As Kerby-Fulton tell us in Chapter 4 of OUMEM, the annotation of medieval manuscripts often reflected the social or cultural conditions of the time: “annotators were gripped by the same kinds of social, gender, and political issues as we are today.” In Part I of the chapter, the author details some of the different styles of annotation, and what they meant to reflect. Based on those qualifications, and your own experiences with contemporary texts, what kind of “marginalia” exists in our present-day society? What are some of the different ways and reasons we interpret modern productions? How do those commentaries reflect or echo the medieval methods of annotation we encounter in the reading?
On page 78 in our reading for today begins a section entitled “Professional Scribes, Commercial Scribes, and Booklet Production.” Here the authors make the distinction between the “professional”–a scribe who works in some sort of legal or bureaucratic capacity, and the “commercial”–a scribe who is paid to produce works for others. The interesting relationship between the professional and commercial scribe, according to the authors, is that they are often the same person. It is fascinating to consider that the same scribes who would work all day in a courtly or legal setting would then go home (or elsewhere) to moonlight. This concept brings about two associations in my mind: one, that the scribes loved the art of manuscript production so much that they would willingly do continue the process in their free time, and two, that scribes simply used their skills for supplementary income. Both ideas add a very humanizing element to a group of people who often seem distant and unknown. The image of some medieval scribe working on a commissioned piece in his home after work brings about all sorts of questions. Did most scribes have the necessary materials to work outside of their places of employment? Where those places even separate from their home? How well known were individual scribes, and what was the process for requesting a commission? What was the quality of life for an average scribe (did they hold any sort of celebrity status)?
On this website,
which looks eerily familiar, I found a quote from an unnamed scribe saying, “For so little money I never want to produce a book ever again!” I wonder if this sort of sentiment was commonly felt by other scribes of the period.
In doing some basic online research on Piers Plowman, I was surprised to learn that there are more than 50 copies of the poem, yet none of them are considered to be the original work, produced by the hand of William Langland himself. Additionally, I learned that the majority of Piers Plowman manuscripts are in fragmented and incomplete. Because of the wide array of discrepancies in the different copies, scholars have found it difficult to determine which copies of the poem can be considered authoritative. In fact, according to what I’ve read, the scholarly community only accepts three copies of the text to be direct products of the original (and absent) production. Even these “authoritative” productions do not exist in complete form, and their authenticity is still a matter of academic debate.
For me, the most fascinating thing I’ve had to consider in reading and learning about Medieval Manuscripts is something Professor Seaman has alluded to a number of times in class: because of the sheer lack of information and physical productions, Medieval scholars must make a series of educated guesses and inferences based on the information they do have. Because the interpretation and analysis of Medieval texts is often theory-based, there is a high potential for debate and divergence among Medieval scholars. In this sense, Medieval studies is vastly different from other spheres of literary scholarship. In the average English class, the texts are presented in a complete and consistent form. Authorship and intent are rarely debatable on the same level as works such as Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The study of Medieval literature takes on a distinctly scientific property. Scientific means must be used to analyze the physical manuscripts themselves, but the observation-hypothesis method of study that is necessary because of the absence of concrete knowledge in the field gives ENGL361 a feel that is closer to my Environmental Geology course than my Senior Seminar in Gothic Lit!