Weblog 2 June 2014

Since my last post news has come that the University of London is reconsidering the closure of the Institute of English Studies. Which is good. Let’s hope the IES is saved.

I’ve spent some of the last few days pondering what we normally call in manuscript descriptions ‘tables of contents’. Some of my manuscripts have them but (and I’m not saying anything new here) they’re not all that like modern contents pages. The line between summary and table of contents is not entirely clear to me; one manuscript has what would be for the time a table of contents—indeed, I suspect it was used in exactly the same way— except that it’s written in verse.

I have also been trying to think up ways to make boring marginal notes interesting. The things in the margins that catch our attention tend to be readers’ marginalia: interpretative, funny or just plain weird. They are very BuzzFeed-able. They are also abnormal. Particularly, I think, before the early modern period. I would be very happy to be proved wrong on this by some kind of helpful quantitative survey of marginalia say 1350–1450, but my sense is that most readers of my manuscripts just didn’t write in books very much, and not as much as their descendants would begin to. We do, however, have a fair amount of topical/navigational marginal apparatus in certain kinds of book, usually supplied during the book’s production. In these cases each individual marginal note makes for dull reading. But what does the existence of the apparatus as a whole do? Interesting things have been written about programmes of notes rather than about individual notes, but I don’t know that I’ve read anyone who can tell me how they work.

Last week I attended the Transforming Scripture conference, a second conference hosted at St Anne’s, Oxford in two weeks. I was unable to do so thanks to a bursary passed on by the organisers, for which I am very grateful! At two and a half days, it was gruelling but coffee and interesting papers pulled me through. I still think the thing to do is to avoid coffee in daily life, allowing yourself to get a better kick out of it when necessary, as in this case. This is probably medically unsound. Anyway, I learned things at every session I attended, which justified the experience.

Today and tomorrow I’m on a research trip to Cambridge. This afternoon I finished consulting every known copy of The Prick of Conscience in the city, which was a nice milestone—I’ve been working through them slowly since soon after I started my thesis. Now I just have to work out which things I forgot to look for and consider whether I have to go round again! My last manuscript was at Magdalene College, and I was able to gawp at Samuel Pepys’s bookshelves for five minutes of sneaky book-historical tourism. It seems he had several manuscripts of the Wycliffite Bible, and a curious thing, a manuscript copy of Caxton’s translation of the Metamorphoses. I wonder how hard (or easy?) it was to get hold of books like these during Pepys’s lifetime…

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