Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom, eds. Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts

Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom, eds. Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts. Philadelphia: Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies / University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. x, 162 p., 18 colour plates, 9 b/w ill. ISBN 9780812247596. US $45.00; UK £29.50 (hardback).

This book assembles a short collection of essays broadly relating to the different ways in which knowledge in the medieval world was organised and classified in and by manuscripts and book-collecting culture. Starting life as papers presented at an annual Schoenberg symposium on manuscript studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the volume functions as something of a festschrift for the founder of Penn Libraries’ Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, the late Lawrence J. Schoenberg, and it offers six complementary approaches to how manuscript evidence may be used to provide insights on the ways in which literary, scientific, geographic, devotional, and hagiographic knowledge was categorised and interpreted in the later Middle Ages. Just how did medieval readers use manuscripts to access, process, and analyse information, and how does the physical, material organisation of a book effect and affect that?

Elizaveta Strakhov’s essay opens the collection and examines a manuscript of French lyric verses held at the University of Pennsylvania (MS Codex 902) that contains a number marked in the text “Ch,” which some commentators conjectured could signify Chaucerian authorship. Strakhov looks beyond authorship to generic taxonomy for a more accurate (if perhaps – for Chaucerians – less exciting) answer. Formal similarities indicating a preference for reading rather than singing unites these lyrics, and provide in miniature an index of the shift towards a more literary than aural culture for this work. The question of how to “place” poetic works within a collection, and how to make sense of that placement, is also the subject of Mary Franklin-Brown’s discussion of how medieval Scholastic compilers went about defining poetics in relation to other disciplines – be it grammar, rhetoric, logic, or philosophy. Geography is the subject of Alfred Hiatt’s wonderfully illustrated treatment of how the medieval chronicle and encyclopedia genres attempted to contain and represent the world in a book. We see, for example, how visual mapping complemented textual representation in medieval encyclopedias from the twelfth century onwards, and how texts themselves organised navigation on the page and through a book. After Charles Burnett’s treatment of Latin manuscript traditions of scientific Arabic texts, Katherine Breen again links readerly engagement with more extra-textual activity in her substantial essay on the organisational unit of Langland’s Piers Plowman: the passus or “step. Piers was a poem to be walked, rather than sung or read, it is argued, and Breen brilliantly locates the complex itinerary of the work to allegorical and pictorial representations of vices and virtues in earlier medieval devotional texts. Sara S. Poor closes the collection with an essay on the organisation of a fifteenth-century legendary (Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum MS 2261), and guidance given to its readers by the compiler, an Augustinian nun, Anna Eybin. The manuscript and essay offer a valuable case study of the relationship between editorial practice and the devotional, instrumental operations of a book.

Taken as a whole, this modestly sized volume combines manuscript-specific discussion with more wider-ranging thematic and formal studies, and also offers engaging contributions to Chaucer and Langland studies. This collection will be of interest to SHARP members working in western medieval manuscript studies, and in particular to those interested in the technologies of the book, and how textual and paratextual matter not only presents but produces knowledge.

Matthew Woodcock
University of East Anglia

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