Seminar in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies, 2019

The Seminar in Palaeography and Manuscript Studies runs annually in the Weston Library in Hilary term (Jan-March). The 2019 Seminar aimed to showcase the research of some of the early career scholars in Oxford using the Library’s collections. Here the three speakers working on medieval manuscripts offer brief summaries of their sessions.

Daniel Sawyer, ‘Against dullness: some ways to learn from (and enjoy) “average” manuscripts’

I aimed to demonstrate the value of examining ‘dull’ or ‘mediocre’ later medieval English literary manuscripts, and to bring out what might be interesting about seemingly dull manuscripts from any place and time.

It is (I suggested) by looking at seemingly dull, normal manuscripts that we might learn the most: normal manuscripts are the crucial context for the exceptional books which excite us, and normal manuscripts also let us study normality, a neglected topic in and of itself. Broad, part-quantitative surveys of such books have much to teach us.

Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 486
Bodleian MS. Laud Misc. 486

A broad survey is of course difficult to conduct in a short seminar, so I took as my example book Bodleian Library, MS Laud Miscellaneous 486.

MS Laud Misc. 486 contains a copy of the Prick of Conscience, the most widely-witnessed medieval English poem, and a text generally neglected: the sheer number of surviving copies impedes research, and the poem’s content is tiresome and rebarbative to most modern readers. The poem is followed by a copy of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis by the same scribe.

The catalogue description of this manuscript would not excite us. But it contains many points of interest, which I sought to bring out in my discussion.

The manuscript has a surviving gothic English binding, which is fascinating in itself and assures us of the book’s probable integrity since the fifteenth century. It is the most dense of all the medieval manuscripts in medieval bindings which I’ve been able to weigh—that is, it has the most weight per cubic centimetre.

A study of the book’s quiring reveals that it is not composed from codicologically distinct ‘booklets’, and yet there are subtler signs in the quiring which do reveal a production hesitation between its two texts.

Although both texts in the book were copied by the same scribe, I pointed out that there are quiet differences in the handwriting he deployed for each text. These broach the topic of palaeographical differences driven by linguistic difference, a topic which is less well-studied in the later medieval period than in the early Middle Ages because, paradoxically, more evidence—too much—survives.

Finally, ending at the manuscript’s beginning, I noted that a unique summary of the Prick of Conscience preserved here reveals the probable mnemonic reading of the poem in this book by one medieval reader, and hints at a moment of transition in the manuscript’s history when it might have moved between two reading communities and two reading contexts.

Karl Kinsella, ‘Plan and elevation: the architectural drawings of Richard of St. Victor’

My talk was titled ‘Plan and Elevation: Richard of St. Victor’s Architectural Drawings’ because we chose to focus on two manuscripts (MS. Bodl. 494, MS e Mus. 62) that contain the twelfth-century author Richard of Saint Victor’s commentary on the Book of Ezekiel, known as In visionem Ezechielis. Richard included some of the most detailed architectural drawings to exist at that time, making them important for how we understand the development of technical drawings, but also the language of architecture during the twelfth century.

We worked through the sequence of all fourteen drawings, showing that Richard structures the text in a way that helps his pedagogical aims. He begins with a very general drawing of the entire temple complex, showing all three atriums. He then provides much more detail on particular buildings. One elevation is in fact a section, as if Richard has removed part of the façade so that the viewer can see the interior. This is the first sectional elevation in existence and demonstrates Richard’s innovation in the genre of technical drawing.

Bodleian MS. Bodl. 494, fol. 156r

We closely examined a geometrical drawing that is, despite being the most plain in the whole work, is one of the most important. Richard uses two types of measurements to simplify his recreation of the temple. This drawing shows the reader how to translate from one type of measurement to the other. It shows that the commentary and the drawings within it are rooted in contemporary practices in geometry. This relationship between architecture and geometry continues to this day, and Richard was a forerunner of that.

Finally, we examined the language that Richard used. Richard called one of the measurements ‘planum’, when he wants to describe the topography of the temple site as if it was flat. This is the first use of the word ‘plan’ to refer to an architectural drawing, one that would not be used again for several centuries. While Richard’s work was influential within the intellectual circles of twelfth- and thirteenth-century scholarship, it did not go on to influence practices in medieval building sites.

The questions addressed topics such as the codicological status of the manuscripts, and the broader significance of the work and its intended audiences.

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