The things we leave behind

So we are in December now!  Apologies for the late blogpost: I have big changes coming up (good ones), including a house move, so I have been furiously sorting and packing a lot of stuff.  In particular, I have a lot of books, most of which will be going into storage courtesy of a kind friend, and several boxes full of papers to weed through: handwritten notes scribbled onto lined paper at conferences, photocopied sheets from Latin classes, reading groups and symposia, dating back across the ten years that I have been living continuously in York.  Many of these come from conferences that I don’t even remember, from papers that weren’t related to my research, from events that I have no recollection of even going to.  Usually I just let my conference notes pile up, with vague intentions of sorting through them one day and making more accessible records of particularly useful ideas, but it’s moments like this when I have to ask myself: will I actually use this again?

PhD notes

At least paper is accessible and plentiful today, and anything which I decide not to keep can go into the recycling bin and be made into more paper.  Medieval manuscripts were a different matter altogether.  For a start, written works were far more precious in an age in which everything had to be written and decorated, one by one, by hand.  Also, medieval books were more durable than modern paper, being made of specially-treated animal skins.  So sometimes manuscripts which, for whichever reason, were no longer considered worth keeping, were recycled by being used as endleaves to help bind new manuscripts.  A while ago, I was poking through London, British Library Additional MS 15350, a twelfth-century cartulary (a book containing copies of charters relating to a particular abbey or other institution) and was delighted to find that it was bound with a couple of bifolia (double-page spreads) originally taken from a manuscript of the seventh century.  As I don’t usually work with anything that old, it was a real pleasure to see this uncial script, so completely different from the writing on the main part of the manuscript, and wonder who thought that this was something fit only for binding newer books with.

This was actually a pretty commonplace practice, meaning that some manuscripts deliver up extra texts that the later binders never intended to be considered part of the finished book.

Eighth-century Northumbrian liturgical text, used as binding for a late medieval book in Ushaw Priory, Co. Durham. Image owned by the trustees of Ushaw College, reproduced by kind permission.

Most of my books are now packed up in small but heavy boxes, and have been dropped off at the house of a much-appreciated friend for the time being; I have managed to go through them and give a few away to charity shops.  I’m not sure by which principle I am differentiating those I will use again from those which I don’t mind passing on to someone else.  And this made me think about the ways in which manuscripts could be reused in different ages.  The eighth-century Vespasian Psalter, about which I wrote a few months ago, contains the Roman psalter, supposed to be St Jerome’s first translation of the psalms, which later fell out of fashion in favour of the Gallican, supposedly his second attempt.  It may therefore not have been used for singing the psalms at the monastic hours, but in the eleventh century it was given a new lease of life through the addition of some new prayers.

Cruxfidelisquote VespAi159v
A prayer added to the Vespasian Psalter in the eleventh century.  London, British Library Cotton MS Vespasian A. i, fol. 159v.

Other changes to worship – most notably, the Reformation – had more severe effects.  Monasticism and the rites of the Catholic church were right out; of course, printed books eventually became the new normal too.  Those which remain are the survivors from that time.  Of course, it is not clear if they are a representative selection of the manuscripts which were written, or whether we receive a distorted image of what early medieval libraries contained.  The works of Ælfric of Eynsham, which I have written about before, survive in far greater numbers than any others in Old English, but does that mean that they were more copied than any other?  Similarly, if an archaeologist were to excavate my book collection as it is immediately after I move, then they would most likely find it dominated by editions of Anglo-Saxon prayerbooks, as those are what I am likely to need for making edits to the book I am writing, and relatively little of the travel writing which filled my shelves until my friend took the shelves away.

I hope to write another blogpost over Christmas if I can, and also a round-up of 2017’s blogposts; and then in the New Year I will write a bit more about what I have coming up in 2018.

23/12/2017: updated to add images

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