- Manuscripts Changing Hands ed. by Corine Schleif and Volker Schier
Our view of the Middle Ages is to a large extent dominated by buildings that are altered and extended according to neogothic aesthetics, by stained glass that is often more than half-renewed, by heavily restored textiles, and by panels that are partly overpainted, reframed, and cut to pieces. It is hard to get an unaffected entrance to the medieval world. Only manuscripts, and in particular the beautiful painted pages, give us a relatively direct entrance to a world long gone, you often hear. After reading Manuscripts Changing Hands, no one can defend this opinion. Nevertheless, it was not the first aim of the editors and contributors to demystify the medieval manuscript. They wanted to show how and when and in what ways manuscripts changed hands, as the title makes clear. Manuscripts were conceived as collaborations of several hands, they were used by succeeding owners, they were stored, categorized, rebound by librarians, and so on, and all those people involved left their traces.
The volume opens with Corine Schleif's long and thorough introduction to the theoretical and conceptual aspects of haptic communities. She describes how scribes and other "makers" are often present in the manuscripts they produced, sometimes only in passing, often very self-confidently. She wants to make clear that the idea of handing over books is not something that starts with the first owner, but rather with the original intentions for the books. Passing from hand to hand and crossing communities are not occasional occurrences but rather the normal situation for medieval books. In a world in which books were expensive and production was extremely time-consuming, recycling was intended in their use. The stimulating idea of Schleif's essay is her connection between the way books were [End Page 495] designed and the way they actually were used and circulated. And because the handing-over of books was intended, and because the consecutive users knew that there were earlier users and there certainly should be later users, her concept of the haptic community is a very convincing one. It makes clear that we have to study a manuscript with awareness of its multilayered character. We have to mistrust ourselves if we think we observe a manuscript as an unaltered unity.
The eight contributions that follow present several fascinating aspects of the hands-on history of manuscripts. Gabriella Signori shows how a monastic rule for hermits from the early Middle Ages gains a new life in the Sankt Gallen region in the late Middle Ages. She not only writes about what happens with texts in those "textual communities," as she denotes them, but also points to the magic powers that were attributed to the book as such in medieval culture. This certainly contributes to the fact that books were not seen as disposable.
Judith Oliver tries to untangle some complicated manuscripts from female communities in which not only were the texts added and changed, but also the illumination was subject to intense involvement of later users. Alison Stones makes clear that research from an aesthetic viewpoint hinders a real understanding of what is going on in these manuscripts. She discerns between the original "professional work and later in-house amateur embellishment," suggesting that the original work was done outside a monastic context, which I doubt. Maybe the medieval users of these books were less focused on what we see as distinguishable aesthetic quality.
When I first encountered the liturgical manuscripts from the Collection Soeterbeeck, held in the Nij megen University Library, it struck me that nearly all books were "updated" in later centuries. The Soeterbeeck monastery of Augustinian nuns moved three times in its history; several times other communities were absorbed, with their books. This required, for example, adaptations of the liturgical use. Major alterations were needed after the Council of Trent, and although in many communities this was the moment to do away with the books (or very often, to...