Friday, August 11, 2017

The Most Important Book?

I have been thinking a lot, over the last few weeks, about the 1731 fire that struck the Ashburnham House in Westminster, including the library where the Cotton and Royal collections of manuscripts were housed. Famously, of course, this fire damaged the Beowulf manuscript, but it also more or less completely destroyed other treasures that we might now wish to have been preserved. Such are the dangers of this world, I suppose.

The Beowulf manuscript, as Kevin Kiernan writes, "was presumably saved for us by being thrown from the window" (Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, 2nd ed., p. 68; my subsequent reference to Kiernan will be from this same book and edition). The Beowulf manuscript was felt to have no greater importance than any other book on those shelves, and it was less important than many of them. The librarians of the time would surely have seen it as less important than the manuscript of Asser's Vita Alfredi [The Life of King Alfred], a book which was thoroughly destroyed in the fire. 

There was, however, one book that the librarians of that day felt did deserve a special effort to save: the book we now call the Codex Alexandrinus (London, British Library Royal 1. D. v-viii). This book, a Greek manuscript probably dating from the early fifth century, remains a key early example of a nearly complete Greek Bible.

At the time of the fire, however, it was likely that David Casley, who made the special effort to save this book (Kiernan 68), saw it not only as the most important book under his care, but as the single most important physical book in the world.

Perhaps it says everything about me as a book collector, but I have, I can admit, sometimes entertained the question of what book I would save from my own library, should a fire somehow break out in my home. It would have to be a book I value for its uniqueness, I think, and thus probably a manuscript, rather than a printed book. 
Perhaps I would save this fine, large leaf.

But here, I am afraid, I stumble: I have a small collection of manuscripts and fragments, and some of them are beautiful, and unique, and I cherish them. But I don't know that I own anything that is truly important in the world. Or, rather, all of my fragments have an importance--but it is so small in the world at large, so featherweight, that I find it impossible to judge which is the one I ought to save. Probably, I'd just resort to throwing whatever I could from the window. 

But I have begun to wonder, too, about the other question Casley's choice of books raises for me: is there, today, a single book that people might find to be the single most important physical book in the world? If the Codex Alexandrinus is no longer seen as the single most important Bible manuscript, would we still believe or claim that a Bible manuscript is the most important book in the world? We might--but I think there are many who might qualify it by saying it is the most important book for Christians. 

If I accept such a qualification, I am not at all sure I could point to any single book or manuscript of such significant, worldwide importance. Perhaps, after all, they are all important, and their importance is just difficult to weigh.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mini-Catalogue 176: Mostly Ephemera, Mostly Children's Books, etc

Though it's late on a Monday, it's not too late, I hope, to post a link to a little catalogue of scarce or collectible children's books and ephemera and local items (WV, OH, PA, mostly). 
First edition of this
children's classic.

The items included range from 1810 to the 1956 (I think?) and--as usual in my catalogues--they are no so much linked together by a common theme as they are linked by being unusual and--in my opinion, at least--interesting in one way or another.

Unlike the first edition of Fred Gipson's Old Yeller, most of the items included in this list are from the nineteenth century, but perhaps the one I find most appealing is the early twentieth-century edition of Lewis Carroll's classics, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with four colorful original chromolithographs, and--especially unusual--with the original dust jacket.

The general rule of thumb for collectors seems to be that books after 1920 are expected to include their jackets, if they were issued with them, but it's expected that older books will have lost theirs. In practice, a good number of books published after 1920 are still collectible without jackets, but the jackets themselves often represent more monetary value than the books.

There is no publication date present on this Alice, but OCLC lists a date of 1917 as a guess, so it's definitely an early and scarce jacket. It's not perfect, but at a hundred years old, who of us will be?

Here's the link to the catalogue: I hope it's interesting to look at, even if there's nothing you need.

Friday, August 4, 2017


There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

More troubling to me is the argument that the very structure of the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies embeds and embodies an institutional racism, especially since the origins of the discipline were almost always built around discovering or rediscovering “authentic” Anglo-Saxon origins: whether that was Archbishop Matthew Parker hoping to throw off the yoke of Roman Christian practice, or nineteenth-century philologists like the Grimm brothers, hoping to discover an authentic German-ness. There is nothing wrong, of course, in wishing or hoping to discover something authentic about the past: the trouble comes in when that kind of authenticity is associated with purity and superiority, when the supposedly inauthentic is seen as corruption. The truth (if we can know such a thing) seems to be that there was nothing pure about even the earliest Anglo-Saxon culture: the Sutton Hoo ship burial includes items from Merovingian Gaul and even from Byzantium: such cosmopolitan connections were apparently deeply valued. And subtracting off those pieces doesn’t leave us with the essential truth of Anglo-Saxon culture, it only leaves us with a fragment instead of a whole.

It is admittedly difficult to draw a firm line between the authentic and the pure, and I myself suspect that some modern disciplinary structures in Anglo-Saxon studies might rightly be criticized for crossing that line. Yet the institutional racism that results can hardly be understood as a problem internal to Anglo-Saxon studies. At least in this country, the hiring of Anglo-Saxon scholars into academic positions is virtually always accomplished by people who are not themselves Anglo-Saxonists. Thus the ranks of working academic Anglo-Saxonists are people who have been selected and chosen by other scholars from outside the field—and their judgments about what the field is and should be. These people making the hiring decisions, I think it is safe to say, may not always be as reflective about the field of Anglo-Saxon Studies as are Anglo-Saxonists themselves.

I will consider just one specific issue, at the risk of irritating or angering some of my Anglo-Saxonist friends. At many universities in the US, Anglo-Saxonists are expected to or encouraged to also teach Old Norse language and literature. Undergraduates often love such course offerings, as they often love Old English. That love, indeed, is one of the shaping structures of modern Anglo-Saxon studies, and yet it is in turn shaped by public, rather than academic, discourses about the past. Considered dispassionately, Old High German and Old Saxon traditions are closer linguistically and culturally (as West Germanic languages) to Old English than is Old Norse. But most of the significant Old Saxon and Old High German poetry is explicitly Christian, inflected by foreign, Roman influence. The Old Norse saga tradition allows us to get at the pagan, warrior culture much more directly, and it is (therefore?) much more exciting. My point, of course, is that what we Anglo-Saxonists choose to teach is, indeed, shaped by interests and desires that come surprisingly close to a search for (or interest in) pure, untainted, Germanic origins. It is part of why we put Beowulf at the center of our study.

Now, I love Beowulf, and I think it is one of the great works of world literature, and it may deserve its place at the center of our discipline: but we need to be clearer, I think, about how and why a work like Beowulf gets its place and deserves its place (the two things have not been the same for Beowulf, I think). And not thinking clearly about that distinction, or not thinking clearly about things like why we teach Old Norse alongside Beowulf so much more often than we teach Old Saxon alongside it, leaves us subject to all the hazards of other kinds of not thinking clearly.

[And let me be clear: I am making no effort here to call out any individual who teaches Old Norse in preference to Old Saxon: I am calling out our discipline as a whole; students who demand or respond to such courses differentially; departmental structures and course-offerings; and the hiring-decision-makers at all levels who respond to their own sets of beliefs and ideas. All of these people and groups shape the discipline, and my point is that the current state of the field does indeed more often teach Old Norse than Old Saxon, and that that very practice is worth attending to. I am asking for self-reflection on the part of those of us who are now in the discipline. Likewise: increasing the diversity of academic Anglo-Saxonists is a laudable goal that I support, but if our habit of teaching Old Norse supports or derives from a search for Germanic purity, the discipline might still embody biases that look an awful lot like institutional racism. Solving these problems must surely involve Anglo-Saxonists, and students, and colleagues who make hiring, staffing, and curricular decisions—but just as surely, these structures are interlinked to structures that run right through our culture, and they won’t be easy to replace. And yes, teaching Old Norse is every bit as valuable as teaching Beowulf: but how we do these things structurally matters. The work before us will not be easy and it must involve us and others.]

Throughout much of the discussion that I’ve seen online surrounding these issues, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, and the alt-right, are the bogey men whose use or invocation of Anglo-Saxon works like Beowulf and the very term “Anglo-Saxon” itself are driving the discussion. Most academics, perhaps reasonably, do not wish to be associated with such groups and their politics. But the usual claim that I have seen being made about these groups is that they “mis-appropriate” Anglo-Saxon literature or culture. [Medievalists, it turns out, are as likely as anyone else to tell others online that they are doing it wrong; I'm probably guilty of it here in my own essay.] But the claim of mis-appropriation is an extremely odd one, it seems to me—because it makes an unargued assertion about who owns the Anglo-Saxon period, its literature and its history, and their meanings. Unsurprisingly, academics seem to want to believe or claim that they own the meanings, and that they can judge what is or is not misappropriation.

But the truth is, the past is the common heritage and legacy of us all. It is wrong of academics to claim—however obliquely—ownership of the medieval past and its meanings. Of course, academics are indeed interested parties—but so are the white supremacists, after all, at least to hear them tell it. I don’t like or agree with what the white supremacists do with Anglo-Saxon materials—and I am glad they don’t own them either. Beowulf is not the heritage of any racial group in particular (my own Northumbrian ancestors give me no advantage or disadvantage in reading or interpreting Beowulf). Instead, Beowulf is part of the heritage of all who speak English, and indeed, of all the world. We all—including we academics—must share Beowulf and its meanings, rather than hoard them.

Beowulf (and at this point in my little essay, I hope it is clear that the poem stands in for all the texts and artifacts of the medieval past) must be shared on an open-access basis. The great challenge of open access, of course, is the way it suggests that academics must give up any desire to control meanings. Why make digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts open to all, if academics nonetheless still hope to control or own the meanings made from them? Open access, it seems to me, is meaningless (perhaps I should say pointless) without a different, less restricted vision of the ownership of meanings.

The role of academics in an open access world, it seems to me, will be perhaps to moderate, to persuade, to teach. The open access world will be filled with crazy, crackpot theories, but who is served if academics refuse to acknowledge them because their authors are not academically credentialed? [At the risk of answering my own rhetorical question, it seems to me that academics are served, because such a practice lets them try to maintain their supposed ownership of meaning.] Beowulf teaches us—or tries to—that hoarding is ultimately useless: but this is a lesson it seems that academics and white supremacists both need to learn. The one group needs to stop trying to hoard meaning, since it is impossible; the other needs to learn that hoarding purity is also impossible, no matter how it is defined. Is it wrong of me to suspect that these two groups might help teach each other such lessons?

Most academics, I think it is safe to say, will hesitate to believe that they can learn anything at all from white supremacists—but I worry that this, too, is an expression of an essential belief that the academic world owns meanings. That belief, too, it now seems to me, is also a kind of a dream of hoarded purity.

At the very least, if we have any hope at all of teaching and reaching those whose ideas and meanings are different from our own, we must have and even cultivate the humility to admit that all of our hoarded meanings have never enabled us to purchase Truth. It is a lesson, even, that we might yet learn from Beowulf.

ADDENDUM (August 11, 2017)

One of the great delights of my life is learning, and I am happy to say that, even at my age, I can still learn. In the blog post above, I hoped to share some of my thinking on a topic close to my heart. I have learned some things, in the aftermath, that might also be worth sharing. These are not all the things I have learned, nor do I believe that my learning is complete, but they are the things I am ready to write about here. And my thanks—to all those who wrote to me or communicated with me in a spirit of teaching or helping me to learn—could not be more heartfelt or sincere.

I learned I should have not described white supremacists as “bogey men”: they are far too real, and too dangerous in our world for such a term. This was wrong of me, and I’ll own it. I will try to do better.

I learned, yet again, that what seems clear enough to me in my writing may not always be clear to others. Of course, I’ve learned this one before: it will be a life-long struggle for me, I fear.

In particular, I should have made some of my concluding points far more explicitly: I should have said, rather than merely implying, that we academic medievalists might learn the dangers of our own claims of exclusive ownership of texts and their meanings from those of our opponents who also claim exclusive ownership of texts and meanings. I meant to say that even our claims—to the extent that some of them seem to boil down to claims of exclusive ownership—may work to reject the possibility that the literature of the past is the common heritage of us all. I meant to say that if we engage in a fight over who owns the literature of the past and its meanings, I fear we may have lost a bigger battle, because we have assented to the notion that someone can own the past. Instead of making those points more clearly and explicitly, I unintentionally left room in my text for readers to suppose that I meant that we might learn the explicit lessons that white supremacists wish to teach. This was a definite weakness—even a failure—in my essay, and I will own it. Indeed, I apologize for it.

I should also have found a way to say more straightforwardly and directly what I believe in my heart: I believe it is dangerous to claim categorically that we can have nothing to learn from our opponents. To me such a claim sounds like a denial of their humanity, a rejection of the possibility of any basis for connection at all.

Perhaps I am wrong in my feeling that it is a denial of their humanity, so one thing I hope also to have learned is to put this lesson, too, into a form I hope is clearer, by taking it out of the realm of teaching and learning, and rephrasing it as the simple wish of my own heart alone:

I hope I shall always have the courage to resist the urge to deny the humanity of my opponents, even those who would deny my own or others’ humanity.

Upon the rock of this wish I will stand.