- Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts ed. by Emily Steiner, Lynn Ransom
Manuscripts, Medieval, Order, Knowledge, Diagrams, Poetry, Encyclopaedia, Genre, Discipline
A gorgeously produced book, as is often the case with Penn Press, Taxonomies of Knowledge gathers six essays, most of which were presented at the Fifth Annual Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscripts in the Digital Age with the same title, held in 2012, while one of the essays was presented at an earlier iteration of the symposium. Dedicated to Lawrence J. Schoenberg, founder of the Schoenberg Institute of Manuscript Studies at Penn, the volume explores differing versions of the idea of classification and ordering within and of medieval manuscripts. The six essays work with manuscripts in Latin, English, French, Occitan, and German, while a very short one explores an Arabic text in its relation to Latin, and a small section looks at texts in Catalan, advancing questions of conceptualization, disciplinary ordering, and genre classification in a number of disciplines, from poetry to astronomy, from chronicle to sermon to hagiography.
Elizaveta Strakhov authors the opening chapter, which studies a single late-medieval manuscript housed in the University of Pennsylvania, in which a number of lyrics are singled out by a later hand by the curious mark “Ch.” Arguing against the grain of a previous interpretation of these marks as pointing to Chaucer as possible author, Strakhov, in “The Poems of ‘Ch’: Taxonomizing Literary Tradition” (7–36), details how these “Ch” lyrics correspond to a double poetic change in formes fixes, in which not only are the forms separated from the music that characterized earlier compositions (lyrics for singing) but they are developed and elongated to become independent, literary forms (lyrics for reading). Strakhov thus argues for an ordering (and marking) of the lyrics in this compilation that would be responding not (only) to authorship but especially to innovation in form.
In “Worlds in Books” (37–55, 6 color plates), Alfred Hiatt writes—beautifully—about two genres that sought to encompass the world within their writing: the universal chronicle and the encyclopaedia. Of the chronicle’s use of the description of the world as preamble, or opening device, Hiatt writes that there “[l]and acquires a syntactical structure; the unit of the region corresponds to the unit of the sentence” (38), where the imbrication of language and spatiality are the very structure of the ordering of knowledge. To the chronicle’s overt engagement of space as an organizing complement for historicity, Hiatt opposes the ambivalence of the medieval encyclopaedias, which “recognized the need to incorporate geographical description somewhere in their compilations, but they differed on where to locate it” (39). In his consideration of the world image Hiatt finds the small, marginal map as gloss productive for the discussion of the interaction between image and text and asks provocative questions about this relation. The chapter ends by discussing a “new” order for geography introduced by Bartholomeus Anglicus, alphabetical order, and remarks on some of the problems—indeed, the undoing of the efficacy of the order of the map, whether verbal or visual—introduced by the order of the letter, providing interesting categories for future research on ways of organizing knowledge: “do these forms not actually represent distinct approaches to the order of things, to the ordering of words on the page—by letter, by place on the earth, by syntax?” (50). [End Page 110]
In a productive dialogue with the preceding chapter, Mary Franklin-Brown reflects in “Poetry’s Place in Scholastic Taxonomies of Knowledge” (56–79) on any classification’s apparent built-in incapacity for total order. If Hiatt works with “the genre of place,” Franklin-Brown makes us think about “the place of genre” through poetry, moving from didascalica to library catalogues, from inventories to encyclopedic works and florilegia. At times peculiar in its consideration of poetry as synonymous with poetics, the essay is successful because of its focus on what does not fit, on the uneasy ordering of disciplines, works, genre, or, as in the end of the chapter...