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.