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Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom, eds., Taxonomies of Knowledge
by Julia Boffey

Taxonomies of Knowledge: Information and Order in Medieval Manuscripts. Edited by Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom. The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, U of Pennsylvania Libraries, distributed the U of Pennsylvania P, 2015. x + 163 pp. ISBN: 978-0812247596. $45.00 cloth.

The six contributors to this collection of essays, originating in the Schoenberg Symposium for Manuscripts in the Digital Age held in November 2012, explore aspects of the transmission of knowledge in manuscript form. Dealing with diverse materials from the very early to the late Middle Ages, they discuss works in Latin, Arabic, French, German, and Middle English, and cover schemes of organization relating to poetry, to geographical information, to matters of faith and conduct, and to scientific texts. The essays take a variety of approaches, some offering overviews, others exploring individual works or particular manuscripts. All include well-chosen illustrations to underline important points made about the significance of layout and forms of visual aid to the communication of information, instruction, and ideas.

Poetry gets both an overview and a detailed study. Mary Franklin-Brown considers “Poetry’s Place in Scholastic Taxonomies of Knowledge,” looking first for evidence about the place of poetry in disciplinary schemas and finding little explicit to go on, even though poetics and figurative writing had an undoubted role in these. In the catalogues of monastic and university libraries, as well as in individual book collections like that of Richard de Fournival, she finds that poetry is again a “silent omnipresence” (62). One particular poetic anthology, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania MS Codex 902 (formerly French 15), is the subject of Elizaveta Strakhov’s discussion of “The Poems of ‘Ch’: Taxonomizing Literary Tradition.” Scholars have been puzzled by the sporadic notes of “Ch” against various of the items copied into this collection of French fourteenth-century lyrics, intrigued by the suggestion that these might label the French output of that father of English poetry “Chaucer.” Strakhov’s careful analysis of the manuscript’s composition and contents leads her to the view that the “Ch” poems have a generic distinctiveness, that they probably derived from a single exemplar to which the label may relate, and that unlike the rest of the verse in the manuscript they were conceived as poems for reading rather than for singing.

Latin works of information feature in two essays. In “Manuscripts of Latin Translations of Scientific Texts from Arabic,” Charles Burnett illustrates some of the problems posed by directionality of writing, especially in relation to diagrams, for those making Latin translations from Arabic. Alfred Hiatt investigates the logistics of containing “Worlds in Books,” looking to classical precedents for some of the solutions found in medieval universal chronicles and encyclopaedias to the difficult task of describing and illustrating space and land. As the essay indicates with a careful choice of examples, “Navigating with the pen” was in part a matter of style and expression, but its effects were increasingly supplemented by maps and indexes.

The two remaining essays, one dealing with a single manuscript and the other with a single work, cover information and order as handled in vernacular contexts. The compilation discussed by Sara S. Poor in “‘Life’ Lessons in Anna Eybin’s Book of Saints (ca. 1465-1482)” is a collection of saints’ lives copied in the second part of the fifteenth century by an Augustinian nun and convent provost (it is now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Hs.2261). Reading the lives against exemplars that Eybin probably used makes clear the extent to which she adapted and ordered the contents of her book with the special aim of providing saintly models for women in secular life. Informative models of rather different sorts are the subject of Katharine Breen’s analysis of “Reading Step by Step: Pictorial Allegory and Pastoral Care in Piers Plowman.” Breen tracks the processes of learning and teaching constructed in this poem’s journey through space and time, paying special attention to its allegorical schemes, mostly familiar from sermon and other contexts, and illustrating the range of visual correlatives in which these were packaged and made memorable.

In sum, the essays in this collection offer some valuable ways into thinking about the storage and transmission of different categories of knowledge in the Middle Ages. Although the symposium that generated the essays was charged with exploring “Manuscripts in the Digital Age,” very little reference is made anywhere outside the introduction to digital technologies. But this does not seem to matter much. The essays as they stand focus attention on the potentialities of the book in the Middle Ages, and the ways in which its material forms shaped knowledge and directed access to it; and they raise important questions about medieval categorizations of knowledge and of the forms enshrining it. 

Julia Boffey
Queen Mary University of London

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46.2.18

Cite as:

Julia Boffey, "Emily Steiner and Lynn Ransom, eds., Taxonomies of Knowledge," Spenser Review 46.2.18 (Fall 2016). Accessed September 20th, 2018.
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