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Books In Manuscript

( Originally Published 1893 )


THE word ` Manuscript ' (often written MS., in plural MSS.) is derived directly from the Latin expression codices manu scripti (books written by hand), and has always implied precisely what is indicated by its derivation. It is distinguished on the one hand from printed books (codices impressi, libri impressi), and on the other hand from kinds of record not naturally described as handwriting, such as inscriptions cut in stone and metal and wood, or stamped work like coins.

W e, who are accustomed to a profusion of printed books on all possible subjects, may be tempted to consider the study of written records to be superfluous, and this first natural tendency is furthered by the undoubted fact that the manuscripts met with in our ordinary life are the most ephemeral of all the literature presented to us, largely consisting of private records of no permanent value, such as correspondence, diaries, or notes. Even in matters of law, where the importance of ancient records as establishing or refuting a claim cannot be over-looked, the tendency of modem legislation is to make possession even more than ` nine-tenths of the law,' and to bar all claims which have not been recently asserted. Similarly, the modern politician finds little to incite him to a study of paleography, and trusts to the printing-press to supply him with material.

But a student cannot too clearly set before himself the simple fact that, until four and a half centuries ago (A.D. 1440, say), every record was a written one. Every monument of literature, every treatise of philosophy, every historical chronicle, every sacred writing which is older than the fifteenth century,—whether preserved to us by the thinnest possible thread of transmission, as are Tacitus and Catullus and Beowulf, or by a body of evidence such as that which supports the New Testament or Virgil, —all this has come down to us solely and singly by the vehicle of thought which is the special subject of this book. For centuries such works were exposed to all the chances and imperfections which attend the scribe and his pen and his book, and, in the light of modern discoveries connected with writing, we can never safely claim that a printed edition supersedes further study and comparison of the manuscripts on which it is based.

And there is another reason why the study of manuscripts is never likely to be a mere antiquarian pursuit. When modern books on past history written in the current style of literature and in the language of the day, are taken in hand, the student naturally finds very considerable difficulty in realising the actual surroundings of the time described. It is inevitable that to some extent this should be so ; but historians now endeavour to minimize it, by presenting in or side by side with their narrative, selections of original documents. These are wonderful helps to appreciation of the time, left in their old spelling and phraseology and appearance. It is to the same feeling that we owe the growing practice of profusely illustrating books. But a manuscript before one is more than all this, as every reader in the Public Record Office and every possessor of old historical records know. A despatch from Cromwell, hastily written during some campaign, an order from Charles I. marked ` for the printer,' but set aside in consequence of a hurried departure, bring the scene better before us than any laboured description, and there is a freshness in dealing with such records which no modern book, even with the powerful aid of photography, can supply. The terrible neglect of manuscripts in the past— whether historical, liturgical, or literary—shows how long we have taken to learn this lesson.

And once more, modern readers who are accustomed to skim the Times every morning and a novel every few days, when set down before some import-ant historical work, find that their minds are as it were unstrung and incapable of close attention and sustained effort. They are tempted to glance superficially through volumes which ought to be impressed on the mind, and they profit little by the process. For these and such as these the study of an original document in manuscript, a court-roll, a charter, a page of a chronicle, an old political poem, is the one corrective which suits the disease,—a bracing, invigorating, and, it may be added, an attractive exercise, the contact of Antaeus with his mother earth.

A caution may be here given. A student who may be attracted to original work in medieval or ancient subjects can hardly even start unless he has a sound knowledge of Latin. Latin was throughout the Middle Ages the language of the Church, and the lingua franca of scholars and historians and lawyers. It is a sine quâ non for any serious study of medieval problems.

The aim of this little book is to familiarize the possessor of a private collection of MSS., or one who is about to enter on the study of them, with some salient features of ancient writing ; with the forms and kinds of books, and the conditions under which they were produced and illustrated ; and with some of the principles by which the errors of a copyist are corrected. It will be lighter work to add a brief account of some famous public and private collections, and of the vicissitudes and romances of a few particular volumes. Finally, the proper treatment and cataloguing of such books will also deserve attention ; and a list of the more useful works already produced on the subjects treated, with some notices of libraries and their catalogues, will form a natural appendix.

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