The theme for CulCher this week is ‘sensuality’, and with that in mind, we at Books have chosen to look into the material text – the palpable, tactile wing of the reading experience, provided by the book as a physical object. Daniel Wakelin knows a thing or two about that. He is the Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at St Hilda’s College, and Executive Secretary of the Early English Text Society. His publications include Humanism, Reading, and English Literature, 1430-1530 [OUP, 2007]; Scribal Correction and Literary Craft [CUP, 2014]; and Designing English [Bodleian, 2018].

What recent works of fiction would you recommend to our readers?

The last novel I read was Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox [Atlantic, 2018], a fictional memoir of an eighteenth-century transgender thief.

What about non-fiction?

I’ve just finished Arthur Lochmann’s La Vie Solide [Payot, 2019], a lovely account of why you’ll learn more about philosophy by working as a roofer than by studying PPE…

Favourite medieval manuscript?

Only one?! Ok, if pushed: the ‘Ellesmere Chaucer’, one of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – exquisitely made and illustrated. When I was allowed to consult it, after days of haggling, the unflappable librarian wheeled it in (it takes a trolley) and said: “You can now get started on your research. But first let’s sit and look at the pictures.” She was still enchanted by it after decades caring for it.

Oh go on then, have another one.

OK, it’s less famous but weirder and more wonderful, and like much that’s weird and wonderful it’s in Oxford. It’s a multifolding almanac of astrology, farming advice and a church calendar, illustrated with strange symbols and pictures, and constructed like no other book I’ve handled. I like to show this book – if it is a book – in classes in the Bodleian, because people gasp.

In literature, when did ‘the medieval’ end?

In FHS at 1550! But in lived experience, it depends which country and genre you’re considering. Let me annoy my colleagues and suggest the early 1600s.

One of your specialist areas is palaeography; what does that involve, and what are its implications for literary study? 

Palaeography involves learning to read ancient handwriting, in order to study the texts preserved in manuscript. But it also involves understanding handwriting – its date, place, style, materials, processes – as itself evidence for human creativity and agency – the histories of art, craftsmanship, professional training, ideology, political power, bureaucracy, national identity, religion, gender.

Are there any English manuscripts which remain illegible to you? Or can everything now be read and understood?

I hope none in English! But there is one huge puzzle: the barmy Voynich manuscript [Beinecke MS 408], written in some sort of cipher that nobody can decode. Google it and fall down an interweb rabbit hole to a looking-glass world of crytographers, cranks and conspiracy-theorists. Is it in Hebrew, proto-Romance or a language that strangely escaped record anywhere else? Was it written by aliens, or is it about vampires? Is it a forgery?

Favourite marginal annotation? Are marginalia a genre?

Marginalia often follow conventions like a literary or artistic genre. Some were useful to people because they were so conventional, clear. But some are not. One favourite in the Bodleian is a note on a Latin scientific book of the late 1400s: “Kys my ars sir Rafe”. What did this person have against Sir Ralph?

In medieval manuscripts, what correlation is there between the quality of the materials used and the ‘importance’ of the text?

Usually none! We often focus – on #medievaltwitter and in exhibitions and popular books – on what have been called “remarkable manuscripts” (like the Chaucer manuscript I mentioned). But often important texts appear in humble form, and humble forms often tell us more about the humble people who made and used them. We tried to tell those everyday stories in a Bodleian exhibition Designing English. (This is a shameless plug for my glossy exhibition catalogue.)

Any glaring examples of ‘unremarkable’ manuscripts housing important texts?

One important text is unprepossessing visually: the translation of St Gregory attributed to King Alfred. The Bodleian’s copy [MS Hatton 20], probably made at Alfred’s command, is not overly decorated and is by scribes who are not entirely assured. But it has something of the status of a historical relic for the history of the English language: probably the earliest book made in English to survive. Many people painstakingly translate bits for English Prelims.

Before the invention of print, what were some of the milestones in English book culture?

There are shifts in every generation, but in England quite a few occur or get started in the later 1100s: the styles of handwriting and decoration changed, and these jobs began to move outside the monasteries more often. Then from the late 1300s there is more writing by a wider range of people, and increasingly in English too. Printing in English – first done in Belgium in 1473/74 – entered a culture where literacy had already expanded greatly through handwritten media.

Any exciting upcoming events you’d recommend looking out for?

The British Library has a new exhibition about the history of writing, across cultures and periods: Making Your Mark (until August 27th). As soon as term ends, I’ll be popping up to that.

If you could provide funding for an underexplored area of the field crying out for new research, what would it be?

The other languages used in multilingual medieval England – French, Latin and Hebrew and the neighbouring languages such as Welsh. A beneficial side-effect would be improving our language skills now – vital!

You were recently involved in staging excerpts from a mystery-play cycle. Where are these plays written down, and what performance guidelines are there in the manuscripts?

Some manuscripts were used to check that performances went to plan; some were proud records of local traditions. We also have in the Bodleian a rare survival of an actor’s rough rehearsal text from Norfolk in the 1400s. They’re all sketchy on-stage directions, but brilliant theatre historians such as Meg Twycross and Alexandra Johnson have discovered lots of records of costumes, costs and so on. The gaps are liberating for staging them now: it’s not like staging something by Samuel Beckett where your hands are tied. We saw that in the Oxford mystery plays on 27 April: my group used animated gifs; some groups employed gritty realism (the Crucifixion was truly harrowing); others had updated costumes – vampish devils and a sinner in a Trump mask condemned to damnation.

Why weren’t these plays printed at the time?

They were very local community events, so printing might not have seemed necessary. Their religious content also fell from favour after restrictions on Catholicism from the 1530s on. But from the 1510s people printed the secular Tudor interludes, which are like political debates done as drama: whether you should marry a rich man or a good one, or how to exploit the resources of newly encountered North America.

The Oxford website says you’re working on photography; where’s the link between this and your medieval interests? 

Among my other interests are contemporary art and photography. I became interested how photography changes how we look at medieval manuscripts: the photographer’s tendency to focus on the exceptional; the camera’s ability to zoom in more closely than the people who made these books. This is obvious to critics of modern photography, and medievalists need to think about digital photography carefully. That said, among the first photographs made by Henry Fox Talbot [d. 1877] were pictures of fifteenth-century books. Some appeared in the exhibition Salt and Silver at Tate Britain a few years ago.