Discovering Medieval Manuscripts and their Owners
What did books look like before the arrival of the printing press? What ideas were explored and how did they spread? How did families interact with the subject matter of these manuscripts? These are just some of the questions that Dr Margaret Connolly explores in her research.
Dr Margaret Connolly, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of English at the University of St Andrews, was recently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in collaboration with the School of English and the Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures Research Theme.
In an age of social media and open access where information is freely shared and generated online, Dr Connolly takes us back to a time which preceded the rapid spread of ideas through the invention of the printing press. In her studies on medieval manuscripts, Dr Connolly seeks to provide insights into the owners and the contexts in which these manuscripts were read.
In her public lecture ‘Reading Continuities in an Age of Change: some 15th Century Manuscripts and their Tudor Owners’, delivered during her Fellowship at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Dr Connolly gave the audience a unique insight into a collection of manuscripts owned by an English gentry family in the sixteenth century. Through the manuscript collection of the Roberts Family, of Middlesex, England, Dr Connolly is able to chart the reading habits of two of the family’s members – Thomas Roberts, a lawyer, and his son Edmund Roberts. ‘This is a gentry family, so they don’t have huge illustrated books. Some of these books are passed down; Thomas gives them to his son, and Edmund gives them to his son. Thomas is also bequeathed a book by a lawyer. You could be given books, you could buy books and you could get them handed down.’ Dr Connolly told the audience how Thomas Roberts was married three times and had 24 children, 18 of which were recorded as deceased in the inscription in one of his manuscripts – a Book of Hours. Indeed records of children’s names and further family details were evidenced in other books, and the practice continued on to Edmund’s own family.
During her lecture, Dr Connolly presented a series of examples of Manuscripts from this collection which differed significantly in terms of the design and artwork present. As a gentry family, many of these books would have been small hand held books in terms of size. The digitisation of such resources and images has greatly aided Dr Connolly in her research. ‘At the lecture, I didn’t tell people where these manuscripts were from. For example the medical one isn’t digitized so I only have a few images which I’ve bought from Oxford. When it comes to going back to check another detail in the manuscript which isn’t clear from your notes, you’ve got to go back to Oxford again. The other manuscript is from the John Rylands Library in Manchester and they have helpfully digitized all their Middle English Manuscripts, which means I’m able to look at any page I want and this is of great benefit to my research.’
The complex nature of Dr Connolly’s research is evident in terms of the assertions she can make about the context of these manuscripts and the family which owned them. ‘There’s only eight books in this collection but they must have had many more. Everything I’m able to say about this family is dependent on this selection of the eight books that have survived. If a completely different set of eight books had survived then what I’d be saying about the family might be completely different.’ Another challenge for Dr Connolly in her research is trying to pin down the date and place of the manuscripts. It was very rare for an English scribe to state when and where he had copied the text – something which changed when print technology became established.
Some of these books are what Dr Connolly refers to as a ‘Book of Hours’ – religious service books or books of a devotional nature. ‘This was a book that you would have used at home on your own to work through different prayers for different days of the year. It was a way that ordinary people could imitate the monks in the monasteries.’ In her lecture, Dr Connolly demonstrated how these Tudor owners engaged with the religious content of these manuscripts, in the context of the reformist religious environment of the time. ‘There is almost a sense of being a student with a text book. The process of making those notes is helping you to assimilate it. When I’ve looked at printed books related to my own research I haven’t come across this rich stream of annotations.’
During her fellowship, Dr Connolly spent time examining two manuscripts in the Trinity College Library – both for different projects. ‘One of the manuscripts (MS 352) is a 16th Century ‘commonplace’ book – a manuscript where someone has written down quotations and extracts – like note-taking. These manuscripts are usually around religious themes. We sometimes call these things Miscellanies, which means a manuscript with mixed contents, however this particular manuscript is quite thematic with a strong religious focus.’
The other manuscript that Dr Connolly examined was a different type of miscellany as it includes different kinds of text within it which are not necessarily related to each other (MS 69). ‘People put together books like this before printing. Books at the time weren’t necessarily bound (in individual quires); manuscripts were put together in a collection with a loose covering.’ Dr Connolly says that originally she was interested in this book because of the inclusion of a sermon within it and her interest in a series of Middle English Sermons, however her interests have now moved to questioning why this one sermon was included in this collection with these other texts. ‘Why are these different texts put together in one manuscript? And is it all meant to be part of a unified piece that was intended to be interpreted together? These are all things that I’m not quite sure I’ve got the answers for.’
Dr Connolly says it’s difficult to assess what proportion of medieval writing was on religious topics. ‘If you do a degree in English literature we’ll give you the stellar works of poetry and the entertaining aspects – which are actually quite atypical of the time. For example, if you think of a medieval book shop or library, there would be a tiny section for those pieces and almost all the rest of the texts would be religious.’ She says however that in the pre-print era, where text was copied by hand, it took ideas longer to spread, but the new books ‘do not render the old books redundant’ nor the ideas contained in them.
Dr Connolly also argues that while libraries tend to display the more elaborate and prized collections for public display, ‘ordinary’ commonplace books or manuscripts can tell us more about their makers and readers.
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After completing her MA and PhD degrees at the University of St Andrews, Margaret Connolly took up a lectureship in Medieval and Renaissance English at University College Cork. She was Assistant Dean of Arts there between 1996 and 1999, and in 2004 was promoted to Senior Lecturer. Dr Connonlly was also Government of Ireland Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge in 2002-03 and is a life member of that college. She has taught part-time in the Schools of English and History at the University of St Andrews since moving back to Scotland in 2005.
Dr Connolly specialises in Middle English language and literature (especially devotional and practical prose texts); studies in the manuscript context of medieval texts (especially miscellanies); book history (scribal production, ownership and use of medieval manuscripts); the development of library collections; editing of Middle English texts and textual criticism; medieval translations; and the post-medieval reception of medieval texts, including nineteenth-century Chaucer scholarship.
Dr Connolly, who during her Fellowship worked on two manuscripts in Trinity College Library, is a scholar of medieval English literature, with a particular emphasis on the manuscript contexts in which Middle English texts survive. Her research project complements one of the Trinity College’s key research themes: Manuscripts, Book and Print Cultures.
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