Paying attention to these little details can help us understand big cultural and historical shifts
The article A Descriptive Account of Eight Uncatalogued Manuscripts from Wadham College, Oxford, details eight of Wadham’s most prized medieval manuscripts, revealing new information about the documents and sparking research questions for medieval historians of the future.
It was while Zachary Stone was studying for his MPhil in Medieval English in 2009 he joined Wadham from St Cross to become a Sub Dean. Living and working in a College founded in the early 1600s was already a bonus for this medievalist, but the College brought with it the opportunity for Zach to get to know Wadham’s collection of early manuscripts in Wadham Library.
“I decided to concentrate on the manuscripts in the Wadham collection which had not previously been catalogued, filling in the gaps so that all our medieval manuscripts would have catalogue descriptions,” he said.
“The only way you get better at understanding manuscripts is by getting prolonged exposure to different types of books from the same period and Wadham library gave me the chance to get the repetitions,” he adds.
Wadham is in a unique position, as most manuscripts in its collection did not start out as working library books. Wadham acquired its manuscripts differently, many by donation, so that they were not on the shelf for regular library use, but were stored separately.
Cataloguing teaches you to think about how books work. Zach created a six-page worksheet which he filled out for every manuscript, starting with a measuring tape to record the dimensions of the book. His work then involved studying the calligraphy of the scribes; noting each correction, notation and margin note; analysing the style and composition of each drawing and illustration and, as he did so, learning more about the history of the book and contemplating the world events taking place at the time which would have influenced its treatment.
“These books tell interesting stories of England and its history”, he says.
One of the most exciting books for Zach to catalogue was a late 11th century English Gospel Book (MS.2), written in Latin on parchment with full-page illuminations. Given to the College in 1625 by William Boswell, scholar (1613) and Fellow (1622), Zach was able to reveal much previously uncatalogued information. He found examples of musical notation, as well as performative notation, indicating that the book was likely to have been used for liturgical purposes at some point. It was also clear to see the work of two different scribes in the book, one who completed most of the work c. 1000 and another who revised the manuscript c. 75-100 years later. The unfinished manuscript revealed an erased pencil sketch on a framed blank page which, by the style of the drawing had been added later than the original date of the book. For some revisions, ink had been scraped away and text corrected, but margin notes in a different hand had been added in 1100 – several hundred corrections in the book of Matthew alone.
“Paying attention to these little details can help us understand big cultural and historical shifts,” said Zach.
In Zach’s opinion, the later updates reflect French and especially Norman influences. More specifically, he suggests that corrections and revisions executed by the second scribe would fit the pattern of a Norman cleric working to bring an Anglo-Saxon gospel book into line with a more continental model. In short, he speculates that the some of seemingly insignificant details in Wadham MS2 reflect the cultural upheaval that followed in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Zach hopes his findings will inspire further research from medieval historians.
In other manuscripts, pencil margin notes which have been written and then erased show how the books have gone from high status luxury items to text books (where users dared to write on them in pencil) and back to rare and valued manuscripts where the markings were erased. In other books, anti-Catholic sentiment comes to light.
Zach’s ambition now is to find another manuscript written by the same scribe who revised MS2, whose distinctive writing style, linking the c and the t, he has not seen anywhere else – yet.
“I hope the catalogue brings attention, interest, knowledge and enjoyment to future researchers”, he concludes.
Zach is now an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Researcher in English Literature at McGill University
I hope the catalogue brings attention, interest, knowledge and enjoyment to future researchers