Classroom debut of a new manuscript

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books & Manuscripts has just acquired an early 14th-century manuscript of Thomas of Ireland’s Manipulus Florum.  The Penn community has the opportunity to see the manuscript tomorrow evening at an open meeting of the Graduate Paleography Group, at 5 pm in the Vitale 2 Digital Media Lab in the Kislak Center.  Please join us! Emily Steiner, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has a research interest in medieval reference works and was the faculty organizer for last year’s Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, with the theme of Taxonomies of Knowledge. This fall she is teaching a graduate seminar on Piers Plowman. Here she writes about the first use of the manuscript in her (or anyone’s!) classroom.

Ms. Codex 1640, Headings A-D, with Abstinence and Conscience
Ms. Codex 1640, Headings A-D, with Abstinence and Conscience

I was thrilled to have the opportunity last week to show my graduate class Penn’s new acquisition, UPenn Ms. Codex 1640, the lovely manuscript of the Manipulus Florum (A Handful of Flowers). As it happened, the students and I were discussing the most famous episode in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a 7,000-line alliterative poem written in England in the mid-fourteenth century. In this episode, in passus 7 of Piers Plowman, Piers and a priest have an argument about what kind of learning is required to understand the requirements for Christian salvation. Piers says, “Abstinence the Abbess taught me my a.b.c., and Conscience came after her and taught me much more.” Piers seems as if he’s saying, “you don’t need to be learned – you just need to be good!” but actually he is referring to medieval reference books like the Manipulus Florum, alphabetically-ordered key words indexes, from which preachers could easily put together sermons, even if they didn’t have access to a big library. “Abstinence,” “Abbess,” and “Conscience,” are very typical keywords in such reference books. Penn’s Manipulus Florum, which contains the entry for “Conscience,” as well as the heading for its mostly missing (first) entry on “Abstinence,” is a perfect example of the kind of book to which the poet, Langland, probably had access, and to which he owed his conception of literacy. For a medieval writer, a book like the Manipulus Florum was similar to today’s Wikipedia: a seemingly complete source of cultural information.

Emily Steiner,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s