Thinkin’ about the Thesis: What do YOU want in a manuscript description?

academia,small,study As I was ranting in my LJ last night about the nightmare of creating a table format Manuscript Description, Brandon started me thinking about the possibility of broader problems with the manuscript-describing conventions in Anglo-Saxon studies.

I’ve found three main problems with the descriptions of my manuscript (London, B.L., Cotton Nero A.i- part B):

* Firstly, none of the comprehensive descriptions (Wormald’s Making of English Law, Ker’s Catalogue, Loyn’s facsimile introduction) are written at the level I want them. You more or less have to know what’s in the manuscript before you can understand the descriptions. Loyn’s introduction, being the most comprehensive, has been the most useful to me, but even he assumes the reader knows what he’s talking about. In the early stages of research (not having much idea of Anglo-Saxon legal history or of manuscript studies), what I really wanted was a description which told me in a few sentences for each entry what sort of text it was (law, homily, Institutes of Polity, other tract), whether or not it was by Wulfstan, and what general topics it dealt with. I can find all these things out, that’s what God invented research for, but it struck me as odd that none of the descriptions provided that.

* Secondly, all the descriptions are presented as lists, meaning that you can only really use them by reading through in the order in which the texts appear in the MS. What I wanted, when I was first starting my enquiries, was the ability to scan quickly through and isolate all the homilies, or all the laws, or all the chapters of the Institutes.

* Thirdly, except for Wormald’s table in The Making of English Law (p. 200-201), they don’t note quire divisions within the list. If you’re sitting there with Wormald’s book, or his article Archbishop Wulfstan and the Holiness of Society, and trying to figure out which texts were in the MS at which point in its life, this is most frustrating. Wormald’s table was obviously designed for this purpose, breaking the MS into five sections, but the list of contents is in such a shorthand form that again, unless you knew the works of Wulfstan well, you’d find yourself unable to isolate any themes or patterns to the groupings of texts.

Accordingly, I’m making myself a table which will do all of these things at once. If Micrsoft Word doesn’t drive me insane in the process, I will end up with a lovely guide which should be of great use throughout the rest of the year.
Brandon suggested to me, in response to the Livejournal rant about the difficulties of making tables, that I’m not the only one frustrated by Ker and co, and that although invaluable, his methods may be getting a little out of date. Brandon has heard word of a paper given somewhere by Elaine Treharne talking about the need for a new approach to manuscript descriptions, so I guess I’m not the only one frustrated.

Which brings me to the Questions of the Day:

For the Anglo-Saxonists:
* What, if any, do you think are the weaknesses of Ker’s Catalogue?
* Which scholar do you feel presents the most easy-to-read manuscript description format?
* Can anyone give me references to (recent-ish) articles or books in which the principles of manuscript description are discussed? Has there been “scholarly debate”, as they say, about the need to update our approach?

For all and sundry:
* What do you want in a manuscript description? What makes a description easy to use? What sort of features do you look for first? What features do you want to group together or to compare? (Do you want to be able to quickly scan the the orthography section and locate common features of all the scribes? Is it important to be able to quickly compare notes concerning the wear & tear on different sections? Which of these would be MOST important to your work?)
* If you prepare descriptions for your own reference, what sort of format do you use?

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2 Responses to “Thinkin’ about the Thesis: What do YOU want in a manuscript description?”

  1. B. Hawk Says:

    I’ve been mulling this over since we first started discussing it on your LJ, and it seems to me as if you’ve hit the major points. Clearer descriptions of individual texts is definitely needed for such a manuscript overview–even if it only means the accepted scholarly name for it (such as, for Wulfstan’s homilies, Napier’s and/or Bethurum’s numbering), perhaps even the first line or indicative beginning. Of course, you’ve also mentioned the need for clarity of genre (if distinuishable), specific manuscript divisions, and quire divisions. All good observations, and necessary in a fresh description.

    Other than the textual descriptions (as you seem to focus on, being literary minded like me), lately (because of the issue in my Beowulf seminar), I’ve been more attuned to paleographical concerns. It strikes me that a description of the physical condition manuscript is good for paleographic concerns–such as consensus on the ms. date, if it is damaged, the type of script used, scribal hands (and how many), etc. The idea of scribal hands is especially important when concerned with Wulfstan and Cotton Nero A.i, because it’s been noted that his own handwriting appears in the ms. I’d like to be told (by someone who knows more about paleography, probably) just where these moments are–folio numbers, line numbers, something as a heads-up in case I have the facsimile nearby. There’s no reason to expect these type of details from the description you’re currently compiling, since it would take an expert in paleography to get to this level of approach, but it’s something that would need to be taken into account if someone actually were to take on a new Ker-style project.

    One thing that always amuses me in Ker’s work is his use of such odd phrasing to describe handwriting. Other than being in Ker’s head, how are we to know a “tidy” hand from a “sloppy” hand (I don’t know if he uses these phrases exactly, but that’s the type of language he uses). Furthermore, there doesn’t seem to be a specific objective description of handwriting from Ker. That’s probably something in need of deep consideration for a fresh manuscript approach.

    There’s a lot more that could be said, discussed, even dueled out on this issue, I’m sure. Individual approaches, no doubt, vary, and no perfect ms approach can be really reached–but it would be nice to see some advances. I am eager to see how you lay out your own approach to Cotton Nero A.i, and what you incorporate into it that seems useful for yourself.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    I was wondering how I should go about noting where the Wulfstan hand occurs… There’s a one-by-one list IN the facsimile, so I’m not sure that an independant description needs to list every occurence. I’m thinking perhaps of noting in the contents table if a text has heavier Wulfstan glossing?
    The other option is to include him in the orthography tables, but I’m not sure that I want to go through his individual letter forms, or if that’s important. Perhaps a separate table in the orthography section consisting of “text: number of lines by wulfstan: number of corrections/emendations wy Wulfstan”?


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