The Book of Aneirin Digitized and Online

Image of p. 20 of The Book of Aneirin

The Book of Aneirin Cardiff MS. 2.8.1 p. 20

The 13th Century Book of Aneirin has been completely digitized and placed online. This is one of the four major Welsh mss. mostly known because it contains the text of Y Goddodin, an epic poem retelling the historic battle of Catraeth wherein 300 Men from Manaw Gododdin, near Edinburgh, fought the Saxons at Catraeth (modern day Catterick, North Yorkshire) around the year 600AD. Only three of the Britons survived the battle, one of whom, the poet Aneirin, commemorates the fallen.

This is the last of the Four Ancient Books of Wales to be digitized and made publicly available. The other three books are:

Lady Charlotte Guest

Portrait of Lady Charlotte GuestThe Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s “Life of the Week” post this week is a biography of Lady Charlotte Guest, the translator of the Mabinogion, including the four mabinogi proper, as well as the three Welsh tales, and the four Arthurian romances, as well as several other tales, including the prose Taliesin fragment from the sixteenth century, edited by Patrick Ford as the Ystoria Taliesin in 1991.

Lady Guest’s translation, with the accompanying notes, is actually quite wonderful; it was the first translation I ever read, and it still remains well-worth reading. It has become fashionable to sneer at her—and imply that she wasn’t responsible for the work. She was; I’ve seen some of her handwritten notes, and while she has, quite understandably, Victorian sensibilities, she had a scholarly frame of mind. I wish that her notes from the first editions were still printed; they are well worth reading, and in fact her translations of the four romances, particularly Gereint (the Welsh version of the tale Chretien called Erec et Enide) inspired Tennyson’s take in Idylls of the King.

You can read more about Lady Charlotte Guest here and here. Angela V. John has written a solid biography: Lady Charlotte Guest. An Extraordinary Life

Le Figaro Stings French Vanity Publishers

Via Anne Weale’s Bookworm on the Net, I read this Times UK article about a French variant on the Travis Tea Atlanta Nights sting perpetrated by SFWA upon vanity “publisher” PublishAmerica.

French newspaper Le Figaro submitted a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s exceedingly well-known and much beloved nineteenth century novel, Madame Bovary to the five largest French vanity presses, or in French l’édition à compte d’auteur. Le Figaro changed the names of all the characters, the title, and the author, attributing their plagiarized masterpiece to one Charles-Denis-Bartholomé, the father-in-law of heroine Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s novel is so well known, and Flaubert’s style so marked, that these cosmetic changes shouldn’t have made any difference, if the presses had bothered to read the ms. before accepting it. Of course, since they’re vanity presses, they merely calculated the amount of pages the print would require, plugged the numbers in their spreadsheets, added their inflated mark up, and sent their acceptance letters.

Naturally, the offers to publish the ms. came in from all five—for a price. A rather hefty price, considering that they’re essentially offering printing and binding services. None of them recognized the novel, though one implied in their very quick response (all responded in a matter of weeks) that their “editorial board” (reading committee?—comités de lecture) had read the ms..

As Le Figaro editor Mohammed Aïssaoui puts it:

. . . mais, tout de même, ces «comités de lecture» auraient au moins pu s’étonner de la qualité littéraire, du style de ce texte et de l’absence de fautes, qui tranchent nettement avec ce qu’ils reçoivent à l’ordinaire; et que l’on reçoit aussi dans l’édition normale.

Mais, justement, la différence est là: d’un côté, une maison d’édition classique prend le risque d’investir son argent, et rémunère—si modestement que ce soit—un auteur en qui elle croit; de l’autre, un commerçant, qui n’a d’éditeur que l’étiquette, exige d’être payé avant de publier (en fait, il conçoit et propose une maquette et se borne à faire imprimer). «Dès lors qu’il y a une participation financière, même partielle, de la part de l’auteur, cela ne peut pas constituer un contrat d’édition; ce n’est ni plus ni moins qu’une prestation commerciale», affirme Guillaume Marsal, responsable juridique de la Société des gens de lettres (SGDL).

And (using my admittedly lack-witted French) a translation:

. . . but, all the same, these “reading committees” should at least have been astonished by the literary quality, the style of this text and the absence of errors, a clear departure from what they usually receive; and from what one usually receives at a normal publisher.

But, that is precisely the difference: a traditional publisher takes the risk to invest its money, and remunerates—as modestly as possible—an author in whom it believes; the other, is a tradesman, a publisher in name only, and requires payment before publishing (in fact [the vanity publisher] designs and proposes a restricted printing plan). “From the moment that there is financial participation, even partial, on behalf of the author, that cannot constitute a contract of publication; it is neither more nor less than a commercial service,” asserts Guillaume Marsal, legal counsel for de la Société des gens de lettres (SGDL).

Monsieur Aïssaoui points out, very clearly, that these companies are essentially running a literary scam; they are overpriced printers, pretending to be publishers. One poor author even describes her book being littered with basic grammar errors, errors introduced by the publisher; just like PublishAmerica. It really is a small world. *.

*Many thanks for TexAnne’s help with the translation; all remaining errors are still completely mine, and I refuse to share credit with anyone ;)

The Macclesfield Psalter

I’m going to cheat by starting with an excerpt from a press release sent out by a British cultural charity, the National Art Collections Fund.

The National Art Collections Fund is spearheading the campaign to save the remarkable 14th-century Macclesfield Psalter for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Macclesfield Psalter is a jewel-like treasury consisting of 252 richly-illustrated pages providing a fascinating record of medieval English humour, and teeming with highly surreal and imaginative marginal illustrations. This exquisite manuscript was sold to the Getty Museum, California, at auction in June for £1,717,335. However, the Government’s export system, which recognised the outstanding importance of the Psalter to this country, gave the UK the chance to match this sum.

As of today, only £96,511 more needs to be raised in order to keep the Macclesfield Psalter on view in the UK for all to see. We have until 10 February 2005 to raise the remaining funds.

Ordinarily, I’m in favor of the Getty buying manuscripts; they’re in my back yard, so to speak. But this is a special case. We know a fair bit about the manuscript; it was almost certainly a local product in every sense of the phrase, created in East Anglia (likely in Goreleston) for a local landowner. There are incredible miniatures, and fascinating marginal figures. The miniatures, which are of such high quality that it’s clear they’re the work of a master, include images of the patron saints of Suffolk and the Gorleston church, localizing the manuscript. The marginal “border” illustrations are particularly interesting because they feature the kind of “world upside down images” that are subversive comments on the main images, or, more likely in this case, (following Dr. Ruth Mellinkoff’s argument) attempts to distract or avert the devil or other evil influences.

The scribe of the Macclesfield Psalter is likely the scribe of the no longer extant Douai Psalter and the Gorelston Psalter. Some illumination by the same artist was part of the Douai Psalter (destroyed inadvertantly because of poor storage during World War I when the Douai Psalter was buried in a zinc box to hide it from enemy troops).

You can read more about the Macclesfield Psalter here, and see some images here, and donate online here. They’ve come very close to matching the Getty price; they’ve enough for 245 of the 252 leaves.

Neal Stephenson and Beowulf

Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, was interviewed by Slashdot. Stephenson is best known for his
SF, especially for Snowcrash
and The
Diamond Age
. His recent work, including a mammoth trilogy
The
Baroque Cycle
, has brought him to the attention of people who
might not ordinarily read SF. Stephenson has also written In the Beginning was the
Command Line
, a very readable treatise on the nature of computer
interfaces.

In the Slashdot interview,
Stephenson draws a distinction between two types of modern writers and, in
an extended analogy, compares them with Dante, who had wealthy aristocratic
patrons, and to the Beowulf poet. Regarding the
Beowulf poet Stephenson says:

But I doubt
that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of
legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral
tradition—which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people
liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps
there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales
together and fashioned them into what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there
was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written
down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It
was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting
around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose
behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

I take Stephenson’s point about the difference between
modern “commercially successful” fiction writers (Beowulf writers like
Stephenson) and the Dante-like “literary fiction” writers who do something
else to earn a living. But I think his underlying model is wrong—and
Stephenson is definitely wrong about Beowulf.

The scop who first
created the work in something like the form we have today was a
professional poet. He composed for pay, in the form of beer, gold, horses,
and a place by the fire. A lot of what he wrote would have been the kind of
oral formulaic stuff that only the subject of the praise liked to hear;
typical praise poems meant to honor a king or lord, like Widsith refers to. The
scribe who created British Library,
Cotton Vitellius A.15
(the only Beowulf manuscript) was also a professional, though likely his
profession was that of a monastic scribe, and he copied an earlier
manuscript, one we no longer have. The basic plot of Beowulf and his fights
with Grendel, Grendel’s mom, and a dragon—sure, that’s the stuff of
oral legend, but Beowulf is a lot more than that. In fact
Beowulf was a lot more than that at least from the first time it was written
down. Beowulf is a highly self-conscious work for all its
traditional memes and formulae.

Even if we ignore what we know of
scribal practice and the function of the scop, and the transmission
of tales oral and textual, and just look at Beowulf itself,
Beowulf is a thematically coherent and carefully structured
work, though it sometimes seems to have more in common with the modern
anthology than the epic. Beowulf is not something
“created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting
around the fire” for a number of reasons—among them the fact that
the Frisans are the villains of the piece, and, that while the poem features
Denmark and parts of the Netherlands, it was definitely composed for an
Anglo-Saxon (English) audience.

I’d also take exception to Stephenson’s
statement that “there was no grand purpose behind its creation,” since I
suspect that there was, given the thematic constants. The poet is making a
point about the nature of life and the idiocies of feuds. I should also
probably point out that as much as I personally like Beowulf,
we have no proof (other than the fact that someone wrote it down at least
twice, a time consuming and expensive practice not engaged in lightly),
that the poem was similarly valued by the Anglo-Saxons. We don’t really
know what value the poem had to the scribe who first copied it, or the
scop who created it. It may have been seen as arty, rather than “a
good read,” though the two are not mutually incompatible—as
Stephenson’s own work demonstrates. We only have one very damaged
manuscript of Beowulf.

Stephenson’s analogy really
doesn’t work if you think about it closely because it’s based on a flawed
model. If you look at the poets who had patrons, they tended to have other
sources of income. Chaucer was the Customs Inspector (and likely worked in
various other secret capacities for the crown), yet had to send begging poems for
payment. Gower was a wealthy property owner, trained in the law courts,
with close ties to court. Lydgate was a monk at Bury St Edmunds. Spenser was a
civil servant, and was given the paltry sum of 100 pounds for Fairy
Queen
, only after requesting the
promised payment a second time. Shakespeare, who would seem to have had
patrons royal and monied, was primarily a business man; he was a part owner
of the theater his plays were performed in, and a litigious landowner. The
first professional writer I can think of was Christine de Pizan, who
supported herself and her son by her writing after the death of her
husband. In other words, Stephenson needs to look towards post-printing-press writers for his models—I’d suggest Dickens and Ruskin, perhaps. And
I’d like to point out that the canon changes with time (and The
Norton Anthology
) so it’s likely that Stephenson will be in the 2050
edition, just as Dickens has been in all of them.

Shakespeare’s Quartos, Digitized

The British Library has digitized its collection of 93 copies of the 21 plays by Shakespeare printed in quarto before the theatres were closed in 1642. Shakespeare’s plays appear to have been first printed in 1594. Titus Andronicus was probably the first one. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto editions before he died in 1616. Quartos are small and very portable (think modern paperback) books that were made by folding a large sheet of paper into quarters. The first collected “official” printing of Shakespeare’s plays was the 1623 “first folio” edition of 36 plays by Shakespeare. The first folio was a production of Shakespeare’s friends, including actors from his company. The quartos are important because they’re typically the earliest, and hence presumably closest to Shakespeare’s own, versions of the plays. Some of them appear to have been versions that were edited for specific audiences, like the so-called “bad quartos” of Hamlet.