A Strange Hand

In the third section of chapter 1 (of the OUMEM) “Gawain and the Medieval Reader: The Importance of Manuscript Ordinatio in a Poem We Think We know,” the authors begin with a discussion about the anachronistic use of Gothic textualis rotuna media┬áin Cotton Nero. That is, a style characteristic of the 13th century present, here, in a manuscript that dates to the second half of the 14th century. Scholars refer to this as a “strange hand.” They conjecture that this anachronism is due to the scribe’s, supervisor’s, or patron’s feeling “that this was the kind of script appropriate to English verse.”

This idea is one of many that I’ve come across that brings the scribes and audiences of these medieval times to the present and humanizes them. They exhibit cultural tendencies and develop habits the same way we do. It is a misleading result of our orientation to history that we wouldn’t expect, say, a scribe from one century to become preoccupied with a convention from a prior century. It is this misconception that persons from one historical period wouldn’t be conscious of a prior one–that we, in the present, are the grand observers of all these compartmentalized historical periods that weren’t, themselves, curious or aware of their own history, which came before (redundancy?).

This phenomenon is analogous to our own aesthetic preferences and usages of past styles (music, fashion, literature, film, etc.) We even have medieval and gothic and just about an period’s style fonts available on word processing applications, to make a more direct analogy. Its natural that there would be manuscripts with a “strange hand.”

1 thought on “A Strange Hand

  1. This is a very interesting perspective on the evolution of creative style over periods of time. In chapter one of OUMEM, section I, the authors use the phrase “intergenerational photo album” to describe what manuscript production looked like in in the 13th and 14 centuries. This is the perfect metaphor to describe the process of creative evolution. Each century harkens back, emulates, modifies, denies or converses with the century before it much like the relationships between parents and children and aunt and nieces.
    When this concept is applied to the modern day, it is interesting to consider the increased frequency at which we exchange and share information. Now, more than ever before, we are in constant and effortless communication with each other and with the online internet. During the medieval period, information sharing relied on structured education and meaningful production of texts. In the opposite way that we refine our information, they were able to refine theirs. Modern thinkers and producers refine information by synthesizing huge quantities of information and technique in very different forms of media. Thinkers and creators in the medieval period developed smaller amounts of meaningful techniques and refined them over time, slowly advancing the production process of manuscripts, then printed books, etc.
    Yet, we are refining information at roughly the same pace. Modern thinkers and creators are becoming part of the intergenerational photo album much like the Middle English producers. Settling into the slow evolutionary process of humanity that relies on education, creative production and refinement of the past.

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