Reading a manuscript as a whole

Related to my last post of medieval musings, the other important methodological concern that characterised my research this year was not simply paying attention to paratextual elements in manuscripts but to their contents as a whole. It may be a gross oversimplification to say this, but in a great many studies of canon law, there is an ever finer process of definition and cutting away. Thus, someone who studies decretals will look at the first 18 folios of a manuscript and pay no heed to the copy of Gratian to which the decretals are attached. Or someone who does canon law will look at the ‘canon law’ section of a miscellany but not its theological section.

Once again, however, when we put ourselves in the reader’s seat, we cannot look at the manuscripts in this way. When I study Durham’s six glossed copies of Gratian’s Decretum, I am interested in what else I may find. Durham Cathedral Library MS C.III.1, for example, begins with a ‘homemade’ canonical collection with excerpts from a variety of sources, including a papal catalogue, an arbor consanguinitatis, and a decretal collection. And then a glossed copy of Gratian of similar date but a different hand. If these were bound together early, most readers will have had their reading of Gratian shaped by this other material, not just the glosses.

One result, for example, is the emphasis on papal authority that comes from the papal catalogue and the decretal collection. Also, the ongoing controversy in canon law about marriage is cast into sharp relief by the arbor consanguinitatis.

That is just one example.

Another example that my boss told me about two days ago is the fact that, once the Latin translation of John of Damascus De fide orthodoxa is complete, Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo finds itself always transmitted with the Damascene. Somehow, people found a resonance between these two documents. Those who read the texts would inevitably be influenced by this editorial decision.

I once queried why notitiae of Roman provinces find their way into canonical collections. The answer is that Carolingians in the ninth century created a system whereby the bishop of the Roman province number Prima in those notitiae was the Primas, the Primate, with certain rights and responsibilities to those below him. So the administrative structure of a long-dead empire was suddenly of great interest, and people copied these texts. If all I did with a manuscript was read the ‘canon law’ material, I would miss this important nuance in the reader’s experience.

Rosamond McKitterick, in History and Memory in the Carolingian World, has argued that by collecting papal letters alongside church councils, the authority of the popes in matters of canon law was reinforced. It makes sense when you read the whole manuscript together, doesn’t it?

Examples abound. This is a useful approach, and it certainly helps one understand some texts when they don’t seem to make sense in any other way.

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