‘Making this thing other’: Transforming Manuscripts in the Contemporary Age

Elaine Treharne

From The MHRA Centenary Lectures (2020), doi:10.59860/cl.c385825

Part of the book: The MHRA Centenary Lectures

Edited by Graham Nelson


Modern Humanities Research Association

Full text.  This contribution is published as Open Access, and its full text is given below.

‘Making this thing other’

Transforming Manuscripts in the Contemporary Age

Professor Elaine Treharne

Stanford University

Llongyfarchiadau i’r MHRA: congratulations to the MHRA on their Centenary. What a superb achievement. I’d like to thank them for designing this lecture series; I’m delighted to be the Welsh representative. Let me thank Graham Nelson for his work on the publicity, and, particularly, thank you to Alison Williams, who’s mediated arrangements and been tremendously supportive and helpful in these last few weeks. Before I move on the lecture proper, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind this audience (the least likely to need reminding) that institutional investment in the Humanities (and in the case of the MHRA, that is specifically languages and literatures) is essential to the well-being of any serious university. In a more public sense, as Michelle Obama so clearly advocated on behalf of the Humanities:

they define who we are as a people. That is their power — to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common.1

Fig. 1. Red ochre handprints, predominantly of women, on the roof of the Cueva del Castillo, Puente Viesgro, Spain

At this time, what we all have in common—or, at least, what many of us exhibit—is the desire to be remembered, recalled, memorialized. This desire has been made manifest from the earliest days in humankind’s efforts to leave a mark through a form of record, whether that is a woman’s handprint in a cave in the El Castillo Cave in Cantabria, Spain from 37,300 BCE; a monument memorializing an individual’s victory, like that at Behistun; or a note recording the ownership of an early modern book.2

Fig. 2. Whoever this was — and the Glasgow Incunabula Project posted the signature on Twitter to ask for suggestions — he was the proud owner of a fine German-Latin dictionary around 1495

The cultural record, spanning the globe and hundreds of languages over thousands of years, is in constant flux. But in these years of major text technological transformation, the same cultural record is undergoing a fundamental shift in its form, akin in significance to the emergence of writing more than 5000 years ago. This transformation is as important as the development of the codex out of conjoined wax tablets in the earliest years of the Common Era; or the invention of print in China fourteen hundred years ago, as a result of administrative exigency; or the innovation in recording technologies in the nineteenth century.3 This moment in our contemporary world when the Digital augments the world of tangible text has major implications for the remediation of, and access to, the Cultural Record, its display, interpretative potential and inclusivity. I want to highlight, too, the mediated nature of this record; the power structures at play in the archive and the commodification of the record; and the many voices that are silent in, and silenced by, the canonicity and the hierarchy of the repository.4 I’m also concerned with personal archives, with the ephemeral records of individuals, and with the mundane and the mediocre that represents so much of what survives textually. For the most part in tonight’s lecture, though, I’m going to talk about the ways our cultural record is understood and depicted, focusing particularly on British medieval manuscripts. I especially want to think about the cogency and integrity of manuscripts, both in their own time of production, and within this digital world we now inhabit.

The Abundance of the Digital

The digital realm represents a world of unimagined acceleration of information provision, the consequence of which is overwhelming, uncatchable, and seemingly unstoppable. The figures bandied about are staggering and numbers seem to matter, too. Cultural heritage sites focus upon ‘how much’ they are doing (the abundance of provision) in order to assure stakeholders that they are meeting targets and a desire for wide accessibility. On a poster at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth in 2018 declared that ‘over 150,000 images’ had been digitized at this point in time. The Polonsky Project at the British Library, a privately funded project that aimed to digitize 800 decorated manuscripts also focused on the amount of material involved and the completeness of the digitization exercise. Their aimed to enhance intellectual exchange, but also the measure of success is partly the size of the collection:

The British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have two of the largest collections of medieval manuscripts in the world.

Indeed, DVL: DigiVatLib, the Vatican Library’s massive project to digitized 80,000 manuscripts (400 million images), keeps a running tally of manuscripts and individual images that have been successully digitized per quarter on its landing page.5

Fig. 3. This quarter's DigiVatLib scoreboard (April to June 2020)

The hundreds of thousands of images recently digitally rendered, the hundreds of manuscripts, demonstrate the Library’s adherence to its declared strategy and highlight value-for-money for supporters; they also hold the promise of new scholarship and rich potential for discoveries. Such enumeration, is also overwhelming, though; the decontextualised numbers represent images that the vast majority of onlookers may be able to access, but may not be able to interpret or make sense of.

We live, then, in an information and image rich world; manuscripts and other historical objects are available at the swipe of a trackpad, the capacitive touch of an on-screen button. As Farge, in The Allure of the Archive commented years ago, there is an abundance of record, an overwhelming amount of images and voices claiming our attention.6 Additional questions beyond simply that of plentifulness also post themselves, and are much discussed in contemporary scholarship: ‘What does it mean to look at these images in relation to the “real thing”?’ ‘What is the virtual “thing” in relation to its physical representation? What it is, as I hope to show, is a work of art, a whole indivisible object in its own right.7

To begin to reflect on this, I shall turn to the world of modern Anglo-Welsh poet and artist, David Jones. In The Anathemata, first published in 1952, modernist poet David Jones tackles the history of humankind, focusing on Western Christian Europe, and particularly Britain, with its rich array of myths, legends, languages, and cultures. His novel-length poem takes as its framing device the Eucharist—central sacrament for the Catholic world Jones inhabited—with the core truth of its omnitemporality: an event that represents the past and the future of each human and of all salvation in its present. The transformation effected by the Eucharistic liturgy, which brings the living Christ into the moment, has interesting implications for the representation of the past more broadly. Jones discusses the masspriest’s facilitation of the transubstantive moment in the opening of The Anathemata:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes: ‘ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM...’ and by pre-application and for them under modes and patterns altogether theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.

The choice of three elements from the prayer Quam Oblationem (which contains the sequence ‘benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque’) puts the focus firmly on the legalistic or civic function of transubstantiation—as if, in the very beginning of this work, Jones himself enters into a legal-type of agreement of making his poetic thing other.8 ‘Ascribed to, ratified and made right’ is how Jones wishes his spiritual and literary endeavour to turn out—work that is simultaneously ‘making’ and, through this making, art. Indeed, for Jones, art is sacramental: it is a ‘representing’, ‘showing again under other forms’, because a person’s ‘works are sacramental in character’.9

This idea of making, and of art as ‘representing’ (a concept as old as Plato), best underpins the practice of digitizing manuscripts—a practice that has been criticized for the resulting flatness, or framing contextlessness of the image, as if there were not an actual transubstantiation, when clearly there is. There are many forms of digitization, though, from the amateurish photographing and placing online of a personal or community archive to the exceptionally professional and pioneering work of colleagues like Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist at Stanford, with all kinds of variation in between.10 For the expert, the process of digitization is a time-consuming, meticulous, and artistic endeavour, where the accuracy of the image is of paramount importance, and where the final product is designed to be discoverable, interoperable, sustainable, and a realistic representation of the original object. Checks are in place from start to finish: on the nature of the object and assessing its stability; checking appropriate machine for the specific object; checking the colour and resolution; and checking the images themselves. Artistic finesse is deployed in the postproduction of image—cropping, checking for completeness and clarity, and final checks for accuracy. Yet, the labour and the artistic transformation created by these professional digitizers is often hidden, since most sites do not provide metadata lodged in the tiff file revealing the originator of the image. The artist is, then, effectively elided from the publication of the art itself.11

Fig. 4. The remaking of archives long predates the Internet, and no form can be considered final or definitive. This page of Colonial Office records was first microfilmed by the Australian Joint Copying Project (1948), then digitized. Note the carefully placed ruler, which remains in the scan today: such calibration marks show that concern for fidelity is also nothing new.

David Jones’s emphasis on transformation and on ‘making’ as fundamental to the human artistic and textual production are themes for this lecture with its specific focus on medieval books. Questions at the centre of my investigation are: What does it mean to take the history of humankind from the last 2000 years and transform it from a physical reality into digital data? What are the ethical responsibilities of those who undertake this transformation and transmission? What elements of the original inhere in the digital representation? What positive consequences and what wholly negative practices emerge from this new telling of the human story?

Retrieving Medieval Perceptions

In this present-day western world, where books are ten-a-penny, and we’ve all lived through an abundantly literate culture, it’s difficult to imagine how early medieval souls responded to the few books they might have encountered. For a monastic reader, mandated to carefully contemplate the words in his or her annual reading book, manuscripts would be vehicles of edification, and salvation; for the nobleperson, able to commission a handful of volumes, books would become tangible objects of devotion or entertainment. For the majority, a manuscript book would be something belonging to, and held by, someone else, and often, presumably, someone else at a distance: a priest in church, a lord after supper, an anchoress at daily readings; a large presentation volume or an illuminated liturgical book seen from afar on a lectern or altar.12

How can we access what it meant to own or see or read a book in these times so distant from our own up to c.1500? My research seeks to uncover how contemporary scholars and readers can appreciate what a book as object signified as much as a millennium ago. I ask in my new book—The Phenomenal Book—if it is possible that the medieval manuscript was regarded as a whole object where meaning inheres in its wholeness. Such an understanding runs counter to how modern scholars deconstruct the volume for examination of its texts or its physical manuscript. This theory becomes especially important in this present era of ocularcentricity, where images are everywhere and when the manner in which we receive medieval manuscripts is often as fragmented or dismembered parts—through digitization; or their being sold off folio-by-folio on EBay or by bookdealers at bookfairs and conferences.

Fig. 5. The going rate for a single leaf of Thomas Aquinas’s Opuscula, printed in Venice in 1490. The selling point here is the eye-candy of rubrication, not the theology, though the vendor also touts the ‘handmade paper’.

Medieval books are picked apart by scholars through the perspectives of their individual disciplines—the art historians extract the images; the literary scholars the prose or poetry; the historians the ‘factual’ works; the palaeographers and codicologists reconstruct the book’s history by seeing it as a conglomeration of divisible parts.

In addition, of course, medieval books are reframed through facsimile editions; they are word processed into single or associated texts; entertaining bits of them—‘the eye candy’, as Erik Kwakkel, the Dutch historian calls it on his Tumblr site—are displayed for public glee, extrapolated and sent out without context on Social Media;13 or, indeed, depicted for as a multi-layered representation, or misrepresentation, on the slides of PowerPoint lectures in all medieval studies classrooms. In contrast to this form of representation, my work in the last few years has sought to understand how the book was viewed in the medieval period by those who produced, transmitted and consumed books, asking how contemporary scholarship can benefit from seeing medieval books through medieval eyes. And my conclusion—an early spoiler—is that the matter of medieval manuscripts, the way they must matter to us, too, can only be viewed eusynoptically—an Aristotelian term meaning ‘viewed from all sides at once, as a whole object in its entirety’. I ally this approach with an application of the philosophy of twentieth-century French intellectual, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological method sees objects as ‘inhabited’, ‘embodied’, and indivisible. For medieval manuscripts, to read them in this way, to insist on this wholeness of their matter, has a direct bearing on medieval manuscripts within present-day commercial, academic, and public contexts. My analysis reiterates the importance of the manuscript as a whole object, a work of art in its own right, and this goes against the grain of the EBay book-breaker, the digital decontextualisation; and the single-disciplinary extrapolative scholar. The medieval book’s wholeness ought necessarily to be the focus of our attention going forward, then, even if that wholeness is fragmentary; that is, a book does not need to be ‘complete’ to be whole.

Wholeness: Dimensions

That our medieval forebears thought of books as whole objects, and not just a sequence of gatherings or textual units that can be assembled and disassembled, is evident from innumerable early images of books in manuscripts and other illustrative sources. A fourteenth-century wall-painting on a column in the nave at St John’s Church, Chester, shows John the Baptist holding a hefty volume in his left hand, held closed with a strap. He clasps the book with its upper cover horizontal, and the Lamb of God—Jesus—displaying the vexillum sits upon the cover, showing the book to be understood as the Book of Judgement, but also more broadly the promise of the Gospels.14

Fig. 6. Fresco of John the Baptist at St John’s Church, Chester.

This painting is very similar to a number of medieval representations of John the Baptist and the Agnus Dei in Books of Hours. These depictions directly counter scholars’ assumptions that medieval books were left unbound or arranged only in quires and thought of as adaptable, always unfinished. This is not to say that manuscripts were always bound or richly decorated or made up from dozens of quires into large books; they were not. But the ways in which manuscripts are depicted suggests that the idea of the book is as a whole, well-formed, hefty object. Medieval artists and thinkers and literate folk conceived of the book as a fully finished thing with a wholeness that has variety of implications for us today.

My initial example takes us to the St Albans Psalter, produced in St Albans in England in the first half of the twelfth century, probably for the anchoress Christina of Markyate. Her devotion to the psalter—the Book of Psalms—as a main feature of her daily reading and meditation was documented in her Life, written around 1159.15 The stunning St Albans Psalter (Hildesheim, Dombibliothek, MS St Godehard 1) produced, perhaps for Christina, contains an image thought to be of her, among its sixty glorious initials. It formed the subject of one of the earliest digitisation projects at the University of Aberdeen, where its splendid virtual segmentation is really apparent in this uncomplicated digital edition, privileging the text and translation over the book’s integrity.16

Fig. 7. A leaf digitally cut from the St Albans Psalter, surrounded with transcription and translation, and placed in a new virtual binding with quite different materiality and purposes. The University of Aberdeen digitisation is an excellent edition, but can it really be called the St Albans Psalter any longer?

This integrity ranges from the harmony of the page design at pp. 332-33 to the depiction of the relationships between the user of the book and God, illustrating a fascinating interconnection that ultimately highlights the dependency of the senses in apprehending the spiritual message, and especially the sense of touch and embodied perception.

Fig. 8. Detail from page 333, Psalm 120

At page 333, Psalm 120, David is shown holding his open book of Psalms, which he in the process of composing, and pointing to rubricated words, ‘Auxilium Meum a Domino’ (‘My help comes from the Lord’) that are to the right of the image. The words on the miniature book, however, rather than repeating the rubric, as many such images tend to do in other manuscripts, repeat the opening words of the psalm: ‘Levavi oculos meos’ (‘I have lifted up / my eyes’).17 The composition of the narrative-filled L directly echoes not only ‘I have lifted up my eyes’, as David looks up towards Christ, not across at his book; but also echoes the psalm’s urgent plea, ‘May be not let your foot be moved’, with the unmoving foot of Christ in this image physically linking David, and the book—the whole book, and the Lord, and the plea for help. Central to this scene is the miniature-manuscript, self-reflexively pointing to its own authority; that is, the Psalter’s depiction of the miniature Book of Psalms (possibly representing the St Albans Psalter itself) with David and Christ authorizes its own God-given status. And, it directly draws in the touching reader of the St Albans Psalter, who must turn the pages to move through the text—insisting upon their active contribution as an integral link in the chain, an embodied and materialized participant in the salvific potential of the Book.

Coincidentally, the St Albans Psalter was unbound for the exhibition at The Getty in Southern California in 2013 and a group of Stanford colleagues took two-dozen students down to the museum to see it displayed. Cases were set up with bifolia (that is, a single piece of membrane that folds to form two folios) from the Psalter, but not arranged in sequence or by theme. Other cases contained gatherings, together with information and parallel texts. It was impossible to get a sense of the book, beyond its beguiling images and expert calligraphy. That said, this form of exhibition did permit significant numbers of people to see multiple pages at one time in a process that cannot be achieved in normal exhibition, when a manuscript is displayed with one opening available for viewing.

Either way, though, when a volume lies still and quiet within an exhibition case, as a saint’s relic might, it can be neither interacted with nor operated. Books demand a haptic and a kinetic response to function. This is evident in the miniatures in the St Albans Psalter that contain images of books predominantly, but occasionally scrolls or writing tablets. In the majority of these miniatures, the book is held as prosthesis, intimately connected to the body; indeed, it is embodied via the human body and the animal body from which it is itself made. The importance of touch is key to the significance of the book in the world. With medieval manuscripts, even more so, the membrane—the animal skin that forms the main part of the volume’s construction—if left unbound, returns to the shape of the animal—a veritable animation or enlivening. This fleshy vitality is also something to bear in mind as part of the book’s wholeness. As the integral counterpart to the flesh is the anima, the soul, how can we also account for a spirit that inheres within the object containing among other texts and images, the Logos, or Word?

Wholeness visible and invisible

How do we, as modern scholars, deal with the essence present in those books produced in monastic and some scholastic environments? How do we work with the invisible effort of the textual producer and silent viewer-reader? Evidence suggests that for many scribes in the medieval period—perhaps all scribes working in the monastic context—the copying of the book as part of opus Dei was an obligatory spiritual engagement. But what does this mean in terms of material remains? Can we determine how scribes viewed the potential legacy of their work? What can we ascertain about the ways in which a spiritual aesthetic plays itself out on the page? How possible is it—with modern sensibilities that disallow invisible evidence—to attend to the silent spaces of ineffable industry and desire? This question was thrown into sharp relief for me when I was investigating Salisbury Cathedral Library MS 150. The Salisbury Psalter, made in the late tenth century, possibly by or for women at Wilton, contains a later Old English gloss to the Book of Psalms, as well as prayers at the end, which attest to its use by female religious. It is Salisbury Cathedral’s most significant book, equal in significance—if not fame—to the Salisbury Magna Carta.

I wanted to facilitate the digitization of the Psalter, partly so that it could be more widely known, but mainly so that I could have high quality images for my own research on it. Over dinner with Stanford’s Dr Ben Albritton and the then-Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, (now Bishop of Llandaff), June Osborne, Ben and I broached this subject with her. Bishop Osborne said that she understood why scholars would want a digital version of the Psalter, and that the manuscript would become available to many more people that way, but how does the process of digitisation allow for the inherent spirituality of the book to be made obvious?’ That question silenced me. I have since come to understand it to ask how can one hope to convey through a virtual realm the ineffable spirit or invisible exertion innate in the manufacturing and reception of thousands of medieval liturgical, didactic, and religious manuscripts?

Wholeness: text, margin, blankness

Encapsulated within the idea of the ‘invisible’ is the idea of delight and joy in the book. Such delight is evinced in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R. 17. 1, the mid-twelfth-century Eadwine Psalter, made at Christ Church, Canterbury, and one of the most magnificent books ever created.18

Fig. 9. The cover, and an inside page, of the Eadwine Psalter; it would not of course be possible to see both at once in person

At folio 4v, is a marginal addition to the manuscript, which is generally not discussed, possibly because of its ambiguity and lack of discernible date, but also because, until the last decade or so, marginalia in manuscripts was of little interest to most scholars. We ignore these traces of users to our detriment since, again, it is the whole book that reveals meaning most fully, not selections of it. This marginal addition concerns the loan of the Psalter to a Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury—possibly Thomas Becket or Thomas Arundel:

Istud psalterium sancte ecclesie Cantuariensis traditum est ad usum domini Thome archiepiscopi eiusdem ecclesie per priorem and capitulum eius ad suum beneplacitum per modum mutui.

This dedication revealing the motivation for the book’s loan or gift to Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury, highlights that it is ‘ad suum beneplacitum’ of the prelate. Such ‘delight’ in the beautiful, de luxe Psalter is reminiscent of Psalm 149 where the Lord ‘takes delight in his people’, a divinely inspired joy in that which has been created:

4 quia beneplacitum est Domino in populo suo et exaltabit mansuetos in salute
4 For the LORD takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation.

The inscription thus creates a catena of connections between text, textual object, contextual use and individual person. This reminds us that the Psalter, as with the other books I’ve shown thus far, is a source of delight, which is effectively invisible to us now. But this delight, this joy, this spiritual benefit was intrinsic to these books in their production and their use as instruments of salvation through contemplation, learning, inclusion, and spiritual participation.

The hope of salvation is nowhere more poignantly demonstrated than in another marginal item, this time in the Stockholm Codex Aureus (Stockholm, National Library of Sweden, MS A. 135).19 This eighth-century Gospel book, possibly originating at Canterbury, is available online and completely Open Access. Shortly, I’m going to consider the folio on the right, folio 11r—the most famous image from the manuscript—but this example as a whole proves a good case in point to pause and consider the virtual realm and the digital accessibility of manuscripts in their apparent entirety.

Fig. 10. The Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_Codex_Aureus

In this Wikipedia page, the information provided on the contents and origin of the manuscript is sound. The editor cites respectable scholarship, and references the source for this description as the Hesburgh Libraries catalogue page at Notre Dame.20 That’s fine, though their information is culled from Richard Gameson’s incomplete edition of the manuscript published for the Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile in 2001.21

Fig. 11. What appears to be, but is not, a two-page spread

Now on this webpage is a clickable image of folios 9v and folio 10r.22 This opening is the depiction of St Matthew and his Gospel verse from chapter 1:18:

Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater eius Maria Ioseph, antequam convenirent, inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto

Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Looking at this image one might imagine these leaves are conjugate—verso to recto, and yet accessing the manuscript online through Wikimedia where the information provided is minimal and the images fragmented into sequenced, downloadable pages, it’s possible to see that these conjugate leaves on Wikipedia are an imagined opening, as this screenshot of two rows of images from the Codex Aureus in Plate 2 shows.23

Fig. 12. An image selection from Wikimedia Commons of pages from the Codex Aureus

Both within this image sequence, and in the archive.org browser, which allows the reader to ‘turn the pages’, it is clear that the image of Matthew and its opposite text page with verse 1:18 are not conjoined at all: there are two intervening pages (that is one folio) that contains verses 1-17, as viewers might expect, but as we are seldom shown. It is easy to be duplicitous in the online realm, therefore, and perhaps not even consciously so. Scholars, browers, interested readers, have to fact-check the most basic information, double-check images with manuscript repositories where that is possible, and follow up all the threads provided.

In the Wikipedia page following up the information allows us to detect what the editor of the page, has done: he has scanned each page separately and merged them into one. But he has done so without letting the viewer know there is an intervening folio. Does it matter? Does the deception of the digital, inadvertent or otherwise, matter? I would argue that it does, and that it is essential—an ethical and intellectual imperative—for these early books to be displayed and interpreted responsibly, fully, and with intelligible and engaging accompanying interpretative material. Libraries, websites, and scholars are aiming to achieve these imperatives, perhaps, but given the scarcity of resources and expertise, it’s a hard set of goals to fulfill.

Fig. 13. The Internet Archive here presents a pair of genuinely facing pages: 10v and 11r

The whole story of the manuscript does matter, then, and no more so that at folio 11r of the Codex Aureus.24 This is one of the most famous images from Anglo-Saxon England. On this folio, the opening of the Gospel of St Matthew, we see the gold-leafed decoration illuminating the monumental Square Capitals, elaborately and deliberately framed like a stone sculpture, the imperial script obfuscating reading—the page initially meant to be looked at, and contemplated, rather than read.25

Fig. 14. Detail showing the upper portion of folio 11r

At the top of the leaf is the inscription of Ealdorman Alfred and his wife, Werburg, who ‘begetan ðas bec æt hæðenum herge’ (‘ransomed the book from the heathen army’) and gave it to Christ Church, Canterbury. They seem determined to let us know that they purchased it with ‘clæne feo’, with ‘clæne golde’, and to have the book they ransomed as, effectively, ransom for their souls.

This annotation describes the ritual of the book enacted for the Anglo-Saxon so that it becomes both a ritualistic deed to inscribe details about the salvation of the book for these donors and an act of salvation for those inscribed (like a Liber Vitae itself) in its ritualized, liturgical function. It becomes, then, a literal monument, a tombstone of letters for Alfred and Werburg and Alhðryð, their daughter. But what did the book mean, then, to this family of Anglo-Saxons and the institution to whom they donated the book? On this folio, on this very folio, the family group is saved by their intervention in, and on behalf of, the book: through performative piety and visible gesture of participation these witnesses to the significance of the Word are inscribed—had themselves inscribed—into the Book of Life, effectively. But, and this appears not to have been noticed before, looking more closely at the most marginal of the names reveals how the names visually relate to the Gospel itself: Alfred on a line equal to Christ; Werburg, on the textual line with Mater; and Alhðryð, eorum filia, there alongside ‘in utero’. It’s clear from the carefully lineated marginalia, and the notes above and below, that this page was deliberately chosen for the additional text. The opulence of the decoration makes the display of this leaf obvious, its preservation more assured, the eternity of the names’ visibility guaranteed. Indeed, the Gospel words themselves become the marginal note now, as the Old English donor inscription breaks out of the frame, illustrating a mentality of literacy that insists the books evinces a totemic, apotropaic, and salvific set of functions—all deduced from attending to the sidelines, the margins.

Most of the time, of course, there is no hint of ownership contemporary with the book’s production, and when marks or statements appear, they often allude to a period much later in the book’s history. But many other names, of possible owners, or simply perusers, are found in manuscripts, and often these are the only objective clues to the localization of a manuscript at the time of the inscription. The greater proportion of these names found in margins without detectable rationale are people lost to eternity. As Billy Collins, the contemporary poet says in his poem, ‘Marginalia’:

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird singing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.26

Books can be, then, not merely that with which scribes interact physically, but also a vessel, a ship, a transport into the forever. In this way, the flesh of the medieval manuscript becomes, like the hourglass in George Herbert’s ‘Church-monuments’—‘a glasse which holds the dust that measures all our time’.27 On the pages of the manuscript all time conflates—past, present, and future

Writing as a manifestation of truth, with its inherent authenticity, required as permanent a home as is possible in an earthly world of little permanence. That permanent home is specifically the book, which, as object, carried and contained time.28 This object prompted an exploration of mortality and transience for many Medieval people. The book then presents and represents what can be nicely summed up by Augustine’s phrase: ‘the simultaneity of eternity.’29

We can be fairly sure, then, that the idea of the book for the medieval audience meant the whole book, visible and invisible—a hefty voluminous object (not a folio, not a booklet, not a quire, not a text—a book). Evidence abounds that a book conceived of by a medieval artist or writer was substantial and whole: multiple images of books in books, the lexis, and the evidence from texts really do suggest the object was understood and made as a whole—as a container, a memorial, a monument, a testimony to learning, to law, and to spiritual aspiration.

‘The edge of the knife’

This observation has important implications for contemporary scholarship and the current-day treatment of medieval books. If they are to be properly regarded, then it is as a whole object—an individual work of art. And a perverse reversal of the folios of the medieval book being cut into shape for the construction of the writing substrate is the consequence of the real and virtual ‘cutting by the edge of the knife’ seen in the environments of early modern and modern commodification of the book, and, to an extent, the dismemberment of the digitising process and digital display. If the anima and interpretative potential of the book exists in its singularness, what motivates or can possibly justify the volitional dismemberment of books in the modern world and the persistent displaying of the digital book often as unmediated fragments?30 Our moral, ethical and intellectual obligations are to the preservation of our cultural heritage, as well as to the respectful presentation of cultural property.31 It is an abdication of our responsibility to the scholarly citizen to curate manuscript materials without an appropriate explicatory framework.

Fig. 15. The logo of the UNESCO Convention on the ‘Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property’ (1970) suggests greater practical authority than UNESCO actually possesses, but member states are bound by it. Though more usually thought of in terms of the looting or destruction of physical artefacts, the Convention also protects the integrity of rare books

As many know, manuscript and rare print books are being physically dismembered as I speak, despite their being included within the definition of ‘cultural property’ in the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the ‘Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property’ (1970), which mandates the protection of:

G. (i) pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material (excluding industrial designs and manufactured articles decorated by hand);
G. (iii) original engravings, prints and lithographs;
G. (iv) original artistic assemblages and montages in any material;
H. rare manuscripts and incunabula, old books, documents and publications of special interest (historical, artistic, scientific, literary, etc.) singly or in collections;

Many professional bookdealers’ associations recommend the ongoing respect towards, and preservation of, unique and rare books. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ Code of Practice stipulates:

Preservation: Members are committed to the preservation of historical materials and should not break complete and intact copies of books or manuscripts.

ABA (UK): 6. PRESERVATION. Members are committed to the preservation and study of historical materials and should not break complete and intact copies of books or manuscripts. It is recommended that wherever possible members record in identifiable detail and publish in their descriptions all observable marks of prior ownership (including details of binding) in any way illustrative of provenance or origin, as well as maintaining a full and permanent record of all matters relating to the purchase, provenance and subsequent sale of individual items of manifest interest or value.32

Moreover, these associations also recommend:

Members should, as professionals, be conversant with and responsible for the correct use and interpretation of the technical terms of the trade.
3. An Association member shall be responsible for the accurate description of all materials offered for sale.

Unfortunately, the reach not only of UNESCO’s Convention, but also the moral obligations of the book-dealer community is not wide enough. On well-known online auction sites presently are hundreds of fragments, folios, and bifolia for sale from western medieval breviaries, books of hours, antiphonals, bibles. At least as insidious, if not more so, are the complete codices offered for sale that are of non-European origin: Ethiopian books, Islamic manuscripts, Chinese textual objects. The lack of care in this world of fragments or whole books as commodities also include the many folios on online auction sites that are poorly labelled such that uninformed buyers may not know what they are buying at all. A good number of these sellers hail from Germany, Italy, and America, where the standards allegedly adhered to by national booksellers’ organisations may not be incorporated into those countries’ commercial codes of practice.33

In the case of one seller, for example, trading under the name of ‘Mantosilver’, a little set of binder’s waste was offered with the mind-boggling description:

A great late Carolignian manuscript find…being a handwritten…vellum binder’s waste fragment of the Holy Bible with illuminated 700+ year old Carolingian Rotunda handwritten script dating from the 14th century—possibly earlier! This thick and well aged vellum manuscript … pics taken without flash to show texture, color etc. Fascinating relic indeed. Penned in Truly fascinating 700+ year old manuscript treasures. Good luck!

This item was not a bible: it was a breviary. It was not Carolingian, though the description ‘Rotunda’ for the rounded script was pretty accurate. It was not earlier than the fourteenth century, but the seller clearly wants to tempt purchasers to spend as much as possible through the criterion of early date. This is one of the features the seller used to draw in the buyer. What makes manuscript fragments desirable, then? It is age, aesthetic, uniqueness, and ‘relic’-status that appeal; and it appears that leaves are sold as a synecdochic stand-in for the ‘book’.

Many of the descriptions at any given time on online auction sites are baffling: the seller ‘Rare-books7010’ told the prospective buyer this for sale was an ‘1150 - Evangeliar-Handwriting, GRAVE, Famula TUA, OATH-Evangeliar, CODEX Reliquien’. This is obfuscatory by any standards, and the fragment concerned was not datable to 1150; it was centuries later than that. Second, it was not a codex, or a relic, or a Gospel book. The description was spectacularly misleading. The viewer was also told this fragment was: ‘Manual work of a write scholar of a French of monastery purifies / Written for a grave speech to a noble Woman, perhaps even princess / Performance of the gospels and dead speech for preparation into the sky’. In fact, the fragments appeared to contain short readings for saints’ days—Saint Barnabas, for example—as far as I could tell, but the appeal to a fantasy version of the medieval (a fragment belong to a noblewoman, even a princess; a localisable monastic institution, and so forth) is disingenuous.

In some cases, these leaves are not simply synecdochic stand-ins: whole books disappear before the eyes of the onlooker. In one instance, an antiphonal was dismembered in full view; and in another, a whole, but incomplete acephalous, French Book of Hours, still in its with original binding was sold for only $17,499. 110 prospective buyers watched this 84-leaf volume. Since that price was so high, how long would it be before it was cut up? That the market is there is clear and motivated less by altruistic impulse, than by profit. Realistically, it is unlikely scholars or interested citizens can do anything to stop these practices, encouraged by an online world in which access to rare materials is easy, and where collectors are increasing as a result.

Book-breakers, like the early twentieth-century Otto Ege, the Nuremburg Trial judge Walter Beals, the famous nineteeth-century liturgist Henry Bradshaw, or various contemporary dealers like Thomas Walter in Leipzig, claimed or claim that their activity is philanthropic. Thomas Walter seems to insist on the democratising principle at work in his business, commenting that through his online sales of a fragmented manuscript:

These works of art are now no longer reserved for only an élite group of people (dealers, museums and the rich).34

More, Walter suggests there is an inevitability about this activity:

Looking back, I can say that maybe not every book that I split into individual parts should have been split, but it’s an ongoing process of understanding. I try to acquire and sell all of my works whole, but for some objects, it’s clear from the start that they must be split.35

This is an odd self-fulfilling prophesy. But such inevitabilism is echoed by Sandra Hindman, a high-end manuscript and antiquarian book dealer and art historian, who says: ‘Ever since I’ve been doing this, there have been people who break books. It’s a battle that can’t be won’.

This breaking of books is, as many have pointed out, a centuries’ old proclivity.36 But the selling of fragments, as Peter Kidd commented eleven years ago, has been hastened by the availability of items online, and the lack of regulation at major sites.37 Eric Drigsdahl made an effort for a few years to capture and label images.38 Others, like Lisa Fagin Davis at the Medieval Academy, and colleagues at many North American institutions, are participating in the Broken Books Project to document and virtually reassemble books across repositories.39

Fig. 16. The Broken Books Project to the rescue?

The Digital clearly presents great opportunities for inter-repository reconstruction. But I wonder if the digital, akin to online auction sites, acts as another stimulus for collectors of fragments? If books are dismembered to a page-by-page experience within digital displaym as they so often are, it may not seem much of a mental leap from that representation to the encounter of physically fragmented leaves at a bookstall. The way manuscripts are displayed, then, seems critical, and while current technology means sites function most effectively when manuscripts are displayed page-by-page, then it is absolutely incumbent upon the host repository to discuss the context of digital production and to explain the materiality of the manuscript itself from which the pages’ photographs are taken.

Given current technology—and especially 3D technologies, haptic sensors, and augmented reality—it is time for more than turning the pages technology or the flat display of individual pages of textual objects. The efficacy of the accessible text is one major motivator for large projects like EEBO and ECCO, but there is now so much more that’s possible to give a sense of a living object—a transformed, transubstantiated virtual volume that claims authority and its own authenticity, its own aura. Aura and authority come from the genuineness of the textual object. Digital objects are authentic, though the ways in which they are auratic vary from viewer to viewer. Both of these features are repeated by individual book-dealers, too: ‘This is not a reproduction’, they say, ‘it is original’; ‘authenticated’; ‘certified’. Auction house catalogues go to great lengths to provide provenance and detail, and are keen to say how infrequently particular items come up for sale presumably to increase interest and bump up the price. Auction house catalogues nurture a fetishization of the past—even as, on occasion, they sell these books to breakers and watch them dissipate—the books’ phenomenal and noumenal qualities—that which makes historical objects desired, but also vulnerable—disintegrating folio by folio.

Scholarly institutions could be, and perhaps must be, the first to model best practice in the treatment and display of digital surrogates of the cultural record. At the moment, the level of intelligent handling of textual objects, of information provision and contextualisation varies so dramatically that it’s often difficult to tell whose site is most to be trusted to provide full and useful interpretative frameworks. In both the profit-driven commercial world and the repositories’ rush to digitise all the books, the loser, ironically, is the lover of manuscripts and records; the loser is the original producer and compiler of an object that was intended for permanence; the loser is the previously careful and caring preserver of history; the loser is, perhaps ironically, the artist who creates the transformation from tangible object to virtual object. A medieval book is a call to participation, a call to engagement, with benefits for the reader-viewer that are genuinely sensual and spiritual: the medieval codex calls to the temporal, the phenomenal life, the life of the emotions and to the afterlife, the eternal, the transcendent. At the hands of modern auction houses and dealers, the fragmentation of manuscripts represents so much more than just the separation of component parts.

In making the whole partial and the permanent transitory, those who willfully fragment destroy evidence, violate integrity, and injure our cultural record, shattering the transcendence of the object. In so doing, they evince their lack of understanding of the concept and materialisation of the book as a whole object, and they abuse the ethical responsibility to preserve that which was, above all else—as Billy Collins so poignantly writes—intended to be ‘a vessel more lasting than ourselves’. It is the responsibility of all of us, everyone here and globally, to find ways to ensure that our medieval books are protected, and their longevity assured going forward; we can attend to that both online and in reality, recognizing the value inherent in depicting the wholeness of the medieval books we’re lucky enough to have extant for our education and delight.

Given at the Faraday Foyer, University of Swansea, 22 March 2018;
© Elaine Treharne 2018

1See http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/09/michelle-obama-tells-international-audience-in-pittsburgh-why-arts-matter-to-her.html.↩︎

2See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ancient-women-artists-may-be-responsible-for-most-cave-art-1094929/; https://www.livius.org/articles/place/behistun/.↩︎

3See Elaine Treharne and Claude Willan, Text Technologies: A History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019) for the history of the development of human communication.↩︎

4On this silencing of voices in the history of the cultural record, see, among others, Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archive; and Achille Mbembe, ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’, http://arachnesarchive.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/mbembe2002.pdf.↩︎

5https://digi.vatlib.it/ .↩︎

6Farge, Allure of the Archive, p. 14: ‘while the archive’s abundance is seductive, at the same time it keep the reader at arm’s length’.↩︎

7Discussed in full in my The Phenomenal Book: Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts (OUP, 2021).↩︎

8Edward Foley, A Commentary on the Order of Mass of the Roman Missal (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), p. 285-96.↩︎

9David Jones, ‘Art and Sacrament’, quoted in John Hughes, The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), p. 208.↩︎

10See Astrid Smith, ‘What it is to be a digitization specialist: Chasing medieval materials in a sea of pixels’ in Benjamin Albritton, Georgia Henley, and Elaine Treharne, eds., Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age (London: Routledge, 2020), pp. 17-24. See also many of the essays in this volume for discussions of the utility of digital images for scholarly practices.↩︎

11See Bridget Whearty, ‘Invisible in “The Archive”: Librarians, Archivists, and the Caswell Test’, (International Medieval Congress, Western Michigan University, 2018), synopsised at https://orb.binghamton.edu/english_fac/3/ ↩︎

12Elaine Treharne, ‘Distant’, in Leah Price and Matthew Rubery, eds., Further Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 89-99.↩︎

13See https://erikkwakkel.tumblr.com/post/49929605479/medieval-eye-candy-this-manuscript-is-one-of-the.↩︎

14See this image at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/21/St_John_the_Baptist_Parish_Church%2C_Chester_-_14th_century_painted_pillar_at_NE_corner_of_nave.jpg . This imagery is derived from John 1:29, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’.↩︎

15C. H. Talbot, The Life of Christina of Markyate, ed. Samuel Fanous and Henrietta Leyser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).↩︎

16See Jane Geddes’s project, ‘The St Albans Psalter’ (University of Aberdeen, 2003): https://www.abdn.ac.uk/stalbanspsalter/english/index.shtml .↩︎

17The whole sequence of verses of Psalm 120 here reads: ‘I have lifted up / my eyes to the mountains/ from where my help shall come./ My help is from the Lord:/ who made heaven and earth/. May he not let your foot be moved:/ neither let him slumber who guards you./)↩︎

18The whole manuscript is available in digital format at the Cambridge, Trinity College, Wren Library website: https://mss-cat.trin.cam.ac.uk/search.php?shelfmark=R.17.1.↩︎

19See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Codex_Aureus_(A_135); https://archive.org/details/urn-nbn-se-kb-digark-4890092.↩︎

20See https://medieval-microfilms-and-facsimiles.library.nd.edu/catalog/facsimile-388.↩︎

21Richard Gameson, ed., The Codex Aureus: An Eighth-Century Gospel Book, pt. 1, EEMF 28 (Rosenkilde & Bagger, 2001).↩︎

22See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_Codex_Aureus .↩︎

23See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Codex_Aureus_(A_135).↩︎

24See https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Codex_Aureus_(A_135)#/media/File:Codex_Aureus_(A_135)_p023.tif.↩︎

25Christi autem generatio sic erat: cum esset desponsata mater ejus Maria Joseph, antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens [de Spiritu Sancto] (Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child… [of the Holy Ghost]).↩︎

26Billy Collins, ‘Marginalia’, in Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001).↩︎

27George Herbert, ‘Church-monuments’, The Temple (1633). See H. Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).↩︎

28As objects do now. They contain memories, encapsulate moments, inspire reflection. Thus, the buildings in The Ruin and The Wanderer spark the laments on the past in the present with consequent prognostications about cultural decline now and in the future. The book thus functions like a building in this same transtemporal sense.↩︎

29Augustine, Confessions, xi. 7, p. 225.↩︎

30See http://manuscripts.org.uk/chd.dk/dismembra/index.html; https://www.flickr.com/photos/36735978@N05/.↩︎

31See the text of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/illicit-trafficking-of-cultural-property/1970-convention/text-of-the-convention/ (I owe this reference to Professor Jonathan Sawday). See also http://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Mark-Feldman-The-UNESCO-Convention-on-Cultural-Property-A-Drafters-Perspective.pdf.↩︎

32See https://www.ilab.org/eng/ilab/code.html and http://www.aba.org.uk/the-aba/34-code-of-good-practice.↩︎

33Interestingly, the German Antiquarian Book Dealers Association does not seem to have a policy on preservation: http://www.antiquare.de/code-of-ethics.html.↩︎

34See http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/scattered-leaves; and my own blogged experience, http://historyoftexttechnologies.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/the-broken-book-ii-from-book-of-hours.html.↩︎

35See http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/scattered-leaves.↩︎

36See http://mssprovenance.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/the-cotterell-throckmorton-hours.html. A recently broken up Book of Hours. ↩︎

37See http://www.chd.dk/dismembra/norwich.html.↩︎

38Erik Drigsdahl, http://www.chd.dk/dismembra/index.html.↩︎

39See http://www.slu.edu/x99068.xml?site=desktop and https://manuscriptroadtrip.wordpress.com/tag/beauvais-missal/.↩︎