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In Memoriam: Neil Ripley Ker (1908-82)


A Remembrance by Carl T. Berkhout

Neil Ker died on August 23 as the result of a fall while hiking near his country home in Scotland. He was 74 years old.

Ker, born in London, was educated at Eton and then at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he remained to become University Reader in Palaeography until his early retirement ("to do some long-neglected work") in 1968. There at Oxford, while in his early twenties, he discovered his easy rapport with the writers and scribes and keepers of books in the Middle Ages and began a scholarly career that would produce some 125 publications and establish him as our era's most respected authority on early English manuscripts and libraries.

In 1941 Ker published his Medieval Libraries of Great Britain (second edition in 1964) for the Royal Historical Society. At about that time, with his left hand on many other projects, he began work on his monumental Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (1957), a compilation so thorough that two decades of collective scrutiny and new information could yield only an eleven-page supplement – by Ker himself – in the 1976 number of Anglo-Saxon England. In the meantime he delivered the Lyell Lectures for 1952-53 (published as English Manuscripts in the Century after the Norman Conquest in 1960), produced in 1954 his Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts Used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings (a work of far greater significance than its wonderfully frumpy title might suggest), undertook a series of facsimile editions for the Early English Text Society, and still continued his yearly contributions of shorter studies and informative book reviews.

In 1969 and 1977 Ker published the first two volumes of Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, a detailed catalog of all manuscripts not adequately described elsewhere. It was to be, and will be, the culmination of his life's work. "It is an aim," he said, "which can be independent of my own capacity to achieve it from end to end." He was of course wrong in supposing that any other single scholar might have continued it, but his remark was obliquely prophetic. His third volume is now in press, and he had completed enough of his fourth and final volume to enable his colleagues to prepare it for publication.

In his seventieth year Ker was honored by fifteen of his colleagues in Medieval Scribes, Manuscripts and Libraries, edited by Malcolm Parkes and Andrew Watson. In the preface to that worthy Festschrift C. R. Cheney said of Ker: "Very numerous are the scholars who have reason to be thankful to him for the stimulus and advice and information that he offers. His object is to advance knowledge, and whether findings are announced by him or by someone else does not matter to him; the important thing is to see that they are reported in accurate form." For all his discoveries and for all the thousands of manuscripts that he deciphered, dated, described, or analyzed – always with astonishing speed – later scholars have almost never been able to point to a verifiable error in his work. Scholars of future generations should not wonder why this man appears and reappears so respectedly in our footnotes or why we think very, very carefully before even questioning a simple "s. xi med." or "probably Winchester" from his pen.

Few of us in North America knew Ker personally, for we were not often in the paths of his pursuit of manuscript discoveries. His friendships here grew mainly in his little scribbled exchanges, always eager to share whatever he knew and always grateful to receive in turn some fragment of scholarly information. Though never chatty in his correspondence, he was cheerful and candid in a way that somehow shows itself even in the down-to-business style of his scholarly writings, which he would occasionally interrupt to observe self-critically, "I should have done more [manuscript] dating than I have done," or, "I wish now that these short descriptions contained more about the quiring and script of manuscripts than they do."

That was Ker. He had made us all his colleagues, and his greatest concern was that he should ever fall short in his service to us or somehow fail to merit the esteem and the affection that he blinking1y found himself receiving. His quiet, thoughtful tribute to Humfrey Wanley, probably his only equal in three centuries, seems simple enough for Ker himself: "His opinion on any given matter will always be worth knowing."

OEN 16.1 (1982), 18-19.