Inside the display space provided in the Bodleian’s exhibition room, Nicholas Perkins, guest curator and medievalist at St Hugh’s, has packed together the narrative gems of the medieval period: manuscript, book, and artefact. Second year English undergrads who spent Hilary term devouring the vivid poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can finally confront the poem as relic in the only surviving copy, British Library Cotton Nero A.x, which is as large as a Book of Common Prayer, and whose clumsy illustrations feature a polka-dotted seductress.
But it isn’t all vellum and illumination. Perkins’ vision was to pay tribute not only to the range of material from medieval romance, but to the enduring legacy of romance which extends to Tolkien and Harry Potter. Romance has survived, Perkins believes, because ‘It unlocks the power of storytelling…It’s about desire – whether that’s for money or wealth or women – and it relies on apparently very simple story patterns.’
These manuscripts are survivors of a past age where books were reserved for the few, and, as such, their owners wanted to leave their mark of authorship. Collectors that acquired medieval manuscripts often had them rebound in their own coat of arms or style.
One of Perkins’ favourite items is MS Bodl. 264, an ornate and gold-leaf-illustrated cycle of Alexander the Great, one of the Bodleian’s most treasured manuscripts. There are ‘fantastic illustrations not only in the pages but all around the outside as well: monstrous animals, games – quite risqué things that are going on in the margins’, says Perkins. ‘It’s full of life and energy.’,
Though students can’t expect to be able to access items like Ms Bodl. 264 without the assistance of their tutors, Perkins praises the accessibility of digital archives, ‘Ironically, the [manuscripts] that are least accessible in person are often really accessible online.’
The exhibit, he suggests, emphasizes the point pioneering book historian Don McKenzie made: ‘Form effects meaning’. Perkins suggests we should always acknowledge a book’s materiality. ‘It should remind us that when we’re reading, say, Dickens, it’s still important that the Penguin Classics text doesn’t really look like the one Dickens published in the 19th century.’
The book and its value is not something strictly bound up with manuscript culture. Books have always been – and remain – items of value; they are beautiful, physical, interactive, and malleable. Surviving manuscripts are ‘a sign of what’s lost,’ says Perkins. The digital age presents new benefits and challenges to literary culture. It is technology which opens up the past and enables newcomers and the uninitiated to interact with valuable works of literature in an unprecedented way. However, we do not know what we will lose in the process.