Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
In manuscript cultures of the Middle Ages, every textual object was hand-crafted by human agents who practiced varying degrees of attention, competence, and care. Medieval scribes were imaginative publishers, the first readers of their own copy, and frequently authors in their own right. Scribes with varying tastes and expectations were responsible for producing physical books and the texts contained within them: no two manuscripts are exactly alike. To read a medieval book is to travel in the boundary regions between the kinds of books that are designed to be replicated and the kinds of books that are singular and irreplaceable.
How to Read a Medieval Book develops a generalizable book-historical method for reading medieval mixed-content manuscripts as complex literary artifacts. Relying upon manuscript evidence for how scribes collected, distributed, and arranged texts in physical form, this study asks how individual manuscripts themselves preserve and generate knowledge about the construction of literature. The method is portable, open-ended, and selective: it is designed to be applied to a wide array of manuscripts, and it relies upon material analysis to designate terms of scholarly inquiry fitting to each manuscript context. Close attention to the material production of mixed-content manuscripts by medieval agents can serve as a mechanism for identifying textual groups, a blueprint for determining effective critical approaches, and a means for understanding medieval texts in their individual contexts.
How to Read a Medieval Book does not aim to recover authorial, scribal, or readerly intent. Instead, it examines the evidence of production, consumption, and modification of a single material book in order to recover meanings that emerge from its unique arrangement of texts. The approach brings productive lines of research into focus for material texts too often neglected in scholarship, because they are not easily accommodated by familiar research categories of authorship, genre, topic, or even theme. By way of what I term the “codicological unconscious,” the production of a single manuscript informs a shifting archive of textual relations, in which material compilation continuously alters the horizons of literary meaning.
The method I have developed requires persistent attention to a single book-object. Throughout How to Read a Medieval Book, I analyze one manuscript at great length: Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 851. This English mixed-content manuscript contains over twenty texts, largely of unknown origin and primarily in Latin or Anglo-Latin, written in eight or more different scribal hands, was mostly transcribed and decorated in the second half of the fourteenth century, and was finally compiled and bound by the middle of the fifteenth century. Two of the texts present in Bodley 851 survive uniquely within its bindings and are widely known to medieval scholars: the much-contested Z-text of Piers Plowman and the full text of Walter Map’s De nugis curialium (“On courtiers’ trifles”). My study recovers, for the first time, the conversation conducted between Map’s essayistic Anglo-Latin prose and Langland’s alliterative Middle English verse in their single manuscript context. It further inquires into how each text relates to popular Anglo-Latin poems compiled within in the same collection. As the genres preserved within Bodley 851 range among Marian devotion, anti-marital satire, anti-ecclesiastic comedy, and military paean, so this study addresses a wide array of topics frequently isolated from one another in contemporary scholarship.
Following the thick bibliographic description in chapter one (“Recomposing Bodley 851”), each chapter attends to the codicological unconscious in the work of one scribal contributor to Bodley 851. Chapter two (“Scribal Composition”) begins with the earliest fragment preserved within Bodley 851. Analysis of this single fragment provides a glimpse of how one fourteenth-century scribal reader combined devotion to the Virgin Mary together with ribald medieval misogamy. A comparative reading of this fragment demonstrates how feminine desire, as supported by the material, feminine, spousal body, could be required more fundamentally for devotion than for derision, and how even in misogamous contexts, divinity itself might be found inextricably bound up with embodiment rather than with abstraction.
Chapter three (“Recomposing Walter Map”) examines the unique copy of Walter Map’s De nugis curialium as a cogently arranged and carefully stylized compilation. Scholars frequently assume that the apparent disarray of Map’s text must reflect a commensurate disarray in Map’s own thought. The relationship between literary work and its manuscript book, however, requires more careful consideration. When read as a compiled book, the text preserved within Bodley 851 yields insight into Map’s stance toward authority and interpretation in his narration of fantastic events. In Map we encounter a twelfth-century member of the secular clergy foregrounding one complex problem of the field that we now call literary formalism, in a text made more complex by the exigencies of its material transmission.
Chapter four (“Walter Map’s Piers Plowman”) asks how the arrangement of texts within Bodley 851 might reveal unexpected late-medieval perspectives on the authorship of its only Middle English text, the infamous sigil Z of Piers Plowman. This chapter pursues two lines of interpretation, reading the Z-text alongside texts aligned with Map through the production of Bodley 851. First, I uncover the Hunger episode’s debts to the Apocalypsis goliae and examine the consequences of those debts on the Z-text’s allegorical meaning. Second, I analyze the proposed marriages of Lady Meed through the lens of medieval misogamy, revealing how the Z-text’s first vision carefully situates the poem specifically within the generic and discursive expectations of misogamous literature (as in the De coniuge and Map’s best-selling Letter to Rufinus) as a specific form of medieval misogyny.
In late-medieval culture, imagined compilations were powerful metaphors, serving as repositories of culture, imagination, and truth. We read the book of life, the book of memory, the book of nature. As with imagined books, so a close examination of the conditions of the production and reception of physical books might reveal much about the kinds of people who made them, the worlds they inhabited, and the inner lives they led, or meant to lead, or inadvertently found themselves being led upon. Under figurative and material aspects, the medieval book, like the medieval self, gathers together modes of being in the world at once familiar and impossibly strange, present before us and yet almost wholly inaccessible.
Chair and Committee
David Lawton, Steven Zwicker, Christian Schneider, Michelle Karnes,
Sawyer, Thomas C., "How to Read a Medieval Book: Recomposing MS Bodley 851" (2021). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2529.
Available for download on Wednesday, August 19, 2026