Tuesday, 18 August 2009


Marginalia has been the flavour of the month. I've been ogling grotesque hybrid men and beasts, lascivious ladies and misbehaving monks, and I've seen grape vines and acanthus leaves in such abundance that by comparison autumn in Highbury seems rather cheerless. My passion for incunabula is a well-kept secret in comparison with my flagrant affair with contemporary book arts. So what has provoked this sudden confession?

It all began with the welcome news that the British Library has acquired the Macclesfield Alphabet Book, a rare medieval English 'model' or 'pattern' book dating from the early sixteenth century. The manuscript has been in the library of the Earl of Macclesfield since around 1750, and until recently its existence was completely unknown. Now, however, it lies serenely on display in the John Riblat Gallery of the British Library, basking in the same muted light as the great Haggadahs and Daoist Scrolls, for all the world like an up-and-coming British star who finds herself on the same table as Penelope Cruz at the Oscars.

The manuscript contains 14 different types of decorative alphabets. These include an alphabet of decorative initials with faces; foliate alphabets; a zoomorphic alphabet of initials, and alphabets in Gothic script. In addition there are large coloured anthropomorphic initials modelled after fifteenth-century woodcuts or engravings, as well as two sets of different types of borders, some of which are fully illuminated in colours and gold.

Meanwhile the publishing team at the British Library have been celebrating the rumbunctious medieval imagination, and have just released the fantastic book Images in the Margins by Margot McIlwain Nishimura. I've no doubt that many a monk would have committed sins of great moral turpitude to obtain the glossy colour printing techniques with which their painstaking gilding and illumination are so gloriously reproduced here (courtesy of Tien Wah Press, Singapore).

How modern publishing can do justice to ancient texts was the subject of a talk at the Wynkyn de Worde Society a few nights ago, given by the radiant Professor Michelle Brown. Brown initiated the 'Turning the Pages' technology at the British Library (and if you haven't already tried it, do - you'll find it a much more satisfying way of wasting time than Facebook). This inspired development makes precious texts available to a mass audience whilst preserving the original documents. Such inventive uses of digital technology, and a sensitive approach to the different strata of traditional publishing (from limited editions to glossy gift books), have been hallmarks of the Library's publishing programme. I wish that the Electronic Beowulf had been available on CD-ROM when I was studying - surely it must make Anglo-Saxon so much easier!

Brown spoke about marginalia in the Lutteral Psalter and the Holkham Bible. Both works are too magnificent to be allowed to languish in the collections as unique objects known only to academics. They were created during the 14th century, on the eve of the Black Death, one for a member of the aristocracy and the other the initiative of an enterprising Cockney artist, who both artistically and politically appears to have been a forebear of William Blake. Brown pointed out the satirical implications of marginalia: while medieval illuminators may have resorted to a copybook such as the Macclesfield Alphabet Book for style, they demonstrated wickedly independence subtexts in the imagery of animals and people drawn from daily life. On that happy note, we all adjourned to drink wine and misbehave like absurd characters from the bas-de-page.

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