The Imagining History project

brut detail

Research Methods: 'Mapping' the Middle English Prose Brut

Page Information

Author: Stephen Kelly
Revised: August 8th, 2005
Reviewed: John Thompson

Methodological Issues:
Avoiding the Editorial Imperative
'Mapping' the Middle English Prose Brut
On Mapping: Manuscript Geography and Textual Reception
Implications for Outputs: Mapping the Brut online

Our preference for reception – for the presupposition that situations of use frame and precondition production – has directed our interest toward the contexts in which the Prose Brut was read, interpreted, annotated and re-used.  Our task, then, has been to delineate as best as possible the traffic of the Middle English Prose Brut from the early fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries.  As publication of our electronic outputs in December 2005 will demonstrate, the Prose Brut is read and used in diverse contexts and settings: from aristocratic households to mercantile reading networks; among propagandists of Yorkist or Lancastrian causes; from proto-humanist scholars to successive generations of royal genealogists; among poets and editors concerned with asserting English colonial dominance of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish; among mythographers and magi such as John Dee; and among reformed and recusant readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

With such a wide spectrum of readers, we were quickly confronted with a methodological dilemma: how best to represent this 'traffic'? How best to enact simultaneously diachronic and synchronic analyses? 'Mapping' seemed to offer itself as a cogent strategy and metaphor.

What we are terming 'cultural mapping' has allowed us to imagine culture, and cultural work, in terms of fluidity and mobility.  It chimes with Ralph Hanna's call for manuscript scholarship to make what he terms the 'the ultimate question manuscript studies needs to face, the cultural move.' If, says Hanna, medieval book history has a highly finessed arsenal of skills for examining the material conditions under which manuscript books were made and disseminated, it has yet to develop generalizable methods for achieving what he declares as its 'ultimate goal,' the 'contribution to large-scale cultural history.'1 Notions such as 'cultural mapping' or the 'cultural move' imagine textual culture as networked into other nexuses of cultural activity and thereby promise to relocate manuscript studies and textual history within a larger, more fluid, concept of culture.

Such a model stimulates a concomitant desire for location.  The aim of a great many palaeographers and codicologists, and textual historians generally, has been to firmly and confidently locate texts, according to biobibliography, stemmatic affiliation or linguistic evidence, within knowable, and therefore mappable, environments.

While we, too, are concerned to locate texts and manuscripts, readers and users, we have hoped to frame our account of the development and dissemination of the English 'Brut' tradition in terms of mobility rather than stasis, jostling perspectives rather than the stable gaze.

Next: On Mapping: Manuscript Geography and Textual Reception