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  • Fragment as Phenomenon and Philological Subject:Two Cases of Chivalric Binding Fragments
  • Heather Bamford

Many medieval Iberian works currently exist in either a fragmentary or partially fragmentary state, from brief selections in document collections yet to be identified, to some of the most canonical works, such as the Poema de mio Cid. Physical degradation of manuscripts has resulted from natural disasters, the activity of pests, wear and tear, and from the use of manuscript material for purposes other than reading. From the late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution, manuscript leaves were employed as pastedowns, reinforcing strips, pasteboard pads, flyleaves, and as the wrappers of book-bindings.1 Single folios or pieces of folios gave stiffness to items of apparel, [End Page 29] including hats. Manuscript folios served as material for personal accessories like bags and folders. The sole extant folios of the Roncesvalles were once sewn together to form a carrying apparatus, complete with a handle.2

Damage to manuscripts also resulted from early modern users who literally loved books to death. Some of these individuals extracted manuscript miniatures to use as wall decorations or to adorn traveling cases, or separated and hid particularly beloved leaves for safekeeping. The modern age has contributed its own mark on medieval manuscripts, with much marginal material eliminated in the rebinding of books and with the practice, which reached its height in the nineteenth century, of cleaning the margins of annotations so that the manuscript pages appear more attractive to wealthy collectors (Hulvey 161). Scholarly ambition itself has led to the marring of certain leaves, primarily through the use of chemical reagents to decipher text, as in the case of Poema de mio Cid and the Roncesvalles. Some partially complete Bibles, Psalters, and Qur'ans sold at highly regarded auction houses, such as Christie's and Sotheby's, were subsequently separated, and sold as individual leaves.3 Pairs of leaves and nonconsecutive lots of leaves from religious manuscripts have turned relatively high profits on the auction block.4

The breakdown or breaking apart of medieval manuscripts has yielded fragments. A fragment is a piece of material or content separated from its whole, which is typically no longer present with the piece or pieces. These separated pieces are categorically different from the whole. As Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has suggested, most often the piece was not originally created to serve as a metonymy or substitute for the whole ("Eat Your Fragment!" 319; The Powers of Philology). Except for fragments of the romantic sort, [End Page 30] fake fragments, and ruins designed to look old, fragments are thus generally "made and not born" (Dionisotti 1). Fragments are only identified as fragments because it is clear for reasons of appearance or for difficulties of reading and interpretation that the pieces came from something greater. The physical signs of breakage and missing content can constitute a series of puzzling and even irritating challenges for the philologist.

This paper investigates the way in which the physical appearance of highly fragmentary testimonies impacts philological practice. As corpus, I examine two sets of chivalric fragments pulled from bindings in the twentieth century. I draw on definitions and discussions of philology, as well as the notion of metonymy, to examine fragments as philological subjects and more broadly as present-day cultural phenomena. By "cultural phenomena" I am referring to the current use of medieval manuscripts for purposes in which their perceived importance —be it historical, cultural, economic, or a combination of these— appears to be derived from elements other than their content and potential philological insights. The paper argues how a conceptualization of the binding fragments' incompleteness, as evidence of changes in the use of manuscripts over time, allows the fragments to participate more easily as legitimate philological subjects today. Locating completeness in the pieces that remain, the philology engaged in here effectively aims to overcome the definition of fragment posited above, in which fragments are pieces not intended to be metonymies of the once complete manuscript.

The first set of fragments considered is a group of fifty-nine pieces of text and image of a fifteenth-century manuscript of the Tristán de Leonís (Tristán), one of two extant...


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pp. 29-60
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