The Culture of the Manuscript and Manuscript Culture: A Case Study

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What follows is a brief description of a manuscript, followed by a metatheoretical study of questions embodied in the study of that manuscript. The aim of such an exercise is to discover something about the nature and telos of manuscript studies as it exists in those universities where it does today.

I. What we currently know about Smith 27

Smith Fragment 27 is a fragment currently housed at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript library. I begin this post with some statistics on the manuscript: first, I give some information about the manuscript that prima facie could be garnered even by a non-expert; second, I summarize the information about the manuscript which has been handed down to us by experts up to this point.
Smith 27 is a parchment bifolium, each folium of which is approximately 19 X 14.5cm. The manuscript no longer shows any signs of ruling, indicating either a) that the manuscript was originally ruled in a lead ruling that has since faded; or b) that the manuscript was never ruled at all.

The text for each page is written in exactly 24 lines in one column, centered so that the outer and lower margins are noticeably larger than the top and inner margins of the page. The text itself is a small, rapid, heavily abbreviated, northern Gothic textualis script. The area of the text block is approximately 10 X 6.5cm, which means that only about 25% of the parchment is devoted to the main text of the document itself.
There are only three marginal glosses in the text: the first is a symbol in the upper left-hand corner of the verso of folium 1; the second, a note written in a bold font on the recto of folium 2 in the upper left-hand margin; the third, on the verso of folium 2 in the bottom margin, is presumably a division of the text. In addition to these, the text contains a scant few interlinear glosses, which are not always easily distinguishable from superscript letters of the main text.

On the second folium, there are a number of C-shaped marks that are presumably an aid for dividing and organizing the text. On the recto, they are all in black; whereas on the verso, they begin in red, then alternate to black, and then back to red.

In terms of decoration, the recto of the first folium contains two initials, while the verso of the same contains one: on the recto, there is a red initial P taking up three lines of text, followed by a blue Q, with red geometrical decoration both inside and surrounding it; on the verso, there is a red U majuscule at the bottom of the page.

As for what prior research on this manuscript has handed down to us, Smith 27 is on record as 1) having been written between 1255 and 1275 in Northern France. and 2) containing philosophical content.

II. Problematizing the record

What more can we say about this manuscript? In order to answer this question, it will be useful to 1) reflect on the information given above, in order to 2) discern something about what manuscript studies as a discipline attempts to say; from whence 3) a direction for research on this manuscript can be given.

Some of what I am about to say is fairly obvious. But hopefully, reflection on what is obvious will lead us down a path that will clarify some things that are not so obvious.

The above list of information of what is known about Smith 27 is determined by certain goals of research: one cares about the number of lines on a page, but not the number of holes in it; one cares about the proportion of the writing space relative to the parchment, but not the proportion of the parchment relative to the total surface area of the sheep from which it came. In other words, there are reasons why we give the information we do in accordance with questions we try to answer instead of other information we could give in accordance with a different set of questions.

Since the information given in the above list is not arbitrarily drawn up, but in conformity with a series of questions frequently asked about many manuscripts, it follows that this list of information, in both what it provides and what it does not, can tell us something about the concerns and aims of manuscript studies as a field.

A first piece of information given above is the genre of the work. This points to a first task: to locate the work within the “intellectual space” provided by the contemporary division of the sciences. This task is most apparent when manuscript research leads to the discovery of unknown or previously lost works that may provide insights into a contemporary problem within a discipline or into the narrative identity of that discipline. The specification of this generic task is the identification of the work and/or its author. The negative corollary of the specific task is the unmasking of pseudonymous works. The negative corollary of the generic task is the present-day attempt to find works that do not fit well into the modern classification of the sciences, and therefore call that classification into question.

Second, we can consider the most characteristic piece of information given above: the location and date of the manuscript itself. It is no surprise that manuscript studies as a field has long been devoted to the cataloging of texts according to their place and time of origin. Furthermore, this essential function of codicological research largely or entirely explains the presence of several other items on our list of Smith 27’s notabilia. For instance, differences in the form of the script, in ruling, and in the number and kinds of abbreviations in a text garner their importance because of their reliability as indicators of the time and/or date when a manuscript was written. This also explains the prominence paleography has been accorded in the study of the manuscript: the study of the script gives us what is prima facie the best evidence for dating and locating the manuscript.

Lastly, we have mentioned the gloss, the marks of division of the text, the decoration, and the relation of the parts of the manuscript to each other as well as to manuscript as a whole. What do these have in common? They all provide us information about the cultural milieu of which the manuscript is a product: the glosses and textual division give us information about the hermeneutic assumptions with which a work may have been approached; the amount of decoration can indicate the economic affluence of a culture, while what is produced can indicate its artistic tastes; and the relation, for instance, of text to decoration may provide information about the literacy of the culture, or about the way that that culture viewed the relation between words and pictures more generally.

What, then, do these three tasks have in common? They are all attempts to situate the text. From this, the following thesis can be assumed: the task of the manuscript researcher is to situate the text.

How do the above attempts at situating the text differ from each other? They differ in the precise meaning they assign to the verb “to situate”: in the first case, to situate is to determine the field within which the manuscript was written; in the second, to locate within a spatiotemporal coordinate plane; in the third, to locate within a culture-world. The first endeavor corresponds to the ancient paradigm of situating provided by Aristotelian science, namely, the situating of individual entities under a species; the second, to the modern mathematical paradigm of research into material beings first made possible by the Cartesian discovery of analytic geometry; the third, to the extension of the notion of situating to the pneumatic realm.

Each of these forms of scientific enquiry remain limited by a) the notion of matter they presuppose, b) the metaphysics within which they are ensconced, and c) the notion of science they advance: the first, by a’) the Aristotelian notion of material substratum as a locus for form, b’) by the determination of all beings in terms of the form/matter distinction, and c’) by the restriction of the intelligible to the formal realm; the second, by a”) the notion of body as res extensa, by b”) the division of being into thinking subject and extended object, and by c”) the restriction of the study of material beings to what is mathematically decidable; the third, by a”’) the notion of body as outer limit of a spontaneous, spiritual-creative-vital force, by b”’.i) the characterization of the division of beings into matter and form as a conceptual distinction between passivity and activity and b”’.ii) by the characterization of beings as signs of the cultural milieu from which they came—or, more poetically put, as “mirrors of a universe,” and c”’) by the transformation of the object of study into a world, conceived of as a product of thought qua spontaneous-creative-harmonious-activity, i.e. conceived of as intersubjectivity. I will refer to the first research model as the Aristotelian, the second as the Cartesian, the third as the monadological (after Leibniz), though it could just as easily be called sociological (after Comte) or semiotic model. This third model includes, for instance, more recent attempts: to bring the study of the various parts of the codex together into a unified whole; to situate the codex itself in its broader socio-economic context; to make the study of the manuscript relevant to our world-historical situation. Research in manuscript studies at present tends to lie on the cusp between the Cartesian and monadological types.

What is perhaps somewhat surprising upon reflection is that none of the above models of research actually allows for the study of the manuscript itself as an object of research. This is because in every case, the manuscript is defined as bare materiality , and matter is identified with the realm of non-intelligibility. Hence, the manuscript is in each case studied for its ability to tell us something about something other than itself: its content, its provenance, the cultural forces which produced it, etc. In other words, the “manuscript” is constituted in its essence as a sign, i.e. as a non-essence.

Thus, the phrase “manuscript culture” names, in sequence, the medium and telos of the third research model.


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