Book History at Canterbury Cathedral Library

with Prof. James Carley and Dr. Paddy Bullard — Thursday 5 March 2015

by Stuart Morrison

"We can think of manuscript studies as very much like the archaeology of texts; and the manuscripts that survive today are our ruins" – Professor James Carley.

I have been studying at Kent now for almost five years and have been to Canterbury Cathedral countless times for research, workshops, seminars, carol concerts, and two graduations; I even see it every morning when I eat my breakfast, but I try not to take this familiarity for granted. Approaching the library and archives via Christchurch Gate is always exciting and as I made my way around the cloisters to the Dean’s steps I thought how fitting it was to be examining the material aspects of the written word within a stone’s throw of the site of the cathedral’s medieval scriptorium.

We were welcomed by the Canon Chancellor and Librarian, The Reverend Christopher Irvine before taking turns to introduce ourselves and our research interests. It was fascinating to hear the range and variety of topics covered, combined we spanned more than a thousand years of British and European literature, art, and history. Having topped up the caffeine levels and completed the introductions it was time to jump into the morning session, led by Professor James Carley. Professor Carley opened his session with the above quote (or words close to my paraphrase) and it stayed at the forefront of my mind for the rest of the day. The analogy is as beautiful as it is simple, managing to stress the materiality and physicality of the surviving books and manuscripts whilst simultaneously lamenting the loss and destruction of the vast majority of items. It was such a powerful opening image and I think it resonated with everyone as I noticed I wasn’t the only one furiously trying to capture it and write it down. 

The session was devoted to the study of medieval manuscripts and early printed books and we were encouraged by Professor Carley to think about how and why particular examples survived and found their way into institutional libraries in the 16th century. The manuscripts and books discussed in Professor Carley’s talk were circulated around the room for us to get to grips with and interrogate as we were given a history of Henry VIII’s royal library. Professor Carley explained how the material features of these manuscripts could be interrogated to produce compelling histories, in this case the history of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the subsequent split from Rome. We were shown, by the evidence for the acquisition of these manuscripts for the royal library, how Henry established a centre for research that was responsible for the justification of his actions and the creation of new doctrine and canon law.

Books, and the words that they contained, were key to the reshaping of English culture, but before Henry’s reign some of them may have remained unused for centuries. Book production was an expensive endeavour, and the vellum was often repurposed or recycled. A folio may have been scraped down and written on again, a palimpsest carrying the traces of multiple stories. Alternatively it could be used in bookbinding as padding or a paste-down, used to wrap groceries, used as a tobacco container, or (perish the thought) reborn as toilet paper. We were also reminded that a large percentage of manuscripts were left in a state of incompletion, often with unfinished illuminations or rubrication. So Professor Carley got us to think about the time, effort, and materials that went into the production of a manuscript, and the possible afterlives it might live. The contrasting fates and uses of manuscripts, whether being central to the grand narrative of a nation on one hand or becoming sewage on the other, just goes to show how their materiality plays as large a part in their history as the words they contain. The morning session really highlighted the possibilities available to us if we integrate a consideration of the materiality of manuscripts and printed books into our own methodologies. After a light lunch (we are, after all, consumers of material) we got the chance to try out these methodologies on some printed material ranging from the late 16th century to the 18th. Karen Brayshaw, head librarian at Canterbury Cathedral Library, gave a brief introduction to protocols for the handling of old printed books. The second session was led by Dr. Paddy Bullard, who is over-all director of the Material Witness doctoral training programme.

We were given time to work in pairs to see what we could find out about our book simply by reading the material features and then feeding back to the group. My partner and I were fortunate enough to be handed a copy of the 1650 2nd edition of John Milton’s ΈΙΚΟΝΟΚΛΆΣΤΗΣ(Eikonoklastes) by Dr. Bullard. We observed the format and construction of the book by ‘reading’ the chain lines in the paper and checking the quire signatures; we spotted printing errors in the pagination of the book; but most excitingly we pored over the hand-written marks of previous owners. By doing this we experienced the book personalisations of Lee Warly, the last private owner of the book, and further that we were looking at the earliest surviving reference to Milton’s loss of eyesight in existence. Similar fascinating narratives came out from the investigative work of the other pairs in the room. The session felt particularly rewarding as we had instantly observable results of our close reading of the material features of printed books.