Just plain loopy?


Bizarre news the other day on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One (now available as a written feature on the BBC website).  Verifiable figures are not available, but French firms – perhaps as many as 50% of them – continue to employ graphologists in recruitment processes.  Applicants must submit a sample of their handwriting, which is then submitted to the ‘experts’ for analysis.

I don’t doubt that handwriting analysis can have specific practical or scholarly applications.  I imagine the well-established techniques used by palaeographers to identify archaising scripts (or, conversely, to identify manuscripts copied by the same hand) – attention to the minute idiosyncrasies of letter formation and the duct of the scribes’ handwriting – aren’t too different to those involved in proving a modern forgery.  Since such identifications can be the subject of scholarly disagreement, any ambitious claims for modern handwriting analysis need to be viewed with considerable scepticism.

Any attempt to apply graphology in the realms of psychology or medicine, however, just seems like bald charlatanism to me.  Even where the stakes are far lower – in this case, occupational recruitment – I’m far from convinced of its usefulness.  Like astrologers, chiromancers or psychics, graphologists stick to the vague and avoid the specific, and use evidence already given to them by the person they’re reading: literally, in this case, since graphologists usually study a handwritten personal statement rather than a neutral piece of writing and have spectacularly failed to give accurate descriptions when confronted with a neutral sample of handwriting.

The French attachment to graphology is a cultural one – they invented it, so it’s not surprising they remain attached to it – but it is used elsewhere, in Germany, Switzerland and Israel.  Psychometric tests were, in their modern form, an American invention and remain more popular in the Anglophone world, though not to the exclusion of graphology.  Indeed, graphology may be catching on on this side of La Manche.  A growing number of companies justify its use as an additional screening tool because it is cheap and they claim it offers a fresh perspective on a candidate that CVs do not.

Could this perception that the manuscript word is more ‘personal’ than the printed or digital word – at a time when the future relationship between all three remains unclear – be a reaction against recruitment processes that have been rendered increasingly impersonal by e-mailed CVs and the use of online application systems?  A 1990 report by the Law Society Gazette cautioned that – regardless of doubts about graphology’s credibility – European law states that submitted applications are the property of the recruiter.  He or she may legally (though perhaps not ethically) send it for analysis without acquiring the applicant’s consent.  So, when you’re next asked to provide something in manuscript – caveat scriptor! – you’ve no idea where it might end up.

Word of the Day


Which wit at the OED set the ‘Word of the Day’ to ‘chad’?  Material texts have lain at the heart of American political ideology and national identity since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which is on permanent, reverent display alongside the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights in the Rotunda Building of the National Archives in Washington D.C.  It is ironic that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election hung not on these grand constitutional documents but on tiny squares of waste paper, and whether they had dropped or were dangling or dimpled.

Given past and present anxieties over the reliability of the electronic voting machines that consigned the chad to the paper recycling bin of history, perhaps it is time the U.S. honoured the Founding Fathers’ commitment to the material text and reintroduced to its democratic process a piece of paper and a stubby little pencil on a piece of string.

Intact and Uncorrupted: The Gospel Book of St. Cuthbert


The Gospel Book of St. Cuthbert is arguably one of the most important surviving medieval manuscripts, and it is a cause for celebration that it has been secured by the British Library in a purchase from the collection of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. The procurement was funded by a number of major grants of public money as well as many smaller donations from the public at large. It is appropriate, then, that the book has been digitised in full and made available free-of-charge to all on the British Library’s website, as part of a project to inform and educate a broader audience about the book’s importance.

In a world where even relatively recent artworks command multi-million pound auction prices (a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, up for sale in New York, is expected to fetch around £50 million), the purchase of the Gospels for £9 million seems like quite the bargain. It is an outwardly modest thing – encased in a plain binding of red leather, and measuring at only 14 x 9 cm it is small enough to fit comfortably in one’s hand – yet it stands at the centre of a 1300-year-old story of the life and legend of a northern saint.

Cuthbert was born c.635, and lived his adult life as a monk in various foundations in the north of England, becoming most closely associated with Lindisfarne (where he was prior and later bishop) and Inner Farne (where he spent most of his later life as a hermit until his death on 20th March 687). The Gospel Book that takes his name is of obvious codicological importance: it dates from the late seventh century and is the earliest intact European book in existence, ‘the only surviving high-status manuscript from this crucial period in British history to retain its original appearance, both inside and out’, with the original binding enclosing the text of St. John’s Gospel, likewise unaltered since it was produced.

Yet also, just as in the medieval period, it is the association with St. Cuthbert that lends this book its particular fascination. It was placed in Cuthbert’s tomb at Lindisfarne when it was first opened in 698, and remained alongside the body of the saint until the tomb was opened again at Durham Cathedral Priory in 1104, an event witnessed by the chronicler Symeon of Durham. The book was found, according to a thirteenth-century inscription in the book, ‘near the head of our blessed father Cuthbert lying in his tomb’.

The tomb had been moved out of Lindisfarne in the eighth century, and the body and book together were carried by the community of monks around northern England, then to Chester-le-Street and eventually to Durham. The wanderings of the Gospel Book continued after the destruction of the tomb in the sixteenth century: it was donated to the English Jesuit community at Liège in the eighteenth century, was briefly misplaced while on loan to the Society of Antiquaries in the early nineteenth century, and has eventually come to rest at the British Library (where its new classmark – Add. MS 89000 – scarcely hints at the book’s importance).

When Cuthbert’s tomb was first opened in 698, it was found that ‘the skin had not decayed nor grown old, nor the sinews become dry…but the limbs lay at rest with all the appearance of life’. The incorruptability of a body was crucial evidence in the canonization process, and (whether accurate or not) such accounts are repeated over and again in medieval hagiographies. Holy books, too, were imbued with similar properties of indestructability: according to Symeon, the Lindisfarne Gospels (also at the British Library) were washed overboard during a voyage across the Irish Sea but were found miraculously unharmed on the shore. Few librarians nowadays would be willing to trust the safety of their collections to the intervention of a guardian saint!

It is the vulnerability of manuscripts to damage or destruction that makes the survival of the Gospel Book of St. Cuthbert in such excellent condition so remarkable – dare we say, even miraculous? The historical significance of the book would be no less diminished if it were damaged – but the smoothness of its bindings, the cleanness of its pages and the crispness of its written text cannot but mark it out as exceptional, even though its survival in this state is the outcome of historical chance. To what degree are aesthetic appreciation and scholarly study complementary? Is the Gospel Book of St. Cuthbert powerful as a physical (if not religious) relic of the past because of its unblemished state? In tracing the provenance of a manuscript – like the provenance of a medieval relic – are we seeking more than simple identification and verification? Perhaps a tangible physical connection with the past? Or the privilege of seeing and touching something that is now just as it was more than a millenium ago?

Books Beyond Boundaries


Books beyond Boundaries

A symposium in the Old Combination Room, Trinity College, Cambridge.

Thursday 24 November 2011.

Organisers: David McKitterick, James Raven and Alex Walsham.

Supported by the Trevelyan Fund, Faculty of History and the Cambridge Project for the Book Trust.

The purpose of this symposium is to bring together various scholars from Cambridge, the UK, the US and Europe to reflect on recent developments in and approaches to the History of the Book and to discuss both the potential and the problems posed by the ever-growing number of electronic resources available to scholars working in this broad and flourishing field. The last 15-20 years have seen the commissioning and publication of a series of histories of the book (Britain, Ireland, America, etc): these enterprises have borne considerable fruit and extended our knowledge of the worlds of manuscript production, printing, publishing and textual consumption within particular national contexts. But their self-imposed parameters have also restricted our understanding of initiatives and interactions that cut across these boundaries and connected people who were members of other types of imagined communities, including churches and sects and the wider republic of letters that united scholars across borders, continents and oceans. They have eclipsed other dimensions of the topic that demand attention in the context of burgeoning interest in transnational and global history. Building on these reflections, the second aim of this symposium is to consider how major digitisation projects and other databases are transforming how historians study past cultures of communication, as well as other related themes.


10am – Coffee

10.30-12.45 – Session I: Histories of the Book

America: Prof. David Hall (Harvard Divinity School)
Britain: Prof. David McKitterick (Trinity)
Ireland: Dr Toby Barnard (Hertford College, Oxford)
France: Prof. Dominique Varry (Lyon)

12.45-1.45 – Lunch

1.45-4.00 – Session II: New Resources

Universal STC: Prof. Andrew Pettegree (St Andrews)
The Electronic Enlightenment: Dr Glenn Roe (Oxford)
Bibliopolis: Prof. Paul Hoftijzer (Leiden)
Old Bailey Online and other resources: Prof. Tim Hitchcock (Hertfordshire)
Digitised newspapers: Dr Mark Curran (Leeds and Munby Fellow 2011-12)

4.00-4.30 – Tea

4.30-5.30 – Round Table Discussion and Future Directions

All are welcome to attend. It would be helpful if those intending to do so contacted Alex Walsham (amw23@cam.ac.uk) to let her know.

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?


Back in January, Amazon issued a fourth-quarter report that announced that sales of e-books for the Kindle outstripped sales of paperback books by 115:100, and sales of hardback books by 3:1. The inevitable newspaper reports followed, all pretty much drawing the same conclusions. It’s not a question of whether the patient will survive, they agreed; it’s how long he’s got left.

Well, another day, another death knell. Matthew Cain’s report on Channel 4 News last night revealed some troubling statistics. Overall sales of printed books are down 9.44%: paperbacks by 8.97%, hardbacks by 12.71%. As a consequence, publishers have begun to move away from the traditional model of issuing hardbacks a year in advance of paperbacks, with some titles going straight to the smaller and cheaper print format. ‘The most important catalyst for [this]’, Cain concluded, ‘has been the e-book’.

Remember the television advertisements for the Kindle and the iPad? Both Amazon and Apple sought to promote not only the whizzy gadgetry but also the physical sensation of using their products, and their durability (though I doubt any customers have held their new iPad in their hands while riding pillion on a moped, or let their dog lick their new Kindle). Using the Kindle or the iPad may provide a material experience, but does reading with them provide a material textual experience? Publishers, perhaps, have realised this, and are placing new emphasis on the aesthetic pleasure the hardback has to offer, and are promoting it as an object of physical beauty – in opposition, one assumes, to the rather dull featurelessness and intangibility of the e-book.

I don’t doubt, then, that e-readers and e-books have had an effect – a material effect, no less – upon the publishing industry. What I would dispute is the assumption – and assumption it is, for there is as yet no hard evidence of a causal relationship – that the rise in e-books has caused the fall in printed books. In media coverage, other factors are rarely discussed. Matthew Cain expressed concern that changes to the hardback could render it ‘a luxury gift item’, but at £15-25 a pop, is it not one already? What effect has the recession, falling real and disposable incomes and economic uncertainty about the future had upon people’s book-buying habits? Have rising commodity prices for wood pulp pushed up the price of books as they have the price of newspapers? What changes have there been to the second-hand book market? When was the last time you bought a brand-new hardback? (I can’t even remember).

So far, the news media have been content to stick to a ‘black-and-white’ style of reporting on e-books: e-media is up, print is down, therefore one caused the other, and the trend will continue. Much more research needs to be done into social and behavioural evidence, particularly on how e-books are being integrated into print culture, before any nuanced conclusions may be drawn about the future of the material text. Which socio-economic groups buy Kindles the most? How many printed books does the Kindle buyer already own? How often do new e-reader owners buy printed books, and how much do they spend? Do they use e-media and printed books in conjunction, and if so, how? What kinds of books are bought as e-books, what kind as printed? Crucially, for the e-reader is still in its infancy, for how long is a new Kindle used, and how does the frequency change over time? Are people buying the Kindle for the books, or for the novelty, or both?

In a short story in Granta 113 (‘Eva and Diego’, by Alberto Olmos), the female narrator explains the compulsion that drove her to buy a new iPod:

I had a salary that allowed me to buy approximately fifteen iPods a month…fifteen monthly temptations to buy an iPod. Consequently, I was one of those people who just had to buy an iPod. I simply have to buy whatever they’ve just invented to be bought…I bought the iPod out of boredom. But out of fear as well. Spending is about the fear of dying…Spending implies a future…

Spending on a gadget like a Kindle might imply a future, but books – physical books, material texts – declare both a past and a future, of the sophisticated but simple codex format, of communities of physical and intellectual experience, and of literary culture that e-readers cannot, in my opinion, hope to replicate.

Invisible Ink


CMT members – and particularly followers of our fledgling ‘Illegibles’ section – may be interested to learn something of the technique of multi-spectral digital imaging.  It has been employed in the study of a substantial number of ancient manuscript texts, such as the Archimedes Palimpsest, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Herculaneum Papyri, and the Petra Church Scrolls, and was recently the subject of a retrospective in the journal Antiquity.  The technology was also featured on the Monday edition of Radio 4’s I.T. programme, ‘Click On’, in connection with the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project

The project’s website provides before and after images of one of Livingstone’s letters, plus a transcription and commentary, as well as background information about both the explorer and the imaging techniques.  Livingstone’s letter from Bambarre (Kabambare, eastern Congo), dates from 5th February 1871 (see image above), and besides revealing the desperate situation in which Livingstone found himself towards the end of his career, it provides a window into a fascinating material textual moment.  Having run out of both paper and ink, Livingstone resorted to using old copies of the Standard newspaper and the Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society as a writing support, and some local clothing pigment as substitute ink.  Neither worked particularly well: the paper is now very worn and fragile, the manuscript text often unclear due to fading or bleed-through.  The text of Livingstone’s Nyangwe Diary is almost entirely illegible in natural light (see images below).  These palimpsests hint at the material privations through which Livingstone lived, and the text of Livingstone’s letter is a response to the first contact he had had with the outside world for several years.  Thanks to spectral imaging, we can now read those spectral words.

Know Your Place


Few medieval manuscripts have retained their original binding; fewer still have retained such interesting features as the one visible below.  Originally stitched into the spine, this simple leather strip is a material witness to fifteenth-century reading processes.  It marks the page and, courtesy of the little numbered rotating paper disc, also reminds the reader to which column of text he should return upon reopening the book.

The manuscript in question – Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton MS 14 – is a fine fifteenth-century copy of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, and it once belonged to the community of Carthusian monks at Sheen, on the banks of the Thames.  It is the only Polychronicon manuscript I have seen so far with a contemporary bookmark.  That these manuscripts usually come with scholarly apparatus designed to aid skim reading and ready reference – alphabetical indices, running book and chapter numbers, and marginal chronologies – suggests that this bookmark cannot have been unique among copies of Higden’s universal chronicle.  It is a rare illustration of the union of material and textual book design, and the response of bespoke medieval book producers to the common intellectual needs of their customers. 

The bookmark is an element of codicological culture that has been borrowed by digital media and, particularly, the internet (a fact which, ironically, makes Google searching for articles on medieval bookmarks problematic).  Nowadays, however, we are exhorted not just to ‘bookmark’ a webpage, but to ‘like’ it too.  The once private reminder is being superseded by a public advertisement that disseminates a text through cyberspace (though to a degree ultimately dependent upon one’s privacy settings), and in a format and forum that then invites comment.  Similarly, the Kindle e-reader allows e-books to be ‘e-annotated’: through ‘public notes’, marginalia can be shared and exchanged over the internet (though, again, this is limited by a Twitter-style system of ‘following’).  

The hermetic life of a Carthusian did not perhaps encourage such discourse, but the frequent annotation in the margins of the manuscript above is suggestive of some level of intellectual exchange, however indirect then or untraceable now.  The boundaries of that reading community were circumscribed physically by the cloister walls and materially by the movement of books within.  Now, there are – potentially – no boundaries to reading communities.  With the advent of e-readers, the anarcho-democratic ethos of the internet is now more closely tied to the book and to the text: freedom in the virtual margins, the power to broadcast, a limitless audience.  The capacity of readers of e-books to not just record their thoughts but to disseminate them too may mean that much that was once private thought or evanescent orality is now cached and backed-up, and awaits future students of the ‘reading experience’.  The ‘weightless text’ supports a heavier and heavier paratext of commentary, analysis and opinion, informed or not.

Where does authority lie in this digital world, this twenty-first-century Tower of Babel?  How is authority constructed and maintained?  Can the critic or academic maintain his status in a forum where comment is free – or should he or she even attempt to do so?  In a recent article on the ‘patchy’ quality of the Coen brothers’ films, Will Self opined that ‘…the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions…simply aren’t up to scratch’.  Ironically, the patchiness of Self’s own argument was quickly highlighted on the comments pages by some sharp-eyed readers, some of them no doubt the kind of ‘upper’ or ‘lower-middlebrow’ viewers whose opinions he had disdained so aristocratically.  The article presents no critical engagement with specific interpretations or reviews except his own.  In targeting ‘the generality’, does it do any more than represent Will Self’s self-will?  And is that any more authoritative than the opinions he criticised? 

Surely the job of the ‘serious cultural critic’ is to engage with and persuade, not just to tell – but then, perhaps, who is there to tell?  The internet gathers together opinions so diverse and diffuse that it may be impossible to address them except in the most general terms.  By transcending physical printed media, and by circumventing the complex and often slow publishing infrastructure through which debate has traditionally been channelled, the internet has removed nearly all ‘barriers to entry’ that once monitored or mediated the public sphere.  In doing so, it has made available great opportunities for the advancement of knowledge through collaborative endeavour or adversarial dialectic.  The internet has facilitated the freedom to comment, and has thus accentuated – though by no means created – a situation in which control over a text rests in no single pair of hands.  That command over Scripture Martin Luther sought to reassert in his 1525 pamphlets Admonition to Peace and Against the Rioting Peasants.  ‘Every man his own Bible reader’ he had once said, before the rise of heterodox interpretations of the vernacular holy text and the use of scriptural justification in the enactment of social revolution.  How will these old issues of authority, interpretation and debate play out in the new age of ‘Every man his own Kindle reader’?

‘Some Corner of a Foreign Field’: The Digitisation of War Graves


By the end of 1914, five months after Britain’s entry into the First World War, over a million men had volunteered to serve in the British Army.  A year later, shortly before the introduction of the first of five Military Service Acts in January 1916 (which conscripted all unmarried men aged between 18 and 41), a further one and a half million had signed up.  It seems particularly fitting, therefore, that a new project to commemorate those killed during the First World War and in conflicts since has been undertaken primarily by dedicated groups of volunteers.

The War Graves Photographic Project (WGPP) aims to digitally photograph ‘every war grave, individual memorial, MoD grave, and family memorial of serving military personnel from WWI to the present day’, and to correlate these images with the records held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).  At the time of writing, 1,599,630 names have been entered into their searchable database, and small images of graves or memorials are visible online free-of-charge.

Individually and collectively, the headstones which mark each burial site are material texts: the format in which they are engraved and their physical form are together illustrative of the particular ways in which twentieth- (and twenty-first) century society has chosen to remember its war dead.  According to the guiding principles of the CWGC, the headstones are permanent and uniform; ‘no distinction [is] made according to military or civil rank, race or creed’.  The aesthetic simplicity of their design was a necessary function where many thousands of graves were to be concentrated on one site – but is this the only reason for their uniformity?

The First World War had a profound effect on British social attitudes – universal male suffrage soon followed the Armistice – and perhaps such uniformity signifies an attempt to bestow on these fallen men an equality in their death which they did not enjoy in their lives.  Or maybe there is a more radically pacifist message contained in these simple stones.  Each headstone has been carved and engraved alike, is impeccably maintained and, when the forces of erosion demand it, re-engraved: ‘an eroded inscription is a brave man or woman forgotten and that is unacceptable …not a single sacrifice will be allowed to fade’.  Their uniformity symbolises the universal value of human life, and in the meticulous acts of care bestowed upon these monuments we can see an ongoing enactment of public atonement for the waste of human life in four long and bloody years.

Most headstones from the First (and Second) World Wars – and the Cenotaph on Whitehall – were carved out of the distinctively bright white Portland stone (some have latterly been replaced by a similar but more hard-wearing white marble).  Scattered across the graveyards of the British Isles, and concentrated in the cemeteries of Belgium and western France, they are instantly recognisable, and represent both a private memorial to an individual casualty, and a permanent public reminder of the conflict as a whole.  At Tyne Cot cemetery near Passchendaele on the Ypres Salient (see picture), 12,000 or so headstones (over 8,000 of which are unnamed) stand in serried ranks before the Memorial to the Missing, upon which a further 35,000 names are engraved.  Even in this one ‘corner of a foreign field’ – which is forever not just England, but also forever Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies, France, and even Germany too – the sense of the immensity of the slaughter is immediate and powerful.  If this is just a small fraction of the war dead, one thinks, how horrifying was the whole?

Their Hands Before Our Eyes


‘We are exercising an office of sacred piety when we treat books carefully’, argued Richard de Bury, in his famous treatise on the love of books, Philobiblon (1345).  A rather different exercise of sacred piety was in evidence at an intriguing paper on ‘Dirty Books’, given last term to the Medieval History of Art Seminar.  The fifteenth-century missals and books of hours studied by Kathryn Rudy had clearly been on the receiving end of a very physical form of devotion: corners and edges of pages were blackened by thumb-prints; illuminations had been smudged and smeared by the touch of fingers and lips; the words of prayers and of the liturgy, and the faces and bodies of Mary, Christ and the saints worn almost into oblivion by a skin-to-skin contact that reflects an urgent, insistent and intense desire for spiritual reassurance.

De Bury would not have been impressed.  Tormented by the cleanliness of his contemporaries hands – a fourteenth-century sufferer of OCD? – Bishop Richard spoke with horror of the ‘foetid filth as black as jet’ stuck up students’ nails; their ‘wet and perspiring hands’; the ‘grease-stained finger’.  That ‘gloves covered with all kinds of dust’ or the ‘finger clad in long-used leather’ pushed him to similar levels of nervous excitement suggests that only the complete excommunication of readers from the precious pages of the book would have quietened his mood.  Perhaps a career in librarianship would have suited him; he would surely have approved of digitisation.

Kathryn Rudy’s paper demonstrated that even dirt, grease and grime – intruders upon the material surface of the manuscript page – could be worthy subjects for academic attention.  Using a densitometer to measure the comparative surface reflectivity of clean and soiled parchment, she has been able to quantify the intensity with which each page was used.  By cross-referencing the page-by-page results with the contents of each book, Dr. Rudy was further able to reveal the varied patterns of fifteenth-century reading and worship.  Some of her readers gave particular attention to the indulgence texts, suffrages, hours of the virgin, or penitential psalms – and almost completely ignored the vigil for the dead.  By contrast, an Augustinian canoness paid for her celebratory duties, or a lay family concerned to memorialise their deceased relatives, subjected those same pages in another manuscript to more intense wear than any other part of the book.

In applying modern science to the medieval book, Kathryn Rudy has made a valiant and worthwhile attempt to give an identity to the ‘invisible readers’ – those tormentors of the student of manuscript reception – who hover at the edge of the page.  Some clearly did rather more than just hover.  The blackened margins in these books of hours and missals are not just the work of grease and grime or acidic perspiration, the regrettable damage of careless readers.  They are a person’s thumbprints, imprinted over and over again, an immediate material reminder of the way they held their most precious book, how their fingers cradled its spine and their thumbs pressed down its pages, and of the many hours they spent at their devotions.