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"Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance"

Circa 1075 to 1225

From the website of the Leiden University VIDI Project coordinated by Dr. Erik Kwakkel, "Manuscript innovation in the twelfth-century renaissance," selected quotations regarding purposes and goals from a 2014 posting. The project ran from 2010-2015.

"While the medieval manuscript underwent over a thousand years of development by the hands of a variety of cultures, one particular age stands out in that it arguably introduced more innovations than any other: the period 1075-1225, also referred to as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance” (Benson and Constable 1991; Haskins 1927; Swanson 1999). While this established term might be historiographically restrictive (Jaeger 2003; see also Thomson 2002), the notion it covers (one cultural movement that unites scholars in different fields and geographical locations) is useful in that it brings under one umbrella a number of related historical events, such as monastic reform, establishment of universities, birth of scholasticism, revival of jurisprudence, and the introduction of Greek and Arabic philosophy. This “Great Awakening” of Europe (Knowles 1962, Chap. 7) gave alacrity and optimism to educated society, whose members sensed they were living in a time different from their immediate past and who contemplated, often explicitly, their role in the course of history and the new present (Abulafia 2006; Jaeger 1994). The term “renaissance of letters” is sometimes used to accentuate that this cultural movement was primarily driven by intellectuals (Damian-Grint 1999; Luscombe 2004; Verger 1995), first those in Northern France, Belgium and Northern Italy, followed suit by kindred spirits in Southern Italy, Germany and Spain. These intellectuals — who lacked cohesion other than a shared background (a “career”, perhaps) in higher education, a deep yearning for knowledge and the sense that classical ideas ought to be revived in their life-time — exchanged ideas through texts and letters, which were disseminated through the main intellectual centers in medieval Europe, monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. Here the new voices, presenting new ideas in a new language of eloquence, were read and heard, and contradicted and expanded upon, by a broad range of intellectuals, from St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of Malmesbury to Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury.

"Overall aim

"The research project described here does not focus on the Twelfth-Century Renaissance as such, nor exclusively on book innovations in this age. Rather, it presents an innovative blend of the two: it aims to show how a changing literary taste, a shift in the use of texts, and a new outlook on the world among intellectuals had a direct and immediate influence on the physical appearance of manuscripts. In an age that is defined by the introduction of an unusually high number of new authors (foreign and home-grown), texts (original Latin works and translations) and genres (natural philosophy, encyclopedia), as well as a new approach to reading and evaluating the written word (through the scholastic method), it became important for readers to own manuscripts that presented texts in an entirely different format than the vehicles they inherited from the Carolingians (9th-11th centuries). This research project aims to show that to meet these demands, a new manuscript was cast in the twelfth century, custom-tailored for use in the new age. Certain elements of this new book have already been examined, such as its script (Derolez 2001, Chap. 3), decoration (Cahn 1996), bookbinding (Sheppard 1995) and the glossing it frequently contains (De Hamel 1984). Furthermore, the contexts of its production and use have been illuminated for some individual copies (Donovan 1993; Gibson 1992; Gullick 1990), regional branches (Kaufmann 1975; Ker 1955; Thomson 1998; Thomson 2006) or monastic houses (Palmer 1998, Chap. 2; Thomson 1982). However, the manuscript as a whole and as a new European book format has to date been largely ignored, as has the historical backdrop of its creation, a pan-European intellectual movement. What has been studied in depth is its successor, a book known as the “Gothic Manuscript”, the handwritten book produced between c. 1200 and c. 1530 that is defined by a new script (Gothic script), certain ornamental motives, standardization in the production stages, and a commercial production environment (Derolez 1996). The proposed project focuses on the “lost” century in the history of medieval written culture, the period between the conclusion of the Carolingian age (c. 1100) and the start of the Gothic period (c. 1200), an epoch in which the physical book is in transition from one prolific format to another. 

"Over the course of the twelfth century, manuscript production and the manner in which books were used had turned over a new leaf: a new script was introduced (known as the “Littera Praegothica”), new decoration emerged (so-called “proto-penwork” flourishing) and new aids for the reader were invented. The latter dimension proves to be of particular importance in understanding the establishment of the new book format, which can, for now, be called the “pregothic manuscript”, for lack of a better term. As this project aims to demonstrate, the majority of book innovations introduced between c. 1100 and c. 1200 were aimed either at improving the speed with which information in the book or on the page could be accessed, or facilitated a better understanding of the complex intellectual discourse that the texts of this age often presented. In short, the new format facilitated an improved “book fluency”, to borrow Kelly’s term, or the ability to read a text (presented on a page) quickly and accurately. While in the late eleventh century book culture nearly completely lacked tools that could rise to these occasions, by the outset of the thirteenth century scribes had a rich palette of aids at their disposal that facilitated comprehension and speedy access, such as pagination, running titles, paragraphs, quotation marks, footnotes, cross references, diagrams, marginal keywords clarifying the argumentation (“first argument”, “second”, “third”, etc.), the use of abbreviated names of authorities as marginal reference tools (“aug” for Augustine, “am” for Ambrose), interplay between various text colors, availability of multiple script types and sizes (“hierarchy of scripts”), and a layout that visually distinguished between main text and “add-ons” (commentary, reference, etc.). These revolutionary “paratextual” features define the pregothic manuscript, the project claims, because they were instrumental for the new breed of European scholars. They prompted what the philosopher Ivan Illich calls a “bookish culture” (Illich 1996) in that they helped to organize knowledge, convert words into arguments and open a dialogue between reader and author." 

"The project will be primarily based on 250 manuscripts written between 1075 and 1225 (the traditional boundaries of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance) present in the so-called Catalogues des Manuscrits Datés, or CMD (Derolez 2009). This source, which has seen rapid growth over the past five years and can now be used for inquiries such as the present, contains hundreds of manuscripts. The inclusion of an item is based on the presence of a scribal colophon stating when a book was made, and each entry includes a transcription of this colophon, as well as one or more images and a rudimentary manuscript description. This unique tool, which, in spite of its excellent suitability for this task, has to date never been used in an historical investigation of this kind, enables us to firmly date the emergence (and disappearance) of certain physical features. The corpus of 250 manuscripts will be expanded with a selection of other manuscripts that can with certainty be tied to a particular year of production, bringing the total to no more than 300 manuscripts. It is anticipated that most of these manuscripts will have been written in Latin. However, the project includes investigations into the application of the new book format in the European vernacular traditions...."

Timeline Themes