Research / Blogs

What Do I Do with a Manuscript?


Many people tend to be dismissive about working with manuscripts and early printings. "Neo-positivism!," they cry. Others who do work with manuscripts and early printings, tend to be protective about the techniques they employ to do such work. "Theory!," they yell at the other bunch. The first kind risks developing hypothesis that do not take in account the specificity of the material conditions in which meaning is constructed. The second risks to end up describing only the fascination of gathering an archive that will be narrated, but not critically read. Moreover, such people act as if they would lose their super powers if they gave away their secret or as if the objects would be damaged in other hands. I have been guilty of falling in either one side or the other many times. In this post, I would like to think about the practice of my own research guiding you through what I do (and what I think) while working with a manuscript.

The shield of Cisneros engraved on the binding of BH MS 64 with the galero, the two-headed eagle, and the crown.

If this post were entitled “What to Do with a Manuscript,” the fact that I have some real wisdom to impart would be implied. Well, here is a disclaimer: this is just an attempt. No real wisdom (real as in conclusive) shall be found here.

I wanted to write this post in order to demystify the idea of working on archival material since the archives can present a certain mystery to the eyes of the neophyte. Archival work can be at the same time highly frustrating and great fun. It all begins like this. Let’s say you have an idea for a dissertation. Then off you go to the archive. Then books and documents pop up. Well, people bring them to your desk or they show them to you on a screen because that’s how it is in the archive: even when you are inside, you can never fully access it. It is always protected and out of reach, both at the same time. Yet you have to keep going and fill in the gaps between your fancy dissertation idea and what you are actually able to find.

I feel like somebody with a funny perspective on this kind of work since I have a very traditional philological background from my BA (Santiago de Compostela) and a strongly theory-oriented one from my MA (Paris). Most of the time, I think of myself as too unscrupulous to act like the historian I ought to be and too basic to be a fancy philosopher. So here I am, trying to develop some sort of discourse about what I do while doing it. Reading from this schizophrenic point of view is no easy task. I will sum it up like this: as far as I am concerned, there is a Barthesian pleasure of reading that travels across any material form that coexists with the Mckenzian conviction that the construction of meaning comes from the material presence of the text.

In order to conciliate this irreducible difference, I will try to walk you through the day of today (Tuesday, November 4th 2014). My day spent in the archive, while you are all voting. You will see what I see. If you have conclusions different from mine, please use the comment section. That would be really useful.

When I find a manuscript, the first thing I do is to check it out in a catalogue so I have some information about it. Working in an archive is not mainly about reading inside the book, as somebody told me once, but about reading around the book. The catalogue information is not to be trusted blindly as if it were an authority, but more as a companion to your own research or as if it were a nice way to find out that more people were puzzled by what you are looking at. In this sense, I am incredibly lucky that the erudite Anthony Bonner and a team of specialists at the Universitat de Barcelona developed a thorough catalogue for the manuscripts of the works of Ramon Llull existing in Europe. The catalogue is precise and almost unimpeachable in every occasion. It contains raw data to be interpreted and verified when confronted to the object. It also contains a list of the existing editions for each work present in the manuscript that can be very useful in order to double check transcriptions and such.

I have already talked about Cisneros, his library, and his shield. Today, it pops up again. The manuscript I am working with is a treatise entitled Disputatio eremitae et Raimundi super aliquibus dubiis quaestionibus Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi (cf. infra). It is a treatise in which again the question of the compatibility between academic knowledge and the Art of Ramon Llull is challenged. There is a young student in Paris and an eremite who is identified as he to whom the Art was offered on a mountain (de quadam arte generali quam michi in quodam monte ostendit), since it should not be forgotten that Ramon Llull is not the author of his Art. The author of the Art is God. Well, I have found yet again a scholarly dialogue that tries to work out ways to bridge Lullism and academic reasoning (scholasticism & logic). And the manuscript has the shield of Cisneros engraved on the binding.

In one of my recent posts I have explained why Cisneros’s shield is politically important and how to decode it visually. Well, as I have said all the manuscripts at Biblioteca Histórica Complutense that belonged to the cardinal have the shield and the galero engraved in gold on the leather binding. (The four Lullist manuscripts as well.) The shield on the cover of a printed edition worked more as a political statement in terms of an association between Cisneros with Lullism, thus performing portability. Here we have something more along the lines of a modern ex-libris, but in the exterior, as the presentation of the book. Not in the front page, but on the binding. The seal does not mean only public association, but also private possession. Not that such sign is less political, but it is a direct mark of readership while the other was not. Moreover, the shield does not appear only with the galero of cardinal, but also adorned with the two-headed eagle and the crown, which probably means that the shield was engraved during the period of his regency in the Crown of Spain. This is a first approach to a single manuscript, so I will not address here the marginal annotations present in the book. I will dedicate in the future a single post to the annotations that come in two particularly important chapters of the book.

The manuscript is pretty readable and it is composed of 175 ff. in quarto. According to the information I have, it was copied during the 15th century. Although I do not know where, I am inclined to think it was somewhere in France or Germany given the cursive is spiky in comparison with the Iberian and Italian uses in the same period. I shall be clear about the fact that this is only a hypothesis; I am far from being a paleography expert. The capital letters are entirely missing from the book and some of them are filled with the same red ink used for the rubrics. There is an index for the book, which is odd since none of the printed editions that I have seen for this book has one. It has also markers for the ending of each quire. Each page is graphite-ruled presenting one central body of writing, which starts always above the top ruling line and leaves approximately one inch of blank marginal space in every side. Each page has a variable number of lines, but this number never gets far from 30.

Metaphorically speaking, sometimes there is a part of the book that you cannot get to open. It can be a lack of patience, or technical ability, or both. I have been trying for a couple of days to confront the last two pages of this manuscript that are sort of an oddity. They constitute a fragment of a different and more modern but devilishly small scripture that I am unable to read. I can spot references to the Old Testament and I see that those pages have been cut since some top lines are fragmentary. The scripture is fast and the pages are not ruled. What do these last two pages say? Would it be really important? When dealing with an object from the past, there are signs or references that remain too far to reach (at least to me: in these occasions, having someone of trust now would help). My advice is to try not to loose too much time in a session in the archives, since time in the archives is a luxury. Better skipping to something else.

Nonetheless, if you cannot just forget about it, I get you. When I hit something I struggle with, I have a very difficult time letting it go and just trying to read something else. Nonetheless, putting the mind to rest with something less challenging is a good idea. The solution or a fresher approach to the page will come later, hopefully.

Ultimately, I wanted to write this post in order to explain to myself something that bothers me. I think the fact that philology and bibliography are becoming cool again is a good thing. As humanists, we should not fear techniques, nor leave them to the hands of technicians only. They shape the way we theorize, the way we develop hypothesis, the way we read since reading is also a technique and there is nothing natural about it. Nevertheless, such techniques cannot do the thinking for us because they tend to become natural processes to our eyes if we don’t interrogate them constantly. They become sort of a second nature and that is all too comfortable for an academia that wants humanists to adopt techniques because technics provide for an easier commodification of knowledge. So, what I am trying to do without much success is using all the tools I can reach (philology, paleography, bibliography, &c) as ways of reading that should be mistrusted and used critically. The things I am trying to read are cultural objects and they are deposited/hidden in an archive, as I noted before. The question of the archive as a place is another interesting question. But this is enough for today. There will be more posts and more days that will bring different sets of questions and the same frustrating lack of answers.

Last Updated 2 years ago


  • Barthes, Roland. Le Plaisir du texte. Paris: Seuil, 1973. Print.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever. A Freudian Impression. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996. Print.
  • Llull, Ramon. Disputatio eremitae et Raimundi super aliquibus dubiis quaestionibus Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi. Madrid, Biblioteca Histórica Complutense-Marqués de Valdecilla, BH MS 64. Manuscript.
  • McKenzie, Donald. Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.


Noel Blanco Mourelle, « What Do I Do with a Manuscript? », Blogs, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on November 5, 2014. Full URL for this article

Join the conversation