Baggage Allowances: Diasistema in Manuscript Culture (1/2)

Posted by: MFLC Team 4 years, 8 months ago

By Ella Williams

In the 20-something months that I have been working with manuscripts, one thing seems increasingly clear: the closer I get to them, the more they retreat. For the longer I spend with a manuscript, the more time I devote to its description, to mapping its contents, the more I demand of it; and the more I demand of it, the less it wants to tell me.

With folios counted, quire marks found, illustrations described, and hands analysed, there is a fundamental question we ask all manuscripts to answer: where are you from? A seemingly natural, innocent enough question, yet one which rarely finds its match in response. Outside those felicitous few, complete with colophons, ownership marks, or house styles, most manuscripts resist such lines of inquiry. And where signs of origin are detected, they have a habit of fragmenting the question into a multitude of other questions. For there is rarely an absolute beginning or place of birth for any manuscript: the area of its commission, writing, illustration, and the fields in which its vellum once roamed are all equal contenders. And just as mobile as the patrons, scribes, illuminators and livestock which had a hand (or hide) in its being, many manuscripts (aside from those captives, physically chained to their shelves), exist as portable, tradable, itinerant artifacts, resistant to geographical restriction or definition.

Perhaps, to get better acquainted with our manuscripts, our opening line ought not to be “where are you from?”, nor “where have you been?”, but “what’s your baggage?”. A strange-sounding question, maybe. But thinking of manuscripts in terms of their baggage – elements taken and acquired on their journeying – allows us to open up the complex and multiple layers of their histories.

Take the Histoire ancienne manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. fr. 9685, for example, which calls itself “la bible en fransois”. Less spiritual than historical in focus, the text belongs to a tradition of French narratives which trace the progress of mankind from creation to the conquest of France by Caesar, drawing on multiple Classical sources to romp through the ancient world with a determined fascination (while this manuscript is incomplete, many others reach into hundreds of folios). The manuscript shares physical and decorative features with a group of 20 + manuscripts, thought to have originated in Italy at the end of the thirteenth / beginning of the fourteenth century. Depending on whom you ask, BnF ms. fr. 9685 was produced in either Naples or Genoa, for alongside its similarities of decorative scheme with southern-Italian manuscripts, scholars have identified the hallmarks of Genoese production. The problem, I would suggest, lies not in its identification with two different places, or the divergence of scholarly opinion, but the reduction of these differences to “either […] or ” categories: Naples and Genoa have not been seen as co-existent possibilities, but as alternate hypotheses which need to be resolved.

For everything we know about the Italian peninsula during this period suggests that it was a place of highly mobile movers and shakers. The merchants and craftsmen of the North frequently looked to the South for their economic activities; and the Angevin kings of the southern kingdom were by no means confined to Naples or its environs: as part of a major European dynasty, they extended their power-seeking to northern territories as well as overseas. Should we be surprised, in this context of cross-regional travel, that geographical plurality might also be found in the artifacts of the time? Indeed, the detection of diverse registers of place in a single manuscript should not necessitate a picking or a choosing, but rather an opening up of possibilities and histories, in which the mobility of the object and its creators is reflected through its form.

To be continued (...)