J.J. O'Donnell
University of Pennsylvania

The following remarks appear as the afterword to S. Nichols and S. Wenzel, edd., The Whole Book (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), the proceedings of a conference held at the University of Pennsylvania on the taxonomy of medieval miscellaneous manuscripts.

As Siegfried Wenzel's preface makes clear, this book is a self-exemplifying artifact. It is a codex miscellany devoted to the study of the codex miscellany. To a specialist in late antique texts like myself, accustomed to dismissing the miscellaneity of manuscript contents in order to get at the one or two items of ancient descent that are of real and pressing interest, it is refreshing and intriguing to be held up in my headlong rush and forced to problematize what I have been eager to dismiss.

That eagerness to dismiss is endemic in the category. "Miscellaneity" as a defining characteristic of manuscript collections is a palpably false unity that covers what we perceive to be disorder. It is a Borgesian category: that class of manuscripts which belongs to no class of manuscript. The exercise of attending the remarkably collegial and animated conference where these papers first had life breathed into them, and now the rereading of the printed texts, has the effect of bringing that definition into the foreground of our consciousness and so of destroying, or at least sharply limiting, it. The failures to classify that are brought together in these studies are implicit criticisms of our ability to classify, and in seeking the principles of order that animate these books, we find instructive revision to our instinctive habits of classification.

It is also important to recognize that at least one fundamental change has come over the making of books since these manuscript collections were put together, and it needs to be borne in mind as a constituent element of the incomprehension that separates us from medieval bookmakers. I do not refer precisely to the introduction of print but to the ensuing industrialization of book-making. Once books became a mass market product, it was inevitable that adjustment of the contents to the new, much larger market and its tastes would ensue. One important quality of the machine-made book is transparency of purpose and lucidity of organization. To sell a book, you must make clear to your buyer what the book is. In Hollywood terms, this means that "high concept" is better than "low concept". In the conditions of the early history of the printed book, this meant a kind of distinguishing and packaging of the written product in discreet units or in collections whose coherence would be transparent to a broad public.

We inherit that expectation. When then we come to study medieval manuscripts, which we easily imagine as books quite like ours only lovingly hand-produced, it is precisely those aspects of these books that take advantage of the comparative latitude they enjoyed by reason of not being directed to a larger market that baffle us most readily. Each paper in this collection (and in this is the collection's own miscellaneity) addresses the individuality and idiosyncrasy of one or a few manuscripts, ranging in date over seven centuries and most of the geographical spread of western Europe. But in so doing, the gradual, cumulative impact is to make us more sensitive to what the editors have called "the whole book", that is, the totality of the book and its functions in its medieval settings, redirected from our modern expectations to a broad range of medieval contexts.

In the case of Ann Matter's essay, for example, we get to move behind modern expectations of the edition of a famous theologian's writings (the sort of text of Alcuin that Matter herself labors to produce, and whose identity has been constructed at discrete times in the modern era) to the book-making concerns of a period much closer to his own time. "Schoolbook" turns out to be a rewarding piece of taxonomy to apply: it gives us a context and a purpose quite different from that which we bring to these texts, but one that suddenly dissolves the miscellaneity into a quite satisfactory order. Similarly, Sylvia Huot's focused study of a single manuscript reveals a principle of order (Marian devotion) otherwise veiled from us by the rebarbativeness of that ideology to modern scholarly preconceptions.

In other ways, the studies presented here dissolve the perceived miscellaneity of their targets and in so doing eat away at our presumptions about what makes books. Stephen G. Nichols' paper looks in a way backwards rather than forwards and reminds us that the codex itself as principle of organization is a contingent thing, implicitly comprehensive and inclusive by contrast to other ways of organizing texts. Our expectation that the exploitation of a medium of communication is simultaneous with its introduction is a false one, and the medieval trajectory of the codex book reminds us that the exploitation of the medium was elaborated in stately stages over most of a millennium.

With Ralph Hanna's discussion of the conditions of production we come to a pragmatic consideration of the alternatives to genre as organizing principles in a setting in which even the language of the manuscript is a variable consideration. The studies by Julia Boffey and A.S.G. Edwards form a triptych with Hanna's piece in a way, Boffey using a modern editorial kind of question (tracing the "minor poems", a phrase already embodying a generic judgment of great importance, of John Lydgate) to show how the boundaries between the physical and the intellectual conditions of production are important but difficult to trace, with precisely the intellectual conditions the hardest to reconstruct. Edwards, on the other hand, shows a late stage in manuscription collection, when the future is beginning to be discernible. The figure "Chaucer" begins to be an organizing feature in manuscripts, and his aggrandizement means emphasis on the large and important work, with then a deliberate attempt to orchestrate a place for the lesser works on a charted landscape. We are not quite yet at the stage I spoke of earlier, where we create the author by collecting and organizing the works, but one can just begin to see here the first intimations of such an inclinationn.

Two of the most tantalizing pieces in this collection offer a different reminder: that even our idea that a physical book should be a closed, fixed artifact is an artificial one derived from the economic and physical pragmatics of print culture. Siegfried Wenzel's study of sermon collections shows that the boundary between "collection" and "notebook" is far more fluid in these MSS than in modern books; by "notebook" I take him to mean something like an open-ended collection created and arranged for its usefulness to the owner/author, making sense purely in terms of the owner/author's needs (which change from time to time), and frozen in time as a definable, catalogueable "book" only when the life goes out of it, when the owner/author ceases to use it. Such a book is like a house abandoned by its owner: we may enter it and find much of interest for our purposes, even take away a few treasures for ourselves, but often we will shake our head at the disarray, the odd arrangement of possessions, the curious gaps in collections -- when indeed, the house was perfectly liveable only a short time before. To extend that metaphor, a sermon "collection" begins to be a bit more like a bed and breakfast establishment, inhabited by the owner and used in obvious ways, but still made open to a public clientele as well. The modern printed book, to extend the metaphor past the breaking point, is a discount chain motel, deliberately made lifeless in the interests of universal utility.

So then the fascinating Munich manuscript that G.N. Knauer displays is just such a disorderly house of extraordinary interest. The translation of the Batrachomyomachia that he extracts from it is a pearl of great price, and Knauer's study has the merit of painstaking "archaeological" reconstruction of the site in which it is found, with profit for both our knowledge of the poem's translation history and our knowledge of Reuchlin and his rich intellectual milieu.

We return then at the end of the collection here to miscellaneity in its most diverse form. Barbara Shailor, a distinguished cataloguer of medieval manuscripts, reports, like a 19th-century explorer back from a remote continent, on specific challenges to taxonomy and interpretation that individual manuscripts and fragments pose. Read in the context of the other pieces in this volume, her essay shows clearly the power and the limits of the notion of miscellaneity, and the value to be found repeatedly in breaking through the crust of that notion, in using it as a marker that puzzles of particular interest and difficult lie beneath the surface.

It is here also that I will suggest that the value of the approach taken in this conference and this volume becomes clear. "Miscellaneity" arises as a class of the unclassed, a scandal to our attempts to wrestle the past into an order and shape comfortable to ourselves. The value of these studies taken together will have been that they allow no settled pursuit of a single trajectory of interpretation or ideology, but that they repeatedly derail the reader's expectations -- just as the manuscripts studied here have done -- and represent by implication elements of diversity in medieval Latin and vernacular culture that are otherwise likely to be subdued into silence and order. If this volume leaves those gabbling their multiple messages at us excitedly and reminds us that this is the natural condition of mankind and human culture, then precisely in the disorderliness of this volume will its excellence be perceived. The reader who cherishes that cheerful raffishness in this volume will find that it is a book that has not yet had the life sucked out of it by the process of publication, but one that lives robustly in the way its derailed expectations startle the reader into fresh perceptions of order.