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Assembling -Medieval manuscripts with marginal glosses

[These are some introductory remarks for my talk at King’s College on May 13th 2013]

What I am going to present is part of the book I am currently completing –Assembling. Medieval Intellectuals as Radical Artists. The life of this book is quite complicated. For years, I simply referred to it as “the book on glosses”. My dear friend Julian Weiss knows very well about all the vicissitudes of this book. I begun working on it 21 years ago, while I was completing my doctoral dissertation in Paris. My dissertation was about something entirely different, but it also involved reading many fifteenth and sixteenth century Iberian manuscripts with marginal glosses. At that time the bibliography about these manuscripts could fit in a thimble, except for Julian Weiss’s work. I did not know Julian at the time, but I had read his The Poet’s Art, and his articles on Juan de Mena’s Coronación and Pedro de Portugal’s Sátira de Infelice e Felice Vida. So, I decided to contact him the way we did those things in 1992 -by writing a letter, putting it in the mail, and trusting the efficient services of the French and British post services. I mention all this because ever since, Julian Weiss has been a friend, and also an intellectual referent, and, if I can say something I never told him, also a mentor for me.

The work I then imagined had to be an ongoing, long, erudite, and informative book about several scores of vernacular manuscripts that belonged to private, non-institutional libraries during the fifteenth century in the Iberian peninsula, mainly in the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Navarre. The owners and readers of those manuscripts were the individuals that many scholars had considered the champions of the pre-renaissance, pre-humanism, vernacular humanism, and even scholastic humanism. Lots of qualifications to make them fit within a given set of characteristics, and that, certainly, obscured the study of many of those manuscripts, for scholars seemed to be all too concerned with the movement and the teleology of a historical description.

There was something I did not like: my own work was going to look like it was an erudite study of an intellectual movement, and I did not think there was a movement there. I did not know how to conceive it, but I knew how not to conceive it. I then kept compiling materials, consulting manuscripts, and generating reading notes for the next twenty years. I tried to write the book in at least four or five different forms, but it never satisfied me, and I feared I would never write it. In the meantime, I produced some articles that were important for me to clear my throat and to explore concepts and ideas, but that did not amount to a book-length research. I even taught a course at Columbia with one of the titles I had given to this unborn book, Microliteratures, and the Location of Literacy. Although my students represented an essential contribution to my work, I still did not see how to create the book at all.

Just bear with me and my tribulations a tiny bit longer. Julian had already done the most important part when he published, in two installments (that I really hope to see online), a catalogue of that collection of manuscripts. It was liberating. So much so, that when, this semester, I begun my sabbatical leave, I decided to put aside my work on medieval law, and retrieve all my notes and materials about this collection of manuscripts with glosses. For the first few weeks, I was lost. I experienced again the anxiety of not being able to write this book, and I thought I had made a mistake, nay shot myself in the foot.

Then I went to see a movie. This movie is important because it changed the way I looked at medieval manuscripts. I needed something that would help me looking at them in a different way, and this movie simply did the trick. The picture is Christian Marclay’s hypnotic The Clock, a 24 hour movie in real time, first exhibited in 2011, when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. The MoMA site describes the movie like this: “a cinematic tour de force that unfolds on the screen in real time through thousands of film excerpts that form a 24-hour montage. Appropriated from the last 100 years of cinema’s rich history, the film clips chronicle the hours and minutes of the 24-hour period, often by displaying a watch or clock.”

After watching, mesmerized, this movie, I was able to identify something that bothered me when I was reading some very powerful scholarship about the manuscripts I was working with. What really bothered me is that most of this scholarship had chiefly two purposes. Either it was an attempt to identify the sources for the glosses that illustrated the margins of these manuscripts, or it was a way to study the sociological endeavors of an elite that vied for their own self-promotion by exhibiting a knowledge that ended up being outdated, pedantic, and excessively vulgar and well-known, to the point of being irrelevant and prodigiously inexact in philological terms.

Like in Christian Marclay’s The Clock, the sources of most of the glosses and the texts from the manuscripts I wanted to study, are simply transparent. The authors -and I will use here a word from the MoMA’s description- appropriated clips from the last several tens of years of literature, oftentimes verbatim, although in a completely different order. It is true that sometimes these authors played with appearances, suggesting that they were using one source when in fact they were using a different one -Diego de Valera, for instance, assuring he is using Cicero’s De inventione when in reality he is using saint Thomas, or Pedro de Portugal claiming he is reading Ovid, when he is reading Alonso de Madrigal’s Questiones vulgares. It is also true that in many cases, the source they claimed they were using was, so to speak, more difficult, or more sophisticated, or simply cooler than the one they were really using. There is a prestige that is implicit in this economy of sources, and there is no point in denying that, as it goes with many contemporary scholars and students, a little bit of name-dropping is considered to be a key that opens at least certain smaller gates, if not very notorious doors.

The transparency of the sources, however, asks as well for a different insight into the creative act. For Marclay, the question is not to compile sources from the history of cinema. He sort of became the owner of those images, he appropriated them. It is, rather, how to assemble them in order to invoke an experience of temporality. The act of editing, assembling, and mounting seemed to me to be at the forefront of their intellectual endeavor, and I wondered whether this constituted a reasonable question that would help to delve into at least some of the manuscripts of some of the authors I was interested in. I knew it could not account for everything, but then I thought that it didn’t need to account for everything, and that, in fact, I was wary of all-encompassing answers and explanations that had the tendency to minimize local, particular experiences, and that used to leave aside smaller pieces of data that were, perhaps, more important than we used to consider. Hence, I decided to do something a little bit odd, and instead of building my theoretical approach on either an archeology of concepts, or a contemporary theoretical canon, I focused on the experience of reading my glossed manuscripts as an exercise in montage and assembling. I also determined that what we normally call the “material text” -the complicated collaborative confluence between written text and materiality- should be considered not an object of study, but a theoretical subject, something that has been crafted to establish a certain vision -like an epistemological device, like an eye, like an I.

I read, afterwards, a beautiful book about art of Jeanette Winterson, and I was moved by her words: “There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa. But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.”

And I thought, this is quite the issue: sometimes we look at manuscripts assuming so many things, that we, as it were, de-activate their intensity. By de-activating their intensity, we also de-activate the past, we turn it into a middle ground that is hanging somewhere in the right before the not yet.

My purpose is to read these glossed manuscripts not as a result of a certain tradition. I will, of course, acknowledge such tradition, and I shan’t avoid critiquing their sources. But I will refuse looking at the manuscripts as the result of anything. I will analyze them as an experience, as a process, partaking of the feeling of innovation that their authors and artisans experienced, and expressed, when they conceived their material texts.

After this introduction, I will give an idea of what are the questions I am trying to raise, and what are the answers I am trying to explore in this book by examining the works of one extremely problematic individual -a Portuguese prince in exile who decided to abandon his mother tongue in favor of Castilian, and to live a public life in Catalan and in Catalonia, becoming Count of Barcelona and then King of Aragon, and who was probably murdered at 37 in a Catalan city. The name of this prince is Pedro de Avis, better known as Pedro de Portugal.

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