In honour of the season… a picspam of Hebrew manuscripts!

Call this epic procrastination, or a sign of my great appreciation for Gillian Polack’s Very Special Hannukah Story… At any rate. It is, I am reliably informed by people who have more to do with this than I, Hannukah. And Hebrew manuscripts are pretty. Observe!

I don’t seem to be able to find an illumination of a nine-branched menorah, but here, have a seven-branched one:

A gold menorah on a blue background, with trees

The Menorah of Zechariah's Vision - Metropolitan Museum of Art

This piece of gorgeousness is part of an exhibition of medieval Sephardic manuscripts at the Met (Image from TabletMag). It’s 13th century, illuminated in Spain, but as far as I can gather from the article, the illuminator was of French origin. In my untutored opinion, it shows. The background reminds me a bit of the background on this famous illustration to the Conte du Graal (which is from a bit later, I’ll grant you).

Now, since it is Hannukah:

Yotser for the Sabbath - New York Public Library

David bar Pesah Mahzor - 14th c. Germany, New York Public Library

What we have here is: the Yotser (blessing) for the Sabbath of Hannunkah, from a 14th c. German MSS held in the New York Public Library. The scribe’s name we know:  David bar Pesah. Probably we know other things about him, but I can’t find them on the internet.

A four-part series on the history of Hebrew manuscripts can be found at the New York Public Library website. In section three, they note:

Decorations appear to have been commonplace in medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and are discussed in rabbinic literature. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg (1215?-1293), for example, was asked why he did not protest the widespread inclusion of paintings in prayerbooks. He replied that the drawing of images is not forbidden, although he condemned the presence of illustrations because they distract the worshipper. In fact, few images were strictly prohibited. The Talmud and rabbinic responsa forbid the depiction of the four creatures of the merkavah from Ezekiel’s vision. These figures, which are frequently represented in Christian works as attributes of the four Evangelists, do however appear in Hebrew manuscripts. A depiction of the Heavenly Chariot is found, for example, in the Ashkenazic Ambrosian Bible (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Ms. B. 32, Inf.), 1236-38, and in Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed) from Barcelona, 1348 (The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Cod. Hebr. XXXVII).

Not all Hebrew manuscripts contain images, though. I’ve had the great pleasure of being shown MS Nicholson 33 in the USyd Rare Book Library during manuscript tutorials: it’s an Italian Pentateuch, which we can date pretty confidently to c. 1272, because of a note in the back about a member of the family having gone down to the docks and caught the plague at that time. It’s absolutely gorgeous: quite a large manuscript, plenty of blank space (like the folio pictured above). And the text is tightly-packed into carefully shaped… textboxes, I guess, shaped like cups and candelabra and other pretty things. I can’t find an image of anything like that online, but I did find this (at the Met article again; not linked, so you can enlarge the picture):

Micography - geometric patterns made of tiny text

Micography - geometric patterns made of tiny text

As the Met. article notes, Micography was used in both Hebrew and Islamic art of this period.

Another good example of the cross-cultural valence of manuscript art styles I found on Mandragore (I voluntarily did battle with Mandragore for this blog post. Feel special, internets):

Gold illuminated border; red background; ink on vellum

BNF Hébreu 15, 15th c. (via Mandragore)

The gold border here, for starters, is very similar in style to MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358 , which contains a picture of a Turkey. Incidentally, I incorrectly stated that 358 was from the Spanish Netherlands, which didn’t exist at the time to which it is dated. Neil Boness did tell us that, pointing out the Spanish influence on the border – which is why I bring it up here.* The borders are very alike! Only Hébreu 15 is obviously fancier.

Regarding the red background to the text – I’m not having any luck pulling up images of heavily-decorated medieval Qur’ans, but does anyone else think they’ve seen pictures** of Islamic texts with a similar layout/pattern? Given that the arts of Spain and Portugal were heavily influenced by the Umayyad Caliphate there, I would expect that to show up in Hebrew manuscripts – but maybe 15th century is too late for that kind of thing? Opinions, anyone?


* I can’t remember now whether he wanted to date the MS later, because of his feelings about Spain + the Netherlands; or if he was just wrong about the Spanish Netherlands. Interestingly, he didn’t give us this dubious factoid this year. ANYWAY.

** Maybe not pictures – I saw Qur’ans on exhibit in both the BNF and the BL this year… One of them was Sultan Baybar’s Qur’an, which isn’t what I’m thinking of but is very pretty.


In which Highly tells you about her favourite manuscript

A monk, writing; caption 'geekery pokery'Or my favourite local manuscript, anyway. LET ME TELL YOU, O internets, about MS University of Sydney RB Add.Ms. 358!* Today I am almost certainly going to get to see Add. MS 358 again, because I’m taking my tutorial group on an excursion to the Rare Books collection.

Add.MS 358, folks, contains the first European picture of a turkey. Or, at least, a picture of a turkey which the Rare Books librarian tells us is the first but which the catalogue more conservatively calls “certainly one of the earliest illustrations of a turkey”. I don’t suppose anyone’s done a thorough comparative dating of early European pictures of turkeys, which is what we’d need to confirm that.

We do have some pretty nifty manuscripts in the Rare Books room here – there are a couple of gorgeous Hebrew texts, including Ms. Nicholson 37, a 13th c. Yemeni Pentetuech scroll, which the Rare Books Librarian brought out to show my class (no touching!) last semester. And, y’know, we have lots of exciting and important Australian stuff, one of the largest Handel collections outside of the UK, the Chadwick collection (interesting Celtic stuff), and the Deane Erotica Collection (aka. quite lot of Victorian porn)**.

Add. Ms 358 is my favouritest, though, because it’s both very pretty, and yet the kind of thing you only find exciting when you can’t wander into a local church and find the oldest codex in your area just lurking around in a basement.

It’s a processional – a songbook for choristers to carry when processing about, in this case, at Christmas time (and the Feast of the Crown of Thorns, apparently). The catalogue tells me it’s from Spain, ca. 1535-1540; in person, though, Neil Boness (the Rare Books Librarian and indeed, compiler of the MS catalogue) said it was from the Spanish Netherlands. *shrugs* SPANIARDS, anyway. Thus, the turkey. Our friend the turkey is tucked into the corner of the first leaf, along with other christmas-y type images. Which tells you not only that turkeys were known, but they were associated pretty quickly with Christmas! Exciting.

Sheer Geekiness - I just think this stuff is really cool (XKCD)And this is why, when explaining to my students about the expedition – find out about manuscript production, maybe handle some manuscripts, no we don’t have originals or even facsimiles of manuscripts of anything you’re studying, but hey, some of the stuff down there’s pretty cool – I also tell them, with great enthusiasm, that we might get to see a picture of a turkey! And they think I’m a bit weird, but, by this stage in semester, they know to expect that from me.


* Is that how one forms the citation for Sydney MSS? Should ‘Fisher’ (the name of the actual library) be in there somewhere?

** Is it just me, or would it be completely awesome to have that digitised? I’ve only ever seen a few pieces, which they put on display as part of a mini-exhibition on Victorian eroticism, which was mostly taken up with novels and other things which wouldn’t shock people walking past. Geez, why aren’t I doing a thesis on Victorian-era smut, that’d be a brilliant resource to have around!

Leeds Report # 4, or, the one with all the riches in.

Until I see a footnote, that's just an opinionQuite a number of lit scholars I know tell me that they don’t go to Leeds because there aren’t enough lit papers to make it worth their while. While I concede Leeds is tilted toward the historical side of things, I actually found that really handy. For one, conferences are good way of picking up on interesting historical discussions – and a medievalist who isn’t interested in history is a very odd medievalist indeed. But more importantly, for me as a noob, the fact that there were fewer lit papers meant you kept seeing the same faces enough times that you eventually got to know some of them.

Session 616, the title of which I have forgotten, but which was chaired by Ad Putter, stands out in my mind because it lead to me meeting not only Ad, but also the eminently excellent Gareth Griffith, and one Rebecca Kerry, whose taste in medieval romances turns out to dovetail nicely with my own. As my week in Bristol for the IAS was punctuated by the recurring necessity of flinging myself on the mercy of Gareth in order to find out where I was going and what I was doing, having met him in advance was rather handy. And I had a lovely conversation with Rebecca at the IAS while we waited for something, which is how I know she has fabulous taste in ME romances.

Whatever the title of this session may have been, it dealt mostly with the handling of wealth in Middle English texts.

Rebecca Kerry – Gifts and Loans in A Geste of Robyn hode

This paper was structured around the debated reading of one line, in which Robin makes a loan of what is supposed to be four hundred pounds, but Little John measures out either ‘eight and twenty score’, or ‘eighteen score’, depending on the manuscript. Editors usually amend this reading to ‘eighteen and two score’, but Rebecca argued that ‘eight and twenty score’ is the correct reading.

In her interpretation, the loan is not a loan but a gift – she notes that the knight engages Mary as guarantor, but Mary can hardly be expected to pay back the loan. The subsequent arrival of the cellarer of St Mary’s with 800 pounds, of which Robin’s men soon liberate him, is heralded as Mary’s repayment of the loan, lending a farcical element to the entire deal. And then when the knight returns, Robin doesn’t ask for repayment, but instead gives him more.

She then talked about the difference between a gift exchange economy and a commodity economy (Ad Putter’s terminology). The Abbot of St Mary’s, to whom the knight owes money, clearly operates on a commodity economy, with the aim of amassing profit. Robin, on the other hand, seems to operate on a gift economy, with the aim of amassing debtors. In a commodity economy, once items have been exchanged or debts paid off, the two parties can part ways. Gifts, on the other hand, are rarely exchanged at exact value: gifts increase and proliferate, and cement social obligations between parties.

Rebecca argued that the two economies co-exist in A Gest of Robyn Hode, but the poem overall is more positive toward a gift-exchange economy.

Megan Glass – Feasting in Middle English Romance

Very Merry KnightsLooking specifically at the Auchinlek MS (for reasons of time and convenience), Megan’s paper raised questions about the social values associated with feasting in romance. The 14th century, despite famine, plague and social unrest, was a time of ostentatious feasting amongst the nobility, and she found it striking that feasting is so rarely featured in romances. Evidence from the Auchinlek MS suggests that when feasting is featured, the focus is not on wealth itself – food, decoration and entertainment are given relatively little attention compared to gifts and the guests. While both gifts and guests may be ostentatious and wealthy, the focus is on the feast’s role in creating and maintaining social bonds and cohesion.

Gareth Griffith – Weath, fantasy and reality: MSS of Middle English Romance

Gareth’s interest is in what descriptions of wealth meant to ME romance authors – specifically, whether the audience identified with, or aspired to the level of, the characters who possess wealth. Gareth works on this rather nifty project, and the paper in part came out of his research there.

He started by looking at how much wealth manuscripts themselves display. He had a fabulous graph of manuscript dimensions, which we all looked at, very seriously, until he pointed out that all it told us was that most of the romance manuscripts are more or less book-shaped (that is, around 20x30cm give or take). He found no relationship between size and ostentation. Then he told us about some of the whacky outliers, such as two Bod. MSS which are tall and thin, or Bod. 264, which is really huuuuuge.

Liber - a medieval MSAs a tentative trend, he found that really fancy manuscripts tended not to have detailed descriptions of wealth. Gareth says it seems like people who can afford fancy things perhaps weren’t so interested in *descriptions* of fancy things, but he noted other factors, such as the high level of description in alliterative poems compared to prose or rhymed text. He also noted that some regional mansucripts seem to be trying to be fancier than they are – he talked about the Lincoln-Thornton MS (i didn’t write down the actual MS number) which has fancy capitals and illustrations despite having scruffy, apparently non-professional script.

There wasn’t a hard-and-fast argument here (or if there was, I didn’t write it down, which is always possible), but Gareth told interesting stories about manuscripts for 20 minutes! This is something I appreciate in a paper.

The cute cat theory of manuscripts?

At IAS I went to a postgrad masterclass on ‘publishing and getting published’, which, strangely, seemed to be mostly about why you should leave academia for publishing careers.1 And at this session, the speaker from Boydell and Brewer endeavoured to impress upon us the fit-for-purpose nature of hardcopy books. They’re portable, and often have their own inbuilt search engine, called the ‘index’! If we had no books, she said, and someone came up with the idea of printing things out, binding them, and putting indices and contents pages in them, everyone would be standing around going “oooh, what a clever idea! Clearly it is the way of the future!”

In other news, I have been particularly enjoying Got Medieval’s series on Cute cats in Harley 6563.

I would like to propose that the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism applies to books.

Specifically: Book 1.0 was created to allow people to share research papers intellectual content of some sort. Book 2.0 was created to allow people to share cute pictures of cats (or monkeys2).

OK, that’s clearly not the *sole* purpose of Book 2.0, wherever you want to draw the boundary, but there is a clear increase in cute pictures in manuscripts over time, yes?

Consider also the porn part of the Cute Cats Theory:

Hypothesis: Sufficiently usable read/write platforms will attract porn and activists.

If there’s no porn, the tool doesn’t work.

If there are no activists, the tool doesn’t work well

Now, by this logic, the book doesn’t work at all until 1748, which is clearly not true. But consider that Charlotte of Savoy liked naked people alongside her daily devotions. I’m sure we can stretch the definition of ‘porn’ to include titilating marginalia, yes?

And from there, can we draw a long bow and say that the use of books in popular activism increases at the same time as the amount of titilating marginalia increases?

Also, cats.3

I rest my case.

1. Apparently I am a prime candidate for this, because I was able to identify Stephanie Meyer as the only author other than JKR who could probably get away with a Pottermore-style self-publishing venture. I’m actually not sure that SMeyer *is* the only such person – there are smaller-scale YA authors with particularly net-savvy audiences, like Tamora Pierce.
2. Speaking of monkeys, how cute is the monkey in The Lady and the Unicorn? VERY CUTE, is how cute. I resisted the urge to buy a throw cushion with the monkey on it, and was rather disappointed that you could buy cuddly toy unicorns but not cuddly toy monkeys.
3. Got Medieval reckons the BL are anti-kitteh! Clearly not. They published a whole book about kittehs in books. How recursive.

Dear Person Who Commissioned MS Cotton Galba E.ix:

I like your taste in  literature. I gather you like Ywain, Gawain, war, sin, and cracky dream-visions about Satan.

Let’s be friends.  We can sit together at lunchtime and everything!

… your state of deceased-ness does provide some impediment, I’ll grant you. But I’m sure we can work around that. Friends?



Hypothetical decision time

You’re writing an edition of a poem from the late 1170s. There are a number of partial and complete manuscripts out there. Some of these include:

A. An early-to-mid 13th century MS in a nice Ile de Paris dialect, vr. famous, containing all the poems by this author plus some others. Provenance: from the same region as the poet.
B. a couple of other early-to mid 13th c. MSS in regional dialects
C. an early 13th c. MS, quite damaged in places
D. some mid-to-late 13th c. MSS
E. a mid-to-late 13th c. MS put together by two alternating scribes; neither scribes nor MS come from the same region as the poet.

Which of these would you want to base your edition on? If you picked E, you are well on your way to becoming a well-known French manuscript scholar! Bonus points if you give no real explanation for your choice, and omit certain lines found in *all* the early-to-mid 13th c. MSS.

My intention is to go bouncing about France (well, ok, Paris and Tours) to look at a handful of these MSS. I expect my conclusion will be “yup, the lines are there in the early ones!” Cutting-edge research, folks.

Also, I take it as a personal affront that the Bodleian MS is missing the entire section. Not because it’s a particularly useful MS (it’s not), but because I wish to chase down a friend who’s being frighteningly clever at something scientific in Oxford, and would’ve liked a good academic excuse to go there.

D’you reckon the BL would let me see a Middle English MS that’s not particularly related to my thesis but is related to my Leeds paper (I think I won’t get to see it until AFTER Leeds, but let’s not mind that)? I reckon I can get a letter from my director saying I’m very clever and have valid research interests.

ED: If you were editing the sole MS of Ywain and Gawain would you

A: Try to find out if it’s possible to pin down the French MS used by the redactor, and comment on whether or not you had succeeded in finding anything useful?
B: Not say anything about how a northern English poet in the 14th century got hold of a 12thc. French poem.

If B, congratulations, you’re Maldwin Mills! Maybe someone else has done the legwork on this. I should find out. Maybe we just don’t have any Chretien MSS known have been in England at the right time?

My new hobby: grossing out students!

A couple of weeks ago, I had cause to talk to first-years about manuscript production. Courtesy of the nice man in Rare Book, I had scans taken from the facsimile of the Old English Hexateuch,* and we took a ten-minute break from the sensible classwork on Old English to look at pictures of Satan falling out of Heaven, and God looking at his own finger with an expression of bemusement, like “holy shit, I can CREATE STUFF? No waaaaaiiiii!

Turns out Wikipedia has more striking pictures than I was able to get hold of!

Perhaps I should’ve printed this out and taken it to class.

Overall, this was a pretty rewarding exercise. I mean, I got to talk for ten minutes about Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, obviously I enjoyed it. I was impressed at the number of my students who seemed genuinely interested in the letter-forms and punctuation: remembering that I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into palaeographic work during Honours, I hadn’t expected first-years to be all that engaged in the written part of the scans. Clearly not everyone is as grumpy about palaeography as I was.

It seems pretty important, to me, to show students manuscripts, facsimiles, scans, whatever, as early as possible. I can remember one week in second year in which I sat through three lectures on manuscript production – one in each of my subjects save for French grammar. And then we did it all around again in second semester! At any rate, I summarised all those introductions to manuscript production and spat it out in the form of “here, look at these scans, aren’t they nifty, and a nice break from the close reading we’ve been doing for the first half of the class?”. And I think my students found it interesting? At the very least I suspect that I’m entertaining, when waxing enthusiastic on topics medieval.

What surprised me was the small number of students who were apparently grossed out by my quick account of “why it takes ages to make a medieval book”. First you have to raise your cow/sheep/miscellaneous beast; then you have to treat your skin and stretch it out; then you have to trim it and fold it into quires; and so on and so forth. To me, this information is either boring (lots of detail about people long dead) or fascinating (lots of detail about people long dead!). Gross wasn’t an option that I’d considered. I quickly discovered that my assurance that all the parts of the deceased animal would have been used for something didn’t help.

I’m told this isn’t actually an uncommon reaction, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. Me, I like gross things. Gross things are interesting. The cremation scene in Beowulf, with the exploding bones? INTERESTING. Plague? INTERESTING. Descriptions of how to carve game: actually, these bore me to tears. The battle scenes in Lawman’s Brut, with the blodgutes and violence and people’s innards falling out? INTERESTING.**

Weird and gross stuff as a method of teaching about the past has a… well, a substantial if not always an honourable history. See also, Horrible Histories.*** In my mind, it goes right along with my other favourite, Funny Things About Sex In The Past.**** It’s no co-incidence that I remember as much from my first-year Renaissance and Reformation course as from first-year medieval history, despite having reinforced and added to my learnings from first-year MDST, while I’ve taken no further early modern history at all. RenRef showed me weird medical pictures and taught me mysterious things about midwifery! It had a whole week on sex: what you can know about sex from court records! from medical texts! from diaries and letters and things!

What’d you think, internets? Are gross things a handy educational tool? Is grossness just an unavoidable side-effect of imparting certain kinds of historical information? Should I, in future, try to seem less enthusiastic about the whole stretching-out-skins and then treating them with urine process, in the interests of seeming more like a sensible teacher and less like a twelve-year-old kid?*****


* Which is to say, low-grade copies of a useful but not exactly pretty black-and-white facsimile of a manuscript which, I’m told, is UTTERLY GORGEOUS and brightly coloured and fun in person. Inspiring, huh?

** I am, however, not up for televised blodgutes. Growing up without a TV = no reality boundary. IT MOVES. IT’S REAL. IT’S BEING DISEMBOWELLED. You see the problem here?

*** Most of what I can remember from the compulsory WWI unit in high school history is to do with the layout of a trench, with specific reference to a) mud and b) trench foot. Thanks, Horrible Histories!

**** This used to be a party-trick of mine. People would drag other people over to meet me at parties so that I could tell them funny things about historical sex. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to happen so often anymore.

***** I was going to say twelve-year old boy, but hey, I liked gross historical things as a kid!