Half-way through Hilary term, the History of the Book students presented their work-in-progress. In chronological order:
Vincent Leung: A Catalogue Description of MS. Canon. Ital. 10 Maximilian Krümpelmann: 1520 – Luther’s Year of Freedom. A Taylorian Exhibition Caroline Godard: Jean Poldo d’Albenas and Guillaume Rouillé, Discours historial de l’antique et illustre cité de Nismes (1560) Lena Zlock: Crowdsourcing Comenius Isabelle Riepe: Ashmolean XXVIII.H.6a – Discussing transnational and global connections of Reformation in the Eighteenth Century
Watch this short trailer
Listen to the full presentation.
Feedback welcome! The task for the audience: Observe, paying special attention to §the research question (clear? addressed fully?) §the significance for studying Palaeography / History of the Book §the presentation technique
At the last session of the History of the Book class for Michaelmas Term, the group officially launched this blog. Watch the short video-clip with reflections on what “studying History of the Book” means for all of us.
…and – as a Christmas special – a DIY video on how to make your own (mock-)medieval manuscript (spoiler alert: it won’t fool the experts but should be fun anyway).
Introduction “I cry: sensation!” With these words began our search for what might be an ‘unicum’: the only edition of its kind of Johann Amos Comenius’ Janua linguarum reserata. Ulrich Schäfer, Bibliographischer Berater at the Deutsche Comenius-Gesellschaft first contacted Helen Buchanan of the Bodleian Libraries to enquire about the 1662 copy of the Janua, housed in the Taylorian Library, starting from the entry in the library catalogue. “I know more than 200 editions of Comenius’s Janua. But I have never seen the edition you have. I even have never read about it.” If anyone were to know about an edition like ours, it would certainly be the Bibliographischer Berater of Germany’s premier Comenius society.
The history The Janua linguarum reserata autrea is a textbook written by a minister of the Moravian Brethen, Johann Amos Comenius. To this day, Comenius remains a cultural hero in the Czech Republic for his work as an educational reformer, whose legacy prompted the curator of the Musée Pedagogique in Paris to call him the “Apostle of modern education and of world understanding” 300 years after his death.
Ministering and teaching in war-torn Europe, Comenius defied his circumstances to garner fame for his works. Marie-Madeleine Rabecq observes that “efforts to make up for lost school time and his unpleasant memories of…ill-organized schools inspired him to look toward improved methods of teaching and for a school-system accessible to everyone.” The Janua is part of a corpus of pedagogical works authored by Comenius during his exile with fellow Moravian Brethren is Leszno, Poland. It is a textbook for learning Latin through progressively difficult immersion in the language. John Sadler explains the structure of the Janua as
“1,000 sentences arranged into 100 chapters and taking in 8,000 words in all. The sentences are at first simple but becoming more complex in order to illustrate grammatical constructions. The grammar stressed ‘only essential sufficient to enable anyone to read, speak and write the language on the basis of logical rules’.”
Both Rebecq and Sadler note that Comenius emphasised nature in his textbook, a focus shaped largely by his pastoral work. In fact, “thirty-six chapter are given to science as compared with twenty ro religion and morals and only six to the liberal arts.” Sadler notes that “in biology Comenius was influenced by the command to Adam that he should name all creatures and plants and in consequence the 547 separate items in Janua dealing with them consist largely of names.”
The work was a bestseller, so much so that the Royal Princess of Sweden herself surprised Comenius by learning Latin with the textbook. Pierre Bayle wrote that “Had Comenius written no other book than this he would have rendered himself immortal.” This immortality was solidified by generations of schoolchildren who used the textbook, passing them down from one class to the next. For this reason, notes Howard Hotson, there was a massive proliferation of the textbook, but each copy was used until it was rendered useless. Therefore, it is no surprise that only one copy of an edition might exist today.
The challenge We want to see whether this edition of Comenius’ Janua is truly an ‘unicum’. What might make this work an unicum?
Language: It is entirely in Latin. Ulrich Schäfer pointed out that all editions of the Janua, with the exception of two, were multilingual.
Publication: The title page is ripped, eliminating the publisher and publication data. Based on the visible letters, it is possible that this text was printed in Hanau. A search of the Union Catalogue of Books Printed in German Speaking Countries in the 17th Century did not yield any results for editions of the Janua published in Hanau.
To see whether or not this text is in fact a unicum, and to confirm its basic metadata, we are launching a social media campaign, asking libraries, archives, and historians whether they have a copy of the Janua like ours. We would also like you to share what editions of the Janua you do have, to create a holistic image of the Janua in its many iterations.
How to get involved We want to see your Janua. Do you have an edition like ours? Is yours similar or different? This is an exercise in crowdsourcing, and we are looking for maximum participation. To show us your Janua, tweet an image @BkHistOx or send it in to Lena Zlock at email@example.com.
We are grateful to Howard Hotson for his contribution to this post and to the project.
Rabecq, Marie Madeleine. “Comenius, Apostle of Modern Education and of World Understanding.” The UNESCO Courier, 1957, pp. 4–16, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000067956.
Sadler, John. J A Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education. Allen & Unwin, 1966.
This term‘s focus is the research and writing of a project related to our course Palaeography, History of the Book and Digital Humanities. Having previously studied nineteenth-century carnival illustrations, I wanted to continue with the theme of festivals to trace identity formation through visual dialogue. Through SOLO’s, the Search Oxford Library Online Catalogue, tag listing eighteenth-century festival books in Germany, I came across a map of India and script in the Augspurgisches Iubel-Gedächtnüs from 1730 compiled by Johann Michael Roth, a city-musician of Augsburg (Shelfmark: Hope Collection XXVIII.H.6a) – a digitised version can be found at SLUB Dresden.
Festival books are commemorative publications full of impressive illustrations and decorative text celebrating religious but more prominently royal events like entries into cities, marriages, births, coronations and deaths. An Oxford database lists all early modern festival books held by the British Library, the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (France), the Herzog August Bibliothek (Germany) and the British National Art Library in Victoria & Albert Museum. However, this merely scratches the surface of how many festival books were in production and circulation in the early modern age, especially between 1550 and 1700.
Festival books are not accurate historical accounts of an event, they are rather the artistic representation and demonstration of royal power aimed to entertain subjects, impress rivals and catch a moment in time in form of print for the future. Festival books have not gone out of fashion today, but instead have shifted from the glorification and larger-than-life presentation of royalty and nobility to the celebration of a festivals organisation and purpose in programmes, leaflets, oversize books and objects. What we nowadays curate in immaculately composed Instagram stories – among others – was then published as oftentimes printed compilations of etchings, texts, collectible cards and postcards.
1730 saw the 200th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession where German princes handed articles of faith written by Philipp Melanchthon to the catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to demonstrate their protestant confession. Next to the anniversary of 1517, Martin Luther‘s Thesenanschlag, the 25th June of a year ending with 30 in a century is a day for Reformation festivals. We can find records of festivals in 1630 as well as 1830 and 1930.
The book itself is a very large folio, but seems to be a compilation of various print goods made for the 1730 festival who have been glued on paper and bound together. The most prominent figure depicted is Martin Luther, next to his network of friends and supporters, as well as stations in the history of the reformation like the Augsburg Confession in form of explanatory texts and illustrations. Interesting is also that most of the immaculate copper etchings have explanations for the depicted people, objects and scenes in the accompanying text, which highlights the ambition to address a broad and even future audience, allowing us to actively partake in the visual festivities. More thorough textual analysis will follow in the coming weeks.
My main interest in this festival book however was a comment in the catalogue on an engraving ‘concerning the propagation of the faith in India‘. I am working on tracing global connections in pretty much everything I find, so this was a phenomenal find, which did not disappoint. As can be seen in the video, a written extract states Danish missionaries in India had commissioned an illustration in Augsburg, which was turned into the biggest illustration of the book. Among the many religious insignia, landscape and groups aimed to represent indigenous people, a map of India and Devanagari script feature at the centre of the illustration titled ‘Vorstellung der Evangelisch-Ost-Indischen Kirche’ (Presentation of the protestant-East-Indian Church). The latter two are exciting finds as they link the German imperial city of Augsburg with global developments and imperial practice of Protestant missionaries in the early eighteenth century.
This not only facilitates a global link but enables to study the contemporary representation of cross-cultural connections in a religious context. Naturally, not everything written in this festival book can be taken at face value and the etching must also be analysed with attention to the knowledge networks and shared practices and copies of artisans in Europe at the time. Ultimately, we find clues for global influence on the extensively systematised and ritualised framework of a German reformation festival book expanding the study of festival books itself.
Furthermore, a second book with the shelfmark XXVIII.H.6 is held by the Ashmolean. Similarities and differences between these two books will be discussed in a follow up post. Stay tuned!
Bibliographic entry: Augspurgisches Iubel-Gedächtnüs das ist, Alle Sin[n]reiche Inventiones oder so genandte Iubel-Gemählde, welche im Jahr Christi 1730. auf das von einer hohen Obrigkeit A: C: alhier verordnete und mit der sämtlichen Evangelischen Kirchen wegen der Anno 1530. den 25. Iuny Dem Kaÿser, Churfürsten, Fürsten, und Ständ des Heiligen Röm: Reichs nach ihrer Ablesung übergebene[n] Confession Dankbarlich zu celebrirende Iubel-Fest Publisher: Roth Location: Augspurg Date:  Format:  pages,  folded pages Shelfmark: Ashmolean Hope Collection XXVIII.H.6a Language: German, Latin VD18 Number: VD18 10357750 For a digitised copy online cf. the copy in Dresden SLUB cf. http://digital.slub-dresden.de/id42518725X
 See the extensive volumes on early modern European festival books J.R Mulryne, Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly, Margaret Shewring, Europa triumphans: court and civic festivals in early modern Europe (Aldershot: MHRA in conjunction with Ashgate, 2004)
 Johannes Burkhardt, ‘Reformations- und Lutherfeiern – Die Verbürgerlichung der reformatorischen Jubiläumskultur’, in Dieter Düding, Peter Friedmann, Paul Münch (ed.), Öffentliche Festkultur: politische Feste in Deutschland von der Aufklärung bis Ersten Weltkrieg, (Reinbek: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1988), pp.212-236
The printed book now lying in front of me – an edition of Otto von Passau’s ‘Die vierundczweinczig Altê. od’ d’ guldin tron’ from the year 1480 – has travelled a long way before arriving here, on a wooden table in Lecture Room 2 of the Taylor Institution, Oxford, on a rainy day at the end of October 2019. The copy changed hands a number of times; it travelled from one owner to another, and from one library to the next; it even changed countries and travelled from Germany to England, where it is still kept in the archives of the Taylorian Library, safely packed in a small cardboard box.
Opening a medieval printed book can be a decidedly sensuous experience; and working with one can come very close to the idea of a detective in hope of reconstructing past events. Except the material evidence of the crime scene does not (usually) involve blood, but the material traces left behind in the books: these may e.g. include a colophon and an ex libris, the typographical format, handwritten corrections on the margins, supplements and collation, scribbled comments by a later user or other reading marks. Based on the material evidence in the book, one can hope to unravel some of its past and gain information on its significance as a cultural object.
The recently completed project ‘15cBooktrade’ (2014–2019) at the University of Oxford undertook the task of collecting and bringing together material and bibliographical information of early printed books between the years 1450 to 1500. Of these early volumes, known as incunabula, 30,000 editions can be identified today, which have survived in ca. 450,000 copies, located in approximately 4,000 libraries around Europe and North America. The aim was first and foremost to create a digital platform for gathering the material and bibliographical information of the surviving as well as missing incunabula and provide the digital tools to analyse them. For this purpose, the project created a database called MEI, short for ‘Material Evidence in Incunabula’, which collects data on bibliographical and material evidence, such as ownership, binding, decoration, manuscript annotations, reading marks, corrections or comments.
One of the immediate benefits of the MEI-database is its inclusion of different information. Thus, the MEI also incorporates other satellite databases, such as the database ‘Owners of Incunabula’, which gathers more detailed biographical information on former and present owners of the printed books. Thus, the input mask not only allows to search the database for a specific edition or work, but also to search for the owner of a copy; other facets which can be searched for include the profession as well as gender of the owner, the author of a work, or the holding institution of a copy. These newly gained information can lead to intriguing questions, which would never have arisen in the first place, had it not been for the collection and concentration of data in one database. These questions could include the following: Which works did a clerical person possess in the second half of the 15th century? From whom did he or she receive their copies? And from where? What was the role of the female reader- and ownership? How did it change over time? Were there any women who possessed copies of Otto von Passau’s work? (Yes!). But also: What was the market value of a medieval print? How did its price compare to the price of, say, a chicken? These latter questions can now also be addressed thoroughly thanks to the close analysis of a unique manuscript called ‘Zornale’, a day-book of Francesco de Madiis, recording the daily sails in his Venetian bookshop over a time period of four years.
By gathering all these data, the project ‘15cBooktrade’ enables us to look for the social and cultural impact the onset of print had on late medieval and early modern society in the second half of the 15th century. Each edition can unravel a bit more about its social and cultural ‘Sitz im Leben’.
One of the project’s most intriguing features not mentioned so far is the visualisation tool ‘15cV’: this allows us to retrace the history of a specific copy of a work by mapping its journey through space and time, that is translating the history of its ownership by specific persons or holding institutions into visual data. This way, networks between different copies and movements of a specific copy from one library, city, or country to another can become obvious to the user in a moment. What took many hours, days and perhaps weeks before, can now be comfortably done in the split of a second.
The results for the search entry ‘Otto von Passau’ (author) and ‘Die vierundzwanzig Alten, oder Der goldene Thron’ (title) provides information on the provenance and journey of the printed editions, which survive in various copies in European and North American libraries, see online as well: http//15cv.trade.
And the best news of all: these tools can be used – for free! – by anyone, be it a researcher, student or simply a person interested in the history of books, in the story they have to tell, and in the roads these books have taken to get here.
This masterclass focused on the materiality of medieval manuscripts, that is, medieval manuscripts as material objects, and their conservation. It explored how manuscripts were made in the Middle Ages and how modern conservators (for instance in the Bodleian Conservation Studio) conserve and repair them; it also allowed insight into what inferences (e.g. about collation, provenance and patronage) can be drawn from the material aspects of manuscripts. The masterclass was expertly taught by Andrew Honey (Book Conservator) and Johanne Keiding (Book Conservator as well).
The session began with Andrew Honey discussing how parchment is made, tracing the transformation from amorphous, flawed cow- or calf-skin to rectangular, neat folio. He first explained why the prepared animal skin (pinned to a circular frame) displayed different dermal structures: the belly and chest tend to expand, causing those regions to have a more open structure. He also drew our attention to the fact that the animal skin was still suggestive of the animal, as one could still tell where the front legs, hind legs and neck had been. (Professor Laehnemann gamely went down on all fours to illustrate how a calf or sheep looks). These aspects affect which part of the parchment is considered to be of the highest quality: the part along the spine is usually the preferred part, but such higher quality parchment would naturally also be more expensive. Furthermore, the hair side of parchment tends to require more preparation (wet and dry shaving) to make it suitable for manuscripts than the skin side does, as the hair side is less naturally smooth. At any stage of the process, holes can appear, which will then open out: these holes require stitching but will remain visible. The quality of the parchment, then, depends on the effort and amount of time gone into it; this investment tells us a lot about the manuscript, its provenance, and the individual or community ordering the manuscript.
Andrew was then joined by Johanne Keiding; we were introduced to the intricacies of manuscript conservation and repair. We learned, for instance, that repairs need to be done with parchment from the same kind of animal in order for the parchment to be able to move in the same way. Likewise, seeing the care put into designing the minute pieces of repair parchment was impressive. Like medieval scriptoria, the Studio uses gelatine as an adhesive substance to glue these tiny pieces of repair parchment onto the manuscript. (This modern gelatine is industrially produced, however, and pure gelatine). We were allowed to experience for ourselves how gelatine becomes more adhesive as it is heated to body temperature.
The masterclass ended with several manuscripts from the northern German convent of Medingen being shown, as well as an early printed book from Duke Humfrey’s Library. After we had admired the manuscripts (one of which contained small pieces of cloth protecting the initials) Professor Laehnemann gave a riveting account of the excellent sleuthing done on MS. Don. e. 248, a late-fifteenth-century psalter: she recounted how when it was purchased by the Bodleian, the plaque (presumed to be ivory) attached to it by a nineteenth-century dealer was missing, due to auction house regulations about ivory. This plaque was then located; however, its nineteenth-century floral border was missing, which also had to be found. The plaque was then discovered to have been made of bone rather than ivory; the auction house’s worries were unfounded. Medieval manuscripts, then, are not static; their composition and material characteristics change over time and reflect different conceptions of what constitutes a medieval manuscript.
Greater awareness of the physical realities of manuscripts facilitates describing them and analysing both history and content: knowing why a manuscript looks, feels, and moves the way it does, helps discuss and remember the unique effect of each manuscript as a work of art.
A library must not always be just books. Libraries established before the 20th century mostly originated from collections, alongside objects, like porcelain, clocks, furniture, or paintings. Sometimes those also find their way into a newly founded library of the 19th century. The Taylor Institution Library (Taylorian) opened in 1849, following the will of architect Sir Robert Taylor (1714-88), ‘for the teaching and improving of the European languages’.
Alongside the Bodleian and the Ashmolean it was then, the only site for teaching, learning and storing of collections which included non-book items like paintings, coins and other bits of decorative art. Thus the Taylorian held the Hope Collection of Entomology and naturally evolved into a cabinet of curiosities – a renaissance pastime from which libraries, museums and galleries spawned. Non-book items are instinctively occurring in libraries that have witnessed tumultuous times in history to capture memorable moments or store and preserve things safely for prosperity. Objects however are a challenge to be listed in a traditional library catalogue, which is why endeavours like ‘the treasures of the Taylorian’ are undertaken separately.
The Taylorian’s imposing architecture and the impressive and comfy reading room on the first floor are typical for a Victorian library and render it a unique and beautiful studying spot for students today. Decorations of inner and outer façades are rich with symbolism. So much so, that it is still debated who the four female figures at the top of its outer façade actually represent. The main four European language studies (Italian, French, Spanish, German identifiable by its leading writers of that time engraved on the plinths) in the 19th century? Or actually the four daughters of curator Dr J.A. Ogle, the Regius Professor of Medicine, which some inhabitants of Oxford propositioned?
Such mysteries render the Taylorian too a treasure in and of itself. The building continues to (be) a-maze. One almost feels like walking through Crete’s labyrinth to arrive at – instead of the threatening Minotaur at its heart – the Voltaire room under the scrutinising eyes and mischievous grin of not only one but three Voltaire bust watching its readers and guarding the Taylorian’s exhibition space.
I want to focus on the Voltaire Room as a library space that is not accessible to non-Bodleian Card holders which highlights important aspects and dilemmas libraries as architectural and intellectual institutions encounter today. Stepping into the Voltaire room for the first time, I beheld a slightly adapted cabinet of curiosities. Books on all four walls maintained the Victorian library aura of the Main reading room, but busts and wall decorations as well as lighting gave it a classical but rather cold and clinical feel, only reinforced by the wooden chairs and tables provided as workspaces. The contrast however provides a stimulating alternative to the comfy earth-tones of the main reading room. It also draws your eyes to the prominent wooden exhibition cases that show temporary displays curated by the Taylorian’s librarians or students. A recent exhibition showed the German book and non-book treasures the Taylorian holds, including a lock of Goethe’s hair!
The Voltaire room is one of many rooms in the Taylorian that enable their readers to partake in books and non-book items living together, their symbiosis. Dozens of busy and stressed students, librarians and academics dip in and out, leaving their trace and thus enriching the spirit of place. This may be the sounds of typing, thumbing through pages, huffs and coughs or the stacks of books lying around on the original 19th century furniture providing welcome distractions from your own work. All is framed framed by wall-high bookshelves, paintings and busts, occasionally interrupted by the faint ticking and ringing of the French black marble clock over the unused fireplace.
All this highlights that we need patience and openness to appreciate the spaces and contents in them, only then are we receptible to them: Calm down, relax and let inspiration take you. We should also beware of the privilege of our enjoyment of such a beautiful study space, which is ironic when considering that books should be the most easily accessible item to everyone. Reading especially in a context like Oxford’s seems like second nature to us, as essential as breathing almost, which makes us forget that not every country, not every university, not every school has the means, the people and the opportunity to enable those experiences.
But not all is lost and inaccessible thanks to the world wide web! Insight into the deeper currents of the Taylorian’s book treasures provide publications entitled Treasures of the Taylorian which range from Martin Luther’s pamphlets and letters to the multilingualism of Yoko Tawada. The exhibitions, which spawned publications, are accessible online too.
As part of our History of the Book, Palaeography and Digital Humanities postgraduate module we students also learn how – and Professor Henrike Lähnemann never tires to encourage us – to share our research, our findings, impressions and thoughts online to let others partake.
We can increasingly witness how libraries have become social spaces or assist in creating alternative spaces to come together and work collaboratively – be that as a traditional working and reading space enhanced by an opportunity for curating an exhibition or discussions and images shared through social media. Oxford’s many libraries share similar approaches with varying outputs and outcomes, have a look at the Weston libraryfor example.
To close with Professor Cristina Dondi’s recent remark in one of our Wednesday afternoon sessions about 15thcentury booktrade… The book should return to our attention!
Giles Barber, A Continuing Tradition: Non-Book Materials in the Taylor Institution Library, The Bodleian Library Record, 17 (2002) pp.261-292
Jill Hughes, ‘History of the Taylor Institution Library and its Collections’, 13 November 2014, Taylor Institution Library <http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2014/11/13/history-of-the-taylor-institution-library-and-its-collections/> [Last accessed: 22 November 2019]
In the fourth week of our History of the Book methodology module, the topic was palaeography. Dr. Colleen Curran, a researcher at the Faculty of English of the University of Oxford and expert in Insular scripts, took us to the Weston Library’s Visiting Scholar’s Centre to introduce us to the history of scripts. The session included a theoretical as well as a hands-on part, which we will both discuss further in this post to give an impression of the complexity of the topic – and of the joy of working with manuscripts.
Dr. Curran’s theoretical introduction covered the basics of palaeography that are necessary to explore a manuscript. During the talk, it became obvious that the terminology describing manuscripts is focussed on the practical use and the material side of the object. That shows the difference between being a palaeographer and a literary scientist: While the latter is tasked with looking at the content, palaeography is all about analysing the object. As we will see later on, it is not possible to separate those two dimensions completely. Nonetheless, our introduction started very clearly with the physical dimension by learning about the material – parchment. There, the very vivid designations of the ‘hair’ and ‘flesh’ side are used, Drawing an instant connection to the animal origin. The process of preparing the animal skin was long and challenging but perfected to such an extent that some even managed to peel off one layer of skin to create a second piece of parchment.
With a quill in one hand, a knife in the other, the scribes were prepared to fill the pages with words before the parchment was folded and sewn together. The knife was used to scrape off misspelt words. The first script Dr. Curran focussed on, was the Old Roman Cursive. It was developed around AD 100, followed by the New Roman cursive approximately a century later. Cursive scripts can already be found very early since they were used in everyday texts. The fast writing did not require a pretty typeface but an easy one, resulting in connected characters.
The beautiful writings that we have in mind when thinking about manuscripts, with coloured letters and ornamented initials, occurred much later. They are written in block letters, which required much more concentration and focus of the writer and therefore were used for important and valuable manuscripts. The development of the Carolingian minuscule in the ninth century marked the beginning of the rise of set scripts.
At this time, the value of the written word increased, and therefore an appropriate form to represent the content was needed. Writing every letter out on its own normally produced a very even and legible typeface. Of course, the competence of the scribe had its influence as well. Over approximately two centuries, the Carolingian minuscule was the dominant script. And from there on, the history of scripts got messy. This was due to the fact that, how Dr. Curran made clear, which script was used was at this point mainly a matter of what was in fashion. And as everyone knows, fashion changes fast and almost everyone has their own ideas about it. Therefore, many different scripts were developed, cursive as well as set scripts, each influencing one another. Researchers have done their best to distinguish them and define separate scripts by characteristics like the height of the ascenders or descenders of letters (the parts that are higher or lower than the rest of the letter) or the formation of ligatures (the merging of two letters). How hard it still can be to transfer the theoretical characterisation onto practice, we experienced in the hands-on part of the session.
As is the case with all forms of visual art and representation, the evolution of script in the Middle Ages was engendered by an interplay of reciprocal stylistic influences, from which a gradual process of written innovation, adoption, and continuous supersession resulted. It is in consideration of these stylistic ruptures and continuities that the act of identifying script necessitates abandoning assumptions of affixed written uniformity and standardisation. Rather, the paleographer is pressed to examine their material, not purely in the context of the greater stylistic trends of its epoch, but also as a living organism, mirroring variable degrees of mutability and individuality set forth by the very hand(s) of its scribe(s). As this post will demonstrate, only through desisting from rigid formulations of categorisation can the paleographical method extract the maximum quantity of information apropos of provenance, cultural appurtenance, and stylistic evolution.
Thus was the scrutinous nature of our hands-on task in the fourth week of our History of the Book methodology module. Following Dr. Curran’s informative outline of the development of scripts from the first to fifteenth century, we were subsequently divided into pairs, posed in front of a medieval incunable or manuscript, and given ten minutes to identify the script employed therein.
Working with Lena Zlock (MSt Candidate, Magdalen College), we began by firstly determining whether the article was printed or handwritten. Upon constating the presence of written deviation between identical letterforms, we quickly arrived at the determination that the article treated was, in effect, a handwritten manuscript. Drawing on our now bountiful knowledge of the quattrocentesco written script tradition (grâce à Dr. Curran), we were now posed to avert our attention to the identification of script, in the knowledge that our text would adhere perfectly and incontournably to the greater trends of its epoch; that there was no way—absolutely none whatsoever—that individual and localised tastes would come to present gradual stylistic ruptures, resulting in the very evolutions we were studying. For after all, medieval scripts were remarkably stable up until a certain point in which visual trends were introduced and adopted seemingly overnight—correct? Such nescient paleographic lambs as we were.
Our expectations of written standardisation would come to present more questions than answers, as we soon noted that the manuscript concurrently incorporated elements of both mid fifteenth century Litera Antiqua and late fifteenth century humanistic cursive. The two scripts are remarkably similar, save for three key visual innovations of the latter: the prominent presence of descenders in the long s form (ſ), the unarched ‘ɑ’, and the close looped ‘g’. Whereas the manuscript presented before us lacked the former two elements, it did, however, incorporate the closed ‘g’ throughout. Ensnared between two scripts, visually analogous to one another, would
we ever arrive at a definitive determination? Spoiler: we wouldn’t. Inferring to the best of our abilities with careful consideration of the elements presented before us, we declared that it was
an exemplar of Litera Antiqua, the closed looped ‘g’ simply representing an individual stylistic adoption prefiguring its wider use in the later written conventions of the fifteenth century. Surprisingly, we hit the mark. We had done it. We had done a palaeography. Moreover, we had achieved this feat all by ourselves (as mercifully, we were permitted to refer back to a visual table of scripts provided by Dr. Curran). Elated but not rendered complacent in our accomplishment, we returned back to our individual colleges, set up our workspaces, and proceeded to waste the entire evening perusing Oxfess.
The lesson then, dear reader, is plain. For it is only through a critical awareness of the representational malleability of scripts that one can avoid misidentification, allowing us furthermore to place a script within the context of the greater stylistic trends of its epoch.