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The Catholic Historical Review 90.1 (2004) 100-101
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Manuscripts in Northumbria in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. By Anne Lawrence-Mathers. (Rochester, New York: D. S. Brewer. 2003. Pp. xii, 308. $110.00; £60.)
This is a book of considerable ambition setting out to "study the development of monastic and intellectual culture" in Northumbria "through an analysis of [its] manuscripts, scriptoria and libraries" from the Norman Conquest to the death of Ailred of Rievaulx (1167). The method is to analyze the manuscripts, and then place the results "within the larger context of the social and political development" in the region. The relevant manuscripts, about 220, are listed by provenance from Ker's Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (although there are at least two listed under the wrong place), but, although there are a few not in Ker, at least thirty manuscripts, either listed by Ker or identified by others, have been missed. The author carefully distinguishes manuscripts which she believes were locally made, but appears to presume that manuscripts of known provenance that were not locally made were at the houses which owned them in the twelfth century. The descriptions of the manuscripts are very summary. Manuscripts with several items are rarely described in full; additions seem never to be described; a few texts are misidentified, and there are other errors. While it is true (as noticed by the author) that the majority of the manuscripts are from Durham Cathedral, and therefore fuller descriptions are in Mynors' Durham Cathedral Manuscripts, this book is not available everywhere. A revision and a more detailed account of the manuscripts from elsewhere (some of them so far very inadequately described in print) would have been helpful. The dates given to the manuscripts in the list are sometimes quite precise, but others are merely dated as "twelfth century." As the manuscripts form the fundamental source of this study, their treatment in the list seems rather casual.
The organization of the material in the book is more or less chronological (rather than thematic), with each chapter dealing with one topic. The author writes in an engaging manner, and the book is an easy "read," not always the case with this kind of work. There are thirty plates, and seventy-three black-and-white figures (mostly of initials and decorative motifs) reproduced from drawings by the author. The text knits together political and ecclesiastical history with observations on the content and decoration of manuscripts. The political and ecclesiastical history is well grounded on the primary sources, which have been widely used in recent years in a number of solid secondary works, and these have been carefully weighed by the author. The observations concerning [End Page 100] the decoration of the manuscripts (developed from papers written by the author over the past twenty years) are especially useful, and there is a good chapter discussing the famous illustrated Life of Bede that was produced at Durham c. 1100. However, there is little detailed or systematic examination of the physical or textual features of the manuscripts, and there is certainly not much evidence that the author has closely examined or read many of them. The notes and bibliography reveal the author's reading, and what is notable is not what has been read (an impressive amount) or consulted, but what has not. I am left with the feeling that this is a powerful "impressionist" book in which some details are sharp and others elusive. Northumbrian houses may have exchanged "texts, ideas and artistic influences," but many of the statements made concerning the cultural identity of the region are more optimistic assertions than conclusions based firmly upon all of the primary material. While specialists are in a position to distinguish what is useful about this book, and what is not, more general readers and students will not always be able to distinguish between the two.
The Red Gull Press