Textual integrity, ‘mouvance’ and the manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique

Today I was looking at Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale, MS 2544-45, an early 17th century handwritten copy of early printed versions of Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection and Mixed Life. Across from me sat an elderly reader — an amateur historian, I suspect — who noticed that a quire was missing from the 19th century book he was studying. He was grateful that he, a “lay” historian (“lay” in the sense of “outside academia”) was allowed to consult the book. (“We are a public institution,” the librarian said). As a token of his gratitude, the reader offered the librarian to come back another day and bring the photocopies he owned of another copy of the book, so that they could be scanned. In that way, other people consulting the book could read the whole work.

I could see the librarian hesitate between his appreciation of the library copy as a unique, even if incomplete, textual witness, and his wish to give readers access to its full content. In the end, he and the reader set a date for the scanning of the pages, and the integrity of the work triumphed over its mouvance.