Friday, May 29, 2009

Medieval women's magazine?

That is what the Toronto Star called this 15th century manuscript unearthed by Wilfrid Laurier University English professor James Weldon. More properly, it is a commonplace book, an interesting genre of writing not unlike blog writing (or better, diary writing) in some respects. Janice Liedl, a Laurentian University historian who has worked with such things, comments on the Star article:

While the Star’s characterization of the work as a precursor to a modern women’s magazine in the vein of Chatelaine or Cosmopolitan is a little bit over-the-top, it does seem to be a great example of a purpose-assembled collection of manuscript material ranging from medical recipes to literary excerpts, what we might call a florilegia [florilegium sm]. By the sixteenth century, these collections were known as commonplace books. And, contrary to the comments of some of the newspaper readers, literate women were hardly unknown at this time or uninvolved in producing their own manuscripts of either original works or anthologies. So this document is hardly unprecedented but I’d say it’s because of that context that the story seems all the more interesting.

I’ve worked with a number of women’s commonplace books at libraries such as the Folger (and really ought to get back to some of that line of enquiry, one of these days) that have a similar range of subjects, though most of those seem to be in the hand of one copyist, presumably the user who collected the tidbits of particular interest by copying them as they were encountered, rather than literally pulling folio sheaves together. This manuscript, from the images provided, has very different “hands” and might be assembled from different texts produced at many times and places. So it seems as if this set of texts have been more “collected for” an individual reader than “collected by” an individual copyist as most of the commonplace books have been.

So I’ll wait to see if some more information about this manuscript percolates out into the scholarly community. It’s certainly an example that I’ll be using in this fall’s senior seminar when we discuss gender implications for reading and writing in the early modern period!

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