Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Medieval Sundials and Scholarly Publishing

Posted by Darin Hayton on 11/20 at 12:51 PM

I am finishing a review of Catherine Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials. The Navicula in Medieval England (Brill, 2010).1 Her book reflects her profound knowledge of this quirky medieval sundial and her careful analysis of both the instruments and the manuscript tradition that includes texts on the construction, the use, and the construction and use of navicula. Here I will offer only a brief review—the full review will appear in Isis. I also want to use this book—notably its production quality, editorial oversight, and price.

Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials is a volume in Brill’s “Medieval and Early Modern Science” series, with its now distinctive cover design:2

Cover of C. Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials

Eagleton offers a new understanding of the navicula that relocates it back into the English context. She also argues that the instrument was not as rare as later scholars have assumed.

She opens with a useful introduction to the navicula, giving both a history of its origins and name, and then surveying the four surviving instruments, all of which date from the 15th century and seem to be linked to specific English contexts. She walks the reader through the parts, the scales, and the basic use.3 The navicula is a small, ship-shaped sundial:

A navicula, from the cover of C. Eagleton’s book on navicula (Source: Photo detail from cover of C. Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials)

Eagleton does not consider these instruments in isolation. Rather, she puts them back into a context that included a relatively robust manuscript tradition. Previously, she tells us, scholars had not recognized how many manuscripts survive because catalog entries are brief, incomplete, or simply wrong. Anybody who has worked in manuscript collections recognizes this bugbear of scholarship. Eagleton has expanded the collection of navicula manuscripts from the two typically used by earlier scholars to 16 texts in various archives across Great Britain. Through careful textual analysis, she groups these manuscripts into five families related by proposed methods of construction and use, and types of illustrations. She offers a careful typology of illustrations: schematic, geometry of construction, illustration of finished parts. She also points to differences between diagrams that allow the reader to understand the instrument, use the instrument, and construct the instrument. Some diagrams might also have been used to construct templates that were, in turn, used to construct instruments.

A construction diagram from a navicula manuscript from Group A, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 68 (Source: Photo from C. Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials, p. 67)

Drawing on material details—the size and ornamentation of surviving instruments—and codicological details, Eagleton tries to recover the social and intellectual contexts in which the navicula instruments and texts were used. Despite a paucity of information, she offers a persuasive argument for an Oxford education that links most of the instruments and manuscripts. She spends some time distinguishing the navicula from a similar instrument, the Organum Ptolomei, which was commonly described in German manuscripts. Further, she claims that the Organum Ptolomei probably derived from the navicula. This chapter seems to support her broader claim about the English-specificity of the navicula.

In the book’s longest chapter, Eagleton argues that despite claims by modern scholars, the navicula was not a rare instrument in the 15th and 16th century. It was, rather, the success of printed, simpler instruments in the 16th century that contributed to the demise of the navicula. Navicula instruments and texts were “more common in fifteenth-century England than has usually been thought.” By the end of the 16th century, the popularity of printed dials—especially related to Oronce Finé’s De Solaribus Horologiis et Quadrantibus—had reduced the navicula to “a curious and rare object, a collectible thing.”4

Finally, Eagleton presents the results of her manuscript work in nine appendices that transcribe and translate representative examples of the various manuscripts. She spends the most time on the largest group of manuscripts, which includes ten texts. She employs statistical analysis to establish the “relationships between the manuscripts in a more quantitative way” and represents these relationships is a pair of diagrams:5

Relationship between manuscripts in Group A (Source: Photo from C. Eagleton’s Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials, p. 218–219)

In Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials Eagleton offers a compelling and robust methodology that reads the instruments alongside the manuscripts. By considering the manuscripts, she adds support to a conclusion drawn from those instruments—namely that the navicula was a uniquely English sundial. The manuscripts also help fill in the picture of who owned and used these instruments. For her work it might be particularly important to combine manuscripts and instruments because there are so few surviving navicula—at times she offers plausible explanations for the lack of surviving instruments. But she is struggling against the silence of history. Few instruments survive. The manuscripts fill in some details, but they do not allow us to claim that many instruments ever existed. In the end, Eagleton seems to be on safer ground when she argues from the sources she has rather than the artifacts that might have existed.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Eagleton’s quick introduction, her careful textual analysis (e.g., distinguishing English dialect characteristic of Chester),her diagrams and discussions of geometry, and construction of stemma will appeal to readers versed in the terminology and in textual studies but risk leaving non-experts feeling a bit overwhelmed. Throughout she assesses the instruments and manuscripts in light of use—could the instrument have been used to tell time, could the manuscripts have been used to construct an instrument, could a reader learn how to use a navicula by reading this text? If she was hoping to communicate to a broader audience, she could have done more to introduce the material and connect the dots for the general reader. Why is this study on navicula important? What do we learn from it? How does it help us understand broader questions about, say, the role of instruments in late medieval England, the importance of sundials, the fabrication and distribution of instruments, knowledge as a form of social authority, how knowledge is embodied?

Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials is, in many ways, a beautiful book. It includes 50 illustrations—mostly high-quality photos and some diagrams. That quality comes at a price: $147 or €99. Given the production quality and the price, it would have been nice if more effort had been devoted to the editing process. Authors generally have a difficult time performing editorial tasks, especially copyediting. Not only is copyediting a form of expertise that most authors lack, it requires a distance from the text that most authors cannot adopt. Unfortunately, a number of copyediting errors made it into Eagleton’s book. Some of these reflect the book’s genesis as a dissertation—at one point references point to diagrams as “below, left” and “below, right” and “above, right” when in fact those diagrams are on preceding and following pages. At other times, aberrant punctation marks, e.g., a colon at the end of a paragraph, seem to allude to a different organization of the text. Other paragraphs were not indented. Contractions are found throughout the volume (I may be a nitpick here, but I still think scholarly prose should avoid contractions). Other expressions should have been standardized throughout the book, e.g., “different than” and “different from” and “different to” all appear at various points. I appreciate the Brill still brings out some excellent material that would not otherwise find its way into print. Small print runs of esoteric subjects in massively learned tomes require a different business model, particularly when the intended market includes university and research libraries. Nonetheless, for the cost of a Brill book, we can expect more editorial oversight, at least copyediting.6 A text marred by numerous typographical errors and editing mistakes appears shoddy and does both the press and the author a disservice. Printing such books undermines both Brill‘s authority as well as the author’s. Even in the contracting scholarly market there must be a way to produce a book for $147 that both turns a profit for the press and includes careful editing as well as beautiful illustrations.

1This review is what prompted last week’s thoughts on book reviewing: Musing on Book Reviews. It also gives me the chance to practice the guidelines I laid out in that post.
2Brill recently seemed to unify the MEMS series as a “subseries” of the History of Science and Medicine Library. A list of the titles that have appeared in the MEMS series is available at the MEMS website.
3Eagleton discusses a fifth instrument, of which there is a detailed illustration in an 18th-century magazine, The Gentleman’s Magazine. If this instrument still survives, its whereabouts is unknown. Consequently, I have not included it as a surviving instrument.
4Quotations from Eagleton, Monks, Manuscripts and Sundials, 121, 122.
5Ibid, 217.
6A few years back I overheard an editor from Ashgate say (I am paraphrasing here): we don’t spend much effort copyediting books because libraries don’t decide whether or not to purchase them based on copyediting. In essence, the editor was claiming that it didn’t matter because libraries didn’t have a choice and would purchase badly produced books just as readily as carefully edited volumes.

Tags: book review, brill, catherine eagleton, instruments, manuscripts, navicula, sundials


Comment posted by Thony C. on 11/20 at 02:01 PM

OT: Looking at the list, have you read Steven Vanden Broecke’s “The Limits of Influence”? I found it superb and it’s right up your street.

Comment posted by Darin Hayton on 11/21 at 10:15 AM

Yes, Steven’s book is excellent. I have just returned to it for something I’m writing now. A very smart book by a very good scholar. Nonetheless, at $147 it has limited impact, alas.

Comment posted by Thony C. on 11/21 at 11:27 AM

I borrow it from the library at regular intervals $147 is not in my book buying budget.

Comment posted by Darin Hayton on 11/21 at 11:56 AM

That’s precisely the problem. Many people who may want to read a Brill book won’t have the book buying budget to purchase it and so will have to borrow it. But more problematic is the fact that many libraries are no longer automatically purchasing Brill books because they are so expensive.

The Tri-Co (our three-college library system) doesn’t typically buy Brill books. And whenever we think about buying one, we weigh the benefit of one Brill book or multiple non-Brill books (this scenario plays itself out with Ashgate and some of the other expensive presses too). The previous university I was at, which had a huge purchasing budget for printed books, had stopped ordering Brill books except when a faculty member argued that we had to have it.

Is there not an economic model that could make scholarly publishing of such monographs feasible?

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