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  • Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100–1600 by Heather Bamford
  • Scotland Long
bamford, heather. Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100–1600. U of Toronto P, 2018. 272 pp.

"Evidence" and detective work have characterized medievalism at least since John Dagenais wrote in The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture that "medievalism … is the only discipline I can think of that takes as its first move the suppression of its evidence" (xviii).1 This challenge, if we can call it that, is taken up gracefully in Heather Bamford's Cultures of the Fragment, which spans five centuries and about as many linguistic traditions. Bamford refuses to throw away any evidence, and, in fact, almost literally goes dumpster diving into the trash heap left behind by medieval readers, writers, scribes, and owners of reading material. A prime example of this is the Cairo "Gheniza" that features prominently in the third chapter. The Gheniza, essentially a receptacle for discarded holy (and secular) texts owned by Jews, becomes the paradigmatic instance of how fragments, the least prestigious of relics, can change our understanding of texts which we thought we knew.

For the most part, Bamford's work is loyal to its extended title: Cultures of the Fragment: Uses of the Iberian Manuscript, 1100–1600. However, the implications of this study reach far beyond Iberia (for example, the Egyptian Jewish community [End Page 483] of Fustat, mentioned above) and far beyond 1600, to the museum exhibits and editorial practices of the present. "Use" and "utility" also feature prominently, as readers, scribes, and compilers make, hold, and destroy reading material by applying it to their respective purposes, which are sometimes spiritual and intellectual, but often exceedingly practical (the author mentions an anonymous present-day professor who confessed to using a manuscript folio to fix part of their car). The analyzed works range from nothing less than the Quran itself, to the canonical and familiar Amadís de Gaula, to works that have been left at the margins of the medieval Iberian canon, like Aljamiado treatises and compilations. The organization of the book dispenses with chronology, beginning with Castilian and Latin epics, moving into chivalric romance, then to 12th-century Hebrew and Hispano-Arabic poetry, then to fourteenth-century Qurans, and finally seventeenth-century Aljamiado. Rather than a historical survey, the "use" of the fragment is the organizing mechanism for the book, as will become clear.

The introduction is a substantive overview of the past several decades in book history, manuscript studies, and textual criticism, both in and out of the Iberian Peninsula. The overarching message of this first section is that the fragment, practically and theoretically speaking, is the default mode in which medieval "literature" has come down to us. In addition, we read some attempts to grapple theoretically with the fragment and metonymy, most importantly the notion that it "conveys both lack and self-sufficiency" (6).

The first chapter begins with the Epic, a genre which (at least in Iberia) exists in fragments. Specifically, three well-known Castilian epics are discussed, the canonical Cantar de mío Cid, the Roncesvalles, and the Mocedades de Rodrigo. In addition, two Latin epics appear, the Carmen Campidoctoris and the Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris (besides these five, comparative reference is made to a host of other works). Bamford sets up a methodology, and a terminology for the rest of the book, by making an important semantic distinction between the "fragment" and "the fragmentary." The fragment is generally the product of intentional acts and medieval reading practices, while "the fragmentary" connotes the result of accidents or other unknown causes. Bamford persuasively concludes that "the whole" is the creation of textual critics, though the author acknowledges that some of these creations can be well founded, even if they are inventions.

"From Bound to Metonym," the second chapter, centers around the fragmentary dissemination of two books of chivalry, Amadís de Gaula and Tristán de Leonis. The use of fragments of these two books as binding, that is, material for binding other books, is the central topic here. It is argued that the success of the printing press resulted in the disuse...


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