Tag Archives: book history

MA Texts and Contexts Week 6

The last two weeks’ seminars have focused on the topic of book history. These seminars raised some important issues regarding the origin, authority and materiality of manuscripts. For example, what is the origin of the text of the Beowulf Manuscript. This is a question that cannot be definitively answered. The answer may only be postulated. For example, the text contained in the manuscript itself might not be original. It may have originated from an oral version of the poem, it may have been transcribed from another manuscript, it could be a translation or it could be a compilation from other sources. There are many varied possibilities. The materiality of the artifact also makes an interesting study – every animal varies so in turn each page of a manuscript varies. Books also held different functions in the Middle Ages. They were very much seen as status objects. The uniqueness of these manuscripts is also important. They were not standardised objects. Even two copies of the same text would have contained many differences. The material itself varies, scribes and fonts vary, and even mistakes add to the individuality of every codex. The way a book came together and the definition of an author also differ significantly to today’s book production and authority. Bonaventure sums it up as follows: “The method of making a book is fourfold. For someone writes the materials of others, adding or changing, and this person is said to be merely the scribe. Someone else writes the material of others, adding nothing but of his own, and this person is said to be the compiler. Someone else writes the materials of other men, and of his own, but the materials of others as the principal materials, and his own annexed for the purpose of clarifying them, and this person is said to be the commentator, not the author. Someone else who writes his own materials and those of others, but his own as the principal materials, and the materials of others annexed for the purposes of confirming his own, and such must be called the author” (Minnis 94). Questions on the origin  and variability of texts also lead to doubts about the reliability of modern editions of these texts. Kevin Kiernan raises questions on these issues in his article “Reading Cædmon’s “Hymn” with someone else’s Glosses“. Kiernan states: “From its humble start as a marginal, secondary text, the vernacular “Hymn” first worked its way into the central, primary text by means of a tenth-century Old English translation of Bede’s entire History. It continued to appear, nonetheless, as a marginal text from the eleventh to the fifteenth century in Latin manuscripts of Bede. Nowadays scholars are generally convinced that we have inherited by this process authentic witnesses of Cædmon’s debut as a poet; in fact, they print the “Hymn,” in both scholarly editions and general anthologies, as the central text, with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiasticarelegated to the margins. The textual history of Cædmon’s “Hymn” provides an unmiraculous case history of how re-productions of literary texts both purposely and unintentionally re-present our past” (157). It is clear that there is a big divide between what the audience of such a text read or heard, and what a modern audience perceives.

Works Cited

Kiernan, Kevin S. “Reading Cædmon’s ‘Hymn’ with Someone Else’s Glosses.” Representations 32 (1990): 157-174. Print.

Minnis, A. J. Medieval Theory of Authorship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1988. Print.

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