From Glass Case to Cyberspace: Chaucerian manuscripts across time.

Aberystwyth has done its usual trick of putting on some fantastic weather to greet the participants at this week’s Chaucer conference at the National Library of Wales, and although it was difficult going from the warmth and sunshine into the darkness of the Drwm it was nevertheless well worth the sacrifice. Today was Day 1 of a fairly intimate affair at NLW: a gathering of several big names in the world of Medieval literature and the digital humanities congregating at the home of the Hengwrt Chaucer manuscript to discuss Chaucer’s work in a variety of forms. Today’s speakers were Sheri Smith of Cardiff University, discussing the Man of Law’s Tale; Dr Elisa G. Pastorello of the University of Padua on the use of rhyme royal and the reception of Chaucer in the fifteenth century, and Sarah Gorman, an MA student at Bangor University, providing a reconsideration of Chaucer’s The House of Fame. All of these talks were interesting but the one which struck me most particularly was Sarah’s work. She talked about the materialisation of the spiritual, and I felt there were connections to be made from the ephemerality of Chaucer’s glass temple containing the images of the famous, and the digitisation process: the perceived volatility of the digital domain compared to the content it contains, or to put it another way, great cultural artefacts being rendered in digital form. Sarah’s work made me think about my own in a new way.

After a short break we returned to hear Estelle Stubbs’ keynote lecture entitled The Canterbury Tales: “a half-assembled kit with no directions”, billed as “An exploration of Chaucer’s half-assembled kit in the light of new contexts for the earliest manuscripts”. She talked about John Manly‘s work for the military during WW1 and how the decoding he conducted together with Edith Rickert and others proved to be an excellent basis for his work with the Canterbury Tale witnesses. As Stubbs pointed out, Manly & Rickert’s experience of working for the military also brought them into contact with new forms of technology, and as such they were particularly open to the use of such technologies within a field not traditionally associated with them (technologies such as the photostatic image, which meant they could assemble full or partial copies in order to interrogate the sources). Manly & Rickert’s work shifted the dating of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Tales: the potential unleashed by the use of the photostatic image transformed the research process, and created stepping-stones to new areas of research. Manly is also credited for being amongst the first to identify the use of ultraviolet light as important for the reading of ancient manuscripts.

Stubbs pointed out that new technology allows us to ask new questions, and provides a plethora of new contexts within which to explore a text. The sheer bulk of research and accuracy of the work by Manly and Rickert is “humbling”, particularly when we consider that it was before the era of computers, and they were truly interdisciplinary in their work to find the perfect text. Stubbs also commented on the fact that digital images have now replaced photostatic images and even microfilm, and as such future research agendas need to take on a creative approach to the data being gleaned (in some cases truly huge amounts of information: we are, after all, in the realm of Big Data).

Stubbs went on to describe the exploration of the “manuscript hinterland” through the identification of scribal hands, and reflected upon the idea of the Hengwrt manuscript being the first attempt to piece together Derek Pearsall‘s kit: a fresh attempt by Chaucer to compile his Tales. Certainly knowing the identity of the earliest scribes of the Tales has major repercussions, but during a time of increasing professionalisation of the roles of the scrivener and the secularisation of the writing community (perhaps as a result of increased literary ability amongst the general population), scribal hands become ever more difficult to identify. Manly & Rickert identified five manuscripts that they suspected were the earliest, all of which show co-operation between the scribes in a relatively short timeframe. Hengwrt and Ellesmere are amongst the five, and Stubbs asserts that the scribe Adam Pinkhurst was probably responsible for work on them both, together with other works on behalf of Chaucer: indeed, Stubbs suggests that Pinkhurst probably worked with Chaucer for at least 20 years before the copying of the Ellesmere manuscript.

There was also a “tight network of intermarriage” which seems to provide connections between the various manuscripts and the scribes who worked upon them: this network was dense, and I confess to not being able to make complex notes during this part of the lecture. The end of the talk was very interesting, however. Stubbs posited the theory that the reason for the fragmented nature of the Tales could be due to Chaucer’s relationship with John of Gaunt, and the latter’s illness and eventual death being the timescale to which the Ellesmere was created. Certainly if the Ellesmere was was presented to Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt’s mistress and eventual third wife, this might explain its earliest recorded ownership as being with the Drury family of Suffolk: linked by marriage to Swynford.

At the end of the day’s sessions we all retired to the warmth of the Council Chambers, where the Head Librarian Aled Gruffydd Jones gave a short speech welcoming everyone to the day and Helen Wilcox gave thanks to the organisers of the event. We were then given access to the exhibition itself, where the Hengwrt sat alongside other Chaucerian manuscripts and some artefacts gifted by the National Museum of Wales, including pilgrim badges and a beautiful gold ring (replicas of which are on sale in the National Library shop). The Hengwrt manuscript is tattered and worn around the edges of the pages, but it is a thing of great beauty and (this might sound odd, I confess) a really warm, friendly thing. It is an old friend to us, and greeting it again was a lovely way to end the day.

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