The other day I was in Belfast, and I went to Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections to look at Manuscript 29, which contains Edward Bunting’s live transcription notations which he did in the 1790s, as well as tunes he copied from other books, and other jottings and rough notes. But instead of looking at the notations and writing, I spent my time peering at the ends of the book, looking at how the pages are fixed together.
Siobhán Armstrong inspired this work, because she did pretty much the same thing back in 2019. Talking to her about what she had seen made me realise how important it was for us, studying the transcriptions, to have some understanding of how the pages of the manuscript book are assembled. Siobhán clearly saw how it is not a single coherent book, but has been assembled from a series of smaller disparate pamphlets. I started from her descriptions, and I collated the page numbers and sections against the contents of each page, and the result was my old “text transcription” PDF which I made in September 2019 and January 2020. The insights from doing this is what started me off on my current ongoing Transcriptions Project, which you can read about in this initial post from January 2020.
Even back then, I intended to go to Queen’s myself, and look in more detail at the different sections of the manuscript. But in March everything closed, and so I have spent the last two years working from the facsimiles, studying each of the live transcription notations in turn and trying to understand what Bunting was doing.
Now I have a kind of part-time mini-sabbatical to visit libraries, thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The first thing I did was to go to Belfast and order up Queen’s University Belfast, Special Collections, MS4.29.
I sat in the reading room, and worked through a print-out of my old PDF, pencilling in observations about how the pages fit together. The magnifying goggles were incredibly useful, since I could use both hands to turn the pages of the fragile manuscript, while looking in super-close-up at their edges and how they were attached. I saw that the cut edges of the paper define a lot more groups than I had realised. There are quite a few 8-page groups, some 4-page groups (a single folded piece of paper), and also some single loose leaves bound in to the book. There is one page bound in back to front, and another that looks like it might be upside-down.
I was able to take photographs of the gatherings; these pictures don’t in themselves show much detail, since the modern library binding of the manuscript is very good, tight and well done. But the photos help me remember what I saw and confirm some of my observations. My photo at the head of this article shows the foot of the spine, and you can easily see the edges of different sized groups of pages. You can also see the modern (1996) paper strengthening in the spine which repairs and joins some pages.
My main insight here is that MS4.29 is much more fragmentary and mixed up than I had even thought these past two years. For example, I have recently been working on the section starting on the Damn your Body page. I had thought that this was a 16 page pamphlet, and was trying to understand it as a coherent single group of notations. However, I think it now looks like it may actually be two 8 page pamphlets one after the other. I need to revisit that whole “Damn your Body” idea.
I also notice that there is far more stuff written across the joins between dissimilar pamphlets. There are holes from earlier stab-bindings, so it is possible that Bunting originally travelled with little stab-bound booklets made from two or three of these different groups. But that just makes it all the more impossible to really work out what he was doing.
Anyway, this is terribly tiresome and technically troubling, and there is a limit to how much I can sort this out in one go. So I have transferred my handwritten notes onto the PDF, and have corrected some of the tune IDs and text transcriptions, and re-written the commentary, and added footnotes linking to my blog posts. This means that my PDF is now “officially” in its 2nd version, and so I have replaced the old one with the new revised PDF at the same URL so that you can download it and use it if you need to.
Meanwhile I will carry on working, but I will also review some of my older thoughts on tune groupings in the light of this new and more detailed structural map of the manuscript.
As I always say, the more we find out the more questions we have and the more gaps in our knowledge we suddenly see…
Many thanks to Queen’s University Belfast Special Collections Collections for permission to visit and see the manuscripts, and for all their help over these past couple of years with providing facsimiles and permission to show them here.
Many thanks to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland for helping to provide the equipment used for these posts, and also for supporting the writing of these blog posts.