- Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London by Arthur Bahr
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 296 pp.
We are all talking about form these days, medievalists included. In Fragments and Assemblages, Bahr looks for form in the way that books are constructed. What might this mean? In part, he is thinking about decisions that result in a particular arrangement of texts in a medieval book and that make that arrangement “interpretably meaningful.” Very aware that we are often faced with books whose history as books has faded from view, he chooses for discussion four fourteenth-century books associated with London, each presenting a different kind of story about how and why it was put together and, therefore, its own kind of interpretive challenge. One book is a vast mix of legal and other documents put together by the City of London chamberlain Andrew Horn; a second is a collection of romances and other texts that itself forms part of a much larger compilation; the third is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; and the fourth, a single manuscript that draws together some of the shorter works composed by John Gower. For Bahr, these books are formally distinct from one another, since they have very varied reasons for being seen as compilations. By tracking the routes by which this large range of texts — a kind of minilibrary — has fallen together, Bahr draws attention to the complex feat of archaeology required to make those tracks visible after some six hundred years.
But Bahr’s is more than a story about compiling (and perhaps not quite, in the end, a story about form). The most exhilarating aspect of his approach is his intelligent alertness to the wide, branching questions raised by any attempt to place books (as opposed to authors or readers) in their social and historical context. Deeply intrigued, rather than merely discouraged, by an old book’s fragmentary, incomplete, often damaged state, Bahr gives full rein to his subtle, probing attempts to understand the assumptions, fantasies, and accidents that caused such miscellaneity to survive, more or less intact, for our curious, speculative examination. He leaves his reader not only eager to open an old book but also more reflective about the extraordinary density of intellectual and imaginative desire that may be represented in the history of its physical state. [End Page 335]
Ardis Butterfield, John M. Schiff Professor of English and Music at Yale University, is the author of The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language, and Nation in the Hundred Years War, which received the R. H. Gapper Prize from the Society for French Studies, and Poetry and Music in Medieval France, from Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut. She is currently writing Chaucer: A London Life and Living Form: The Origins of Medieval Song.