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Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London by Arthur Bahr (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 111-112 | 10.1353/art.2013.0041

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Arthur Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. 296. isbn: 978–0–22692–491–5. $45.

Central to this study of fourteenth-century London’s manuscript culture is a series of what might at first appear to be antithetical relationships—between physical and literary form, between past and present experiences of reading, and among rich but often fragmentary codicological evidence. Illuminating the generative potential of these unlikely bedfellows is the task of Arthur Bahr’s introduction which, at forty-nine pages, is about as long as each of his subsequent chapters. That none of the analytic categories he sets up here come across as over (or under) developed is one of the first indications of the complexity of the scholarly undertaking being introduced, as well as the skill with which Bahr rises to meet the many challenges associated with such an undertaking.

Drawing on a diverse range of disciplinary approaches, Bahr advances a hybrid methodology for regarding medieval manuscripts ‘as at once formal shapes and historical occurrences’ that ‘expose as false the long-implied opposition between form and history’ (1). He unites recent work on the physical attributes of manuscripts and the nature of literariness with Walter Benjamin’s theory of constellations to produce a definition of compilation that is more subjective than objective, encouraging interpretation of the larger structure of manuscripts as ‘more than the sum of [their] parts’ (3). To develop this argument in detail, the book examines four compilations that collectively span the fourteenth century: the corpus of Edwardian lawyer Andrew Horn; booklet three of the now famous Auchinleck Manuscript; Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; and the Trentham Manuscript of works of John Gower.

While the forms of these compilations vary substantively, Bahr argues that they all reward compilational reading as both assemblages and fragments. In other words, they all exhibit evidence of being purposely amassed to explore specific concerns, but they all also exist intentionally and/or accidentally as fragments. As assemblages, they are products of fourteenth-century London that reflect similar thematic interests, particularly the extent to which textual compilations of disparate works can fruitfully manifest and perhaps even work through the sociopolitical tensions associated with London life. As fragments, they defy restrictive readings, inviting instead ongoing engagement, and opening up avenues of exploration not necessarily intended by their medieval compilers. These similarities, not despite but because of the manuscripts’ many differences, suggest that there was more of a precedent for interpreting later fourteenth-century texts as compilations with local predecessors than is commonly recognized. Thus, Bahr effectively destabilizes fourteenth-century literary history as [End Page 111] an era best understood as pre- and post-Chaucer and his named contemporaries. The seemingly straightforward presentation of Gower’s Trentham texts to Henry IV (whether real or imagined), for example, is complicated, according to Bahr, by both the manuscript’s codicological configuration and the individual texts’ production of history in much the same way that the apparent pragmatism of the manuscripts orchestrated earlier by Andrew Horn is the interest in and anxiety about civic governance that are ultimately apparent in both sets of texts emerge fully only when the juxtapositions discovered within each compilation are read cumulatively as an assembled whole.

This attention to literary history as non-linear in turn encourages multiple constructions of historical and interpretive meaning, and discourages reconstructions of the medieval past as a fixed entity distinct from the present. For Bahr, this past is not ‘a single point on the eternal time line…but rather the set of multiple, intersecting temporalities created by the histories of a compilation’s authors, scribes, patrons, and later handlers’ (13). Contemporary engagement with these multiple pasts, then, intersects with the historical, material artifacts themselves, defining in the process the notion of assemblage at the heart of this study. Hence, even as he deftly cultivates his own conclusions about the compilations with which he is engaged, Bahr is careful not to shut down other possible readings of these same collections. This attention to varied strata of generative potential is one of the greatest strengths of Bahr’s uniformly impressive study. His interest in what...