Pet Book Report #2: The Dragon Prayer Book + The Civil War in Song and Story

Page 0036 of the Dragon Prayer Book is actually a loose scrap of paper resting above Page 0035. Page 0036 is, we’ve collectively figured, newer–the red ink is brighter, the abbreviations are more sophisticated, and even the paper itself is a little whiter. Whoever scribed my errant leaf (hereafter known as Scribe B) had a lighter hand than the scribe(s) for the rest of the manuscript. Though attempting to decipher Scribe B’s handwriting had a steeper learning curve, as I had no alphabet handy with which to compare each letter or a sample transcription of something in Scribe B’s hand to scrutinize for clues, after getting used to it I found their writing generally crisper and more legible than the main text of the manuscript. Though I can’t be certain, I think a different ink, or at least a different writing utensil, was used on this leaf; the strokes are less heavy and deliberate, which means that some hastily-written letters are more difficult to distinguish, but which also allows the scribe to incorporate some of the more delicate elements Clemens and Graham mention, like horizontal lines through ascenders to mark omitted letters (as I think “gl(ori)a” on line 5 represents) and vowels in superscript to mark common contractions (like the word that might be “q(u)om(inus)tes” on line 10 represents) (90).

Also present is what might be a sign of readership, of the medium, or just of age: several letters are darker than the surrounding text, suggesting to me that perhaps a later reader touched up places in the original transcription that had faded or elements of handwriting that had fallen out of style (a disproportionate number of these darker letters appear to be “d”s); or maybe these darker letters mark the point at which Scribe B refreshed their ink, since it resembles patterns I’ve seen in Chinese calligraphy before and after inking; or maybe the paper just aged unevenly because of how it was set in the book. Though I don’t read Latin and can’t say for certain, it seems that Scribe B uses abbreviations that are not only more complex in their flourishes, range of macrons, and modifiers but which contract longer, less common words. Though I’ve only seen a few thoroughly unrepresentative lines of the main text of the Dragon Prayer Book, it seems that the earlier scribe(s) mostly abbreviated words or very common suffixes (like “pri” for “patri” on line 2 or “sol9” for “solus” on line 15). Scribe B seems to abbreviate syllables in longer words, especially those which might not correspond to a standard abbreviation, sometimes with multiple abbreviations in a single word (like what I hope is “quominustes” from “qomtes” on line 10, in which both the “o” is in superscript and a macron is drawn over the “m”).

For all the differences between the main text’s scribes and Scribe B’s work (I spent a few days very confused because Scribe B’s “v”s have the general shape of the earlier scribe’s “d”s–which, come to think of it, calls to mind another development that took place between the creation of the Dragon Prayer Book and the writing of my errant leaf, which is that as far as I can tell, the earlier scribe uses “u” while Scribe B uses “v”), what’s most immediately noticeable about both my leaf and the page it’s resting on are the large initial capital “O”s which start a new section in the main text (line 12) and end the script in red on my errant leaf (line 4). While the earlier scribe’s O is deliberately sized to span two lines of text, scribe B’s O is more like the titling letters of the printing period that would extend past the base line. But both are adorned with the same kind of embellishment on either side of the letter, which reminds me of nothing so much as earmuffs. The fact that two scribes working at either side of an expanse of time during which the tools and conventions of writing underwent marked change drew the same decorative initial capital O suggests to me that there might be a symbolic or artistic motive for styling in the O in this way, though I have no idea what that may be. It’s a mystery in the best way (unlike my multiple attempts at trying to figure out what the first letter/ligature on line 1 might be).

A quick comment this week’s readings and my pet book:

It’s difficult to conceive of The Civil War in Song and Story in manuscript form, because I suspect that Frank Moore would’ve first encountered the pieces he would anthologize primarily in printed newspapers from across the nation. I’m very interested in the possibility of the original authors’ manuscript drafts in the form of notes they’d later submit as a news story or poems submitted to Moore for first publication in manuscript form–this ties into my curiosity about how much of Moore’s book is reprinted from the Rebellion Record and how much of it, if any, was new or previously uncollected material solicited for this anthology–but I don’t hold out much hope for being able to track down these things.

Still, manuscript studies reflects on the relationship between form and function in a way that draws out one of the things I find most interesting about Moore’s collection. De Hamel writes of the Book of Kells and the Tres Riches Heures, “This difference of purpose is reflected in the material, size, colour, layout, decoration, and binding of the two manuscripts. Only when we can see what they were trying to do can we stand back and try to judge the work of art in its own right” (8). In his preface, Moore tells me his purpose: to “preserve the most notable anecdotes and incidents…and other pieces of versification as are worthy of perpetuation” (Moore 3). The idea of evaluating The Civil War in Song and Story in the context of its purpose is one I find incredibly exciting. How impartial is Moore, who at least once uses his editorial power to correct an exaggeration about Southern suffering? What vision of the Civil War does he author? And how do these successes or failures to live up to his stated purpose–to preserve the stories of the Civil War most worthy of being remembered–affect the book as a work of art?

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