The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches eds. by Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen, eds. The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literatures 94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 302 pp. £64.99., ISBN: 978-110-70-6619-9.

T his volume is awelcome addition to the ongoing discussion about the place of the medieval manuscript book within both book history and medieval studies. Reflecting the continuing growth over the past forty years of manuscript studies in both the amount and the sophistication of its research, this collection will provide an accessible and provocative entry point for future scholars. In making plain the necessity of attending to medieval texts as inescapably bound to their physical manifestations, the essays here should establish as a given that any future work in medieval studies drawing on written records will perforce have to contend with the material nature of those records. After considering the objectives of the book as articulated by the editors, this review will highlight some of the key themes that tie many of the subsequent essays together, while also noting some lacunae that hopefully will be taken up by future scholars in the spirit of this volume.

The introductory essay by the editors makes plain the theoretical foundations and ambitions of the collection as a whole. Noting that the history of the book has long been written in reference primarily to the age of print, the editors propose that we think carefully about the many ways manuscript books differ from printed books so as to better conceptualize a history of the medieval book (along these lines, Stephen Nichols proposes in his essay [End Page 239]that medievalists might be better off abandoning the term "book" altogether in favor of "codex"). To this end, the editors refreshingly call on scholars throughout medieval studies to move away from seeing codicology and paleography as service disciplines that offer useful metadata on our objects of study, and rather see them as key means through which we might begin to formulate a sociology of the book. At the core of the introduction are three theses that the editors put forth as crucial to achieving such an end. First, they assert that we should conceive of the manuscript book as a process as much as a product, and that the multitude of factors at play in that process entails that every manuscript book is absolutely unique. Building on the first thesis, the second thesis asserts that, as a continual process, each manuscript book needs to be understood within the context of its "life" (for lack of a better term). The moment of production, while always interesting, might not even be the most important moment in our effort to understand a manuscript and its contents; later emendations often tell us more about how the contents were received, used, and transmitted by medieval and later beholders. The third and final thesis is a consequence of the first two: as a unique object subject to continual revision, manuscript books create a situation of radically (to modern readers, anyway) decentralized authority, within which medieval authors and readers (two groups that many of the essays rightfully blur together) performed their roles.

While few of the subsequent essays refer explicitly to those theses, the spirit of their critique runs throughout the volume: from a variety of perspectives, the authors consider carefully how the contingent nature of each medieval manuscript as it exists in the present day needs to inform our investigations into its contents. Many of the essays operate primarily as appraisals of past and present scholarly practice, inveighing against the value judgments embedded in library shelfmarks, cataloging descriptions, authorial identifications, and academic compartmentalization. Modern critical editions are particularly criticized for the ways in which they distort the contexts of medieval texts, and many authors cite the importance of compilation, miscellaneity, orality, and plurilingualism as crucial features of medieval literature that are often occluded in modern scholarship conceived within the paradigm of the printed book. A few of the essays take a somewhat more practical and forward-looking approach to consider how contemporary [End Page 240]scholars can develop skills and technologies to address the complexities of medieval manuscripts: Erik Kwakkel provides...