- About This Issue
In this issue we are pleased to present the topic Medieval English Manuscripts: Form, Aesthetics, and the Literary Text. We thank Arthur Bahr and Alexandra Gillespie for proposing the congruence of these subjects and for convening the scholars who contribute to the lively discussion that ensues on these pages.
Manuscript studies has become something of a growth industry in medieval literary studies. New editions, translations, and facsimiles—print and digitized—have created a revolutionized world for scholars entering the field today. No longer, for example, can one throw up one’s hands in exasperation at the inaccessibility of individual Middle English texts from the Vernon or Auchinleck manuscripts: digitized folios from both manuscripts are now viewable and made readable with accompanying transcriptions.1The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive is putting the manuscripts of that poem within every student’s reach.2 The multi-generic, trilingual Harley 2253 has been edited and translated in full.3 Meanwhile rapid advances in our understanding of metropolitan and provincial scribes at work copying Chaucer, Langland, Gower, Lydgate, Hoccleve, and others in the fifteenth century have steadily redrawn, in much finer detail, the landscape of what [End Page 343] we know about the early dissemination of these authors and the profiles of their readers.4
With expanded accessibility comes a keener understanding of what it must have been like to exist in a literate culture that still kept orality in view (or in ear) but had also become adept in the technology of the handwritten book. The making and reading of medieval manuscripts come with assumptions, conventions, and sequential practices that gradually disappeared with the advent of a print culture. Reading a manuscript requires historicized sight; that is, one-of-a-kind, pre-printing-press books need to be apprehended by eyes and minds less impeded by twenty-first-century literacies, which are based in reading mechanically-reproduced texts both printed and digitized.
The essays in this issue restore that aesthetic sense of the manuscript, that multisensory experience that comes from the handwritten folio that remains unique in every way: the smell and feel of the parchment; the inks and colors; the adornments; the different registers induced by an interplay of scripts or languages; the construction in quires, booklets, and catchwords; moments of totemic devotion or meditation; diagrammatic metrics; expressive faces in initials; and the actual touch of a hand from the other side of time. In melding the material with the aesthetic, the authors of these essays lead us to new varieties of medieval literary criticism: a formalism of the book, an aesthetics of the material literate thing. Rubrics may merge letter and sacred blood. Tail-rhyme lines in secular texts may visually allude to liturgical forms. Parchment may be read as flesh. “Translucent” figuration may show through from recto to verso, causing a reader to pause in devout contemplation.5 Verso and recto may form a meaningful diptych. Read in groups, manuscripts may reveal the ways scribes worked, and even suggest how Chaucer wrote tales and links separately because links seem initially to have circulated on loose sheets. Touches of red ink may editorially steer a reader’s response, reinforcing how Piers Plowman directs one to lead a moral life.
The new accessibility of many manuscripts in digitized facsimiles has resulted, as Maura Nolan puts it, “in both gains and losses for medievalists.”6 The scholar may now carry out close investigations divorced from the hands-on feel of the unique book in its library site. Yet the library setting is itself merely a museum in which to preserve a book already divorced from its original making in a [End Page 344] localized setting some six to seven hundred years ago. As digitized facsimiles become more widespread, they may, with their scientifically enhanced photography, actually lend to the medieval manuscript a freshness to the data it can yield, providing information unknown even to original users and to generations of scholars sitting in manuscripts reading rooms. In enlarging and microscopically reproducing each stroke of the pen, each color applied to an initial, each erasure and correction, each flaw in the parchment, the literary scholar may come...