The Dark Archive and the Silent Book: histories of access

Speaker: Stacie Vos (University of San Diego) @stacvos

The current widespread lack of access to the archive may be new to researchers around the world, but it is nothing new in the history of oppressed groups seeking access to reading material. I propose a paper on the themes of textual access in three examples that range from the medieval, early modern, and modern periods. These materials invite educators and their students to reflect upon the history of access to the book. What were the rules around use? Where were books held within the religious house or the family home? When figures–such as Margery in The Book of Margery Kempe, Agnes Beaumont in the Narrative of her persecution, or Olaudah Equiano in his Interesting Narrative—talk about the need for the the word of God, the Bible, or the voice of the book itself, what do they mean?
The first example I plan to discuss in this presentation is Marston MS 287 (pictured above), a late fifteenth century volume of various texts on Saint Barbara, held at the Beinecke Library. The binding of the book features a striking fenestra within which the name of the saint is framed. This feature introduces a key aspect of the legend of St. Barbara, who requested that a third window be made for the tower in which her father imprisoned her. The compiler of the manuscript, Nicasius de Pomerio, specified that the book could not be removed except when “some devotee of this glorious virgin should wish for a reasonable period of time to copy it out or perhaps to study it privately and then to return it to its original place.
Two additional sources I will discuss include a scribal copy of a previously printed book called the Narrative of the Persecution of Agnes Beaumont. Within this narrative, Beaumont tells the story of being locked in her barn without her Bible. Under these extreme circumstances, and at a time she faces censure from her father for her divergent Protestant beliefs, she refers often to the way in which scripture runs through her mind. The narrative becomes a powerful, memory-based retelling of the scripture. Finally, I will briefly discuss the printed narrative of Olaudah Equiano, who famously writes that he, as a person of African descent, finds that books do not talk to him they way they do to the white people he observes. The darkness of the tower and the barn becomes in Equiano’s account the silence that is returned when the black reader encounters the book for the first time. Explorations of narratives about texts and the books that preserve them can deepen our understanding of how pre-modern literacies often incorporated sensory experience and what Mary Carruthers calls “arts of memory.” The paper also suggests that digital lessons on manuscripts can helpfully account for the history of use and access. The question of who could own or hold a book has suddenly been thrown into relief.