Teaching Yourself the Codex

This month, Naomi Gardom writes about teaching herself palaeographical skills for a project on Merton MS 95. Naomi is a third-year undergraduate historian at Merton College, Oxford, and received funding from the College for her project. 

Meeting a manuscript for the first time is a unique experience, similar only to going on a blind date. When I met Merton MS 95 for the first time, I was nervous and excited in equal measure. I had selected this manuscript from hundreds of others in the Merton collection. I had read up on it in all the available catalogues, anxious to be as prepared as possible for the big day. I had weighed up our compatibilities, the things I was going to have to make adjustments for. I knew that, when the meeting did take place, it could be the start of something important. My palms were sweaty. I felt much too inexperienced for this.

Merton MS 95, f. 17r. Photo Naomi Gardom, courtesy of Merton College, Oxford.

This summer, thanks to the generosity of Merton College, Oxford, I undertook eight weeks of research, investigating a fourteenth-century manuscript in its collection. As an undergraduate, I had never been let loose on a codex before, and it was quite a challenge to design a project which was achievable in the time, and with the skills I already possessed or could pick up. I decided that it would be simplest to investigate one manuscript – the Merton MS 95 – and glean all that I could from it. The attraction of MS 95 lay in the fact that it contained two of my favourite texts: Isidore’s Etymologiae and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. It also had an interesting provenance, having been bequeathed to the college by Robert de Keterynham, rector of St. Gregory’s in London in 13??.

However, for all that I absorbed from Rodney Thomson’s excellent descriptive catalogue of Merton’s medieval manuscripts, I still embarked on the project practically skill-less. Thankfully, MS 95 turned out to be a very lucky choice. The script – a sort of bastard anglicana – was fairly straightforward to pick up, and moreover the hand was both large and consistent. Furthermore, there exist critical editions of all the texts that MS 95 contains, which meant that, to start with at least, I was working alongside a crib until I got the hang of the forms. The codex was well-preserved, with a number of interesting and attractive features: two contents pages, both post-dating the body of the manuscript, revealed that a number of other texts had originally been included, which were subsequently lost. These included extracts from the Chronicon of Marianus Scottus, and two further works of Bede, both scientific tracts. This lent quite a different flavour to the remaining works, and suddenly it became possible to envisage some intentionality behind their compilation, which was very exciting.

Furthermore, the manuscript contained considerable evidence for its usage. I found an abundance of markings in the Bede, and very few in the Isidore. I am indebted here to Teresa Webber’s exhibition at the Weston Library in May of this year, which displayed four copies of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica in which passages had been marked up in such a way as to facilitate reading aloud. This led me to look for passages marked similarly in MS 95; I found that a considerable number of the same passages were marked in MS 95 as were routinely marked in monastic copies as liturgical readings (for more on this, see T. Webber, ‘Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica as a Source of Lections in Pre- and Post-Conquest England’, in The Long Twelfth-Century View of the Anglo-Saxon Past, ed. Martin Brett and David A. Woodman (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015), pp. 47-74). However, they were not marked in such a way as to make it possible to use them liturgically: very often they were merely marked ‘miraculum’ or with a manicule, in a variety of hands. This led me to believe that the manuscript had had a common usage, perhaps in its life at St. Gregory’s before being bequeathed to Merton, but that this usage was not liturgical.

As a Fisher-Price My First Manuscript (TM), I could not have picked better than Merton MS 95. However, I remain aware that lack of skills hindered the value of the project, and particularly the extent to which I could engage with any of the existing scholarship on this and similar manuscripts. For instance, having no previous experience of palaeography, I could make no advance on Rodney Thomson’s designation of the hand as ‘14th century…with some anglicana forms’. I would love to revisit the work having undertaken a more systematic study of palaeography and codicology.

Naomi Gardom, Merton College, University of Oxford.

3 Replies to “Teaching Yourself the Codex”

  1. Congratulations! It appears you had a successful first date. MS 95 will stay with you throughout your life and career and you will meet again when you are teaching in your field. All the best!

    Michele — I’m just an old English tutor who digs this stuff.


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