The more life seems to be taken out of one’s control, the greater need one feels to find sense in it. Sometimes the patterns that become apparent in hindsight are more depressing than anything else; but there are also times when events have a way of fitting together that is reassuring, as though they were meant to be. Coincidence, perhaps …
Medievalists may – perhaps – recognize in these musings the influence of ideas about Fortuna, chance, contingency, and the like that have been discussed quite a bit in recent German-language research, such as the anthology Kein Zufall. But what I have in mind in this instance is something much more modest, and rather more tangible as well.
A few weeks ago, I went to hear about the work that Jakob Povl Holck is doing on medieval manuscripts used in the bindings of early printed books held by the SDU. Not long after that, I ordered some editions of medieval Scandinavian narrative literature from second-hand booksellers. There was no connection between these actions in my mind, until one of the books arrived in the post: inside the envelope, I found a volume that had been wrapped in brown packing paper … and part of an amber hardback bookcover. It must have belonged to a German volume called ‘Die chinesische Wel’ – interrupted in the middle of the last word because that literally is where the cover had been broken: the back and part of the spine were all that was left. A quick search on the Internet identified it as a German translation of a volume by the French sinologist Jacques Gernet. How and why this came to be I’ll never know. Perhaps the bookseller just happened to have a bit of an old book to hand. Perhaps they even realized there was a certain elegance in using the cover of one translation (from French into German) to protect a fragile edition of a much earlier one (from French into Old Norse) – connection or coincidence? Or both? At any event, it seemed fitting, somehow, that after seeing manuscripts that had been broken up to bind early books, I received a book wrapped in the broken cover of another, modern one. Both experiences became a lot more personal, a reminder of why these things still matter.
There is a wider point here about how we view unfamiliar practices such as taking manuscripts apart in order to keep other books together. This very pragmatic use of the manuscript as ‘no more than’ a source of material stands at odds with the concepts of textual integrity that have shaped editorial practices and the listing of works in teaching curricula, canons, and readers. Perhaps because of that, it is all too easy to think away the cannibalization of textual objects as a passing anomaly, to treat it as a phenomenon of a particular time to be theorized as the product of a particular historical context. It is, of course, to be understood in part as exactly that; but it is well to be reminded that such habits are not as far distant from the here and now as one might think.