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Response to Review of The Courtly and Commercial Art of the Wycliffite Bible

My sincere thanks to Dr. Poleg for his thorough and deeply generous consideration of my book: an author could not receive a more thoughtful review. I especially appreciate his public notice of my stated intention to begin the discussion of the books of the Wycliffite Bible with this project, rather than release any sort of final say on the subject. With this desire in mind I would like to use this opportunity to draw out several of the points that Dr. Poleg raises. The issues he highlights resound loudly outside the narrow world of Lollard Studies and even outside of Medieval Studies.

As is becoming increasingly clear, scholars of medieval England are in desperate need of advanced paleographic work on English textura, or textualis. Almost all of the Wycliffite Bible manuscripts are in such book hands, as are most Latin bibles and other liturgical books. Therefore the lack of specialist research into the development of book hands in England and of identification of the techniques of individual scribes leaves scholarship largely in the dark concerning the copying of this enormous category of books. In short, we need a Late Medieval English Scribes-type database for textura. Without one we will not be able to fully map out the production networks of some of the most plentiful books of late medieval England.

Indeed, the comparative lack of scholarly attention to the largest datasets in manuscript research is troubling. While texts of the Wycliffite Bible are more numerous than any other text in Middle English, this present study is the first to take these books into account as books. Collections of the English parliamentary statutes dwarf the number of copies of the Wycliffite Bible, and there are very few scholars publishing in this area either. Dr. Poleg himself has done significant work on the Latin bible in England. Work on liturgical manuscripts remains to be done. Arguably the most common book of the Middle Ages, the book of hours as it was used in England continues to be under-researched in both its manuscript and print versions. If briefly bringing just two of these datasets into conversation reveals results that astonish Dr. Poleg, imagine what else lies yet undiscovered. Support for such longitudinal work is necessary – support from presses, from funding agencies, and from academic institutions – or this kind of groundbreaking research will not be pursued with the vigor it deserves.

Dr. Poleg’s comments also encourage me to make a statement regarding the vexed condition of image permissions. If the need for textura research is keen among medievalists, a sustainable path toward art publishing, given the new financial landscape in which we all work, is necessary among a far wider pool of scholars. As library funding has been cut the cost of images to scholars, and the cost of permission to reproduce those images in publications, has become an increasingly tenuous financial lifeline for libraries and archives. The advent of electronic publication is used as a multiplier. In previous times an author would purchase an image and the rights to print that image. Today the author purchases the image, the rights to print that image, and now the rights to reproduce that image digitally, and the author must purchase these permissions even if the library has already made these images available free online. From the author’s perspective times are also grim: in the United States, non-tenured faculty are often so poor as to qualify for state food assistance, and research funding is all but gone. To maintain our jobs we must publish, but how does one accomplish that when images are involved?

Dr. Poleg identified some of my own admittedly imperfect solutions to this regrettable problem. I paid for black and white rather than color, and chose to concentrate my analysis on books with images available free online. Black and white or color, no 5×8” printed image can compare with seeing a high resolution color digital image. As it was, even with a bit of unexpected aid from my campus I spent thousands of dollars that I could not easily afford out of my own pocket. Electronic permissions were entirely outside my budget: they would have cost more than my car. In the end I decided that the interventions I could make with this project were significant, and I hoped that my readers would forgive the unglamorous illustrations because they could almost always find much better images online.

So I freely confess the sin with which Dr. Poleg charges me, and declare that having made those decisions continues to grieve me. As with any good public confession, however, the community must support the penitent’s penance. A website with links, such as the one Dr. Poleg recommends, was part of my original intention for this project. Yet I discovered that presses are wary of such add-ons, as they must then support them. My campus does not have IT support for such projects either. I call upon the audience reading this response: if anyone is interested in hosting and supporting a webpage filled with links for this book, by all means contact me. Perhaps our community of scholars can do what presses and state university campuses cannot.