The page is ruled, the text, linear and beautiful. Surrounding the illuminations and headings is a sea of white space. The scribe is methodical, purposeful with his quill. His back strained, his eyes tired and his feet cold. The room, littered with books, is uninviting and dimming by the minute. His hand drifts to the white space and he drops a little ink. “Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen.”
I have a healthy respect for the medieval scribe. As a copy typist in my dim and distant past, I sat in the typing pool swamped by paper and desperate to reduce the mounting work on my desk. There was little to stimulate body or mind, as I watched the clouds gather outside. How often did I wish I could type in the corner of a page “Christ save me from this boredom.” Such was the mundane routine of my day that I lasted but a year in that job.
But the medieval scribe was only the first annotator of the medieval page. Many were to follow. Scholars, clerics thought nothing of publicly arguing all over the white space. John Dagenais in his article ‘Decolonizing the Medieval Page‘ views medieval manuscripts in their collaborative form, as the work of many voices annotated and dictated onto the page without a single authoritative voice ruling all. He suggests we look at the medieval manuscript with all its scribbles and comments “like an open peetree dish, a living, growing thing, placed within a fertile, organic medium.” (Dagenais, 39)
This combination of voices, is the commentary tradition in its infancy. It could be argued that there is nothing more susceptible to interpretation and re-interpretation than the bible. Patristic commentaries dominated the middle ages and it is through these, that we see the influence and complexities of the commentary tradition as it has evolved. For example, Scholastic Commentary divided opinion and highlighted the paradoxical nature of scripture as a literal and allegorical text. Depending on the expected use, some scholars in the late 12th Century wrote biblical commentaries for the pastoral training of clerics with an emphasis on theological instruction, while, others stressed the pastoral responsibilities of the clergy and concentrated their commentaries on preaching and confession. Not only were the commentaries useful for teaching clerics in the ways of their faith but, they are also an insight into popular philosophies of the time. For example, Aristotelian influences appear in the prefaces to individual bible books.
While biblical manuscripts gave the clergy plenty to argue over, the one thing that united them was their understanding of authorship which they privileged entirely as God breathed. As Frans van Liere suggests, “The bible was not just a story about God, but also a story by God.” (Liere, 111) It was the interpretation of his word that seems to have caused controversy.
It would appear that the implication regarding collective authorial voices, pervades the medieval manuscript and commentary tradition from the beginning. ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’ is one such example that makes finding a true voice appear almost impossible for the modern academic. There are four recognizable annotators of this copied text, one of whom, it is assumed, is the scribe himself. A recent article by Anthony Bale suggests that the scribe is a ‘Richard Salthouse of Norwich.’ Bale postulates that it is in understanding the significance of her scribe that we can see more clearly Margery’s intent and purpose in writing her autobiography. It also gives us a valuable insight into the manuscript’s possible value to medieval society.
Critics have argued over the extent to which Margery influenced her scribe and vice versa, however, Bale prefers to see Salthouse as Margery’s editor rather than her scribe, having only the lightest of touch on the text, as he retains or notes at the end of book 1, chapter 16 that the reader should “Rede fyrst the xxi chapetre, and than this chapetre aftyr that” (Bale, 177) The scribe is merely advising the reader how to unravel the narrative to make it read more easily.
With the help of paleography and placing Richard Salthouse within the possibilities of Margery’s Norwich location, Bale is convinced that the “well-trained scribe, probably highly educated and/or in holy orders” is the neat and regular hand of “a monk at Norwich’s Benedictine cathedral priory, one of the country’s most important, powerful, and wealthy ecclesiastical institutions.” (Bale, 177) It is his opinion that Salthouse’s purpose for copying the text is to have a record of Margery’s life and visions “for posterity, in the format of a textual testament parallel to a monastic record or a hagiographic document, building an orthodox and institutional textual edifice of a remarkable devout woman.” (Bale, 184)
The scribe’s touch in this case is to enhance, to memorialize and to edify those who come after. Where is Margery’s authorial voice? I would suggest it is in the ink itself. There is evidence that the red annotations are most likely advice from a number of Carthusian monks, to the reader, regarding how the text should be read to receive proper spiritual edification but it is in Salthouse’s faithfulness to the original haphazardness of the dictation that gives it ‘authoritative voice’. The narrative style and remarkable recounting of the events themselves bare all the hallmarks of the sort of person we might imagine Margery Kempe to have been and the annotations, therefore, merely directions to the intended reader regarding how this spiritual commentary, if you like, should be read. Bale suggests that the commentary in Margery’s case is an attempt to “shape the narrative into a specific devotional genre.” (Bale, 185) Whether this compromises the text’s authoritative reliability in any way is an entirely different argument.
Contemporary writers, such as, Vladimir Nabokov in his novel ‘Pale Fire‘ satirize the commentary tradition, eschewing perspective and formality of the practice, playing with a plethora of assumptions such as, the editor, Charles Kinbote’s comments in the Forward of the novel “Canto Two, your favourite,” (Nabokov, 11) This early indication that the novel is going to dictate to you rather than persuade you, upsets the validity of the commentator who unravels as the novel progresses. It is a great example, if not a little extreme, of the subjectivity and unreliability of this long held literary tradition that academics so revere.