Monday, December 14, 2009

Site Update

Latest updates to the site Medieval Writing have largely been of the housekeeping variety, excising dead links, updating moved links, all that eternal maintenance. There is a new brief segment on the Private Ownership of Books. Hopefully after Christmas I can get into providing some more scripts. The shortage is time, not material. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Comments Welcome

Readers of this blog may have noted that comments are moderated. That is to say, I read them before they can be displayed. Please do not think that this is because I want to control the opinions of commentators. I am quite happy to start a debate, and will put up a comment that disagrees with me if it is relevant to the topic. However, something has to be done to control the deadheads that try to use blog comments for their own antisocial purposes. The last person who posted a comment was merely trying to insert a link to a site that purported to show an underage starlet in a state of nature. Feel free to comment on any aspect of medieval manuscript, writing culture or literacy.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Medieval Manuscript Fragments

I was contacted recently by a scholar who had an interest in a paleography sample shown on the website Medieval Writing. While I had just put it up there in order to show how to read Gothic textura script, he had a special interest in the actual content. He was interested to find out how the text continued after the end of the sample shown, but sadly, I couldn't tell him, as all I had was an isolated leaf that I had bought.
Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the range and variety of medieval texts to be pulling books to pieces in order to sell individual pages from books as art works, but there are dealers out there who do just that. However, there are also people who sell the little leftover bits and pieces from books which have been damaged or broken up in the distant past. These fragments may contain tantalising hints about lost texts, or variants of texts, as mine evidently did. Parchment or vellum was also frequently re-used for a number of purposes, but commonly for bookbinding. Little scrappy bits of vellum with a few lines of medieval script are out there in the marketplace for those with an interest in these things.
Sticking Humpty Dumpty back together again would be a cakewalk compared to trying to reconnect these fragments back into coherent text, but occasionally there are efforts to do so. Somewhere I have even seen the suggestion that somebody should save all the photgraphs of medieval pages sold on eBay as a means of creating a digital library of fragments. I think the logistics of that would defeat most of us.
In the meantime, perhaps the most ethical thing to do is to avoid buying from anyone who is clearly selling a book off page by page. They won't do it if they are not making a bucket of money out of it. The genuine lost fragments are then a bonus, which may turn out to be of interest to somebody, even if they are frustratingly decontexted.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Medieval Mystery Tour

Some time ago I received an email containing pictures of a medieval document. This happens quite frequently actually, and I will say right now that they are usually far less interesting to me than they are to their owners, who often seem to think that I can just pop them up on the screen and knock off a quick transcript and translation. Well, if it was that easy, there would be no real use for the Medieval Writing website. That is designed to allow you to spend many happy months working it out for yourself.
This particular example proved to be quite unique, in my limited experience. It was a confession of sins, evidently dating, by the handwriting, to the 16th century, in very proper clerical Latin, written as the author was approaching death with some apparent trepidation as he seemed to have many sins to confess, mostly relating to his own loss of faith, lack of devotion to his clerical duties and promulgation of false doctrines. Looks like a serious case of Reformation angst.
The most amazing thing about this document is that it was discovered rolled up and poked into a hole in a beam, then sealed over, in an old house. Now that seems a very odd thing to do with your last confession, unless you had no confessor, or none you could trust.
The owners of the house are on a long term quest to find out more of its history, and whether it had any relationship to the long vanished medieval friary that used to grace their fair town. Estate records, building history specialists and heritage bodies have all been queried, not to mention the standard printed historical sources. I am told the house has certain haunting activites, and a stone cockfighting pit under the bedroom floorboards. If there isn't a good historical mystery in there, there sure as hell has to be a good novel!
For a little peek at this document, click here. If you are an expert on confessions of the Reformation period, you may be able to tell us things we don't know.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Problems Scribes Didn't Have - Or Did They

I was recently looking at a comment about my website Medieval Writing on a bulletin board. I don't do this for vanity, but for quality control! A user was recommending certain pages as useful for learning to read a particular medieval script, but complained that the images of the letters were highly compressed and contained artifacts. Of course, my initial response was to harrumph mightily, but it is true.
The problem is that what I see on my browser on my computer may not be exactly what another user sees using different hardware, and what is an acceptable download speed for graphics on one connection might be utterly impossible on another. When I first started the website, I had a slow dialup modem connection, as did most people especially at home, and I based my benchmarks around that. I have also recently upgraded my vintage Windows 98 computer with CRT screen for a new laptop with a hi-res flat screen, and crikey, does that make a difference to how the graphics look. Images on the old CRT screen have a tendency to be warm and fuzzy, and I was forever trying to sharpen them up. Images on my new screen are cold and crisp, with a tendency to be jaggy and full of inexplicable dots and squiggles if they have been optimised for the other screen.
Now, do I assume that everybody these days has a broadband connection and a modern screen, or do I still have to cater for the dial-up connections and the old computers? I guess it just has to be a compromise. I have been castigated by users for not catering for Linux users or optimising for all the different browsers in existence. Some major upgrades have been made to the site in the past to resolve some anomalies, and if I had the resources of, say, the tax office, I could get my IT minions to produce a version for everybody, and an automatic detection system to steer each user into the right version, but I'm afraid that medieval paleography just doesn't have the same resources as tax collection, especially when you're trying to keep it free.
The only consolation is that if the users of the site are going to practise their skills on real medieval documents, they will find that the letters in those documents are as uneven, jaggy and as full of artifacts as any jpeg. Scribes didn't actually write using model alphabets. And they had problems with their technology. Sometimes the writing turns really nasty when the scribe has changed his pen and the new one just won't flow properly. He just had to re-cut his quill- no help desk!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Medieval Musical Literacy

Many years ago I listened to a lecture from an eminent scholar in which he equated the advancement of the world's knowledge during the course of the middle ages with the volume of manuscript material in the libraries of Europe. Apart from a drastic Eurocentric cultural insensitivity, it expressed an entirely modern concept of knowledge; that it is necessarily written down. Vast amounts of knowledge, especially practical knowledge, were simply not recorded in writing in the medieval period.
Recently I encountered an equally strange academic furphy, in which a musicologist expressed the idea that music in the 10th century was extremely primitive, because the only manuscripts which recorded musical notation displayed only monophonic plainchant. Now this, of course, was not because it was the only music around, but because the monks and clerics of that era were the only people who wrote music down, and what they wrote was the monophonic plainchant used in their offices and rituals. They were of an ascetic turn of mind, in music as in other aspects of life. We have absolutely no idea what wild, complex and exotic music was being produced by the illiterate minstrels who were entertaining the lay population.
We do know that they had a range of instruments in the medieval era, as these have been depicted prolifically in manuscripts, paintings and carvings. They must have played something on them, even though we have no instrumental musical scores. Like so many other aspects of life, they remembered a lot. The use of musical notation became more common, and orderly, in a similar timeframe to the use of lay literacy in reading and writing. But while we may know some old tunes from written sources, we don't know anything about their musical arrangements. In music, as in other areas, it doesn't do to equate written sources with knowledge.
With the increasing enthusiasm for pub sessions among folk muso types and music festival goers, we may be once again going back to the middle ages with more reliance on our ears and memories, and less on little black marks on pages.