Hagiographical manuscripts as communicative tools

Tjamke Snijders - Manuscript Communication

Anja Rathmann-Lutz - Tjamke Snijders, Manuscript communication. Visual and Textual Mechanics of Communication in Hagiographical Texts from the Southern Low Countries, 900-1200 [Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 32], (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015); XVIII+493 p., Index; 110€ ISBN 978-2-503-55294-1.

Tjamke Snijders' book is a revised version of her doctoral dissertation (Ghent 2009) enriched with findings from her postdoctoral research (-2013). Thanks to the comprehensive structure of the book her outcomes based on profound knowledge of the material are easily approachable. Numerous tables, black-and-white figures, and five colour plates make her arguments still more accessible.

In the Introduction (ch. 1, 1-14) Snijders explains the framework of her study: rather than discussing the artistic qualities of a single manuscript or the history of a single monastery she addresses the question how the production of hagiographical manuscripts contributed to communication in the context of reform in the high middle ages. The assumption that every manuscript with its unique layout not only reflects a communicative situation but also shapes it, is crucial to her approach. In this respect not only the production but also the changes and uses of the manuscripts - and thereby the need to reconstruct their medieval condition - come into focus. Snijders proposes a quadripartite approach to answer her questions about the "communicative potential" of the manuscripts: they should be analysed in terms of "layout, composition, instability, and historical context" (6). In chapter 2 Black Monks in the Southern Low Countries (900-1200) (17-36) Snijders provides the reader with an overview of the various reform movements from the late ninth-century onwards and sets the chronological scope of the study. Emphasis is placed on the political, social, economical, and spiritual ties between the abbeys. In Research Parameters for Manuscript Analysis (ch. 3, 37-78) follow context information on manuscript production, the network of scriptoria, and the mobility and value of the objects produced as well as clarifications on the term "layout", comprising a manuscript's composition, its dimensions, questions of legibility, writing intensity and exploitation, the tables of contents, titles and rubrics, the use of colours, initials, punctuation, and litterae notabiliores, and different forms of images.

Together with the Introduction, chapters 2 & 3 (part I) form the base for the detailed analysis of ca. 150 hagiographical manuscripts written in Benedictine monasteries according to layout, composition, instability, and context in part II (ch. 4-7). The objects studied come from the dioceses of Thérouanne, Tournai, Arras-Cambrai, and Liège, more precisely the abbeys of St.-Bertin, St.-Amand, St.-Vaast, St.-Trond, Stavelot-Malmedy, St.-Ghislain, Marchiennes, St.-Laurent, St.-Sépulcre and Anchin. The choice of the southern Low Countries as the geographical focus of the study is convincingly reasoned by both the contemporary and modern perception of that area as a region couched in a special way between the Empire and France.

A comparative approach in chapter 4 ("The Layout of Hagiographical Manuscripts", 81-128) shows how to analyse the extent to which the manuscript layout was determined by a specific mixture of its economic and social context and the scribe's agency, discarding the notion of a unique "house style" cultivated by each scriptorium. Instead Snijders proposes first to group manuscripts diachronically and to analyse the developments in layout (size, punctuation, initials, and of the use of colours) between the 10th and the 12th century. A second parameter proposed is the genre of a manuscript; Snijders differentiates between single saint libelli / auctoritas libelli and lectionaries / legendaries and their respective layouts. Thirdly a monasteries library - its preferences, economic limitations, political contexts - can serve as a parameter of analysis of the manuscript layout. The designated audience and function of a manuscript also influenced the choices for a specific layout. Chapter 5 ("The Composition of Hagiographical Manuscripts", 129-175) concentrates on that aspect. Using the example of St.-Ghislain's Library, Snijders shows how the production and composition of manuscripts was "largely determined by institutional concerns" (173). Consequentially the next chapter ("Rewriting", 177-239) treats the various ways in which hagiographical texts and their material representations changed according to surrounding developments and adaptations to new circumstances. It contains also an extensive discussion of terminological questions on the notions of "scriptum" and "work" already briefly defined in the introduction. Readdressing the question of the relations between monastic institutions, chapter 7 ("Contextualisation and Monastic Networks", 241-281) investigates the interconnections of abbeys in the southern Low Countries in the Tenth-, Mid Eleventh-, Late Eleventh-, and Twelfth-Centuries and their impact on manuscript production.

The third part of the book starts with a case study of two monasteries in the diocese of Arras, Anchin and Marchiennes (ch. 8 , 285-341). In the case study the aspects discussed in the previous chapters (layout, composition, changes, networks) are combined and applied to the study of fifty-six manuscripts, twenty-eight preserved from each of the abbeys. Manuscripts served to shape identity and monastic policy in both places but rather different ones: "Marchiennes would often fall back on its ancient hagiographical tradition in an attempt to alleviate its many difficulties, while Anchin had little concern for hagiography but defended itself rather through progressiveness, and experimented with new methods of manuscript layout and transmission to achieve its aims" (287). From the second decade of the 12th century onwards however the manuscripts from Anchin served to consolidate the ties to Marchiennes with the result that attitudes towards the use of hagiography changed in both abbeys and with them the function and production of manuscripts. Based on these findings chapter 9 (Genre Consciousness and the Use of Hagiography, 343- 387) deals with the question "whether there was not a more fundamental cause" for these changes, for example "a broader shift in mentalities" (341). Snijders analyses the growing number and changing nature of ever more diverse hagiographical manuscripts in respect to the development of their functions in the liturgy and for different audiences or rather reading situations within and without the monastic communities.

In the conclusion (ch.10, 389-395) Snijders gives an excellent résumé of the study's findings. She names again the research on the construction of monastic identities as the starting point of her study. It is in this context she analyses the "communicative function of hagiographical manuscripts" in the southern Low Countries (389) thereby adding a new facet to this subject matter. By choosing a scale in the middle between single manuscript analysis and large-scale analysis she can show how multifaceted the development of hagiographical manuscripts in the high medieval period was, resulting in ever more specialised manuscripts which could be read either "silently and consultatively", or were "suitable for a liturgical context", or "aimed to increase the status of a patron saint and his or her monastery" (390).

Tjamke Snijders' considerations on the developments of hagiographical genres and layout conceptions and her more general reflections on methodological and terminological questions are well balanced with the detailed analyses of the vast material she worked with. It would have been interesting to see the author's engagement with discussions about medieval mediality which address many of the questions raised by the author in a synthesising way, providing also new suggestions for some of the methodological and terminological problems named. Precisely when it comes to the role of materiality and layout in communication, and to the idea that there is more to a manuscript than the pure transmission of its content, the notion of "mediality" could have helped to underline some of the author's arguments.