Objects of affection recovers the emotional attraction of the medieval book through an extended engagement with a single fifteenth-century literary collection known as Oxford, Bodleian Library Manuscript Ashmole 61. Exploring how the inhabitants of the book’s pages – human and non-human, tangible and intangible – collaborate with its readers then and now, this book addresses the manuscript’s material appeal in the ways it binds itself to different cultural, historical, and material environments. This new materialist manuscript study traces the affective literacy training that the book, produced by a single scribe, provided to a late medieval English household. Its diverse inhabitants are incorporated into the ecology of the book itself as it fashions spiritually generous and socially mindful household members – in the material world they generate and that guides their living, and in the social and spiritual desires that shape their influences in that world.
This chapter introduces household affect ecologies and household object ecologies, tracing them from the different theoretical perspectives used throughout MS Ashmole 61. It offers a deep description of Objects of affection’s central object, Ashmole 61, through a consideration of the book’s full materiality. This it considers in relation to other books of its sort – in the process establishing an alternative taxonomy for books produced in the late Middle Ages for, within, and by gentry and merchant households. The chapter surveys current theoretical developments in literary manuscript study and demonstrates what Ashmole 61 has to offer to a book history rooted in new materialist concerns. This it does through investigating features of Ashmole 61’s distinctive materiality, which includes an exceptional and extended campaign of iconic scribal signatures in the form of recurring fish and flower graffiti. The introduction also considers how our cultures of editing have transformed medieval books and ponders what they are currently becoming in the process of mass digitisation of medieval manuscripts – and how this development both challenges and enables ecologically grounded manuscript study.
The ‘Children’s Corner’ is the preferred name among modern critics for the first eight items in MS Ashmole 61 – among them a saint’s life (St Eustace), a romance (Sir Isumbras), and six conduct texts – which may have been aimed at a particular subset of the household. Focusing on this first portion of the manuscript shows how human social virtue depends on acknowledging and cooperating with human and non-human associates in the household ecology. Within this section of the manuscript, the imaginative narratives instruct through animals and other non-human figures, while the direct-address conduct texts (spoken by a father, a mother, and ‘Dame Curtasy’) teach pragmatically. A new materialist reading of this section reveals the recurring method of decentring the human and including objects in society, which encourages reading even conduct texts beyond the constraints of their overt performative instructions. This chapter demonstrates the important effects of premodern conceptualisations of the physical world on reading, on interpretation then and now, and on our understanding of and engagement with the Middle Ages.
This chapter attends to a series of narratives in the second quarter of MS Ashmole 61 whose affective purpose is fulfilled by an object, or array of objects, affirming the mercy offered through Christ and appropriately honoured through human forgiveness. In Knight Who Forgave his Father’s Slayer, the crucifix responds to a human kiss of forgiveness by physically embracing the generous party and thereby revealing the reunited community it has produced. Two other exempla (Jealous Wife and Incestuous Daughter) materialise the effects of spiritual filth in the fiends and chains, and the triumphant power of divine mercy in the form of human tears, with the sinful female protagonists spared their deserved eternal exile through human devotion and dedication. Two romances in this section of the manuscript address forgiveness from a less narrowly religious perspective: the hero of Lybeaus Desconus is confirmed in his knightly identity, and thus confirmed as a member of the community, by various non-human members of that community; The Erle of Tolous reveals the agency of non-human members through objects bearing and producing dedication where it did not previously exist, modelling an ethics supporting the whole community.
This chapter focuses on the affective instruction that inanimate objects offer human members of the household in MS Ashmole 61, among them a collection of tools critiquing and defending their layabout master (Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools), a finger-pointing drinking horn (Sir Corneus), out-of-season cherries and gifts bearing distributive justice (Sir Cleges), an embodied document of religious redemption (Short Charter of Christ), and a host of household objects that test the embodied human’s commitment to social and spiritual ethics (Dietary). These non-human participants are not purely symbolic anthropomorphic figures: in none of these cases is the object presented a human-subject-in-drag or a direct representative of human (or divine) will. Instead, the materiality of the object remains central (not merely superficial) and the object behaves in terms of its particular network, influencing the human agents sharing that network but not acting solely for the benefit of the human.
This chapter reveals a tendency in MS Ashmole 61 for objects to encourage self-reflection in their human neighbours and to provide opportunities for penance and redemption. In this section of the manuscript, the widespread necessity of such assistance is re-emphasised. Here, human error is witnessed in the wounds on Christ’s body (Wounds and Sins), the extent of humans’ misappropriation of other material agents to support their own luxury (Vanity) and of self-imposed human spiritual exile (The Sinner’s Lament and The Adulterous Falmouth Squire), with the human soul infecting the human body and producing the tangible pains of hell (Prick of Conscience Minor), leading to perhaps the most emotionally wrenching poem in the collection (Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms), expressed through the material effects of tears of contrition and in contrast to the incorrupt non-human animals with whom humans share the earth. This section of Ashmole 61 is a reminder that the weakness of one element in a morality-assemblage was understood as extending to and potentially harming all.
Despite the significant weaknesses (seen in human attempts at severing communion with the non-human, both worldly and divine) elsewhere in the collection, MS Ashmole 61 concludes with three vivid narratives of successful human reincorporation. St Margaret provides a transitional model, with the saint’s body a battleground on which false sacraments are transformed into true ones (boiling oil becomes holy unction; water torture becomes baptism) through the heroine’s collaboration with a piece of the holy cross, an angel, evil dragons, and her own prayer. This poem harmonises previously ruptured material and spiritual elements. Sir Orfeo models selective rewriting through the transformation of the classic tale of loss into one of recuperation, achieved by the hero through rejecting his human exceptionalism and uniting with his harp and living harmoniously among wild animals, ultimately becoming a human-tree hybrid that achieves his aims through working with rather than fighting his non-human opponent. The collection ends with the unique text King Edward and the Hermit, in which a scene of potential disharmony – latent in deer carcasses that in a different assemblage would have generated royal ire – is prevented through the intervention of a game that, with the assistance of alcohol, successfully reconstructs a relationship.
The book concludes by considering the interpretive influence of the images throughout MS Ashmole 61, repeated pictures of fish and flowers. Through this, the book argues that such patterns across the manuscript offer an additional prod to interpretation that requires recognition of agential objects from across the medieval household.
This chapter participates in an ongoing reassessment of the late-medieval
household book that sees such manuscripts less as testaments to an
aspirational mindset among their readers—that is, as part of an attempt to
assume the lifestyles and prestige associated with some of the texts that
they compile—than as part and parcel of the complex ethical universes
constituted by individual medieval homes. Drawing on affect theory and
object-relations theory, Seaman shows how the particular configuration of
people, animals, and things in The Hunting of the Hare (compiled in
Advocates 19.3.1), Sir Corneus, and The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools
(both compiled in Ashmole 61) generate new lessons on the spirit of empathy
and tolerance as well as on the sense of shared responsibility on which the
success of the household must depend. Thus, rather than offering a brief
escape from the moralising and devotional works alongside which they are
compiled, these comic works offer a route towards the renovation of the home
and of the complex assemblage of agents that it comprises.