Miscellaneous Order. Manuscript Culture and the Early Modern Organization of Knowledge

Vine, Angus
Anzahl Seiten
304 S.
£ 60,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Tom Tölle, Universität Hamburg

When thinking of early modern favourites, the political intimates of princes, historians do not think of paperwork first. In fact, the art of seventeenth-century courtly favouritism may seem so steeped in interaction that record-keeping dwarves by comparison. And yet, Francis Bacon’s first advice to royal favourite George Villiers was to try his hands at a good (read: useful) filing system. In a time of proverbial information overload, the paper tools that suited the scholar, Bacon argued, would also do for the courtier-cum-statesman. This side note, which plays a small role in Angus Vine’s fine study on the miscellany, points to the study’s many noteworthy implications beyond intellectual history. Its first five chapters set a broad scene for explaining the role of collecting and ordering miscellanies in Baconian epistemology. Bacon, Vine seeks to convince us, used filing not just to keep atop his paper mountains, but also as a material tool to think with.

„Material tool“, „think with“, „filing“ etc. – this terminology sounds rather anachronistic. A study on the miscellany may raise fears of focusing on the banal, the figurative marble chiselled away instead of the statue itself. But any reader expecting this book to take a deep dive into the trivial may rest assured. Specificity and clarity are two of its central qualities. Overall, Vine seeks to show that far from being random, “miscellaneous order” constituted the predominant form of recording information in manuscript in early modern Britain. It grew out of the widespread practice of transcribing – copying passages from manuscript, print, and speech verbatim – in a particular format. As its users adjusted to more mobile and rich data, this form became increasingly self-reflexive.

Chapter 1 attempts to establish a central precondition for the argument’s success. Vine defines the commonplace book as a “collection produced according to a set of common, or at least agreed, rules and with a set of comparable texts in mind” (p. 31); and the (anachronistic) miscellany “as a more idiosyncratic collection, organised according to the whim of an individual rather than the expectations and shared educational precepts of a group” (p. 31). In contrast to Zachary Sayre Schiffman[1], however, he sees the rise of miscellanies less as a corollary of a crisis of commonplacing, but as a blending of one form into another. This potent mix arose from different traditions – one pedagogical, the other commentarial – that harnessed manuscripts for more than one purpose. With the mise-en-page often drawing on both traditions, the miscellany could, Vine insists, even provide an organising principle for commonplacing.

The second chapter focuses on manuscript encyclopedic. It argues that those who produced such sweeping works – ranging from naturalist William Turner to Cambridge scholar John Ramsey or poet Henry Oxinden – aimed at approximating a so-called omnigatherum, a collection of all useful knowledge. These enterprises, piecemeal they may have remained, linked sixteenth-century commonplacing to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century systematic histories of knowledge. What may seem like a disorderly jumble, Vine reimagines as being carefully produced (often from draft stages) and following a hidden order, which combined a humanist pedagogical and a more practically-inclined „how-to“-tradition; the former centred on words, the latter on things.

Chapter 3 further advances this combination of conceptual and material interests. It studies William Camden and comparable chorographic and antiquarian collectors. Picking up Jeffrey Knight’s argument about the sartorial dimension of these collectors’ works[2], he sees antiquarian compiling as a material as well as literal process. As did their intellectual model of a tailor sitting on a cushion of motley rags, these information-hungry figures combined snippets (of texts and objects), quite literally stitching and sewing them together. Presented in this way – as an intellectual technique and praxis – miscellaneous order takes on a central role in the successful completion of projects like William Camden’s vast Britannia: Miscellanies were both organised systematically and miscellaneously (e.g. as to how content was inserted and how texts took shape).

The fourth chapter seeks to place merchant miscellanies within this intellectual tradition. Its central aim is to further dissolve an already waning separation of scholarly and mercantile textuality. It shows how the Italian zibaldone and double-entry bookkeeping came to practically influence English collections outside merchant circles. Sprawling texts could be reformed by entering them into the neat schemes of book-keeping. “Miscellaneity”, Vine shows, “operated as an organizational principle” when it “ordered knowledge not through pre-existing categories […] but through processes of refinement and transcription […] that were both conceptual and fully realised in material form” (p. 133).

Chapter 5 further advances this focus on (re)transcription. It studies Sir Hugh Plat’s paper laboratory in which a methodology grounded in humanist reading and practices of excerpting intersected. Plat drew on a vast set of material that was ordered, serialised, and harmonised. The crucial feature of his ordering system lay in progressive reworkings that, over time, transformed eclectic collections into more topically rigid ones arranged by subject. They allowed Plat to improve on his own notes.

Bacon, the subject of chapter 6, by contrast, is seen as an extreme mediator between humanist reading and “transcriptive practices, archival concerns, and record-keeping methods” (p. 28) that bore fruit in the later seventeenth-century. Extensive note-making spanned all fields of Baconian intellectual work. What stands out to Vine about Bacon’s interest is the obsession with and development of tools to materially shape, order, store, and use information. Vine’s Bacon is not one of free-floating ideas. Conceptual thought, the author seeks to show, was intimately connected to and grounded in traceable material practice drawing on the sprawling British tradition of miscellaneous order.

Redefining the miscellany, Vine’s work does the disciplines of early modern history as well as early modern literature a great service. He pulls together a variety of strands from intellectual history to history of science and manuscript studies. Overall, the book aptly shows that there is room for discovery wherever scholars set aside their aspiration to (only) find the „authoritative text“ in the manuscript, the „author“ in the miscellany of poetry, or even the „poetry“ in the heterogeneous miscellany. In this reviewer’s opinion, Vine succeeds in anchoring an array of practices broadly in a world of knowledge that needed not to differentiate sharply between scholarly, mercantile, and political. His accomplishment forces historians of all walks to take material textuality even more seriously.

It is laudable that Vine puts emphasis on the creative force of Britain’s localities. A rich context that – as he explains perhaps a little too neatly – sprang from an added need for commonplacing and gathering material in areas where less access to up-to-date publications existed. He neglects that vociferous local collecting would have influenced encyclopedic projects of chorography such as Camden’s Britannia. As a result, the weight on Camden’s personal genius at collecting sits uneasily with the emphasis that Vine puts on the creativity of rural Britain in his final „Coda“-chapter. His other highly suggestive nod to the longevity of the miscellany is also not developed enough. Taken together, they render the last chapter perhaps the least satisfying in an otherwise exciting work.

To end on a positive note, the book’s single greatest accomplishment lies in rethinking miscellaneous manuscripts – or rather, the changing practice of transcription and the importance attributed to it – with Vine’s readers. It brings us back to those odd volumes that we found stored together with materials immediately useful to our research interest. Scraps that could only become constitutive to the fabric of learning once they had been diligently transcribed and, thus, worked through. Having read Vine’s book – alongside the works of Ann Blair, Richard Yeo, and Ann Moss[3] – historians might no longer put an odd volume aside, take note of this as a „miscellaneous“ item, and move on. Instead, some might seek to understand what these texts tell us about the rich and diverse figures that once produced them.

[1] Zachary Sayre Schiffman, Montaigne and the Rise of Skepticism in Early Modern Europe. A Reappraisal, in: Journal of the History of Ideas 45 (1984), pp. 499–516; id., On the Threshold of Modernity. Relativism in the French Renaissance, Baltimore 1991, Ch. 3.
[2] E. g. Jeffrey Knight, Needles and Pens. Sewing in Early English Books, in: Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 45 (2015), pp. 523–542.
[3] Ann Blair / Richard Yeo (eds.), Note-Taking in Early Modern Europe, in: Intellectual History Review 20 (2010), pp. 303–413 (special issue); Ann Moss, Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought, Oxford 1996.

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