What are we going to do about the ‘dull’ books?

I enjoyed speaking at the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School, and I hope the audience got something out of it! They were a kind, engaged set of listeners and they asked very useful questions. Those questions prompted this post.

In my session we looked at some objects from the Bodleian’s collections, handled ‘live’ in the lecture theatre by the brilliant Martin Kauffmann (Martin is the Bod’s Tolkien Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, and he’s both a formidably knowledgeable scholar in his own right and a great facilitator, the linchpin of much manuscript-based teaching). Among other things, we examined a couple of books of hours: one printed example, which both contains older woodblock prints and later manuscript material, and one in manuscript.

In one facet of my argument I emphasised how these books offer us much intimate and fascinating information despite being examples of one of the most ordinary and commonplace kinds of surviving book. In my conclusion I made a more general plea for attention to seemingly humdrum, ordinary objects in our research, whatever it is we’re researching.

There’s a disproportionate alignment in Middle English studies towards a limited canon of manuscripts.

I remember a conversation with another scholar who felt that the Vernon Manuscript is under-studied. And, you know, they’re not wrong: it’s a huge repository of evidence and there’s probably a lot more we can learn from it. But my instinctive answer was that it’s extremely well-studied. There are 2,700+ known manuscripts containing Middle English verse, and almost none of them have received the level of attention enjoyed by the Vernon: two facsimiles, one print and one digital; two separate and major edited collections of scholarly essays; and a bunch of other publications besides.

There’s a disproportionate alignment in Middle English studies towards a limited canon of manuscripts and that alignment is reproduced in, or even increased by, digitsed and digital work (two different things, I think, but that’s a different blog post) and by digital public engagement.

To a certain extent this distortion is fine—some things are more interesting, or even just better than others. That’s a fair justification. And scholars have limited amount of time and attention. Furthermore, there will always be a pedagogical canon: I often ask students to engage with neglected texts like Speculum Vitae or fugitive short pieces that have no titles, only IMEV/SIMEV/NIMEV/DIMEV numbers, but I think it would be a shame if they spent all their time studying that material and never got to read [insert canonical text that you like and find students really enjoy & benefit from here].

And similarly with manuscripts it’s great that we have material which is immediately beautiful or funny or weird to the untrained observer. It’s great that we have manuscripts so special that they justifiably occupy most of the research time of multiple scholars.

But I don’t think we collectively can ignore that distortion or let it rest. I’ve now spent quite a lot of time trying to consult as many manuscripts as possible and the normal† manuscript containing Middle English is not immediately beautiful or funny or weird. It’s unlikely to offer illuminations or funny marginal animals. It probably doesn’t feature medieval readers’ marginal annotations, and when it does have annotations they probably aren’t particularly revealing. It hasn’t been digitised and its presence in scholarship is limited to, at best, a catalogue description and appearances as an un-discussed shelfmark in one or two footnotes.

Given that during manuscripts’ journey to our hands being beautiful was usually (though not always) a survival advantage, it is reasonable to imagine that we have lost more ‘dull’ manuscripts than beautiful ones. Therefore: only a small proportion of surviving manuscripts are beautiful, but that small proportion is probably itself still an overrepresentation.

This prototypical manuscript isn’t truly dull, of course. It has much to offer us: attributes of parchment and/or paper, collation, the hand(s), the size and shape and mechanism of the ruling, telling stains or scars, and so on. And that’s just one manuscript! Things get extremely exciting if you consult several hundred ‘dull’ manuscripts and start doing quantitative stuff.

It’s not clear to me, however, what we can do to convey that codicological excitement to other scholars or to students or to wider audiences. Normal manuscripts are the back of the queue for digitisation—I mentioned the fact that few copies of The Prick of Conscience been digitised in my previous post—and images of them are not immediately interesting.

Large numbers of examples make a thing normal, but these large numbers also impede scholarship and understanding, whether digital or not. To enable digital work on the mass, you have to digitise the mass; to enable other work, you have to consult the mass. At present we’ve no way of automatically transcribing manuscript material, so there’s no short- or medium-term prospect of having a comprehensive body of transcribed text on which we could practise fancy corpus linguistics.

Discussion on Monday brought up crowdsourced transcription projects. Crowdsourcing’s great, but not perfect, and it helps if your material might grip public attention—and a lack of that is exactly the problem with the ‘dull’ books. Perhaps initiatives like the Digging Deeper MOOC are one way forward—that course offers anyone who’s motivated enough some of the tools they need to find the interest in a ‘boring’ manuscript page. But this can only be part of the answer: it doesn’t address the distortion within scholarship itself.

Our best evidence for what normal reading in later medieval England was like lies in the most widespread, least immediately inviting mass of ‘dull’ books. I don’t know what to do about that, beyond continuing to consult and measure as many examples as possible.

We shouldn’t, of course, confuse the study of ordinary reading and ordinary books with access to medieval ‘ordinary people’.

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