Intimate reading: marginalia in medieval manuscripts

Schott, Christine Marie, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Baker, Peter, Department of English, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia
McGrady, Deborah, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

In the past two decades, the study of books as artifacts has become widespread under the aegis of "new philology," and both reception history and the analysis of reading communities have energized criticism of late Middle English literature. I seek to combine these fields in order to study a phenomenon that has rarely received more than passing attention from scholars: the interactions of texts and readers on a personal and individual level, as reflected in marginalia. I term these interactions "intimate" because they do not seek to guide future readers in a formal way but to forge connections across time and space between individuals, though they often never met.

Each of my chapters centers on a limited number of manuscripts that reflect various kinds of intimacy on the page. My first chapter argues that an Anglo-French history written in the margins of an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle manuscript adapts the book as a whole to serve the needs of its readers in post-Conquest Peterborough Abbey. My second chapter examines three late-medieval Icelandic manuscripts, in all of which the scribes leave very personal notes that other readers, often much later, read and respond to with the same care as they read the main texts of their books. In my third chapter, the intimacy between readers grows more complicated when several generations respond emotionally and enthusiastically to William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman. I argue that their treatment of the poem as an encyclopedic handbook could teach us how we ourselves might become more capacious readers of Langland's complex work. I then put this theory into practice by "reading" the illustrations of the late-fourteenth-century Pearl manuscript. These illustrations lead careful, "intimate" readers to encounter the manuscript as a penitential manual, and to apply even the courtly lessons of romance to the benefit of their own souls: the so-called "tropological" reading of scripture adapted to vernacular literature. I conclude by suggesting that, in our current environment of digitization and internet-based communication, medieval modes of reading and annotating might be more relevant and more urgently important than they have been for the past five centuries.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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