We thought we had the right question. Renate Mesmer (Head of Conservation), Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts), and I invited several scholars to the Folger for a lab-based discussion on “V.a.354: What to do about the Macro Manuscripts?” Specifically, the question was whether to rebind the items, and if so, together or separately, and if together, in what order.
Some history will be helpful here: three late-medieval morality plays, Wisdom, Mankind, and The Castle of Perseverance, known collectively as the Macro manuscripts, are in the Folger collection. They were purchased at auction in 1936 by the Folger’s then director, Joseph Quincy Adams, in what must have been one of his earliest acquisitions. The Library paid £1,125 at the Sotheby’s sale (around $5,600 USD at the time). When these came into the Folger collection, they had been bound together in one volume by the nineteenth-century collector, Hudson Gurney (1775-1864), whose books formed the core of the Sotheby’s sale.
The plays had long attracted the attention of scholars. To address that interest, Gurney had extracted these three play texts from the volume in which they had been bound by an earlier collector, Cox Macro (d. 1767). Indeed, that extraction facilitated a 1904 edition by F.J. Furnivall for the Early English Text Society. However, at the same time, that extraction removed the contextual evidence of the larger intellectual interests driving Macro and other earlier collectors.
These plays are part of a very small set of surviving English “morality plays,” which exemplify a form of drama with allegorized protagonists like “everyman” or “mankind,” to take two examples. As the editors of a recent edition of those two plays comment, these could be as easily called “soul plays,” for their emphasis on teaching the right way to live amid life’s many temptations. 1 These plays provide important windows into the rich trading and monastic cultures of East Anglia and the East Midlands, with which they are associated. The Castle of Perseverance is especially well known for containing the earliest drawing of an English stage setting on its final leaf. As Theresa Coletti (Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park) commented, “these are celebrity manuscripts” for the field of late-medieval drama.
A fuller account of how these plays came together in one of Cox Macro’s bound volumes of antiquarian manuscripts is only now emerging. With her long-term, 2014-15 NEH fellowship at the Folger, Gail McMurray Gibson (William R. Kenan Emerita Professor of English at Davidson College) explored the interests of earlier collectors to raise questions about the porous borders between medieval and early modern, about these manuscripts as sites of on-going contests about religious devotion and orthodoxy, and about the afterlives of drama manuscripts as material objects. Richard Beadle (Professor of Medieval English Literature and Palaeography, Faculty of English at Cambridge University) shared some preliminary results of his investigation of the order of these manuscripts and others in what Gurney had purchased as Macro Mss. 5. Michael Kuczynski (Professor of English at Tulane University) also called attention to the collections of James Cobbes (c. 1602-85), an earlier owner of Mankind and Wisdom.
A better understanding of the histories of these manuscripts is slowly being compiled by these scholars and others, as is a wider picture of the network of manuscripts with which these plays were associated in the fifteenth century. Because the Gurney binding is an important witness to one phase of that history, the Folger has retained that binding. But the plays were removed from it in the early 1970s, in preparation for a facsimile volume, with the purpose of reducing demand to see and handle the fragile six-hundred year old paper. Acid-free paper folders were prepared for each play text, and a storage box was created to house them and the Gurney binding.
Now and again, the question of rebinding emerges. Among the considerations working against a rebinding has been the uncertainty of the order in which the plays ought to be rebound: in the seemingly arbitrary order in which Gurney had assembled them? In the chronological order that the 1972 facsimile volume editor David Bevington posited? 2 Or, given the long-standing suspicion that The Castle of Perseverance was not as closely related as the other two, should each be rebound separately?
Those are the questions we invited scholars to consult on, and those are the issues we saw as a fresh starting point for a conversation whose unfolding we don’t presume to predict. As an experiment, we invited our participants, Folger staff and invited scholars alike, to come just with what they knew, prepared only to share observations across different kinds of expertise. We also asked each participant to consider what we could best study now, while the manuscripts were unbound. Somewhat to our surprise, that element of the discussion gained the greatest traction and energy, especially when Renate Mesmer and the conservation team challenged the group with their question: does it need to be rebound at all? Though the conservation staff at the Folger strives to uphold the highest professional standards in their work, they challenged our assumptions that whatever they did would be reversible. It is easy to articulate that as a theory, they told us, but not nearly as easy to achieve in practice.
We set aside the question of rebinding, then, as a decision that would follow in due course, and would as likely be informed by the condition of the individual manuscripts as by scholarly perceptions of order. We turned our attention instead to the questions of what we were now in a position to study about this manuscript. What stories would we want the physical object to give witness to? How could we make them speak? Several priorities emerged. Many focused on the paper itself. The conservation staff observed a higher concentration of copper in the ink mix of The Castle of Perseverance than in the ink of the other two texts, which was greatly exciting to everyone. This difference amplifies other evidence that this manuscript was not as closely related as the other two.
The quality of the paper throughout the manuscript garnered much attention, too. It was not of the highest quality, with many large fibers and sheets that ended in a pool of “slurry” rather than having fully filled the paper form. The watermarks have not been fully identified, and the pattern of the folds of the large sheet to create individual leaves seemed to warrant further study.
New aids for a fresh material description of the items were discussed. Renate Mesmer described a camera that neutralizes ink marks on paper and so reveals the watermarks clearly and without much handling. Multispectral imaging could be applied to various pages where the text is obscured, whether because it had become faded or was erased. Imaging under raking light, which comes in at a slant, would highlight irregularities in the paper, including perhaps whether or not the margins were established with folds, or with blind tooling. People hoped for a closer look at pinpricks, such as the one still discernable at the center of the circles surrounding the castle in the drawing, circles representing a ditch to establish the playing space.
The questions multiplied. How could we make these manuscripts more useable for readers now? What is the twenty-first century counterpart of a photographic facsimile, beyond the digitized images already available? What kind of online project might address and extend what Michael Kuzynski called the “rich history of forms of access over time.” Consensus built that these manuscripts could be a good test case for study of the physical properties of manuscripts in service of new forms of research. Through detailed examinations of these, we could better understand what types of surrogates would help us for what types of research. Folger staff, including representatives from Public Programs and the Institute came away with new questions of our own about where such initiatives fit into our larger work flows and agendas.
Will the Folger rebind the Macro manuscripts, and if so, how? That question remains. But as Renate Mesmer reminded us at the end of the day, better preservation begins with better handling. There are provisional steps we can take to re-house the manuscripts and instructions we can provide to qualified readers, who have questions that can’t be answered by recourse to the facsimile or the high resolution digital images. More importantly, we can turn constraint into opportunity. How far we will get with new studies, in what order, with what precise objectives is work for ongoing consultation with these scholars and others. The prospect of a sustained re-engagment with these manuscripts for the first time in a generation was exciting. We begin with a report to add to the curator’s file. And this blog post. We welcome your questions about the Macro manuscript and ideas for pathways to develop. Because, of course, all scholarship begins with asking questions—even if those questions change along the way.