Recent Engagements, Forthcoming Attractions

Earlier this term I gave a paper at Teaching the Codex 2, a colloquium at Merton College here in Oxford. This was the sequel to a similar meeting last year, about teaching of/with/and manuscripts. The first TTC gave us a overview of manuscript teaching and available resources. The second felt like a proper extension, ramifying into detailed discussions of manuscript pedagogy in different disciplines and contexts.

I came away having learned about some immediately useful tactics, by which I mean specific techniques and tasks I can employ in my teaching. But this was also a great conference for bigger, strategic questions. How do we fit palaeography/codicology into our disciplinary structures and funding regimes? Are we teaching these things for their own sakes, as central methods, or as useful contextual knowledge? There are probably different answers for different institutions, different departments within institutions, different courses within departments—and different students even on the same course. I’m certainly used to varying manuscript classes depending on which particular reason has brought the students there.

I think I fall into the category of people who use palaeography and codicology ‘as central methods’. I regard myself as a literary critic, but I make substantial use of codicology and spend a lot of time consulting medieval literature in manuscript. Nevertheless, what I’m really doing with those methods is tackling questions about literary form and literary history.

But on the medieval MSt in English here we get students who come to palaeography and codicology from all three positions: students who have a future as ‘pure’ palaeographers, students who will use manuscripts extensively for literary-critical ends, and students who still benefit tremendously from understanding manuscripts but won’t be working with them often in future. In teaching transcription to them this year I’ve tried to cater to that range.

Most of the manuscript classes I do with undergraduates, on the other hand, tend to be for an audience with immediate literary-critical needs, so in that context I aim to meet them where they are—to get them encountering literature they’ve worked on, thinking about dissemination and reception, and the ways in which, for example, medieval manuscripts might be linked to the various approaches to voice and authority we find in literature from the period.

I could go on in this vein for too long: Teaching the Codex 2 was very helpful! It was also great fun. So, many thanks to the organisers, and if you’ve not yet come across it do give their project site a visit.

Conference season is on the horizon, and I’ll be speaking a few more times before we reach the depths of summer.

First, I’ve once again been invited to give a lecture at the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School, where I’ll be talking with ‘live’ books from the Bodleian. I’ll be teaching with manuscripts, in fact, though in many ways the audience is probably much more learned than I am. I gave a similar lecture last year, and it seemed to be useful. (I hope last year’s summer school students would agree!) Having the summer school partly hosted by the Bodleian means that we can call up some books and have a session thinking through ways in which new digital objects might represent or (deliberately, for some useful scholarly purpose) not represent them, and ways in which their stubborn materiality can cause problems for digital work. So I’m looking forward to that!

Then, about forty minutes after I finish speaking, I’m catching a train to Leeds for this year’s International Medieval Congress, where I’m giving a paper the next day as part of a session organised by our Wycliffite Bible project. My bit will be about the Song of Songs and its presentation to readers in Wycliffite Bibles, and the other members of the project team, Elizabeth Solopova and Anne Hudson, will be giving papers too. (You can expect theirs to be far more learned and clever than mine!) The session as a whole should be a nice chance for us to get some of the progress we’ve made in the last year out, and hear what people make of it. We’ll be session 643, so do come along if you’re interested.

And then I’m off to the joint Early Book Society and John Gower Society conference in Durham the following week, at which I’ll be giving a paper reflecting on the challenges which the Wycliffite Bible corpus (250-plus manuscripts!) offers to codicological study, and offering some ideas for the study of large manuscript corpora. I’m hoping this will be interesting for the EBS-Gower audience.

Gower of course has poems surviving in a healthy number of manuscripts, but EBS has struck me, since I started going to it in 2013, to be a real stronghold of the detailed case study. Which is a great thing, of course—it’s very important to have a space for close, technical work which doesn’t have to justify itself immediately, especially in a world which can sometimes pressure us to pump out grand conclusions before we’ve really gathered the necessary evidence. But I’m hoping to prod at some slightly bigger questions about method and methodology in manuscript studies—in a friendly way, I hasten to add, and as a paid-up fellow-practitioner of the same kind of detailed work. We’ll see how that goes!

And then my conferencing for the year should largely be over. Which is good, because I’ll be headed off to consult some Wycliffite Bible manuscripts in New York and Princeton not long after. No rest for the wicked. (Or possibly ‘Pees is not to wickid men’, as the Later Version of the Wycliffite Bible has it!)

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