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Talking Together

Reflecting on The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060-1220

It has been an enormous delight and privilege to be a member of the advisory board for The Production and Use of English Manuscripts Project. I could go into lengthy encomiums about the splendid conferences organised by the project, the excellent presentations and enthusiastic commitment of the project staff and students, but instead let me go straight to the heart of what seems to me the significance of this project. It is about the reinterpretation of one of the grand narratives of medieval studies in the British Isles. The story of the decay and decline of Old English and the eventual re-emergence of Middle English, set to conquer the world, is one of our great national myths. An essential component of this myth was the view that Old English literary activity in the twelfth century was merely a fossilised and archaic throwback, a linguistic chicken continuing to twitch after its head had been cut off in 1066.

Nowadays we are constantly urged to deliver research which is 'paradigm-shifting'. It seems to me that in the humanities one possible definition of such research is that it reassesses and challenges those narratives by which we live our lives and help form our identity. The work of this Project, by reappraising the importance of English as a language in the post-Conquest period, delivers fundamental challenges to some of the foundation myths of the English nation. Moreover, these challenges are delivered not by a spirited revisionist argument, but by meticulously assembling and laboriously re-examining a substantial corpus of contemporary manuscript evidence. In the light of the picture emerging from the Project's work of the role of English in the immediate post-Conquest period, it is evident that these manuscripts have been unduly neglected and their rehabilitation was long overdue. The value of assembling a corpus of information of the type produced by this Project is that it gives us a much more nuanced view of the significance of this post-conquest English literary activity. Thanks to the compilation of this catalogue, we will be able to go beyond a simple admission that we grievously underestimated the achievements in Old English of the twelfth century, and will be able to develop a more subtle understanding of the cultural, linguistic and ethnic interplay of the period after the Conquest.

The reassessment and closer definition of the work in Worcester is a good illustration of how the detailed work on the manuscripts has enable the Project to identify specific cultural processes underpinning the continued activity in Old English, and it seems that the catalogue has taken us tantalisingly close to much firmer information as to the how and why this work took place at Worcester. Methodologically, the most compelling part of this Project is the way in which such detailed work on the manuscripts engages with grand narratives. Particularly fascinating, I think, is the Project has highlighted the significance of multi-lingualism -- throwing into sharp relief the complex relationship and interchange between Latin, French and English in a way that fundamentally reshapes our view of the post-Conquest period. Richard Fitzneal described his Tricolumnis, a lost work on Henry II arranged in three columns, one column describing the affairs of the English church, another column the deeds of Henry and the third column other events of interest, such as court judgements which could be useful as precedents. It seems as if Tricolumnis with its three different sections, running in parallel but also interacting with each other, might also be a metaphor for the linguistic culture of twelfth-century England. The picture which is starting to emerge is of a complex process of linguistic and cultural osmosis, and there is a sense that such a pattern of interplay and interchange was one which was far more commonplace than we have so far conceded. Our image of the development of Britain has too often been one of a conquistador Anglo-Norman state forging a united nation by conquest and linguistic warfare. We perhaps need to replace this picture with one of a complex interaction between the various peoples and cultures which occupy the British Isles, conceiving the cultural history of Britain as full of switchbacks, crossovers and complicated byways, rather than as a single line of progression.

There are others here who are far better qualified than me to assess the wider historical significance of the work of the Project. What I would like to concentrate on is the aspect that has most interested me, and which is at the heart of the Project, namely the descriptions of the manuscripts. This hitherto rather neglected corpus of manuscripts will, by the conclusion of the Project, have a series of descriptions which are detailed, authoritative and, above all, consistent in their terminology and structure. The carefully considered and rigorously implemented structure of the catalogue descriptions prepared by the Project facilitates their interrogation in innovative fashions, so that the marked up text of the manuscript descriptions can be used to sort manuscript descriptions into clusters of such categories as date, time and scribe. An obvious next step is to make available similar clusters of French and Latin manuscripts, and see how they compare. However, this is where we potentially hit a problem.

We are all familiar with the way in which the catalogue records of printed books can be readily shared and exchanged. The Machine Readable Catalogue (MARC) records used for printed book catalogues ensure that all catalogue records contain certain basic information and are assigned standardized computer codes. The Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR) define how this information is presented. This means that different libraries across the world produce catalogue records in a consistent format which can be shared and easily integrated. It is this consistency in standards which underpins such integrated library databases as the English Short Title Catalogue which in turn facilitates the production of such resources as Early English Books Online or Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Printed book catalogues are generally held in relational databases, mounted in such library management systems as the proprietary Talis or Exlibris or increasingly now open source systems such as Evergreen. The use of library management systems enables libraries to display and manage printed book collections in increasingly sophisticated formats, such as the facility to make book suggestions (comparable to that familiar in Amazon) which is becoming more commonplace in university libraries. MARC catalogue records for printed books are highly structured and there is considerable consistency across libraries internationally in the way in which they are used. Although MARC can be used for manuscript and archive materials, and there are AACR conventions for the cataloguing of manuscripts, in general the use of these standards has not found favour among manuscript librarians and archivists.

In the case of administrative archives, there would be fundamental problems in implementing a MARC-based approach. Archives are characteristically organised according to the administrative function which generated the record series, rather than by individual item. An archive listing is hierarchical in structure, and the listing of each series requires a narrative introduction giving an overview of the function and character of the record series. Item level description of the record may be of the simplest kind, perhaps consisting of no more than the dates covered by the item. The need to accommodate very lengthy narrative overviews of the record series makes it difficult to accommodate archive descriptions within the constraints of a highly structured database record.

Until comparatively recently, it appeared that there was little prospect of automating lists of archive records. Humanities scholars were familiar with the use of Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) for tagging historical texts, and the potential of SGML and its offspring Extensible Markup Language (XML) for automating archive listings was recognized. In July 1993, Daniel Pitti at the University of California Berkeley began a project to investigate the desirability and feasibility of developing a non-proprietary encoding standard for machine-readable finding aids such as inventories, registers, indexes, and other documents created by archives, libraries, museums, and manuscript repositories. The result was the standard known as Encoded Archival Description (EAD), which, supported by the General International Standard Archival Description or ISAD(G), the archival equivalent of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, has enabled administrative archives to be catalogued in a similarly structured fashion to printed books. It has been consequently been possible to establish services aggregating archival records, such as Archives Hub or Access to Archives, the archival equivalents to printed book services such as Copac or OCLC's WorldCat.

These are complex and technical areas, and the distinction between printed and archival materials should not be exaggerated. There are many libraries which have successfully used MARC to catalogue manuscript holdings. Moreover, the flexibility of XML, and the way in which it is increasingly being used to hold MARC records, means that it is possible to hold MARC and EAD records in a single management system, allowing cross-searching of printed, archival and indeed many other formats of material. Good examples of library catalogues where integrated access to printed books, archives and other materials has been implemented are the National Library of Wales (through Copac) and the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. The basis of this increasing interoperability between books and archives is the use of consistent standards expressed in XML. And, of course, it is XML which is used for the description of manuscripts in The Production and Use of English Manuscripts Project. However, there is no consistently deployed XML standard for use in manuscript (as opposed to archival) description.

MARC records struggle to cope with the complexity of information about contents and physical structure characteristic of manuscript descriptions. The obvious choice for such descriptions might seem to be EAD, but this is mainly structured to make the position of an item within the record hierarchy clear. This can be seen be looking for example at the EAD description in The National Archives catalogue of the Red Book of the Exchequer, The National Archives, E164/2:

Piece reference E 164/2
Red Book of the Exchequer

E Records of the Exchequer, and its related bodies, with those of the Office of First Fruits and Tenths, and the Court of Augmentations
Division within E: Records of the King's Remembrancer E 164 Exchequer: King's Remembrancer: Miscellaneous Books, Series I RED BOOK OF THE EXCHEQUER

Red Book of the Exchequer Containing List of contents (f 1) ([temp Hen VII or Hen VIII]); Forms of address to Bristol, Exeter, Dover (f 2) ([temp Hen VII]); Notes on multures (f 3) ([temp Hen VII]); Forms of oaths of Exchequer officers, and other accountants at the Exchequer, and of the king's councillors (ff 5-9v, 12-19) (13th cent-18th cent); Days of account (ff 18, 20) (14th cent) (these papers appear to have been inserted and foliated at the time of the rebinding of 1370, for which see class E 166); Charters, quit claims (ff 21-35) (14th cent) (detailed inventory in The Red Book of the Exchequer, ed H Hall (3 vols, Rolls Ser, London, 1897); Red Book of the Exchequer (temp Hen III) for contents see Hall, Red Book (rubricated); Some late notes and additions (Edw I-15th cent); Record of privilege of the Exchequer, 11 Edw III (ff 430v-431) (15th cent) List of contents (ff 432-433) (?temp Hen VIII) Notes on process (f 434) (15th cent?)

Covering dates 13th cent-18th cent 
Separated material Binding: E 166/2/1
Held by The National Archives, Kew
Former reference (Department) 2
Legal status Public Record(s)

Restrictions on use Temporarily unavailable. Record on display at The National Archives Museum. Publication note Edition: The Red Book of the Exchequer, ed H Hall (3 vols, Rolls Series, London, 1897).

Administrative / biographical background 
One of the most important books in the custody of the King's Remembrancer, the Red Book of the Exchequer was carried into the court of King's bench by the secondary in the King's Remembrancer's office in order to claim privilege of the Exchequer, by which suits against any of the Exchequer's officers or accountants could be removed, as of right, to audit in the Exchequer. Its extensive collections of precedents, etc, were consulted repeatedly throughout the middle ages.

This description omits most of the fundamental information one would expect to find in a scholarly catalogue description of a medieval manuscript, such as date, scribal hands, size and collation. Surprisingly, in view of the stress of archival methods on provenance, even provenance information is comparatively limited -- presumably because continuous official custody is assumed. Moreover, just as it is difficult to manipulate a MARC record to accommodate all the necessary information for a medieval manuscript, it would be equally demanding to adapt EAD to cope adequately with the kind of manuscripts on which The Production and Use of English Manuscripts has concentrated.

We thus have consistent and interchangeable standards for the description of printed books and archives, which are in international use. Yet we have no equivalent for the non-administrative manuscripts, such as the kind of literary, historical and liturgical manuscripts of the middle ages with which The Production and Use of English Manuscripts has been concerned. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there is no over-arching international professional body for manuscripts which would push forward standards in the way that has occurred for printed books and archives. Indeed, it is striking that major libraries such as the Bodleian Library and the British Library adopt very different approaches to the layout and structure of their manuscript catalogue descriptions. Another reason for the failure of a standard to emerge is that manuscript collections in libraries like the Bodleian or BL are extraordinarily diverse in character. The BL Additional Manuscripts contain everything from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold (Additional MS. 49598) to the papers of William Gladstone (Additional MSS. 44086-44835), by way of eighteenth-century Romanian sermons (Additional MS. 54572) and a choreographic score by Nijinsky (Additional MS. 47215).

Devising a consistent bibliographic record for such a rag-bag is almost an impossible task. Moreover, it is unclear how feasible and valid it is to separate out medieval manuscripts within these collections as a separate category - at what point would one set the chronological boundary? How does one cope with a volume like the Guild Book of the Barber Surgeons of York (British Library, Egerton MS. 2572) which was begun in the 15th century, but continued in use until the reign of George III. There is not even a consistent approach to the allocation of manuscript numbers across different collections. While the structure and function of archival references such as E164/2, the piece number for the Red Book of the Exchequer, the number for a Bodleian Library manuscript such as the twelfth-century manuscript of Augustine's Soliloquies from Winchcombe Abbey is MS. Lat. th. d. 46, a designation reflecting the language and size of the manuscript. By contrast, the manuscript number for the Tollemache Orosius in the British Library is Additional MS 47967, which is simply a number allocated in sequence of acquisition - Additional MS 47968 is the first volume of the papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Leake (1656-1720). Even the positioning of the abbreviation 'MS' is different between the two collections - and changing the designation of the British Library manuscript, by for example shortening it to Add. 47698, is hazardous, since it risks confusing the manuscript with Additional Charter 47698. (It is worth adding that even such an authoritative tome as the Oxford Style Manual gets confused when it comes to manuscript numbers, recommending an incorrect form for citation of the Lansdowne Manuscripts in the British Library). It is a consequence of these inconsistencies that attempts at aggregating on-line manuscript catalogues have been limited in their success by comparison with printed book equivalents such as Copac. The most well-known of these is the Consortium of European Research Libraries Manuscripts Portal, but this relies on cross-searching of individual catalogues and to follow up the search it is necessary to go to the original catalogue. Moreover, the coverage of the portal is currently still limited - for the UK, only the National Library of Scotland is represented.

Since manuscript descriptions remain inconsistent in format, we remain very dependent on specialist thematic catalogues, such as Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon or the recent catalogue entries accompanying the series of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile. But this means that a single manuscript can be described in many different places and often in very different formats. It would be nice to say that the catalogue descriptions produced by The Production and Use of English Manuscripts will help resolve this problem, but unfortunately in some ways they exacerbate it. Certainly the use of tags according to XML schema is likely to be the way in which most manuscript catalogues will be laid out in the future. The descriptions provided by the Project will be authoritative and detailed, but in the nature of things they are unlikely to be the last such descriptions ever written of these manuscripts. For British Library manuscripts, we presumably might wish also to consult the descriptions of contained in the new Text Encoding Initiative, the most influential international encoding standard (to which the link refers). However, the MASTER recommendations do not seem to have found widespread favour among manuscript scholars. Moreover, they are not used by any major repositories in the UK, and it seems unlikely that they will be very influential until they are adopted by one of the major libraries. While the attempt of MASTER to produce a MARC record for manuscript descriptions is a laudable one, it appears doomed, for the same reasons that caused The Production and Use of English Manuscripts to develop its own structures for its manuscript catalogue descriptions, namely the need to take into account specialist elements within particular types of manuscripts.

For the same reasons, although the XML schema for The Production and Use of English Manuscripts has been designed so that it can be expanded for use with other manuscripts, I nevertheless feel doubtful that this format will be generally adopted as a standard. Indeed, I might go as far as to suggest that, given the highly scholarly and specialist nature of manuscript cataloguing, it is unlikely that such a standard will ever emerge at all. This may seem like a counsel of despair, but it is not in fact an uncommon situation. The importance of consistent terminology and structuring of information in any automated exchange of information has long been recognised. However it has also been found in many specialist domains ranging from Astro-physics to medicine that it is extremely difficult to achieve complete consistency in the use of highly specialist scholarly terminology. The response has been to seek to develop mechanisms to map such variations to be mapped, thereby facilitating exchanges between databases and the development of links between them.

It is in this very area that The Production and Use of English Manuscripts seems to me to be point an important way forward. Ideally, what we want to do is not to insist that the manuscript descriptions produced by the Project provide a 'one size fits all' template for other projects, but rather to enable information to be readily shared between projects and to implement cross-searching and manipulation across projects. As an example of what might be achieved if we concentrate on building links rather than promulgating standards, we could look at the recent Connected Histories project, which allows sophisticated cross-searching of fourteen major databases of primary source texts from the earl modern period, comprising millions of records. The Production and Use of English Manuscripts, in the way in which it has assiduously built links with other projects and databases relating to the immediate post-conquest period points the way towards the implementation of a similar approach for the middle ages. Instead of cross-checking, say, the descriptions produced by the present Project, the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, the C11 database of spelling, and so on, it would be possible to see all the available information about a particular manuscript - perhaps even to produce clusterings of the sort we have seen.

An intriguing hint of what might be possible is contained in a paper by three of my colleagues from the University of Glasgow, describing a project which allows retrofitting of semantic information by a group of scholars working on particular data - precisely what we might want to do with scholarly manuscript descriptions.1 Developments of this sort are at the heart of the semantic web - a means of intelligently interrogating the mass of digital information in which we nowadays to often simply flounder. The semantic web is by many confidently predicted to form the basis of Web 3.0. To my mind, the most impressive achievement of The Production and Use of English Manuscripts Project is the way in which it has recognised and engaged with these issues. In June 2009, Orietta Da Rold organized, with Wendy Scase of the University of Birmingham, and Toby Burrows of the University of Western Australia, an ESF exploratory workshop on Applying Semantic Web Technologies to Medieval Manuscript Research. The report of this workshop is available on the ESF website.

The Production and Use of English Manuscripts Project opens up a wealth of exciting possibilities. It has not only started to give a neglected corpus of manuscripts their due at long last, and in the process has raised questions about some cherished national myths, but also in the thoughtful and imaginative way in which the Project has been implemented, it points the way forward to exciting future possibilities in the presentation and exploration of information about manuscripts.

Andrew Prescott, Director of Research, Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute, University of Glasgow



1. Gray, Norman, Tony Linde, and Kona Andrew, 'SKUA - retrofitting semantics', in Proceedings of the Fifth Workshop on Scripting and Development for the Semantic Web at ESWC 2009, Heraklion, Greece, ed. Sören Auer, Chris Bizer and Gunnar Aastrand Grimnes, CEUR Workshop Proceedings 449 (2009),, accessed 7 March 2018. Available here.

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