Books of Life and Death III

In the first of this very, very occasional series, I pondered how accessibility of early texts has changed since my first look at source material. Now, having discussed MS Rawl D 403 with David Carillo Rangel, and in the wake of a second outreach podcast (the first is linked below) via the excellent team at the Bodleian, working with Henrike Lahnemann and Andrew Dunning, I can see much more clearly that access is only a small part of the story.

So what else has changed? How has e-scholarship made a difference to reading and writing academic work?

In his article on autoethnography, “Autoethnography: Inquiry Into Identity,” Steve Hoppes talks about Finding a Story to Tell and Defining a Research Question. It was Jon who suggested that autoethnography was a suitable lens, and (rather obliquely) that’s what I’m exploring.

I wonder if this is a new thing in itself? At any rate what it signifies is a phenomenon we could either applaud or boo off stage. Here goes.

Surgite Mortui

Speed of research and accessibility of other people’s work or resources (see the previous post) leaves us free – or unboundaried – around how we define our disciplines in ways  think I couldn’t imagine in the 80s. The Moriale is a physical text, not, as far as I know, reproduced anywhere, certainly not in printed format by the author’s near-contemporaries and not in more recent editions. It belongs, therefore, in that family of documents that sit in the shadows behind the great Shewings of Julian of Norwich and the Cloud of Unknowing. It is also at a distance from the printed works of people like Clement Maydestone and Richard Whytforde, which “made it into print.”

Other works of religious significance connected with Syon might be grouped with the Moriale – so one way of looking at this MS is in terms of a family of spiritual works. Here is where I suppose I was sitting when my relationship with MS Rawl D 403 foundered, somewhere looking at watermarks and recognising the handwriting, and trying to link up the writer of MS A with the writer of MS B, C, and so on. Visits to see the work of Thomas Betson in college libraries, looking at the way that [d] is formed in a book in Oxford and whether it’s the same as the [d] in a book in London.

And partly this was where I was seduced: the paraphernalia of writing for permission to visit, the sitting apart in an unknown library looking at stuff and making connections and wondering if others have had a similar thought. Play acting the medievalist? Longing, in some perverse way, to be one of Yeats’ Scholars? What was the story I wanted to tell? Hoppes makes the point that

…we each have stories that must be told because of their instructive potentials to guide us. We have found that meaningful stories and students who are ready to learn from them tend to find each other in the process of group discussions, coupled with writing and rewriting.

Steven Hoppes: Autoethnography: Inquiry Into Identity

Just as I ask in my landscape and literature blog posts What did I go out in the wilderness to see? so I might ask what I hoped to find on the pages of the Book of Life and Death, the Moriale at the heart of MS Rawl D 403.

Certainly MS Rawl D 403 has lots of stories to tell. The three woodcuts at the start tell a story about book production; the autograph text (and I think it is through-composed by one hand) has at least two of its own. The first is the puzzle that my second supervisor and I spent perhaps too long on: authorship. Who is Johannes cuius habitacio est in Syon? The second is the message John is sending to the brethren – I suspect to his brethren – in the community. What is he telling them? What is there – or not there? And then there are corrections and amendments on some pages: what is John doing in pars 1. cap 11?

I was reminded sharply of these looking at the re-edits of the MS from which the Bodleian outreach drew the podcasts, the Medingen Provost’s handbook: Bodleian Library MS. Lat. liturg. e. 18. Fol 2v, for example, shows cut-and-paste inserts (OK, not always paste, perhaps) in the centuries of the actual techniques we now associate with word processing.

I can see now something of the passion and engagement that makes a true medievalist; the patient job that, while it might have changed since the time of M R James, still involves detail, persistence, imagination. Did I simply run out of road? Was there no more question to answer? At one level I think I was looking in the wrong place for a story to tell – but I only discover that by looking at my own story. What, in Hoppes’ words, are the instructive potentials for a 20th/21st Century layman in these texts?

Perhaps no amount of new tech can answer that question.