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Collections in Context: The Organization of Knowledge and Community in Europe (review)
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Collections in Context: The Organization of Knowledge and Community in Europe, ed. Karen Fresco and Anne D. Hedeman (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press 2011) 340 pp.

In the introduction to Collections in Context: The Organization of Knowledge and Community in Europe, Charlotte Bauer argues that for too long the term collection has been very narrowly defined. A true collection has traditionally been considered a singular act of authorship conceived by a collector, who then, with great intentionality, gathers, edits, and arranges the objects in question in order to tell a specific story or create a particular experience. Pre-modern collections seem to lack this authorial voice, being a hodge-podge of inheritances and gifts, rather than a thing intelligently designed. For this work’s contributors, however, this narrow definition has led scholars to neglect important medieval and early-modern collections that do not seem to fit it. The fourteen essays in Collections in Context, by contrast, challenge these assumptions, seeking to redefine “the collection” in the broadest of terms, an effort which allows for a reevaluation of medieval collections which, by the narrow definition, would qualify as mere miscellanies, despite the fact that they were systematically designed, deeply meaningful to their users, and capable of conveying potent and sophisticated messages. Through an analysis of various fourteenth to seventeenth century collections, these scholars assert that the real flaw is in our definition of the collection, rather than in the refusal of these particular collections to conform.

In one way or another, the fourteen essays of Collections in Context reveal intentionality and purpose in collections that, at first glance, seem to have none. The essays are grouped into three parts, and those in part I begin by considering how collections are composed, ordered, and circulated. Peter Ainsworth, for example, suggests that e-Science tools will soon allow medieval and early-modern scholars to access, assemble and display high resolution images drawn from a wide and ever-expanding database. This technology will, in effect, create the potential for collections that are elastic and dynamic, constantly permuting as scholars tinker and adjust them to respond to ever-changing needs. The narrow definition of the static collection, permanently fixed in place and time, will, in other words, soon be rendered obsolete. The collections created by this new technology, however, will still require signifiers that connect their contents, and in her essay Nancy Freeman Regalado explores these very “dynamics of reading in a collection,” how iconographic motifs could be used by the makers and readers of manuscripts to bridge the contents within them (30). Specifically, she traces the motif of a winged knight that appears throughout MS Douce 308, and suggests that the motif encouraged a sophisticated and integrated reading of its texts, one that simultaneously emphasized the pursuit of worldly chivalric glory alongside the potentially competing ideal of preparing one’s soul for an impending apocalyptic struggle. Similarly, Marcus Keller examines the Thesoro politico, a collection of seemingly unrelated political essays and state reports, and identifies a common thread between them: the [End Page 174] Ottoman Empire. The editor of the Thesoro selected texts that treated the Turkish threat in different and sometimes contradictory ways, a deliberate incongruity that “reveals the anthological as an intrinsically political mode” (87).

In part II, Anne D. Hedeman, Andrew Taylor, Craig Taylor, and Karen Fresco each consider how collections reveal invisible networks of texts, book producers, and readers through four case studies of the Shrewsbury Book (BL MS Royal 15 E. vi). This collection of epics, romances, and political treatises shows the ways cross-textual visual imagery, grounded in contemporary literary culture, could be used by book producers to make bold dynastic claims for their royal patrons, and texts could be carefully tailored to readers like Edward of Westminster, prince of Wales, to encourage not only a martial outlook but the actions to go with it.

Finally, in part III, the remaining contributors focus on the ways collections build communities, with special attention devoted to innovative and non-traditional collections. Indeed, Erin K. Donovan describes the library of Louis de Bruges, a Flemish nobleman and “one of the most significant bibliophiles of the...