Tuesday 23 November 2010

Author, authority and books in Benevento

Dr Rosalind Love writes:

Ten days ago I stepped off the crazy whirl of Cambridge term-time to attend the 6th Congress of the International Medieval Latin Committee, at Naples and Benevento (10-13 November). After inaugural speeches at the University of Suor Orsola Benincasa in Naples, two coach-loads of medieval latinists embarked for Benevento, causing total gridlock, a cacophony of car-horns and colourful Neapolitan execration. At the rather quieter city of Benevento we witnessed a remarkable event: the coming-home of the first item to be repatriated under the Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009. In 1943 the Allies bombarded Benevento, flattening most of it, including the Cathedral and the Metropolitan Chapter Library. The manuscripts were taken to safety in a hand-cart, but in the confusion one went missing and ended up for sale in Naples, where it was bought in 1944 by an English officer, Captain Ash. The book, a 12th-century illuminated missal in characteristic Beneventan script, and was bought at auction in 1947 for the then British Museum and catalogued as MS Egerton 3511. Later, although Benevento had proved its original ownership, requests for the missal’s return foundered on legislation preventing the British Library from ‘alienating’ any of its holdings, and even when the Spoliation Advisory Panel, set up to examine the loss of artefacts during the Nazi era, judged in 2005 that the book should go back to Benevento on loan, the BL’s rules about the safe-keeping of its manuscripts prevented it. A British journalist, Martin Bailey (of The Art Newspaper), and then more recently a lawyer, Jeremy Scott, took up the case, which was ultimately swung by the 2009 Act. Jeremy Scott finally handed the missal (which had travelled inside a box inside officially-sealed wrappings inside a padlocked case – after all that, thankfully a satisfyingly fat codex!) over to Monsignor Andrea Mugione, the Archbishop of Benevento (in the picture below, with Dr Mario Iadanza, Director of the Office of Culture in the Archdiocese), in the presence of us medieval latinists, the great and good of Benevento, and a hoard of paparazzi. It was rather a moving moment, not least because the handing-back took place within minutes of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

After that excitement, it was down to business for the 200 of us attending the Congress, whose theme was ‘Auctor et auctoritas’. I was there to represent a research project with which I’ve been involved since 2007, ‘Boethius in Early Medieval Europe. Commentary on The Consolation of Philosophy from the 9th to the 11th centuries’, funded for five years by the Leverhulme Trust and headed by Professor Malcolm Godden, of the University of Oxford, with Dr Rohini Jayatilaka as full-time researcher (see the project website). Written in about 525 as the exiled Boethius awaited execution, the Consolation is a remarkable work which is thought to have been ‘rediscovered’ in the late 8th century by Alcuin, and then steadily gained in popularity, prompting translations into Old English and Old High German, for example. Lady Philosophy’s effort to console her ‘pupil’ meant confronting BIG questions of universal interest: why evil people often seem to prosper, why bad things happen to good people, what true happiness is, how humans can have free will under the gaze of an omniscient God with a divine plan.

'Philosophia', in the tenth-century Canterbury
copy of the Consolation in Trinity College, Cambridge

Our project focuses on the nearly 80 manuscripts of the text surviving from the period up to ca. 1100. Almost all of them preserve annotation, sometimes very dense, reflecting medieval readers’ responses to every aspect of Boethius’s text, from his neo-platonic philosophy, his stories from Rome’s history and Classical mythology, to his quotations from Greek literature. The project aims to transcribe all of the annotation; these glosses have been studied before, but it always seemed an impossible task to assemble them all, for a complete overview of such a key text’s reception. The digital era, and a lot of hard work by my Oxford colleagues, has made it feasible, so we’re close to having all the material in hand – nearly 3000 pages of it – and are starting to edit for publication, of both the full corpus of Latin and Old English glossing and also a select version (based on one heavily-glossed copy from early 11th-century Abingdon, now in Cambridge, UL, Kk.3.21) with a translation into modern English, for a more general audience. The select edition will represent the ‘consumption’ of the Consolation in England around the year 1000, when interest in it peaked.

What I tried to show at Naples is that questions of both author and authority seem irrelevant in the case of glosses. The densest annotation suggests a steady accumulation of ideas across several periods and places, which often end up being presented all together, in many-layered glosses that read like a seminar: ‘some say it means this, other that or another thing; philosophers claim such and such, but that’s wrong because….’Another speaker in my session, Mariken Teeuwen, who led a project based at the Huygens Institute (in the Hague) on the glossing to another highly influential text, Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, made very much the same point, that glosses show scholarly authority constantly being tested and questioned. She noted that similar conclusions emerge from the recent online project on the St Gall Priscian put together by someone very familiar to ASNC, namely Pádraic Moran, now based in Galway. Glosses take us right to the heart of the way knowledge circulated and scholarly debate was conducted in the Middle Ages: will they be analysing our marginal jottings in 3010?

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