Tag Archives: blog

A Brief History of our Events

Over the past five years the Material Texts Network has convened a series of conferences and symposia exploring the book as a physical object. The focus of these events has been the tactility and tangibility of the page as much as its meanings, or what it is we do with books as well as (and instead of) reading them. The aim and ethos has been to transcend periodization and disciplinary specialisms, bringing scholars from diverse backgrounds together with artists, writers and cultural practitioners to discuss the nature of the material page, its possibilities and limitations, its quirks and singularities as well as its historical uses, misuses and aberrations. Since 2010 we have staged On Paper, Book Destruction, Missing Texts, and A Humument; Treatments, Reflections, Responses. The next event, Perversions of Paper, will be held in June this year.

on paperOn Paper: A Symposium Exploring the Meanings of the Material Page in the Digital Era (April 2010)
Organisers: Heather Tilley and Gill Partington

The publicity poster announced this as ‘a day of short presentations and paper fondling followed by a response by Leah Price of Harvard University’.

With predictable irony, Professor Price pulled out of this inaugural Material Texts Network conference at short notice, having suffered back strain lifting a suitcase full of books, but the paper fondling went ahead without her in the splendidly august surroundings of Beveridge Hall, Senate House. There were presentations about the pages of graphic novels, the fetishisation of print, medieval graffiti, Renaissance collage, nineteenth-century serials, the notebooks of Antonin Artaud and embossed books for the blind.

Papers on paper were given by Tony Venezia, Maggie Gray, Zara Dinnen, Henderson Downing, Anthony Bale, Ros Murray, Adam Smyth, and Heather Tilley. Professor Esther Leslie acted as respondent for the day, and book artist Linda Toigo presented her unique handmade, interactive  edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. She also romped home with first prize in the lunchtime origami competition.

The conference received funding from the AHRC National Research Training scheme in Language and Literature, Palaeography and the History of the Book, and also from In the Shadow of Senate House, a research project based at Birkbeck College.


gillblackA4Book Destruction (April 2011)
Organisers: Adam Smyth and Gill Partington

The destruction of the written word has huge symbolic potency, but the aim of this event was to sidestep conventional reactions in order to explore an alternative history of the book’s misuses, asking firstly about the methods and reasons for its disposal, mutilation, dismemberment and reuse, and secondly what they might reveal about our changing cultural investments in the printed page. Once again we were in the beautiful Beveridge Hall, which reverberated with shock at the opening revelation that one of the conference convenors was a  known book burner, having once carelessly ignited a box of paperbacks and set fire to her own flat. The event made it into the local newspaper.

Different modes of destruction structured the day, with panels on burning, cutting, recycling and digitizing. Once again, participants were drawn from a diverse backgrounds and period specialisms, and papers ranged across such eclectic topics as Hancock’s Half Hour, George Eliot, Early Modern Broadsides, taking scissors to bibles in the Renaissance, 1970s German children’s literature, and François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. Speakers, coming from Hawaii, Mainz and points in between were Adam Smyth, Corinna Norrick, Gabriel Egan, Brooke Palmieri, Bonnie Mak, Gill Partington, Katherine Inglis, Rebecca Knuth, Harriet Phillips and Lucy Razzall.  We were also joined by two artists, Nicola Dale and Ross Birrell, who gave presentations about their uses of the book as a medium. They brought their work along to display, as did other artists, including Linda Toigo and Michael Hampton. Birrell’s looped video footage of books being destroyed with cheese graters and hacksaws made for a strangely mesmeric backdrop to the papers, and this complex relationship between destruction and artistic creation was also the central theme of the keynote address from Professor Kate Flint of UCSC, who explored the ‘altered book’ as an emerging artistic form.

The conference was developed into a collection of essays and interviews, Book Destruction in the West, from the Medieval to the Contemporary, forthcoming in 2014 with Palgrave Macmillan and edited by Adam Smyth and Gill Partington.


missing textMissing Texts (June 2012)
Organisers: Adam Smyth and Gill Partington

In 2012 we relocated to the Keynes Library, Gordon Square for Missing Texts, a symposium about gaps, empty spaces, erasure, ellipses and fragments. If the destruction of a book is a moment when its materiality becomes inescapable, then so, paradoxically, is the absence of text. Scholars often have to ‘read’ what isn’t there, but what can empty pages, redactions, blank spaces and torn out leaves tell us? What about the kind of texts that scholars in earlier periods routinely deal with, which simply don’t exist at all, are lost or even apocryphal, appearing only in second-hand accounts? What methods and approaches do we use in these instances?

Approaching this topic from a variety of different angles were Daniel Wakelin, Jason Scott-Warren, Heather Tilley, Caroline Archer, Karen Britland, Gill Partington, Patrick Davison, Eleanor Collins, Luisa Calé and Bethan Stevens. Topics under discussion included deleted YouTube comments, Algernon Swinburne’s censored writing, English Civil War ciphers, imagined omissions in Medieval manuscripts, and lost early modern books. Once again there was a strong emphasis on visual culture, with talks on the lost art collections of Charles I, missing paintings and the concept of ekphrasis, as well as the artist John Latham’s infamous performance of book eating.

Bookshop and exhibition space X Marks the Bokship kindly loaned us a fascinating collection of books with holes, gaps, blank pages and bits cut out. We went bowling afterwards.

The symposium became the basis for a special edition of Critical Quarterly in December 2013, edited by Adam Smyth and Gill Partington.


 humument posterA Humument: Treatments, Reflections, Responses (July 2013)
Organisers: Adam Smyth and Gill Partington

This symposium was devoted to an exploration of a single text.  Tom Phillips’s A Humument is a unique work – part poem, part art object – created by overwriting, augmenting, illustrating and erasing someone else’s words. In 1966 Phillips bought a second hand copy of WH Mallock’s nineteenth-century melodrama, A Human Document, and for nearly fifty years has been working and then reworking each page. The fifth edition of this ‘treated Victorian novel’ has now been issued by Thames and Hudson, and to celebrate this event we invited Phillips himself to be our guest as we subjected it to our own reflections, responses and treatments.

Participants were Holly Pester, Gill Partington, Dennis Duncan, Tony Venezia, Zara Dinnen, Alex Latter, Adam Smyth and Luisa Calé who discussed A Humument in relation to various topics including the visual poetics of modernism, digital editions of McSweeney’s journal, experimental literature of erasure and blankness, comics, Early-Modern cut-up bible collages, and the composite page in nineteenth-century art. Phillips remained gracious and good-humoured through all of it, despite the distractions of a tense score in the Ashes Test. To close, there was a question and answer session with the writer and critic James Kidd.


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.


Medieval Material Texts

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 (i.davis@bbk.ac.uk).