The John Rylands Library is an extraordinary neo-Gothic building to which no tourist visit to Manchester is complete without. The architectural experience is supplemented by many fine exhibitions making use of its special collections, although due to their small, studious nature, they can often be overlooked. Communities in Communication is one such exhibition taking place in its cloistral vaulted corridors. Drawing on the Rylands’ large collection of books from the late medieval Netherlands, this small show forms part of a larger AHRC-funded project to understand the interplay of literary cultures in the late medieval Low Countries.
Guided by the excellent little exhibition booklet, the cases are grouped by themes that elucidate how the objects represent a window into the intellectual and linguistic cultures of their age. Trilingual phrase books show that individuals from urban burghers to the nobility were keen to improve their vocabularies. The new technology of printing had begun make written culture more accessible to a world burgeoning with literacy and an appetite for the word, and the majority of books here are printed rather than manuscripts written by hand. The books are beautifully displayed in shallow cases that allow you to appreciate the clarity of the printed text by actually reading the words, appreciating them as works of art and craft in themselves rather than simply vehicles for illumination. Perhaps the most significant object on show here is William Caxton’s Recuyell of the historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English.
I was fortunate enough to visit the exhibition on the occasion of a study day led by the exhibition curator, Adrian Armstrong. Our group was assigned a wonderful copy of Caxton’s English translation of the Golden Legend. First we studied the book as a physical object: assessing how the paper had been folded into bifolios and bound into quires. A copy that appears mint at first belies a fascinating object history: on close inspection showed how pages had been bookmarked by a neat reader. After a short break we looked at the book in a different way: how we might consider transcribing the text for a modern critical edition. Does one insert modern punctuation and expand contractions, or go the whole way and modernise the often archaic spelling? These are no doubt issues Caxton himself faced when sitting down with English, Latin and French versions of the Legenda Aurea back in Westminster in the 1480s.
These dual themes of material codicology and the linguistics of the text helped illuminate the texts on display outside, be it historical writing, poetry or phrasebooks. All these texts are material artefacts that can make manifest the essentially ephemeral speech of daily life in the late medieval Northern Europe: be it in diplomacy, trade, or leisure. This is certainly an exhibition to see if you are interested in the future aims of the project to unravel the interplay of literary cultures in this dynamic environment: both the autumn of the Middle Ages and the springtime of the Northern Renaissance.
Communities in the Communication: Languages and Cultures in the Late Medieval Low Countries is on at the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester until 21 December 2014. Admission is free.