Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

At the conference “Syrffio’r silff: hynt a helynt llawysgrifau Chaucer/From glass case to cyber-space: Chaucerian manuscripts across time” held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on the 14-16th April 2014, the keynote speech on the final day was given by Professor Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. The talk, entitled, “Manuscript Digitisation: some retrospective thoughts”, was recorded on an iPhone 5s and covers the talk and the questions thereafter.

Please click on the link above to access the Soundcloud recording of Andrew Prescott’s keynote. His excellent blog Digital Riffs can also be accessed here:


From Glass Case to Cyberspace: Chaucerian manuscripts across time | Day 2

The second day of the conference at The National Library of Wales dawned but due to a comedy of errors I missed the first lecture, given by Dr Roberta Magnani of Swansea University and entitled “The Queer Margins of Chaucer’s Manuscripts” – such a shame, as I was really looking forward to hearing her interpretation of Chaucer’s work. I was, however, there in time to hear Professor Helen Fulton of York University on “English Prophecy in Welsh Manuscripts: Authors and Anthologies”.

Professor Fulton took Chaucer’s use of prophecy as a jumping-off point, and looked at “examples of Middle English prophecies found in multilingual Welsh manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”, describing a shifting boundary (the Marcher lordships) occupied by the descendants of Norman lords and the old Welsh royalty. Many of the most important manuscripts of the medieval age came from within Marcher Wales, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. On this basis, MS Peniarth 392D’s presence in Wales isn’t an anomaly, given Wales’ importance within medieval literature. Fulton suggested that Hengwrt (MS Peniarth 392D) was in Chester by the late 16th century and with Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in Meirionydd (1592-1667); by the 19th century it was with the Wynnes of Peniarth. Chaucer was obviously thought of as an author worth collecting, and the Marcher lords were seen as the guardians of language, with a multilingual border environment and a readership which, even in the 15th century, would have been familiar with different languages. Professor Fulton’s talk was fascinating, because it allowed us to envisage Wales as a thriving cultural hub, with Oswestry “the London of Owain Glyndwr’s land”, and prophecy used as a comment on the age.

After Professor Fulton came Holly-Jane Maddocks, a doctoral researcher at York University, discussing the illuminator of Chaucer’s Roumant of the Rose (Glasgow University, Hunter MS 409) and the context of its production. As Holly-Jane explained in her abstract, the manuscript “exists uniquely in Glasgow, Hunter MS 409)” but the manuscript “has received little attention from book historians, possibly because it is incomplete, messily-translated, and perhaps only partially by Chaucer himself”. The Roumant’s illuminator, however, can be tracked across many manuscripts, “and these indicate that this illuminator was active in London from the 1430s until at least the end of the 1450s”. Holly-Jane showed how illuminators can offer a starting-point for exploring a vast range of manuscripts, and were highly collaborative within their own communities, and suggested that Paternoster Row was the scene of work by William Abell, “a member of the London mistery of Stationers”, and an implied centre of activity for the production of many manuscripts. Abell seemed to rely on a specific group of border artists: this can be seen, said Maddocks, in specific, repeating features across manuscripts, and she gave some examples of the Roumant limner’s work.

After Holly-Jane came Professor Helen Phillips, of the School of English, Communications & Philosophy at Cardiff University with her talk entitled: “Chaucer’s unstable Wife of Bath in the manuscripts”. The Wife, said Professor Phillips, has been variously described as a Whore of Babylon, a parodic Virgin Mary, and the carnal old Eve; these representations come from the Wife’s Prologue primarily, and in fact the Hengwrt’s marginal label describes her as “The goode Wyf of bisyde Bathe”. There are, however, multiple scribal descriptions of her. Phillips suggested there were two main lexical sets: the Wife of Bath, a title destined to become popular even during Chaucer’s life and the “goode Wif”, corresponding to “goode Man”, which can mean a woman running a business, and also a female citizen of a particular town name, thus expressions like “the goode Wif of Barcapple”, etc. This rich multilayered interpretation was meant by Chaucer, Phillips claims, to have links to the Clerk of Oxenford, and the good man of religion, and whilst Chaucer might have meant there to be a socio-economic portrait of the Wife in the Prologue as a businesswoman her sexual and marital revelations have leached into our full readings of both the Tale that follows and the portrait that comes before it. The notorious, misogynistic display of a bad wife might have been ramped up for comedic effect, and the phrase Wife of Bath became a lexicological term designed to raise a giggle even during Chaucer’s time. The Wife is used, suggests Phillips as a misogynistic icon, and has come to represent a form of masculinist containment. But we should, she says, be careful how much we buy into this sort of belief. There has come to be a conceptualisation of women as wives only, despite their presence in business, and despite the fact that 80% or more of the words in the Wife’s Prologue describe her business state and the confidence her socio-economic status provides her. Chaucer’s time was “a golden age for widows”. We shouldn’t, says Phillips, substitute the notion of the good wife for a businesswoman, but we must recognise the instability in her representation.

After Professor Phillips’ fascinating lecture, and a short break for coffee and biscuits, Dr Liv Robinson of Brasenose College stepped up to define the Chaucerian manuscript through the spectrum of the Roumant of the Rose, the same work focused on by Holly-Jane Maddocks. Dr Robinson also highlighted the way in which the work has been sidelined, possibly because of it’s potential identification as being part of the “counterfeit canon of Chaucerian apocrypha”, and suggested that the way we describe something forms the way we respond to it. Therefore, if we describe something as being marginal, or fragmented, this erodes our sense of its authority. (There are parallels here, of course, to digitised manuscripts: it is so important to determine the words we use to describe our artefacts). The ubiquity of the term “fragment” when describing the Roumant, says Dr Robinson, perpetuates the negative way the work is perceived. The text is generally divided along Chaucerian or non-Chaucerian lines, with anything perceived as not Chaucer assumed to be derivative. Dr Robinson’s lecture was followed by questions and then lunch, and thereafter came Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan as the afternoon session’s keynote speaker. The afternoon, chaired by Professor Lorna Hughes and included talks from Dr Barbara Bordalejo of the University of Saskatchewan and Dr Malte Urban of Queens University, Belfast. The content of their lectures can best be shown through the tweets from the second day, which are incorporated within this Storify (and includes tweets from attendees at the conference over the first two days).

What is fantastic about this sort of conference is not just the opportunity to meet new people (I spoke mostly to Malte, with whom I shared the back row of the Drwm in order to reduce the annoyance to everyone else that might have been caused by our laptops), but the possibility of allowing you to see your own work in a new way or, better yet, (for me at least) to reinforce the ways in which you’re already working. What I was most particularly struck by was the passion everyone brought to their own corners of Chaucerian research, and how interesting everyone made it seem to me. That’s as much a testament to the various speakers as it is to the work of ol’ Geoff himself, who still manages to resonate all this way down the centuries.

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.