieval writing surfaces, particularly in fifteenth-century English manuscripts. While it is not uncommon for manuscripts to include “blank” leaves, I have come to think that what such leaves show is that the space of manuscripts is not, in fact, absolutely blank, at least not in the sense that that word has come predominantly to occupy. That is, the blankness of medieval manuscripts is of a different order to the chemically-induced whiteness of a modern sheet of A4 paper, or the pristine virtual whiteness of a word processing document on a computer screen.
As well as tracing the etymology of “blank” and its overlap with “white” then, I have been considering just how blank the leaves of manuscripts really are. The parchment and paper used in fourteenth and fifteenth-century manuscripts preserve numerous instances of what Joshua Calhoun has recently called “ecological remainders” (“The Word Made Flax”, PMLA vol.126 no.3). Calhoun’s focus is on sixteenth and seventeenth-century printed Bibles, but the manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth century arguably provide an even richer record of the ways in which the page might reappear as something more than the unmarked substrate of inscription. The labour-intensive, time-consuming practices required to produce medieval folios resulted not in pristinely white pages, but rather multihued surfaces that, before the addition of any textual content or evidence of their passage between scribes and future readers, preserved the memory of their previous existence as animal skin or plant matter.
To produce parchment, skins were washed, soaked in lime (calcium oxide, obtained by heating limestone and combining the remnants with water), washed a second time, dried under tension, and then de-haired. The occurrence of scar tissue or holes in the page as a result of pre-existing injuries to the animal often required scribes to curve or separate their writing. Such holes could also be the result of parchment makers pushing too hard with their tools while removing hair, a reminder of the labour-intensive processes required to turn animal skin into a surface receptive of crayon, ink and gold leaf.
On fol.7r of Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson D. 101, a manuscript of travel narrative The Book of Sir John Mandeville, a hole equivalent in height to around three and a half lines of writing has been incorporated into the scribe’s copying of the text. On fol.7v though, the scribe was forced to split the word ‘relykes’ [relics] around this hole in the page, ‘re’ on the left side and ‘lykes’ on the right. This flaw in the page results in a fortuitous yet apposite combination of text and manuscript materiality: in a section of the Book of Mandeville that ironically details the multiplicity and brokenness of medieval relics and the competing claims of veracity attendant on them, the word ‘relics’ has itself been cleaved in two.
Medieval paper was made from cellulose; flax, commonly in the form of linen, was obtained as cloth rags. Linen was itself difficult and time-consuming to prepare: before the process of spinning could begin, the flax was rhetted (soaked in water or dew in order to separate the fibre from the stalk); broken (beaten with wooden mallets); and then drawn through a hackle (a device resembling a bed of nails). Before it could become a writing surface, linen had already undergone a lengthy process of production and an even lengthier period of inhabitation or use.
To make paper, the collected cloth rags were fermented in vats for six to eight weeks, in order to weaken the fibres. This material was then beaten to a pulp before being cleaned. A screen tray papermould constructed of vertical and horizontal wires (chain-lines and laid-lines respectively) was then covered in a layer of pulp; this wire screen at the bottom of the mould retained the pulp but enabled excess water to pass through. A removable rim known as a deckle set the size of the sheet. Once set, the sheet was added to a pile and then pressed to remove as much remaining water as possible. After repeated stacking and drying, the sheets would be coated in size, a substance made from boiled fragments of parchment and leather.
The slightly brown or yellow hue of many paper folios is evidence not of the discolouration of a whiter original condition over time, but rather of the retention of these colours from the process of production itself: the paper produced at mills alongside particularly muddy rivers, or during the wet spring months, would preserve this fact in their hue. Further, on occasion fragments of organic matter that had made it through the paperman’s vat and mould resurface in the page; small knots of flax or single hairs can be found in medieval and early modern paper books.
The use of fragments of parchment to produce size is one instance of what might be thought of as the circling or looping nature of the ecology of textual production and consumption from the medieval into the early modern age. Just as fragments of parchment might be recycled in a variety of ways, paper was only one form flax could take in an extended series of use and reuse: flax became clothing or canvas which, when worn out, might then be used to produce paper. In turn, books might be read to rags, which could be added again to the vat to produce new paper, or could be further broken down and used as fertiliser for growing more flax plants.
Blank leaves & blank spaces
Even without text then, the leaves of manuscripts are legible in a certain sense. Once a medieval scribe had added text to these leaves though, it was not uncommon for them still to include “blank” (i.e unwritten) spaces. Manuscript digitisation projects have tended, initially at least, to focus on illuminated pages that are well planned and laid out, richly arrayed, and complete. However, for all such pages, many more survive that are somehow incomplete or fragmentary. In an oft-quoted passage, manuscript scholar Ralph Hanna argues that vernacular manuscripts should primarily be thought of as ‘fluid and developing entities’; rarely planned in advance, their contents often contingent on the availability of exemplars for scribes to copy, these manuscripts frequently contain blank spaces between, and even within, texts. In this context, blankness in manuscripts seems always to be a potential space for further writing. Opening the manuscript to the future, blank leaves and spaces are potential points of transition in a manuscript’s evolving history.
The “Glastonbury Miscellany” is a particularly good example of a manuscript in which blank spaces became the site of further additions. These additions traverse the “great divide” between medieval and early modern periods; while taking the manuscript far from its original context of production, they attest to the ways in which tracing the lived existence of manuscripts might enable the broader project of rethinking periodization. Work began on the manuscript in the middle of the fifteenth century, with the Miscellany originally intended to be an account book for Glastonbury abbey: fol.1v includes a list of accounts, now largely illegible due to water damage sustained in the second half of the sixteenth century. This purpose appears to have soon changed as a number of more literary texts were added, including many that relate to the abbey’s abbots and monks, as well as its legendary founder Joseph of Arimethea.
During the Reformation in the sixteenth century, Glastonbury abbey and the Glastonbury Miscellany experienced differing fortunes. On the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the abbey was visited by agents Richard Layton, Richard Pollard, and Thomas Moyle in September 1539. Stripped of its valuables and its abbot Richard Whyting brutally executed as a traitor in November of that year, Glastonbury abbey began its slow decline: masonry was removed from the abandoned buildings as they passed between private owners and by the first decades of the eighteenth century the site was already being described as a ruin. Around forty manuscripts survived the breaking up of the abbey’s library though, including the manuscript now know as the Glastonbury Miscellany.
As the place of its production and the impetus for so much of its original contents began to crumble, the Glastonbury Miscellany itself continued to invite further additions and emendations. The Miscellany was still being added to in the 1560s, both in the spaces between and alongside those texts originally copied and, most extensively, in a number of folios later in the manuscript that remained blank after the efforts of the original scribe in the fifteenth century. One later reader in particular was responsible for much of the additional material incorporated into the manuscript in the decades after its removal from the abbey, adding seventeen further items of varying lengths, including (but not limited to) an acrostic poem, proverbial verses, and a short verse on the symbolism of colours.
The last datable entry by this later reader was on the fourth of June 1561, a short note on a fire at St Paul’s Cathedral squeezed into a small space at the foot of fol.88r. The text above the note on St. Paul’s is a topical verse in two sections in the same hand. The first verse is an attack on Sir Richard Gresham, a mercer and former sheriff, alderman, and mayor of London and Member of Parliament who died in 1549. The second verse is a reply by author and schoolteacher Richard Sherry. These additions suggest a new urban environment for the manuscript: transferred to London, the manuscript had apparently become part of a new network of reading and use through which urban events and the fallout of political manoeuvrings co-exist alongside the monastic setting of the manuscript’s original composition.
On other pages the earlier monastic and later urban locales occupy the same space. On fol.79v a note on English and French currency, specifically dated to ‘The Tenthe day of October Ao 2o Eliz[abeth]’ has been copied by the later reader/scribe in a small space at the foot of the page. This note has been squeezed into a space beneath a reproduction of a letter by Nicholas Frome, Abbot of Glastonbury from 1420 to 1456 and a short prayer, both copied by the original scribe in the fifteenth century. While this letter occupies a greater proportion of page, the later note gets the last word on the folio, both sequentially and temporally.
Attesting to the inevitability of the future, these varied additions became part of the manuscript’s evolving contents. It would be overly simplistic though to read these later additions as a symbol of a monastic, inward-looking Middle Ages yielding to an increasingly urban(e) early modern world. Though predominantly focusing on the immediate context of the manuscript’s production, the original scribe did include a small number of texts concerned with detailing urban locales, including The Stores of the City, a description of seven English cities beginning with London that mixes Latin and Middle English. In turn, the later readers did not only add new texts in the blank leaves and spaces, but also historicised those texts copied by the original scribe, adding marginal comments in the form of proverbs and other notes and titles and attributions of authorship where they were absent. While the numerous later additions attest to the openness of blank leaves to further writing, these notes and titles attest to a simultaneous desire on the part of the manuscript’s sixteenth-century readers to interact with and codify its earlier contents. Far from simply attempting to wrench the manuscript from its original context of production, its later readers seem to have been conscious of their position writing in the pages of a manuscript of such varied content, caught in the midst of a recent past and an uncertain future.
I would like to close by briefly noting a form of blank space in the manuscript as it now survives that (in all likelihood) will not be the location for any further writing: those blank leaves added to the manuscript more recently to ameliorate the damage it sustained in the second half of the sixteenth century and at later points in its history. This damage makes it difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of additions made by the numerous hands that followed the original scribe in the pages of the manuscript. It is unclear how many other texts have been lost, texts that may have given us an even fuller understanding of the interactions, contrasts and tensions between the manuscript’s original contents and those later additions in the inviting blank spaces that remained after its initial production phase. For all the Glastonbury Miscellany tells us about how medieval manuscripts continued to be read and added to in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the blankness of those modern leaves on which particularly badly damaged folios have been mounted during its restoration is a small reminder of all that we have lost from our period of study.
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.
In 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.
In 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.
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. 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.
Birkbeck College is running evening tuition in masters-level modules which will be open to all students with a good undergraduate subject in a related discipline.
In October 2014 we will be offering a 9 week module (one evening a week) on ‘Medieval Text and Intertext’ and in October 2015, a module on ‘Medieval Material Texts’.
Medieval Text and Intertext will consider medieval texts in their interdisciplinary contexts. Students will look at issues of genre, form and literary theory in the texts of a manuscript age. The course will be taught through case studies, investigating some of the most spectacular works of the English Middle Ages. Medieval Material Texts considers medieval manuscripts in their literary contexts. Focusing particularly on English medieval texts, this course considers the relationships between the physical format of manuscripts and their curious contents.
At the end of each course students will have the opportunity to write an independent research essay under academic supervision.
Birkbeck is a great place to come and try out material text or medieval studies. We are located in the midst of some of the best research libraries and resources in the world. We have research-active staff with leading publication profiles. There are lots of other optional interesting events in which to take part.
For more information about this course contact: Dr Isabel Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org).