It’s so amazing, it’s almost impossible fully to articulate. I have spent, yes, another week in the Manuscripts Reading Room at the British Library copying out texts, particularly Hours and Psalters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (For those of you who are wondering what it is that historians do all day, for medievalists, at least, this is part of it.) Okay, so maybe that’s not so amazing, although I am fairly impressed at how well I can read the variety of scripts. After all, I do have a laptop which, thanks to the Apple Corporation, means that all the copying I am doing involves not quill pen and ink, but simply typing.* It is, I admit, slightly burdensome having constantly to go to the Formatting Palette whenever I want to change font size or color so as to reproduce as closely as I can in Microsoft Word the overall appearance of the texts.** But, then, of course, the scribes who made the books I am reading had not only to write everything—EVERYTHING—out by hand, but also make all of the color changes, too. So, what am I complaining about?

Well, nothing. I am simply in awe at the existence of the books and texts that I have been reading these past eight days. I have only just begun to scratch the surface of what is available and already I am overwhelmed. “But,” you will say, at least, if you are at all familiar with the kinds of books that I have been reading—psalters, books of hours, collections of meditations and prayers—“surely there is very little new in any of those books. Isn’t the whole point about books of Hours that they contain exactly the same texts, only slightly rearranged? And aren’t psalters just copies of the psalms? This, after all, is what medieval monks were famous for. They didn’t really ever write anything new; they just copied out old works over and over again.” Okay, so perhaps you wouldn’t say exactly that. You might be familiar with the fact that medieval monks were the principal authors of the liturgy and that, for the purposes of performing the Office throughout the year, they wrote thousands of new compositions (tropes, sequences, antiphons, responsories, hymns). But you still might insist that the texts that I should expect to find in the kinds of books that I am reading will, for the most part, be highly repetitive, even in the otherwise rather miscellaneous collections of meditations and prayers.

And you’d be right. The only thing better than doing this kind of research armed with a laptop as opposed to just pencil (no pens in the Manuscripts Reading Room!) and paper is to have a laptop equipped with an Internet browser through which you can access such things as the complete text of the Vulgate or, if you go through your own university server way back in Chicago, the Patrologia Latina Database. Thus, when you are slightly puzzled by a certain abbreviation, you can double check against the standard text of the psalms. Even better, when you come across a meditation suspiciously attributed to, say, Bernard of Clairvaux or Augustine of Hippo, you can search the PL directly and find, yes, this is a spurious work, not Bernard or Augustine at all. Except for the Mary psalters, which tend not to be attributed to anyone, and the prayers, which are legion, I have by and large been able to identify almost all of the texts that I have found in these books by way of either the PL or, at a pinch, Google.*** Which, if you think about, is truly amazing.

No, this is not a meditation on the wonders of the Web, although it could be. Certainly, it is astonishing to be able to find, via the Web, that the unattributed text in BL Add. 21927 fol. 40v-41r with the first line Omni die dic marie mea laudes anima, is, in fact, an extremely famous hymn by Bernard of Cluny. But is it not more astonishing that I should find this very text copied, anonymously, into, well, any book at all other than a hymnary made in Bernard’s own community at Cluny? Or, to take another example, those prayers attributed to Anselm of Canterbury in Add. 15749 really are the work of St. Anselm—but how did they come to be copied with such precision into this manuscript, along with, among other things, certain Meditationes piissimae de cognitione humanae conditionis (to give the title as it appears in PL 184) attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux but most probably not his work at all? Is the wonder that I am able to search the PL database with a few brief phrases and identify these texts—or is it that texts circulating not via something so generally accessible as the Web but only manuscript by manuscript over hundreds of years should be reproduced, yes, so very accurately, give or take the odd spelling mistake such that I am able to identify them now by way of a more or less random choice of phrase?

Okay, so every medievalist worth her salt will be sure to tell you that we cannot depend upon Migne’s behemoth nineteenth-century transcription project (aka the PL) for either editions or attributions, often precisely because many of his transcriptions, or, rather, those of his army of underemployed but Latinate clerics, depend upon only a single manuscript. They have not, in other words, been collated with all of the other manuscripts that contain this or that particular text. Which should, if our complaints about medieval scribes’ relative accuracy were to have any bite, mean that I should not be able to locate these anonymous, misattributed texts in the PL at all—and yet, there they are, copied from one manuscript but clearly the same in the one I am reading here and now. So, perhaps, after all, medieval scribes were more consistent than not in their transcriptions. Certainly, the variations that I have noticed, for example, in the transcriptions of Anselm’s prayers are relatively minor, nothing to exercise concern; probably, if truth be told, even more accurate than the transcriptions I have been making these past few days.

And yet, even this level of accuracy pales by comparison with the thought that, well, this or that text is here—in this or that manuscript—at all. I said this was hard to articulate. But think about it: every text that we have in any manuscript had to be purposefully copied. No downloads, no movable type, every copy had to be made uniquely by hand. Redrawn, as it were, from scratch. Why, then, do we have any matching texts at all? In this, the age of mechanical reproduction, we tend to take for granted the existence of copies and value rather the original from which the copies were made. But consider what it meant in an age when even a copy was itself an original--the only one precisely like it that could ever be made--for there to be copies of texts that were themselves copies that had been made from copies that, three or five or ten generations back, had been made from the author’s original draft. One of the reasons that we have no reliable editions of many of the texts transcribed by Migne is that, well, there are so very many copies. How do we decide which one is “best” by which we mean “closest to the original”—and what does “original” even mean in a context when every copy is unique?

I’m sure there’s an analogy in here somewhere, perhaps to the way in which each of us, as a human being, is like and yet unlike all others. But what I want to suggest is somewhat more modest, having to do with the way in which we understand information to move. Medieval authors and readers did not have the advantage of to make their bestsellers available, and yet, somehow, there were texts copied in the hundreds and thousands more or less exactly the same. What does it mean that by the 15th century, the Office of the Virgin Mary was more or less standardized in such a way that one could expect to say exactly the same prayers or chant exactly the same psalms? Just like every other part of the liturgy, it had to be composed somewhere at some time. How, when the music could not be downloaded from iTunes, did it happen that devotees from Milan to London, Antwerp to Madrid were singing exactly the same hymns? Do we say something at this point about the lack of imagination foisted on the populace by the hierarchy of the Church? Or do we rather wonder at the very dynamism such reproduction suggests?

*For proof, you should see how dirty the white keys on my MacBook keyboard have become from all the ink that has rubbed off onto my fingers as I turn the pages of the manuscripts. I suppose that makes my laptop now something of a contact relic of the books. I wonder whether I should clean the keys or not.
**See “Signs & Things" on whether this is really necessary.
*** And I rather suspect I will find the Mary psalters edited in the not-yet-fully online Analecta Hymnica once I have the opportunity to check.


  1. No A/C or cushioned chairs..No other light then sunlight or lamplight and that is suggestively sooty. They must have had other chores as well and incredible patience.

    thank are very interesting

  2. Hope you are alright...looking forward to reading from you again.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Fake News

Abortion Games: The Lady Priest

Bears Abroad! Q&A with Madam Mayo

Confessions of a New World Sugar Eater

Spice Wars Study Guide