Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Studying Medieval Manuscripts

Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007) provides “practical instruction and training in the paleography and codicology of medieval manuscripts, in particular manuscripts written in Latin” (p. xiii). The focus in this beautifully illustrated book is on the making of manuscript books, but it also provides a bounty of interesting and useful material archivists will want to know about for their own work. And, as a bonus, Clemens and Graham have produced an excellent example of how to create an introductory manual to their topic that could be emulated for other scholarly research areas.

These experts seek to provide a portal by which students can learn more effectively about the analysis of early manuscript books. As they note, “Manuscript study has always been the holy grail of medieval studies. Advanced students were often barred from the archives until they had proven they had the necessary skills and familiarity with archival practices to understand the archived materials” (p. xiii). Clemens and Graham guide the reader through how medieval manuscripts were produced, reading these manuscripts, and various manuscript genres – all while providing basic advice about such matters as setting up an appointment to examine particular manuscripts. We learn about scripts, dating manuscripts, provenance, writing materials, the emergence of the use of paper over other writing materials, corrections and annotations, using microfilm or online surrogates, transcribing and editing texts, punctuation and abbreviations, forgeries, describing manuscripts, and so forth.

Along the way, we learn about issues relevant to a much broader array of archival work. For example, we gain an abbreviation for the relationship between preservation and destruction that is far more complex than merely seeming to be opposite tasks: “It is a remarkable irony that the preservation of some manuscripts may be intimately linked with the mutilation, dismemberment, or outright destruction of others . . . . [O]nce a medieval scriptorium had produced a new copy of a text in up-to-date script, the other manuscript that had served as the textual exemplar might be discarded: the production of the new thus led to the destruction of the old” (p. 113). The authors provide discussion about how early scholars developed scrapbooks of study materials by cutting up old manuscripts for specimens for their own use. Clemens and Graham also provide ample description of other kinds of manuscripts, such as charters and cartularies (these being among the most common of documents produced in the Middle Ages), with insights into the work needing to be done about such documents: “The study of diplomatics is a lifelong endeavor . . . . To properly interpret diplomatic sources requires a great deal of study and, in many cases, years of experience working in archives. Despite the work, however, the rewards for such study are tremendous; many archives contain charters that have never been studied and await discovery and interpretation” (p. 239). It is safe to say that such rewards await archivists and scholars for later varieties of documentary sources and Introduction to Manuscript Studies may be a useful reminder about such possibilities.