Thursday, January 10, 2019

James Harpur 'Kells', Scribe B and rewriting the middle ages 2/3

Part two
In ‘Scribe B’ , the second section of 'Kells' in The White Silhouette, James Harpur invents a character for someone who is known by nothing more than a change in handwriting in a manuscript. The poem unavoidably raises the question: what might it have been like to be a monk on Iona during the Viking Age? 
The real answer is nobody knows. It’s worth keeping that in mind. 
Harpur begins by creating Scribe B’s general context. 
The trails of faceless scribes
unknown except in whispers
scrawled in vellum margins
across Europe, lonely voices
beside the marching legions
of vulgate uncials. (48)
Harpur then quotes some of the anonymous marginalia of monks (48), as though Scribe B himself were emerging from the margins. The poems adapted here are well known (amongst medievalists?) and they establish the speaker as a generically reliable ‘early medieval Irish scribe’. The history is shaded in: Viking raids, dead monks, the flight from Iona to Kells, the work of the scribe. 
The background is convincing, but to lift Scribe B out of the generic scribe of the historical details, there has to be an attempt at imaginative reconstruction. 
And that’s where the interest lies.
No one knows what an early medieval Irish scribe thought or believed. We can admire their skill and reconstruct their technique. We can marvel at the patience or dedication their persistence required. We can enjoy their marginal comments. But go beyond that and you are stepping off the map. 
Even the statement ‘they were Christian’ begs the question; what did it mean to ‘be a Christian’ in this period. We can study the theology, but the distance between theology and practised faith can be vast. 
We don’t know what Irish monks believed. Nor what they thought, (even if someone else’s thought is ever truly knowable). The stories that survive from the monastic life at this time are stories of extremes, of Saints like Columba, told by writers who wanted to extol the virtues of their heroes. Columba is no more a representative of the majority of Irish monks than Beowulf is of English military elites.  
Once the facts have been marshalled, there seems to be two orientations. In the first, the writer conscripts a name and uses it as a clothes horse for his or her own beliefs and values. The alternative is to embrace the genuine alterity of the past and try to recreate the original in all its awkward difference. 
The danger of the first is obvious. It denies the real differences. But it’s easy to do, ubiquitous and popular. The danger of the second is that it can ignore the similarities, often doesn’t have much to support it and can appear unbelievable. 
I prefer the second option and admire writers who attempt it. 
Harpur gives Scribe B four attributes, two squarely human and credible, one that looks medieval, and the fourth like a grain of sand in an oyster shell.
The human ones are homesickness for Iona and fear of the Vikings.
The one that looks medieval is his fear of the sin of pride.
My heart burns for praise
If God wants witnesses
For his creation, why such a sin
to want the same for mine (53)
It’s credible, though it assumes modern artistic pride in anonymous medieval craft. 
People alive now, in the English-speaking world, grew up in a society which lead them to expect reward and recognition for excellence. The training starts in school, with its competition for results, positions and prizes, and continues throughout a working life, with its promotions, reputations and bonuses. It’s an expectation reinforced none too subtly by what and who the media value. 
We know that any institution, any work place, has its rivalries, jealousies, tensions. We take a certain amount of friction as natural. We see anonymity as a form of failure. If we’re honest, we do feel cheated when our efforts and achievements go unremarked.
Can those conditions and assumptions be transposed wholesale to an Irish monastery at the beginning of the 9thcentury?
If they can, then Scribe B becomes not an anonymous monk who sees his work as a form of prayer, part of his discipline, but as an artist who sees himself as the point of origin of a work only he could produce. I suspect that the post-Romantic ideal of the artist is read backwards, because today we see The Book of Kells as a work of art, and the men who illuminated it and wrote it out as artists.
Is Harpur’s presentation of Scribe B’s guilty desire for applause coloured by those modern assumptions about the self-conscious artist and equally modern assumptions that such skill should be acknowledged if not rewarded. 
In our culture, it’s difficult to imagine someone who was that skilled who didn’t want his or her skills to be admired and acknowledged. In a culture of anonymous labor dedicated to the glory of God, where humility and self-effacement were aggressive features of the culture, I’m not sure he would have thought like this. 
However, it’s not impossible. Perhaps humility and self-effacement were hard won and the desire for applause had to be constantly repressed. It’s not far from that thought to the suggestion that perhaps humility was only assumed because it was expected and there is something innately hypocritical about monastic culture? 
Or is just a familiar failure to believe that people in the past may have viewed the world in very different ways? 
The odd one of the four is Scribe B’s statement:
Live life as if death
Were just a tide away.  
Having admitted I don’t know what a Christian thought, it feels odd to ask ‘Is that a Christian monk’s thought?’ Would a monk have put his trust in his God and accepted that whatever happened was God’s plan. Or was that the ideal and this is the scared human reality of the situation?
I don’t think those questions can be answered emphatically. And that’s what makes the poem so interesting as an example of historical recreation. Because the map itself is reliable, stepping off it opens the dialogue between the poem and history, each illuminating and challenging the other.
This has been over long, but in the next and final post, the issues raised by Harpur when he conscripts Gerald of Wales to represent an argument: Gerald being anything but anonymous or humble. 

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