Inaccessible and Inconvenient Archives at the Turn of the Century

Speaker: Genevieve McNutt (Edinburgh University)

In the 1801 edition of Specimens of the Early English Poets, George Ellis argued for the necessity of complete editions of early texts: …a scarce and valuable manuscript cannot possibly be put into general circulation; and many learned men are necessarily debarred, either by distance, or by infirmity, or by the pressure and variety of their occupations, from spending much time in those public repositories of learning, to which the access has indeed been rendered easy, but could not be made convenient, by the liberality of their founders. (I: 58-59) For Ellis and others, including Joseph Ritson, Walter Scott, and Henry Weber, the physical accessibility of manuscripts in public, institutional collections enabled the study and publication of medieval texts at the turn of the nineteenth century in ways that had previously been impossible. Moreover, they often wrote about the process and the necessity of editing medieval texts for print publication as a quest to ‘rescue’ texts – from a precarious physical existence, from obscurity, from inaccessibility, from libraries. This paper will examine how materials that were inaccessible, or accessible but not convenient, shaped the early study and publication of medieval texts in Britain. While these early scholars employed a number of strategies to overcome the necessity of physical access, they were not always successful. The difficulties of travel, or even simple bad timing, produced omissions – even patterns of omissions – in the selection of texts that could be made available to the public. More than two hundred years later, digital availability has made medieval primary materials accessible in ways that these early scholars could never have imagined. Yet their struggles remain familiar, and possibly illuminating.