Thursday, September 20, 2007

Manuscript and Information Control

I have just been reading a most fascinating book by the historian Eamon Duffy entitled Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers 1240-1570 (2006, Yale University Press. It is about books of hours, but unlike most other works on the subject, which tend to de oriented towards art history, this book concentrates on the addenda and alterations which owners made to their own books, reflecting their family and social relations, as well as religious change. It shows how a set of relatively standardised texts could be personalised and individualised, creating a multiplicity of variants.
Intriguingly, I know several people who are taking a professional interest in the marginalia of various types of medieval manuscript books, as study of this aspect of manuscript text reveals a great deal about the attitudes of the readership, and how it changed over time. It is all part of the medieval attitude to text, in which the content of a book is not determined rigidly by the operator of a printing press. Comments, or glosses, written by medieval scholars became incorporated into the formally copied text of various kinds of books. Added text was not vandalistic graffiti, but a legitimate expression and a valid use for a book.
I have, on previous occasions, indicated various ways in which I think medieval manuscripts more closely resembled modern web sites rather than printed books, and this is another example. A page of manuscript text was not regarded as final, absolute or inviolable, and texts could evolve through commentary and discussion, a bit like a blog. Given the anxiety that authorities, who think they have a right to control our opinions, are expressing about the availability of information and opinions of diverse kinds on the internet, does that lead us to surmise that the great advantage of the printed work over manuscript in the late 15th and early 16th centuries may not have been so much technological improvement as more authoritarian control of text?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Google and Link Lists

One of the oddities I find whenever I check the web stats for Medieval Writing is that the site receives a regular trickle of hits from link sites which are seriously out of date. The users might have found Medieval Writing, but presumably they have also encountered a large number of 404s in their travels. Trolling around Google recently to see if anything new had popped up in my field of interest, it became apparent that the link sites which came up near the top of the Google list were mostly very out of date, with many dud links. Presmably, having established their place near the top of the list, they stay there if people keep trying to use them. Google, despite what it says in its own publicity, does not measure significance or relevance, only clicks.
I guess the responsibility for keeping the web up to date lies with the users. If you haven't updated your link site since around 2000 and don't intend to real soon, please take it down.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brave New Web

A few years ago a I wrote an article entitled Multimedia Medievalia: The Fate of Traditional Scholarship in a Post-Modern World, for a collection of published papers. It has recently been republished on the web on the new site Re-reading it, I discover it was largely a bit of a whinge about the difficulties of trying to be a pioneer in the use of multimedia for educational purposes. With a bit more water having passed under the bridge, how does that vision stack up?
At the end of the article I did express some optimism that the web might provide the means for building complex meta-projects in which the various elements interlock through cyberspace. Having just gone through the process of repairing broken links yet again in Medieval Writing, I realise that the web is still not stable enough for that. I think I have largely repaired the lists of external links, for now, but I know that there are many links embedded in the hundreds of pages of text on the site that have gone phut, and I could spend my whole time trying to track them down and never get on with putting any of my own content up.
Is the web destined to forever be a place of fleeting meetings of ephemera? I hope I live long enough to prove that wrong.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Book Announcement

The Australian National University's e-Press has just put online what should be a fabulous new book for those interested in the history of manuscript texts and how they were used over time. Elizabeth Keen's The Journey of a Book: Bartholomew the Englishman and the Properties of Things examines how a medieval text originally written for Franciscan preachers, De Proprietatibus Rerum, was interpreted and reinterpreted over several hundred years in Britain. Along the way, she investigates many intricacies in the use and interpretation of manuscript, and later printed, texts. I admit I have not yet read the book as it has only just hit cyberspace, but I have been in close contact with the development of the thesis, published articles, conference papers and fascinating lunchtime conversations with somebody so immersed in the thought patterns of the middle ages that you would swear she had been there. As is fitting for someone who has investigated how a text has survived changing reproduction technology, the book is being produced as online text, with print-on-demand paper copies available. It can be downloaded for free from here, while a modest oultlay of AU$24-99 will secure you a printed copy. It is hard to explain this book, but if you are interested in the medieval concept of text, then this may intrigue you.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Broken Links

Over the years Medieval Writing has acquired a formidable array of external links, which periodically have to be systematically checked. I started this job again today. I thought I would finish it today. No such luck!
I had thought we were over the worst period for random changes of URL, but it seems sites are still migrating and also disappearing. Site owners who work in places like universities get new jobs, and pack their site up with them to a new university server. The move towards giving academic projects their own snappy little URL instead of the long and complex university style index finger breakers seems to have abated unfortunately. Many big institutions are going over to database driven sites, which ought to be a good thing for archiving, but it seems that things can still get mislaid in the spin cycle. The website for the Louvre has become as labyrinthine as the building, as I discovered when trying to relocate a lovely medieval exhibition, which was still there.
Some sites get taken down when they are considered to be no longer relevant, but how an article about some ancient medieval treasure can lose its relevance because it's no longer 2002 is beyond me. One of the marvellous things about web exhibitions is that they can extend the life of real exhibitions for those who never got to go there in the first place, or who have only just discovered them. Sometimes things can be excavated out from the Internet Archive, and sometimes not. A heroic but mysterious beastie, that one, but if a favourite website has disappeared, it's always worth a search.
It's a little bit sad when stuff that has been on the web for years for free suddenly disappears because it has gone to a commercial publishing house. The copyright wars seem to be in a hotting up stage at the moment.
Anyway, why can't those clever geek boys invent a tracking system for web pages, so that wherever they go, they can't get lost. How hard can it be? Meanwhile, back to the quill pen. I'll probably just get the site updated in time to start again.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Whatever Happened to Shorthand?

You know how you are sitting around after dinner talking about one thing and the conversation wobbles off into something else. It started with reminiscences about how the education system used to be about several decades ago, and I recalled that girls who were not in the academic stream learned shorthand. Those who proved adept at it then went on to become secretaries, rather than humble typists.
Shorthand was gradually eroded away as a result of technological change. The first was the invention of the dictaphone machine, with execrable sound quality, but which allowed letters to be typed without the intervention of a shorthand transcription. The takeover of the workplace by the personal computer meant that the boss sometimes even typed his own letters, without the intervention of a secretary. Likewise, at meetings and seminars there is likely to be a mini-disk machine on the table rather than a person taking minutes. It seems like technological improvement, but the ability to edit and interpret the material being recorded is removed. Silly jokes, embarrassing remarks and offensive asides are all preserved for posterity along with the official record.
Shorthand was employed in the days of the Romans, in a form known as Tironian notes, which appears in manuscripts up to around the 10th century. During the later medieval period university students, legal recorders and others who had to write quickly from the spoken word employed very simplified scripts with numerous abbreviations. Shorthand has not, of course, entirely disappeared. It is making a big comeback in the new guise of SMS speak. Strangely enough, I do not recall anyone in my youth suggesting that the demise of language and literacy was at hand as a result of people using shorthand, which was simply regarded as a practical means to an end.
Does anyone out there still use shorthand?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Maintain the Revolution

In a recent newspaper editorial from this end of the world, in the Canberra Times, it was reported that certain schools in America, which had formerly had a policy of issuing every student with a laptop, had decided not to continue with this policy on the basis that it did not appear to have improved educational outcomes. The editor in question seemed quite pleased about this as he had, on his own telling, never entirely mastered the typewriter, let alone later evolutions in writing technology.
I guess the attitude in both cases is an unfortunate, but almost inevitable, consequence of the way that technology was introduced to the educational arena. I first started paddling around in the area in the mid 1990s. At that time, everyone was a pioneer and people with both academic expertises and computer skills were running around trying many different ways to use this new technology for educational purposes. However, while the capabilities of the new technology rocketed ahead, neither teachers, librarians nor educational administrators had much idea of the best way to make use if it. There are still teachers in schools and universities who are practically computer illiterate. They can open their email, but they don't know how to file it, trash it or delete it.
In my granddaughter's primary school, the younger kids are still being taught "computers" by their buddies in older classes. It seems that new teaching strategies based around the use of the new technology have still not filtered through to many teaching professonals, and it is still thought necessary to learn "computers" rather than using them creatively for learning something else. If the students with the laptops are using them for idling away their time in chat rooms or accessing YouTube, it is because they are more computer savvy than their teachers.
The answer is not to take away the computers, especially as there is now an ever increasing amount of high quality educational material on the web, and this is in a rapidly expanding phase. The time is ripe to take teachers at all levels of the educational spectrum out of the classroom for long enough to learn, not only the mechanics of using computers, but strategies for finding, sifting and using the wealth of educational material out there and incorporating it into their lessons. Find out how to use chat room technology to build a science project. Use YouTube to share knowledge with other students.
Those of you who are already converted can just keep practising with your quill pens, because, as users of Medieval Writing know, modern technology can be used to learn about ancient technology.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I need your help

Occasionally I receive emails pointing out transcription errors in exercises on Medieval Writing, or other anomalies in the text. This is always welcome, as I regard all my users as proofreaders and critics. The brave new world of self-publication means that instead of sub-editors (of variable expertise), there are people with all manner of specialised expertises who can contribute to the final product. Please do not be afraid to email if you think I have made an error (and I have undoubtedly made a number of them). If I think I am right and you are wrong, then we will have a private conversation about it. If I think that you are right and I am wrong, I will make a correction and acknowledge it. Either way we can have an interesting conversation. I am not quite ready to adopt the Wikipedia model of anything goes, but I do think that current technology gives us the opportunity to develop collaborative projects that develop all our expertises. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Our Own Medieval History

As Medieval Writing is getting very close to registering 100,000 clicks on the home page, I continue to be amazed at the interest in this esoteric material. No, that is not a very big number compared with a YouTube video of Britney baring her unmentionables, but it is a lot more than I ever expected to be interested in medieval paleography, especially as many users don't use the home page but get in via Google to internal pages, or have bookmarked their favourite areas like the script index.
Here in Australia there can be a bit of a funny attitude to medieval history. I was once asked at a dinner party by a supposedly educated English person why I wasn't interested in my own history. I would hardly have thought it necessary to point out that we Australians of British and European heritage did not crawl out from under a rock in 1788, and European medieval history IS our history. Unfortunately, our politicians currently have the same illogical, blinkered mentality and are rabbiting on to the media about how our youngsters need to learn more Australian history, meaning anything after Captain Cook. Medieval history is being put under severe pressure in universities all over the country. Never mind that this era represents the birthplace of our languages, our art and architecture, our literature, our law, our moral codes and the religious beliefs and practices that underpin them, and our system of government. I have a horrible feeling that politicians are not actually interested in any of that, and think that civilisation began with the birth of consumerist economics.
Intriguingly, it is not lack of interest among potential students that is putting the pressure on. Those of you out there who are using these modern communications techniques to learn about old history also give us hope that our genuine cultural history will not be forgotten.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Classification of Scripts

On Medieval Writing I had originally intended to produce a broad outline of the history of scripts and their classification, and then zoom in on specific areas to explain them in more detail. However, while there are broad chronological and geographical trends in the history of handwriting styles, variation is really on a continuum. The closer you look, the more the concept of distinctive named classes of handwriting seems to be an illusion.
Paleography is a subject of many detailed expertises, and researchers may develop elaborate classificatory schemes within their own area of expertise, be it the insular minuscule family, Gothic book hands or the varieties of what used to be called English court hand. Such writers may then dismiss the rest of the literate world in very broad classificatory strokes. Furthermore, even the experts do not necessarily agree on the terminology within their own specialities.
Another problem is that certain geographical areas or types of writing have been heavily studied and written about, while others are known only to the most esoteric of experts. For example, how did they write in medieval Poland or Hungary or Bohemia? I seem to be doing most of my research on Spanish paleography on eBay!
I'm not quite sure how to attack this problem on the website, especially in relation to the development of cursive hands of the later middle ages. Nevertheless, hopefully there will be some valiant attempts as I try to make sense of the mounds of original handwritings and photographic reproductions that are piled in my study. The results my be quite radical.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Long Hot Summer

There has been a bit of a hiatus on progress on the website for the last month or so. The main reason is that down here in the upside down part of the world we have had the longest hottest summer ever. My study, previously regarded as a detached haven of tranquillity, has turned into an oven, within which rational thought is not possible. As autumn approaches and we have nightly thunderstorms, the brains may now be able to engage. Watch out for lots of new developments.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Medieval Manuscripts on the Move

One of the amazing things about medieval manuscripts is how they have ended up in the many places that they have, and how they have so often been preserved almost by inertia. They represent a whole new viewpoint on social history. I once had the extraordinary experience of seeing a family archive of medieval and later documents in a small semi-rural cottage outside the town of Queanbeyan in Australia, preserved in the papers of a family afflicted by changing fortunes over the centuries.
Whole libraries of amazing books have been pitched out during the course of religious change, only to be collected together again by those with antiquarian interests. Books of types once common, like Bibles, breviaries or books of hours, have been pulled apart to preserve the illustrations. Fragments of old books or documents have been used as book wrappers or bindings. I have recently encountered a case where a set of German medieval notarial deeds had been sliced up at some unknown time in history and used as bookmarks.
The internet has made it possible for people of modest means such as myself, located in remote corners of the globe (OK, I know it's round and doesn't have corners!) to acquire a few scraps of medieval manuscript, which, in this case, have been and will be used on the Medieval Writing website. What intrigues me is how these oddments have survived until today, to appear in bits and pieces among various antique dealers. Those books from which the illustrations have been pillaged must have sometimes been preserved, but by whom or why would be fascinating to know. It is distressing to see substantial fragments of books further reduced to single pages as they are scattered around the more downmarket buyers, but on the other hand the upmarket buyers are only interested in undamaged goods, and they hide them away in their bank vaults, so perhaps in an odd way it represents a form of preservation. Isolated legal documents can never tell a coherent historical story, but even archival collections are not always coherent, either in their collecting policies or their cataloguing.
Colleagues in the academic world are apt to get uptight about material which is removed from the research database, but there are so many research projects which have never been attempted on the substantial body of material now held in public institutions already, so that perhaps this is a more theoretical than actual issue. One thing is for sure, with more and bigger archives than ever before, and online catalogues, access to a whole range of medieval manuscripts has never been easier. The paradox is that there is both aggregation (in major archival collections) and dispersal (on the private market) happening at the same time. I wonder how this will ultimately affect our perception of the medieval era.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

English 4 U

As a person who started their education many decades ago, I tend to get cranky and pedantic at errors in written English. I have a particular antipathy to the modern curse of errors undetected by spelling checkers. A recent example was a writer attempting to "illicit" information, while "loose" as in "loose the plot" is becoming so common that in might soon make the Oxford English Dictionary as an alternative usage. All this only shows firstly, that English has developed in an illogical, unphonetic and chaotic manner and secondly, that at some point somebody tried to stop this happening, and my education was profoundly influenced by this attempted ban.
In the age of manuscript, which we look at in
Medieval Writing, there were no controls over the language. English was a Germanic dialect, infiltrated with bits of Scandinavian, French and Latin, varying greatly around its native land and constantly evolving. Spelling had no consistency at all. It was printing that really caused this to be seen as a problem. The printer Caxton bewailed the difficulty of printing the major works of cultural heritage in his own language, when the language of some older versions of these works was incomprehensible to him. The inhabitants of England could not even agree on the simple word for an egg. Today, reading even 15th century English throws up some mysteries. I am not entirely sure what the word "koryosloker", as found in an example used in one of my paleography exercises, means, and I'm not entirely sure that the scribe did either.
Dictionaries and grammar books of our own language, as opposed to the Latin of the medieval era, became prescriptive rather than descriptive in the age of printing. There are some who think they still should be, and decry the modern procedure of using academic dictionaries to document changes to the language rather than dictate correctnesses of the 18th century. Interestingly, the genie has been let out of the bottle by the democratisation of word production through changing technology. Just as the scribe with his quill had no sub-editor cracking him across the knuckles (unless he was transcribing the Bible in Latin!) so the modern communicator with PC and mobile phone is unconstrained. Perhaps the whole concept of correct English will eventually be seen as a brief anomaly in the history of the language.
: -) 2 U, rite gd!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another New Year

Happy New Year to all of you, and I hope you all had a great festive season, whatever branch of the festive tree you inhabit.
Medieval Writing has been out there for six years now. I was encouraged to ponder the history of the site, and its place in the electronic universe, when I had to renew some permissions to use photographs from the British Library. Five years ago I had to tell them what I was hoping to achieve. This time I could point them to what was there already, with promises for further advancement.
I am still intrigued by the slow pace at which major institutions actually get the concept of the web. They say that if your permission is not renewed, you have to delete all their photographs from your database. To me, that is like saying if you have published a book, you have to go around the world cutting out all the illustrations with a Stanley knife. Somehow we have to get the idea across that web publication is not merely the production of ephemera, but can be a means of developing constantly expanding projects. The production of quality material on the web is also no longer the exclusive domain of large institutions. The mechanics of it now puts the process of production and development into the hands of whoever has the urge and commitment to get on with it. (And just between you and me, the fact that rugged individuals such as myself don't have to deal with an ITdepartment and a bunch of so-called multimedia experts makes it so much easier and cheaper!)
Anyway, the images are safe for another five years. Perhaps, with your help, by then some of these august old bodies will be getting the idea of what it is all about.