Monday, December 11, 2006

Web Sites and Medieval Manuscripts

One of my favourite ponderings is about how web sites are much more like medieval manuscripts than they are like printed books, and the more I think about it and discuss it with colleagues, the more ways I find that this is so. The old industrially produced printed book was a single linear stream of code which was processed in our mind as text. Illustrations were regarded as somewhat frivolous unless the topic was art analysis, and were often not placed adjacent to the appropriate text. An index, itself a string of linear code, was used as the only finding aid apart from the general table of contents. The text was fixed, and only changed if the major process of bringing out a new edition was undertaken.
As in a medieval manuscript, graphic elements and spatial mapping are part of the reading and navigating process of a website. Illustrations are placed, or linked, to the appropriate significant parts of the text, and also serve as part of the complex finding aids. Text transferred electronically can be amended and added to, so that, like the many variants of a medieval manuscript text, there may be multiple variant readings.
In the middle ages there was a process called compilatio, in which texts were compiled in various ways from a range of sources to create new permutations and combinations. Sites like Wikipedia, just to pick one huge example, are cherrypicking all our web sites for their own compilatio.
Medieval manuscripts had forms of hypertext. The canon tables at the beginning of the gospels, or the structure of a missal or breviary are examples, where the text was not intended to be read from beginning to end, but selected and combined for a particular circumstance.
Texts were not necessarily copied absolutely varbatim, but were shortened, extended, amended and translated into other languages or even dialects of the same language without any by your leave of the author. I do sometimes wonder what Babelfish or Google translations does to some pages of my website.
I think the time is fast approaching when we regard the industrially produced book as an aberration in the history of writing, and return to the more organic mode of the middle ages. Definitive editions will be a concept with no further validity.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

User Queries

I get quite a range of email requests and queries, some of which are highly specific, but others may be of more general interest, so I will pass them along. One user recently asked if the reason that the letters u, v and w are not in the History of Individual Letters section was because they are too hard. Fear not, nothing is too hard! I have been gradually assembling that section from sample letters already on the site in various examples, working my way steadily through the alphabet. Hopefully we will get to the end soon, including u, v and w.
Another reader has asked for higher resolution images in the paleography exercises. There is always a compromise in photographic images between quality and image size, which affects download time quite drastically. As the exercises are essentially introductory, I have perhaps favoured speed over very high quality. I would be reluctant to put very slow loading images into the exercises as such, as I think people would give up before they downloaded, but I would be interested to hear if anybody else would be interested in higher resolution images placed in a separate download area. There would have to be a number of you out there wanting this, as it would take up a fair bit of storage space.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

What Do You Want?

To the website Medieval Writing I have been gradually adding a range of scripts from the very earliest days that could be described as medieval to the early modern period. That is a long time! While I want to provide a broad picture, I am also aware that users have specific needs, but these may be very different. If anyone, or paticularly groups of people with interests in common, out there, has any special requests, I am always willing to listen. I am currently getting a range of signals on what areas people are interested in, but those signals are diverse and sometimes surprising. I have all manner of materials available to put on the site, and the time delay is the time it takes to process every individual effort, so if you want your interest on the top of the pile, just let me know.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Medieval History and Modern Literacy

Medieval history courses at both secondary and tertiary level have been taking a battering in recent years from those in high places who think that they can determine what the world needs to know, on the basis that the subject is outdated, exotic and irrelevant. Well, there are little things like the origins of our governmental institutions, the religious background to our present moral codes, past religious conflicts, our artistic and cultural heritage and a host of other issues medieval that would seem to be particularly relevant.
One issue which intrigues me is the way in which a study of medieval literacy might shed some light on this topic as a modern educational issue. We tend to regard literacy as an absolute. You can either read and write to a sufficient standard to be able to function in our society, or you cannot. Nobody seems to really understand how we learn this process, or why individuals do it differently. Over the course of the middle ages literacy was not an absolute. There were those who could read and write complex tracts in several languages. There were those who could read their own language, in some cases slowly and only aloud, who could not write. There were trained copyists who could write, but evidently with minimal understanding. There were people who could read and write just as much as they needed to for their job, but who would probably not be classified as literate by modern standards testing.
A really thorough study of the reading and writing process in the middle ages might just shed a little light on some of the issues of literacy in our time. A closely related issue is whether we rely so much on the written word today that we have forgotton how to remember. Medieval knowledge was not all written down. How can we value our remembrancers?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


As the Website Medieval Writing has been available for some years now, it has generated quite a bit of email feedback. It seemed to be about time to get modern and open up a bit of interactive discussion about what is on the site and how people are using it. I originally thought that the subject of medieval paleography would be of interest to about twenty people, widely dispersed around oldfashioned academic institutions. I am intrigued by the continuing use of the site by what seems to me to be large numbers of people (OK, it's not a Harry Potter fan site, but there are definitely more than twenty of you out there!). As well as medieval scholars, users evidently include calligraphers, genealogists, professional re-enactors, drama producers and those whose interests are in the problems of modern literacy. I will be popping up a few of my more random ideas in here to see what comes of it.