#review Manuscript Cataloguing and Book History. The Library. Transactions of the Bibliographical Society. Vol 18, 1. March 2017 p. 45-61

This article on manuscript cataloguing and book history is written by Ralph Hanna, Emeritus Professor of Paleography, University of Oxford. He is editor of Speculum Vitae: A Reading Edition and The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane: A Critical Edition. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for Humanities, and books include The English Manuscripts of Richard Rolle, Liverpool University Press, and A Descriptive Catalogue of the WesternMedieval Manuscripts of St John’s College, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


I found this to be a very strong article, without being verbose, elitest, or erudite other than perhaps words and phrases used by bibliographers and librarians around the world. Hanna weaves what he describes catalogues to be throughout the whole article – that of ‘first-order research tools’ and begins by talking about functionality and good administrative practice. Essentially he talks about the history of bibliographic procedures dating from medieval times – something not entirely previously explored.

Hanna offers up the usual suspects in early-modern antiquarianism such as John Leland and John Bale, and of course Thomas Rud, Thomas Smith, Neil Ker, Humfrey Wanley, and Montague Rhodes James.

“From the grandest surviving English monastic collection, Durham cathedral priory, of which a very substantial portion is still in situ, one still must rely on the work of Thomas Rud, who died in 1732”. (Hanna, 2017, p. 46).

Referring to innovation in cataloguing activities, Hanna claims that James “probably derived the title ‘descriptive catalogue’, repeated in each of his many volumes, from the fine nineteenth-century bibliographer of early print, Thomas F. Dibdin.” (Hanna, 2017, p.47). This type of bibliography is similar to that of Walter Greg, R.B. McKerrow, and Fredson Bowers; all well-known names in the bibliography sphere. On textual criticism, Hanna tells us that manuscript cataloguing has lagged behind with intellectual development.

Hanna also explains Ker’s Sixteen Points of descriptive cataloguing, something now a lot of cataloguers do not adhere to strictly and in fact add even more information into the record. However, he also says that despite the miasma of information about minor features, cataloguers are still often loathe to record marginalia or added text on flyleaves for example. This can result in only recording ‘the original state’ of the item, and Hanna points out to the reader the limitations of this. Later in the article Hanna tells us that Ker’s ‘formula’ could be much better placed as a model for each section of the volume rather than the volume as a whole. I am apt to agree with this, and furthermore, Hanna’s notion that description should include the basic unit of a manuscript i.e. not necessarily the text by the quire, is even more poignant.

“…in their survival, medieval books are relatively seldom the ‘organic wholes’ that most catalogues silently assume that they describe, a perception first made central to discussions by Pamela Robinson.” (Hanna, 2017, p. 59).

Moving swiftly into book history, Hanna walks us through the differences between print copies and hand-copied works and why the cataloguing of them can therefore be quite different. He talks about machinery as mode of production versus the mobile workspace of the scribe, and the fixed library versus the decentralisation of a book collection. This is something that particularly interests me, as I am currently digitally ‘reuniting’ the collection of Llanthany provenance manuscripts for the Llanthony Secunda Priory Trust project in Gloucester.

Finally, using the examples of MS Digby 176, Bodleian Library and MS249, Merton College, Hanna points out two very distinct considerations for the cataloguing of manuscripts, and that both of these should be recorded:

  1. That portions or segments of manuscripts are written in various hands at various times often centuries apart. Therefore any segment is recontextualized by being joined with others into a book; “the includsion or addition of any one equally reconfigured all those previously part of the mix.” (Hanna, 2017, p. 56).
  2. That even when a manuscript appears ‘fixed’ i.e. may have always had all of its present parts, it may have traversed through various sites, states and people that therefore have a had an impact on its meaning. For example it may have been subject to vicious rebinding, or marginalia in additional hands, unexpected or uncharacteristic ownership, or unusual housing. All of these circumstances inflect additional meaning on the manuscript.

Although Hanna states that these notions may set an unusually high bar, I’m inclined to agree with his call to dispense with the cataloguer’s normative formula, and rethink the sense of a static catalogue. This pertains to the development of cataloguing technology, whereby it both replaces the catalogue as a printed volume, and on a plus side, gives the cataloguer the capacity to record large-scale information more efficiently and with the ability to filter and index – a true ‘research tool’.

This is an engaging article about the cataloguing of manuscripts and raises several areas of interest whilst recording the value of historical bibliography.




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