What We Thought We Knew


In this paper, we look back through our work and how it has radically changed our understanding of the topic, from the minute physical detail of the production of individual books to the wider questions of the contexts for the writing of English in this crucial period. We recapping some of what we said in our team paper at the second Project Symposium, and we also drawing on some of the very rich thread of comments and discussion by our Symposium participants.

We're going to start at the beginning, and talk about where we were at the opening of the Project and how some of our broader research questions look to us now. Then we're going to give our perspective on where we are now, and show some examples of what our detailed manuscript descriptions have made possible. As we'll demonstrate, the end of the Project isn't an end at all, really, because what the Project has done is to make more new work possible. Andrew, in his paper, gives his perspective on the implications of the Project's work. All in all, then, this seems a good moment to take stock of what the Project has achieved, what sort of new work it will make possible in the future, and how our initial expectations compare with what we've discovered as we've worked over the last five years on the Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220.

1. The Beginning

We're going to start by outlining what we said at the very beginning, in our application to the AHRC for the Project funding, and we'll make some brief comments on each point as we go through them, to indicate where we think we've got to now:

As you'll know The Production and Use of English Manuscripts 1060 to 1220 is a collaborative project which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) at the universities of Leicester and Leeds, and it began in May 2005. The project was set up as an interdisciplinary and collaborative venture which looks at manuscripts compiled between 1060 and 1220. The research material includes legal and historical documents as well as literary texts.

In our application to the AHRC, way back before the beginning, we said:

Preliminary work demonstrates that there is an urgent need for a coordinated and sustained project to identify not only all the manuscripts compiled between 1060 and 1220, but also their place of origin, their contents, and the potential agenda behind their compilation.

The collection of essays Elaine and Mary edited in 2000, Rewriting Old English in the Twelfth Century, had opened up new lines of enquiry about these manuscripts, which had never before been considered as a group. Even though that book was published more than ten years ago, many of the questions we posed there, and at the project's inception, still remain to be answered.

We noted in our application:

The English material that survives has been studied piecemeal, as a postscript to Old English or as a precursor to Middle English textual and linguistic culture, or for its idiosyncratic dialectal evidence.

The gap in the scholarly picture that was the vernacular twelfth century is now being very well filled, both by scholars in French studies (we're thinking here principally of Joceyln Wogan-Browne, Thelma Fenster, Judith Weiss and Laura Ashe) and scholars in English studies (Bella Millett, Aidan Conti, John Damon, Oliver Traxel, Faith Wallis, the MANCASS Eleventh-Century Database Project and its 'English glosses in eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon manuscripts' Project), and also by manuscript scholars. From the planning stage of our Project, we've had a very deliberate policy of transparency and inclusion, and one of the many benefits that's brought is that we've been able to get a clear sense of what's being done across post-Conquest Studies. There are new PhDs underway in Cambridge, Oxford, Toronto, and elsewhere; major new studies are being published; and innovative projects are being developed and funded that tie in well with what this Project has also sought to achieve; for example, Erik Kwakkel's very significant recent funding for a project on 'The Book in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance'.

We sketched out the field in this way in our application:

In disciplinary terms, there is relatively abundant work on social history; work on ecclesiastical history has tended to focus on Latin materials principally, and some Anglo-Norman material. Cultural, linguistic, and literary history all merit much more detailed examination. The traditional boundaries of periodisation and disciplinarity have limited scholarship to date in this important field. Interdisciplinary research into English manuscript production from 1060 to 1220 is exceptionally timely. The project examines cultural continuities and transformations; evaluates what is known and what is not known; and expands our understanding of the material.

We've addressed these disjunctures and these topics in an open and persistent way; our coverage of the significant conferences, our well-attended sessions, and our symposia have ensured that our work and our methodology have been publicised and that we've done our work in conversation with lots of scholars in related fields. This is vital for the ongoing work of medievalists in general, and for literary and manuscript historians in particular.

2. The Setting Up of the Project

The research questions we established in our application have been examined in detail by our two exceptional Research Associates, Orietta and Takako, at Leicester, and closely focused upon by our two excellent doctoral students, Kate and Thom, who are based at the Institute for Medieval Studies in Leeds, and whose individual case studies are throwing new light on the production, transmission and reception of English material from 1080 to 1180. We're pleased to say that these positive outcomes are direct results of how the project was conceived.

The research questions we mentioned before stemmed from previous research that Elaine and Mary had done, separately and together. The Project therefore didn't need to spend time testing the viability of its focus, and because of that the work that we have done on the Project so far has already yielded concrete results.

3. Objectives and research questions

In terms of objectives and research questions, the Project aimed:

  • to identify, analyse and evaluate all manuscripts containing English written in England between 1060 and 1220;
  • to produce an analytical corpus of material in order to address fundamental questions about this crucial period in the evolution of English textual culture, from late Anglo-Saxon England, through the Norman Conquest and into the high Middle Ages;
  • to investigate key questions including the status of written English relative to French and Latin; the identity of the producers and users of the texts; and the agenda informing the production of so many texts in English during this important period.

It turns out that these three major objectives were - and will continue to be - immensely challenging for all researchers in this period. We've been able, of course, to list and describe a good number of manuscripts at varying levels of detail.

The Corpus of material produced in English in our period is now catalogued in one list on our website, and it is searchable. We move on from Ker's Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, of course, in providing details of new material, amongst which is the Taunton Fragment, and material that Ker didn't cover, such as the Trinity Homilies, and we give up-to-date bibliographical references to all the significant newer scholarship on each manuscript.

We'll now list our main research questions, and say a bit about where we've got to on each of them:

  • Place and Date: Where and when was this material produced? We've been working on this question, and will continue to do so beyond the Project, but, despite some new findings, lacunae in evidence make this very tricky. More work in conjunction with other materials outside our current remit - on French manuscripts, charters and Latin codices - might yet throw up important evidence for localisation and provenance. And our growing awareness of gaps and of the problems with some common assumptions which underly the localisation of individual manuscripts has in itself been an important advance, and has enabled us to problematise the whole question of manuscript localisation and to critique and refine its methodologies.
  • Contemporary Agenda: Is there an identifiable programme of copying in English, or is it, in comparison to the copying of Latin and Anglo-Norman texts, a marginal activity? Who approved of, and paid for, the copying of texts in English? What resources were given over to this activity? What were the Uses and Audiences of this material?

These two questions have probably thrown up the most interesting and varied - and complicated - sets of responses. The agendas of compilers and copyists that we can perceive, together with the possible uses of the manuscripts, continue to provide information that leads to no single, uncontroversial interpretation. So again, what we've done is to problematise and nuance the questions.

4. What we have discovered

A. What we have discovered by making the list of manuscripts

We began with the identification of those manuscripts that contain English texts, including annotations, glosses and commentaries, and we'll end with an updated catalogue to be published electronically on-line.

The list of 128 manuscripts with which we started the Project has expanded to 142. This list itself, with the key information about the manuscripts, has enabled us to map the manuscripts and address our research questions. Users of our website will be able to sort these manuscripts into different categories, and to cluster them according to their dates, location, and contents.

4.A.1. Clustering the manuscripts chronologically

An additional project could be an overview of the mid-eleventh-century manuscripts; dated as 's. ximed'. Because these fall at the early edge of our temporal remit, and because in fact new detailed work on them is showing that many of them pre-date 1060, we have not included in our catalogue the 33 manuscripts dated by Ker as ximed. With properly detailed work on each of them, their respective datings could be much more accurately determined, so that's our first example of future work which could follow from this Project. Our list of ximed manuscripts is available on our website, as a corpus to form the basis of future work.

Clustering manuscripts according to their dates can tell us interesting stories: we can, for example, compare the manuscript cluster of ximed with the manuscript cluster of xiimed. We can then ponder this apparent drastic change in terms of numbers, and it should also be possible to discern trends or patterns in manuscript production, through the close study of codicology and mise-en-page.

We can see, for example, that, in terms of our codices, there is considerable activity in the second half of the eleventh century in Worcester, but not in the south-east. It might be tempting to attribute this to the immediate effects of the Conquest, together with the historical factors of destruction and rebuilding in the great cathedrals of Kent and Wessex, but in fact we know that there's extensive production of other kinds of written materials - especially charters - in the south-east at this time, so this isn't a simple picture of drought versus plenty, but of different sorts of textual production in different areas at different times. Then, in the second quarter of the twelfth century, the south-eastern institutions seem to move into similar copying trends to those we saw a generation earlier in the west of the country: building cartularies, copying homilies and laws, etc. Questions about manuscript movement need to be clarified further before we can map this sort of difference with confidence, and the status of apparently untypical production centres, especially Worcester, also needs clarifying and feeding in to the mapping.

4.A.2. Clustering the manuscripts according to their contents

We can also cluster our manuscripts in terms of their contents, and the fundamental question on this topic which we posed in our application was:

The Corpus: What material was produced in English from 1060 to 1220, and how does this relate to texts in other languages copied in the period?

When we started, I think we were mostly aware of English homiletic prose, hagiography and similar, and less aware of other sorts of texts. Our perspective on this has definitely changed, and clustering the manuscripts according to their contents is one way to produce snapshots for analysis.

Here, you are looking at the manuscript clusters by contents. Making the list of manuscripts and the catalogue has given us a better sense of the relative proportions of different sorts of texts. Working in detail on individual manuscripts has greatly heightened our awareness of the production of responses to and revisions of texts, in the form of annotations and corrections - and we'd argue that these interventions count as textual productions in their own right. This sort of categorising, too, means we can see the manuscripts and texts that lie outside falsely imposed generic classifications. We can see, now, how much material in this period actually doesn't fit into tidy boxes, and we can also begin to pick out patterns of types of texts being copied, and of how manuscripts are made, how they shift about and the variety of their form and content, and how both the form and content of an individual manuscript can change radically over time.

On the question of the relationship of OE texts to the other languages being copied in our manuscripts, I think our initial sense of discrete languages has been nuanced by the manuscripts we've worked on. In some cases we've seen scribes and readers working between and across languages with absolute fluency and confidence. For example, in the later part of our period, from the middle of the twelfth century onwards, CUL Ii. 1.33 shows how one scribe worked with three languages. At the end of the eleventh and beginning of the twelfth centuries, not only did scribes move fluently between Latin and English, but they also retained the letter-forms which distinguish the writing of the two languages, as we see in Laud Misc. 482 and 567.

From what we can gather at the moment, examples of single scribes working across all three languages in a single codex are not in the majority, so there's more thinking to be done about how language interaction maps out geographically and chronologically across the Project manuscripts. We've framed questions about multilingualism that I don't think had been sufficiently addressed before. This has been reinforced by Ralph Hanna's work, and the work of Elizabeth Tyler and other contributors to the debate on post-conquest linguistic complexity.

Questions of language choice and its implications are very complex, of course, and hard to get a precise fix on, but a comprehensive catalogue can help to refine the questions and to address them.

B. What we have discovered by writing manuscript descriptions:

4.B.1. What we've learned by designing our template

Our design of an XML template for online description has been one of the most important and unexpected outcomes of the project. We discovered early on that most of the labels traditionally used for manuscript description are problematic, and the first two years of the Project, when we haggled over what we meant, generated significant scholarship on the methodology and ideology of manuscript description, and yielded work of relevance to all manuscript scholars. We have added nuance and shape to this area of detailed study.

In codicology and palaeography, as in other disciplines, scholarship is incremental, and always greatly influenced by what it's building on. In making a research tool like a catalogue, it's important, therefore, to work in a language which is at least cognate with the language generally used by scholars in the field; not to sweep away the terminology and concepts of that language so radically that no-one working in the field will think they understand what you're doing. But at the same time, it's also important not to be trapped or blinkered by conventional ways of thinking about things and of describing them.

Among the debates we had while setting up the template for the extended manuscript descriptions were how to label scribes and scripts. Thus, for example, in deciding what constitutes 'minor' and 'major' textual items, we had to work out how these categories can function in the cases of manuscripts where text has clearly been added into blank spaces, and constitutes only a line or two; or where text in the margin has been used to correct or expand lines written within the ruled writing grid. 'Marginalia' itself is a complex and difficult term, implying secondary or extraneous text, whereas in fact a good deal of marginalia is integral, or suggests the composition of whole new texts, perhaps extemporised from the written words within the ruled lines and set out in annotations above the line or to the sides of the bounding lines.

We also debated scripts and script labels, unhappy with the labels provided by traditional palaeographical handbooks. The options with which these presented us - 'Insular Minuscule', 'Protogothic', 'Caroline Minuscule with insular features' - all seemed limited or teleological - or both - and, given the political implications of the Norman Conquest, we decided on 'English Vernacular Minuscule' as a term that properly encapsulates what we're looking at. This term, used by Peter Stokes in his work, describes well the large category into which all English writing from 1060 to 1220.

We will have available on the web site both our discussion and decisions about terminology and methodology - an important body of theoretical work - and the templates and tools used by the project to create the backbone of the description; both the XML and the XSLT - a very adaptable framework for manuscript description, rooted in carefully thought-out categorisation and labelling. All of it can be freely downloaded and used by others.

So our research is based on meticulous descriptions which will contribute to answering our research questions. Here's an example of one of the descriptions published on our web site:

What you are looking at here is the description of Caligula A. xv, which contains Computistica etc., Ælfric's rendering of Bede's De temporibus anni, and which is dated to the second half of the eleventh century and to the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. On the left is the table of contents of our description. The description includes: a summary of items in the manuscript, the Physical Description, which includes Object description and Hand descriptionHistorical background, and a Bibliography. This work of cataloguing our manuscripts has revealed interesting findings, from scribal cooperation to linguistic interactions.

5. Where to Go Next

Where can this all go now?

Over the past five years the Project has achieved a great number of things which go well beyond our expectations. During that time we've been working to foster research in the Universities of Leicester and Leeds and beyond into manuscript culture in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. We created several outreach activities to make sure that the project liaised with other existing Projects (Manchester Projects; West Midlands Catalogue Project) and to support new and exciting work on manuscript and textual culture in our period, including Peter Stokes' planned new project (for which we hope he will receive funding) and Erik Kwakkel's, which I mentioned earlier.

The work of our Project could be developed in a number of directions, for instance:

  • Transcriptions of texts which exist in multiple copies from this period, to make textual variation visible and searchable in electronic form.
  • Further codicological work on the manuscripts. Our template will accommodate comprehensive codicological work, but carrying out such a complex study of every single manuscript on our list was not viable and would have taken us beyond the actual research scope of the project. Future work could use this capacity in our template to consider and analyse in detail the stratigraphy of the making of English books in this period.
  • A more detailed study of key English texts in their context. I mentioned earlier the manuscripts produced in the mid eleventh century, but what about those manuscripts produced immediately after the twelfth century? Orietta, in particular, is very interested in a project which would bridge the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and remap them too.

By Elaine Treharne and Mary Swan

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