The Boring, Ugly, and Unimportant – Biases in Manuscript Research

By Jenneka Janzen

As I carry out my dissertation research, I’ve spent some time thinking about the role aesthetics play in which manuscripts are studied, and which ones are deemed too boring, unimportant, or ugly to attract interest. Certainly, it depends on your field of study. But where do some of these research biases come from?

There have, undoubtedly, been individual manuscripts or whole genres of manuscripts that get a short-shrift based, at least in part, on aesthetic grounds. Some of this bias can be blamed on availability and the lesser appeal of reproductions; some results from a devaluation of particular styles/locales/methods growing from early nineteenth-century discourse of “high” and “low” culture; and, perhaps, some may be too clean or too common.  I’ll give examples of each of these instances below.

Gregory the Great’s Homeliae in Ezechiel (National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, cod. Q.V.I.14)

Gregory the Great’s Homeliae in Ezechiel (National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, cod. Q.V.I.14)

First, the case of a Luxeuil copy of Gregory the Great’s Homeliae in Ezechiel (National Library of Russia, St Petersburg, cod. Q.V.I.14). This is a fascinating manuscript, both art-historically and to the codicologist and palaeographer. It contains five intricate carpet pages with an innovative take on late-Roman ornamentation, decorated quire marks and early reading aids in addition, of course, to Luxeuil house script. Yet, very little was  published about  this manuscript in the 20th century. Following a study by E.H. Zimmermann in 1916 (wherein a plate was provided) it spent the majority of the century tucked away behind the Iron Curtain. With its red, yellow, green, and soft browns, it reproduced terribly (especially in the available black and white), both in terms of visibility and aesthetics. Now, while reproductions can certainly be made in colour, and Russia is much more accessible, it still receives very little attention, especially when compared to its “insular” contemporaries  such as the Book of Durrow or Lindisfarne Gospels. A further consideration is that it could have suffered in part because of the comparative popularity of contemporary insular examples. While part of the Columbanian tradition, this manuscript hasn’t been buoyed by a movement comparable to the  19-20th century Celtic Revival. Or perhaps, stylistically, it’s just not en vogue.

Another example of manuscript bias affects those considered to be in some way “primitive” or of lesser importance due to their break with accepted conventions; products of female scriptoria were often lumped into this category. The role of women in medieval cultural production was largely overlooked or downplayed until, in most cases, the 1970s. Manuscripts adhering to expected visual standards, like the spectacular Old Gelasian Sacramentary (Vat. Reg. Lat. 316), have consistently enjoyed popularity before and after association with a female scriptorium.

Old Gelasian Sacramentary, probably from Chelles (Bischoff, 1965) or Jouare (McKitterick, 1992.

Old Gelasian Sacramentary, probably from Chelles (Bischoff, 1965) or Jouare (McKitterick, 1992.

On the other hand, work with miniatures like that from the vernacular Schwestern zu Toss  manuscript below, have been labeled disparagingly as “Nonnenarbeit” and dismissed as “childish” or “naïve” in scholarly work until the late 21st century.

The sort of work traditionally dismissed as “nun’s work.”  Schwestern zu Toss, Nuremberg Katharinenkloster copy, mid 15th c.

The sort of work traditionally dismissed as “nun’s work.” Schwestern zu Toss, Nuremberg Katharinenkloster copy, mid 15th c.

And what of “ugly” manuscripts? Often, just the finest examples of a certain feature are cited (of course, as they best illustrate our arguments), and value-loaded categories are created to ease (sometimes artificial) categorization – a script’s “period of development”, “period of perfection” and “period of decline”, for example.  Most would argue that these exclusionary practices are somewhat necessary, if problematic. Bias against  “ugly” manuscripts plays out in other ways. Very challenging or otherwise unappealing scripts are arguably less-studied than more accessible or “attractive” ones.

Likewise, most art historians will probably confirm that there is lesser focus on manuscripts containing miniatures that are aesthetically unappealing to the western-“high art”-trained eye. Lawrence Nees’ work on the mid to late 8th-century Gundohinus Gospels (probably from Burgundy) stands out in this regard. The text makes important theological arguments much more common in the contemporary Eastern Church, while its accompanying illustrations are likely based on a sixth-century model. However, there is little to visibly recommend it to the reader.  E.A Lowe called the initials “crude” and the scribe “inexpert”. Panofsky called the evangelist portraits “ludicrous” due to “downright incompetence.” The scribe, Gundohinus, calls himself unskilled (“imperitus”).  In his case, it’s not just a standard colophon trope.

Maiestas Domini in the Gundohinus Gospels. Autun, Bibliotheque municipale MS 3, 12v.

Maiestas Domini in the Gundohinus Gospels. Autun, Bibliotheque municipale MS 3, 12v.

Gundohinus' hand.

Gundohinus’ hand.

I wonder how many similar manuscripts are overlooked in favour of more appealing examples? Clicking through some of my favourite digital libraries (and their manuscripts’ listed literature) suggests there are more than enough ‘less-popular’ manuscripts to go around.

Lastly, to some, certain manuscripts are just too pretty or too predictable. While Books of Hours unquestionably have their fans, many find their vast commonalities, formulaic text and iconography, and mass production unappealing from a scholarly standpoint. There are certainly benefits in studying rarer, tentatively made, or obviously-used books. To the palaeographer, it can be the uncertain or problematic hand, often indicative of transition, that is the most revealing. If studying textual reception or scholasticism, a page packed to the brim with impromptu marginal notation is a boon. A codicologist might appreciate the foliation or quire signatures left behind on indifferently-trimmed pages, or attempts, for better or worse, at reading aids. To see what an 11th century “garbage manuscript” in the Leiden University Library can tell us, watch Erik’s video below.

I’ve booked a week-long research trip in the near future to look at 40 more manuscripts. I’m excited to see how the aesthetic cohesion of Ter Duinen’s collection develops – or doesn’t – and how my initial impressions of these so-far very tidy, “Cistercian-looking” books changes – or doesn’t! – as my work progresses. No matter what I find, aesthetically-speaking, and whatever biases I work within or against, there are few things I find more appealing than a week of handling manuscripts (in summertime Bruges, no less).

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