"Perceptions of Medieval Manuscript"

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Elaine Treharne. Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts: The Phenomenal Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Hardcover, 272p, $40.00 (ISBN: 978-0192843814). Review by J. Eric Ensley.

Elaine Treharne’s Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts serves as a call for increased attention to the whole and material form of the medieval book, which she argues has slipped away in our increasingly digitized and fragmentary world. Librarians, curators, and other information professionals interested in early medieval books will find this a wide-ranging study that touches on many aspects of our day-to-day professional lives, including digitization, book breaking, medieval binding fragments, and how one might interact with sacred objects, as some medieval books are.

Treharne is well-known among medievalists and early book scholars for having authored, co-authored, and edited numerous works, including the Cambridge Companion to Medieval British Manuscripts (2020), Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age (2020), and myriad others. She is the Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of English at Stanford University where she directs the Stanford Text Technologies Lab. While Treharne is perhaps best known as a scholar of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of physical and digital manuscript studies, it is exciting to witness her undertake a theoretically grounded examination of the medieval manuscript.

The ”Phenomenal” of this book’s title does double duty, signaling the qualitative judgment that many of the books under examination are extraordinary objects—indeed, one may hear an echo of Christopher de Hamel’s widely read Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016).  At the same time, “Phenomenal” gestures towards Treharne’s theoretical methodology in this work: phenomenology. A large space would be necessary to define the tenets of this philosophical school but, for the purposes of this review, phenomenology posits that meaning is intimately tied to individual and collective experience. Treharne draws upon early twentieth-century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s sensorially driven phenomenological approach, which emphasizes the importance of bodily experience to creating meaning.

Treharne’s contribution follows recent interest in the relationship between humans and objects, what has been referred to as the material turn, a flurry of interest in the relationship between humans and objects. Readers may be familiar with some of this turn’s theoretical schools, including New Materialism, Object-Oriented Ontology, and Actor-Network Theory among others. The broad exploration of the book as an object through a materialist and theoretical lens remains to be written, likely because of the immense undertaking across centuries of media such an undertaking represents. However, monographs on localized periods and some introductory works have taken part in these theoretical modes. Some information professionals may be familiar with Amaranth Borsuk’s Book (2018), which is an introduction to book history that takes a theoretical and perhaps even phenomenological approach grounded in questions of how a book is experienced and defined for different peoples in different periods, including our own. Though Treharne states that she has not found the foregoing materialist theories useful for her work, one can see this Phenomenal Book in conversation with the material turn and its many scholarly trajectories due to its emphasis on the materiality of a medieval manuscript in its cultural context.

At its core, Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts aims to examine “the many ways that the medieval book functions in the real world in the past and in the present” (1). Rather than archeologically taking apart medieval books piece by piece, Treharne asks readers to encounter the book as a whole object; indeed, “wholeness” as a concept takes center stage in her examination of the book as object for the cultures of the past and present that give it meaning. For Treharne, wholeness is dependent upon sensorial experience and thus the work advocates for physical interaction with medieval books as the optimal experience for scholars and students. Touch, sight, and smell—though not taste, thankfully from a curatorial vantagepoint—all provide important experiential knowledge of the book. In later chapters, this draws Treharne into the debate over the uses of “digital surrogates,” a term both useful and problematized.

Ten short chapters comprise Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts, and each chapter functions as a kind of vignette on material experiences with the medieval book. Though Treharne offers a connective tissue across the book, each chapter functions to some degree as a discrete unit. The ten chapters each take as their title a line from the eighth-century Old English Riddle 26, a short text that cryptically presents the making of a medieval book. For example, chapter 4 presents use cases for early books, while chapter 8 offers an examination of the book breaking market of the twentieth century and today.

Chapter 1, “A Profit to People,” introduces the argument of the book and presents Treharne’s theoretical framework. Chapters 2 and 3, “Fingers Folded Me” and “Covered Me with Tracks,” draw heavily upon Riddle 26 to present its poetic technique linked to the making of books, from crafting to writing. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 offer use cases for early books. Chapter 4, “People Will Use Me,” presents medieval books as envisioned as permanent repositories for memory. Chapter 5, “My Name Is Famous,” reads the writing that is inserted into the blank spaces of medieval books as spaces for interaction across temporal boundaries and draws upon Chapter 4 to present this practice as more permanent memorial accretion. Chapter 6, “In Spirit the Wiser,” examines holy writing and the connection between material object and the afterlife; this chapter includes a fascinating discussion of chrysography, or gold writing, on the theological implications of this material practice. Chapter 7, “Covered with Protecting Boards,” looks at the procedures of medieval illuminators who often presented the book as a whole object in various formats, which buttresses Treharne’s phenomenological approach to the whole book. Chapters 8 and 9, “Cut by the Edge of the of the Knife” and “More True and Better,” examine the fragmentation of books both physically and digitally. Chapter 8 provides a noteworthy look at book breaking from the early twentieth century to the present, while Chapter 9 examines the digitization of manuscripts and the pitfalls that can bring, including eliciting misunderstandings of certain manuscripts. Chapter 10, “Bookending Þa Wuldorgesteald,” shortly sums up the book and re-emphasizes the Treharne’s phenomenological framework and the importance of the wholeness of the book.

There is much to admire in this book and a good deal that information professionals will find useful in the classroom and in their own research. As the foregoing summation suggests, Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts functions well when viewed as a group of connected articles. Treharne has accomplished the Herculean task of examining numerous manuscripts in situ and providing copious quotations on understandings of books throughout the chapters—I fully intend to use many of these quotations in my own courses as we examine early understandings of the book.

For the purposes of curators and scholars, Chapter 2 and to some degree the other early chapters may appear too indebted to close-reading of poetry, but the primary sources Treharne has presented in these chapters could well prove valuable for students interested in primary descriptions of the making and cultural importance of early books. Some in our profession will find great value in both the argument and evidence presented in chapters 8 and 9 on book breaking and digitization. Treharne’s expertise on book breaking is deep, and she presents new data and arguments with real-world examples of the current market for breaking—likewise she looks beyond the now well-known practices of Otto Ege to other breakers like fine arts presses of the early twentieth century. This chapter will certainly become a standard citation in the literature on book breaking. Chapter 9 argues for both more in-person examination of manuscripts and a caution to the process of digitization.

Though I encourage librarians and curators to read Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts, there are some quibbles to be made. Treharne’s phenomenological framework drawing upon Merleau-Ponty, though interesting and novel, could have been developed to a greater degree. As a reader, I was hoping for more time spent developing the argument within such a phenomenological framework in Chapter 1, but that chapter presents a close-reading of Riddle 26 instead.

The second quibble concerns the broad presentation of the title of the work as “Medieval Manuscripts.” Medievalists are aware the Middle Ages spans nearly a millennium depending on one’s temporal bookends. While Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts makes occasional forays into the late medieval period, the book restricts itself primarily to what many of us would term the early and High Middle Ages. This is to be expected from a scholar whose deepest expertise is in those periods, but readers should be aware that there are changes—sometimes subtle and sometimes great—to the manufacture and understanding of books in later periods of the Middle Ages. Indeed, the wide temporal range of the Middle Ages, the wholeness of the medieval manuscript in its production and reading environments, and the phenomenological framework advocating touch, sight, and smell warrant entire books dedicated to each topic. As such, Treharne’s project offers many elucidating details for the selection of manuscripts it presents, but a more focused temporal scope might aid the project’s central goal of presenting the sensorial experience of a whole book to its medieval and, possibly, its modern audiences.

The third quibble concerns some citational issues, including limited information and perhaps some oversights. In Chapter 4, for example, while discussing the permanence of the book, Treharne gestures towards Michael Clanchy’s monumental From Memory to Written Record in a single, one-line reference: “See Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, on the significance of permanent record” (Footnote 40). However, Clanchy’s work is of massive importance to the idea of the permanence of writing. Likewise, Treharne’s chapter on digitization has passed over some works that are critical to discussions of digitization and likewise would have supported her argument. For example, Michael Hanrahan and Bridget Whearty’s special issue of Archive Journal on Digital Manuscript Cultures (2018) goes uncited though it has proven important to the field, including Andrew Prescott and Lorna Hughes’ piece on “Slow Digitization” and Johanna Green’s incisive and sensorially grounded piece “Digital Manuscripts as Sites of Touch.” As a reader, I would have enjoyed seeing how Treharne pairs her phenomenologically-driven approach to the whole book with, for example, Green’s understanding of haptic fragmentation as an entry to exploring medieval manuscripts. I do not draw attention to these oversights to dissuade readers from reading this text but to enjoin readers to look to some other conversations that have taken place in the field on the same topic.

In sum, Elaine Treharne’s Perceptions of Medieval Manuscripts: The Phenomenal Book is a novel argument for this period of book history and a valuable addition to the field. Readers will find a plethora of primary source material for the classroom with colorful images of medieval manuscripts to enjoy on many pages. Likewise, librarians, curators, and scholars will find many chapters of interest. Treharne’s writing style is a joy, with her wit shining through often.

Librarians and curators may find Treharne’s foray into the discussion on digital manuscripts the most engaging as she invites the voices of other scholars and information professionals. Many will be happy to find conversations with familiar names like Dot Porter of University of Pennsylvania Special Collections & Research Services and Benjamin Albritton of Stanford University Libraries, who are welcomed as experts and equal voices in the conversation surrounding these objects.  Nevertheless, some information professionals may bristle at the critiques of digital resources, given the overwhelming pressure of institutional funding and overwork that hangs over our profession. That said, it could well behoove curators and librarians to pay heed to many of Treharne’s arguments as we work on digitization projects at our own institutions.

If a reader is like me, at times one they will find themself nodding along with Treharne’s argument concerning the wholeness of the book and at other times disagreeing, but that, after all, is the purpose of the book. Treharne has posited a novel argument and one, particularly when it comes to digitization and book breaking, that touches on the ethics of the objects that we study and care deeply about. She invites us to at times agree and disagree with her argument, which is sure to carry our conversations on early medieval books forward.

J. Eric Ensley, University of Iowa Special Collections & Archives