Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas to the Myopic

Some little while ago I discovered a comment on somebody else's blog complaining that the fonts on this blog were way too small. What actually happened was that when I changed my blog template, somehow all the existing postings got changed to a teensy weensy little font. It seemed that it could only be fixed by manually going into the html, so I did it for the most recent, and figured nobody reads old blog postings anyway. It seems they do, so I have gone through and fixed the rest, I think. So if you want to amuse yourself by reading old blog postings over Christmas, you won't need to buy a new pair of glasses. Cheers, have a good holiday!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reading and Listening

I recently received an email from someone who, as an aside to the main conversation, said he was an Oxford graduate in literature and Classics, but he had read all this literature in modern printed editions. They never discussed the manuscript tradition in those courses.
Now this is a great bugbear of mine. Any modern edition of an ancient work from the manuscript tradition is selected, corrected, disinfected, analysed, annotated and authorised. In many modern definitive editions there is no discussion of where surviving manuscript copies reside, or how many were consulted to produce the edition. Surviving manuscript copies of a work can range from one, as with Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or several which are each significantly different, as with Piers Plowman, or hundreds with multiple variations, as with the Travels of Marco Polo. Numbers and variants that survive may be serendipitous, but may at least hint at the popularity of a work, and at how much writers and scribes were willing to alter the work in transcription. It is all part of the story of the story, if that makes sense.
There are studies of the variants of certain well known medieval works, some of which are on the web, as this modern medium is more adaptable to production of multiple variants of texts than the old linear string of little black symbols on a page. I seem to have sung this song before. When it comes to written communication, we are going medieval again.
Modern definitive editions have their place,of course. If your Latin or Middle English or Old Slovenian is a bit wonky, it at least gives you access to something you might not otherwise read. But surely literature studies should be looking at how the work has appeared in its various historic guises, at least as part of the consideration of the text. Ah well, I guess I am never destined to be a Professor of Literature!
In the recent collection by Ralph Elliot, which I mentioned a couple of posts ago, he has an article entitled "Chaucer's Voices", in which he discusses various styles of writing in Chaucer as actually representing the patterns of speech of certain types of people. This, he says, is relevant because in Chaucer's day most people knew the stories from having them read aloud to them. In the middle ages, it was reading, whether you did it with your eyes or your ears. Even legal documents often referred to "those who have read or heard" the document in question. This gives another layer of interpretation, through expression or on-the-fly editing. It was those rotten little black printed symbols that gave texts their unvarying character in the first place; handy for the church, but changing the whole nature of literature.
This Christmas, read aloud to somebody, or tell a story. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 06, 2010

History of the Familiar

The latest addition to the website is The Strange History of Humanistic Minuscule. It is an odd thing that the form of medieval handwriting that is most familiar to us has a complex history that belies the notion that paleography is about changes to the shapes of letters. In this case, it is about changes to the nature of reading, even if the letters do not change that much and there are only very few absolute criteria that differentiate this family of scripts from what went before, and what continued in parallel with it.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Who Ya Talkin To?

Many years ago I used to have roistering arguments with archaeologists about the relationships between languages and their speakers. There were those who believed that if a whole new language family suddenly spread across the landscape, it meant that a whole bunch of ethnically related people were breeding like rabbits and migrating. Personally, I think that a whole bunch of people who may have been ethnically unrelated suddenly found something in common to talk about, like how you actually grow and cook these strange little grain things now that those big tasty meatbearing critters are getting hard to find.
Suddenly, the World Wide Web has given people all over the world all sorts of things to talk about together, and our languages are melding together. English has become a sort of lingua franca (Now there's a contradiction in terms!), but it is escaping from the straitjacket that the teachers of my youth wanted to keep it in. I was fairly recently rapped over the knuckles by an editor for splitting an infinitive or two, but hey, English has always been an evolving mongrel language. It makes you wonder how the rules of language get there in the first place.
I get a number of comments to this blog which I do not allow to appear, mainly because they advertise dubious services, like Dutch brothels, essay selling services for students who can't be bothered writing their own, drugs of dodgy provenance, and in one recent puzzling instance, white ant eradication services. I'm not sure why they do it. "Hey Honey, I think we've got white ants. I'll just look up that medieval paleography blog and see if they know what to do about it." ??? Nevertheless, here are some snippets which I enclose for your fascination and delight. I have removed all identifiers and urls. If you want an Amsterdam escort service, you will just have to Google it for yourself.
"Our girls will-power oblige all your dreams happen true. Harmonize with them not allowed at website. It's good up to girl and you can rumble a property of ladies inside. If you register doomsday wanted to look in on Amsterdam, by means of a fraction's length bring up the white pennon a call." Glad to see that no fancy singing is allowed on the website, but rumble away.
"X Grammar offers a exorbitant par Nursery entirely Piercing School education. By a multi-cultural environment that promotes perception amongst diverse nationalities, students are provided with the opportunities and resources to appropriate for cross-cultural learners and responsible citizens." I'm glad the nursery school body piercers are becoming multicultural and responsible.
"I give birth to infer from a few of the articles on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging. I added it to my favorites trap stage roster and disposition be checking back soon. Divert repress into public notice my site as well and leave to me know what you think. Thanks." Apparently I am providing gynaecological services for actors.
Now I'm not stuffy about evolving English. Languages grow and change all the time. I have recently been dipping into a recently published book of essays by a man who is besotted with the changes in the English language, from Beowulf through Chaucer to Thomas Hardy (Ralph W.V. Elliott 2010 Chaucer's Landscapes and Other Essays Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing). It makes you want to go and read all these things in their unmodernised versions, just to feel the words rolling along. It's just that I feel a little like the last of the mammoth hunters, and I don't know what the rest of the world is talking about. Is English no longer a national language, but a rapidly differentiating family of languages for the world's new tribal boundaries?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Is Blogging Dead?

I have just received an email informing me that this blog is listed on another blog posting entitled 50 Best Blogs for Medieval History Geeks. I tell you this not to blow my own trumpet, but to point out that there are 49 other excellent blogs listed there. There are some of my favourites, and some I haven't discovered yet so I will have to have a good look myself.
This is particularly interesting because I read recently some IT type claiming that people are not blogging anymore. However, I get the impression that there are increasing numbers of blogs around with something to say. I think it actually means that the very young people are giving it up, using their two minute attention spans in the more rapid fire media of Twitter and Facebook and the like. Perhaps if they expressed themselves in more leisurely media, they would have some thinking time to avoid getting into all the embarrassing situations they seem to manage on those social media.
Meanwhile, we bloggers are just slipping back into the middle ages, or getting middle aged.

Friday, November 05, 2010

John Paston's Books

Recently, when the family medievalist finally abandoned his university office and retired to a study at home, we transported boxes and boxes and boxes of books to a charity which runs secondhand book fairs. We both still have large studies packed to the gunwales with shelves of books. Naturally, in the 15th century when nearly every book was written out by hand, readers and book owners had to be much more selective.
In keeping with my recent trend of putting up on the website examples of horrible messy handwriting of truly interesting content, the last script sample and paleography exercise are a list of books written out by John Paston II in the late 1470s. They comprised his personal library. This funny scrap is part of the famous collection of Paston Letters in the British Library, so it is famous. As well as being in a script that is like cod liver oil, nasty but good for you, it sheds a little light on that whole topic of medieval literacy and the valuation of books. Enjoy it even if you can't read it.
I will get back to the mulberry tree, promise. I'm sure you are as fascinated by it as I am.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Of Tennis Balls and Mulberry Trees

When I was a kid I used to play tennis at a suburban court. Next door was a huge back garden with an enormous mulberry tree. If we should happen to hit a ball over the fence, we would have to climb over to collect it. At certain seasons of the year, this process could be protracted, involving a diversion up the mulberry tree, which was ended when the old lady who lived there would open the back door and yell at us to clear off. She never seemed to do this straight away, but just when she figured we had probably had quite enough.
The latest addition to Medieval Writing is script sample for a very tiny,semi-cursive Gothic rotunda script, as used in a theological work for personal study. I continue on my merry path of tormenting you with horrible scripts of the kind that you probably won't find in paleography books, but you will find if you want to read things in the wild archives and libraries.
I have had this leaf for some time, and have used it on the website to show some of the interesting marginalia, but I hadn't tried using it for a script sample or a paleography exercise as it had me baffled. It purports to be from a work in praise of the Virgin Mary by one Richardus de Sancto Laurentio, about whom very little seems to be known, and I could not find a transcript or translation of his text anywhere. So why not just read it? Well, it is rather difficult, with a lot of abbreviations, but I was sure I was getting something totally confused as it appeared to be trying to say that the Virgin Mary was an almond tree on one side of the page, and a mulberry tree on the other. There was something I just didn't get.
Recently I discovered, not a transcript or a translation, but a complete digital facsimile of an incunabula version of the work on a library website in Germany, and all was revealed. The chapter from which my page was abstracted was all about comparing the Virgin to a hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden, and in the process identifying her with all the different plants therein. Very strange. The Virgin was an almond tree and a mulberry tree and Christ was its fruit.
And to think that in my tennis playing childish innocence, covering myself with red goo up a mulberry tree, I was participating in a spiritual experience with very uncomfortable resonances with the ritual cannibalism to which the medieval Catholic church was so devoted. Mulberries as host, bread as the body of Christ, red dribbles all down the shirt front. Scarey.
I will provide a limited paleography exercise for a segment of the page when my shaking nerves are restored, and I have nutted out what this crazy guy was on about.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What's It All About?

If anybody out there is interested in the history and background to this project, there is an article in which I discuss it in the latest edition of the online journal The Heroic Age. That then links to an earlier article about the travails of my various medieval projects in this age of rapidly changing technology. (And no, I didn't have anything to do with the page design of this website!) It is wonderful to be able to do amazing things on the web. However, when your first computer used a cassette tape to save and load a couple of kilobytes of data and had a lurid green screen with monochrome graphics, there is an awful lot of material sitting as printouts in multiple little bottom drawers waiting for a complete overhaul before it can again see the light of day. Wonderful enigma, isn't it? Computers are this great aid to productivity, but steadily destroy their own products with obsolescence. We live in interesting times.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

1066 and All That

One thing leads to another. Having added a section on Special English Letters, I thought I had better put in an example that uses a few of them. There is now a script sample and paleography exercise for a set of manumissions of serfs from the 12th century. The only trouble is, it is in Old English, and I am totally pig ignorant about Old English.
As it is a pretty famous example, I thought it was bound to have been published in translation, but two major sources of published Anglo-Saxon documents that I consulted didn't have it because it dates from after the Norman Conquest. So there is no translation on the website, although the general sense of it can be muddled out, and you will just have to approach it as a letter reading exercise unless I find the Rosetta Stone for it somewhere. (Any suggestions gratefully received.)
Meanwhile, there is just something to ponder there about how we divide history into little chronological boxes and ascribe drastic points of change to the timeline. Yes, the Norman Conquest was a drastic point of change, but Anglo-Saxon language, writing and culture didn't just go POOF! off the map when Harold got that pesky little arrow in his eye. Just like the ancient Britons didn't all get massacred or go and hide in Wales centuries before. Sometimes I think the structures we build to help order our thoughts develop a life of their own. Then we trot off to conferences and seminars to debate the structures, rather than trying to understand the realities of life.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Special English Characters

In the process of filling up those little holes I keep finding, the History of Alphabet Letters section now has a subsection on Special English Letters. Might just be useful for people puzzling over those medieval ancestral wills that they have downloaded from the National Archives, hoping that some ancestor of theirs inherited a gilt saddle from John of Gaunt or suchlike.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Gothic Book Hands

The most recent addition to Medieval Writing is The History of Gothic Book Hands. Not exactly the most original of topics, and probably to be found in more detail in every paleography book ever written, but I guess it should be there. In fact, it should have been there a long time ago, and now it is. In the course of preparing that I kept finding lots of other things that should be there, so I guess I will have to get to work.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Titivullus Goes Digital

In the course of doing some housework on Medieval Writing, I discovered that the version on my computer was missing the History of the Letter z. Now how had I managed to get that far and leave out the last letter of the alphabet? Well, I rectified that, and then found that there was a version of the page on the web already. The explanations for how this happened are limited. 1. I am a complete idiot. 2. Somehow when I transferred everything to a new computer a year or so ago something got lost in the spin cycle. 3. Titivullus is alive and well and stalking the internet. At least he is getting on with his proper job and not wasting time just listening to people gossiping. After all, with Facebook and Twitter the poor little demon would be wearing himself out. And z has been updated.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Paul Simon was Right

"When I think about the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can even think at all" sang Paul Simon in one of his more insightful moments. The trouble is, these days even the crap I learned is proving less and less useful.
I used to be pretty good at using mathematical tables; log tables, sine and cosine tables, logs to the base e. I'm not sure they helped me to understand mathematics exactly, but I could pass exams.Then I graduated to the slide rule. My Dad gave me his special one when I went to university. I still have it somewhere, along with the highly expensive electronic calculator that replaced all of those. I think I can now do all of those calculations on my mobile phone, if I can only work out which sequence of buttons to push.
Then there was the arcane equipment of the chemistry lab, large unchanged since the days of medieval alchemists. It's many a long year since I, or anybody else in the western world, was required to use a beam balance or perform a titration, or fiddle around with stuff made of complex tubing filled with mercury which splurted into the sink if you turned the taps in the wrong sequence. Now it's all done with machines that go ping.
It was in my high school years that I first attempted to learn the guitar; not actually in school of course because in those days guitars were the territory of social deviants like rock-and-rollers and unwashed folkies. A few of us battled along with American how-to manuals and some mutual solidarity, but learning to tune by ear was an issue in the absence of classical training. I recently took up music again, and having an interest in things with large numbers of strings, bought myself one of those newfangled electronic tuners. "How do I program it?" I asked the leather jacketed, silver studded and pierced helpful youth behind the counter. He gave me a blank stare. "How do I make it go?" "You push the little red ON button." he replied, still bewildered. "But how does it know which note I want to play?" He twanged a guitar string in its general direction. "It tells you what note you're playing, and here it tells you whether it's sharp or flat." He obviously thought I was lapsing into senility, but no, I was just delving into ancient but no longer necessary bits of knowledge. Now if I had had one of those things when I was fifteen, perhaps I might have learned how to play the guitar better, rather than spending half my life tuning it.
Music helped to put another nail in the coffin that contains my useless knowledge. In order to maintain my multistringed instruments, I went to buy a Vernier caliper for measuring string gauges. The very helpful salesman handed me something that looked like a Vernier, but had no calibrations on it and no Vernier slide. I must have been staring at it like a complete idiot, because he said, very kindly and gently, "It's got a digital readout." Then he pushed the little red ON button. That's it! Even my esoteric knowledge at reading obscure calibration instruments is redundant.
I do think that with all our highly precise machining of strings and other instrument parts, as well as digital measuring equipment, we might be getting rather more fussy about tuning than about the music itself. I have wondered whether those medieval musicians really played largely out of tune most of the time. A hurdygurdy maker I met once claimed that the precursor of the hurdygurdy was used in the monasteries to teach the melodies of Gregorian chant. As the hurdygurdy is a notorious beast to keep in tune even with modern technology, I suspect I may be right about that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Medieval Help Desk

I always wondered whether medieval scribes had a Help Desk. You can imagine the kind of thing. "Well first the ink doesn't run at all, and then it goes all blobby. One side of the nib always breaks. " "What were you doing when this happened?" "Oh, nothing. Just saying my vespers." "You mean you hadn't dipped the pen in the inkwell." "Oh yeah, I guess I did that." "And then ....." You get the picture.
Having just spent some considerable time reinstalling my husband's virus checker, only to have it insist that it still wasn't working, I found myself on the international help desk. Seems it is a "reporting error" with the program. It really is working, it just doesn't think it is. All will be well in the morning, don't panic. Meanwhile it periodically puts up messages in screaming scarlet shouting YOUR COMPUTER IS NOT PROTECTED!!! I hope the helpful man on the desk is correct in his diagnosis. I was a bit worried when he sent me a follow up email addressed "Dear Richard ...", but maybe they had had a lot of calls.
However, it seems I am not the first to want to put this into a medieval scenario. Some crazy Norwegians have put out a Medieval Help Desk Youtube video. Maybe you have seen it already. I can be a bit slow to catch up with some of these things.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Times A'Changin', but Same Old Complaints

In my ransacking of the internet for old books of specialist interest, I recently downloaded a book by one A. Wright entitled Court Hand Restored. It is so old that even Google was happy to let me have it, and I wanted it because it has loads of useful information relating to the reading of English legal documents, such as Latin versions of surnames and placenames, abbreviations and strange piggy Latin words found only in English legal documents.
While it was trundling along printing, I read the introduction, which proved to be a little piece of history in itself. The book was originally written not for historians, but for lawyers. The author grudgingly admits that there is probably some sense in legal proceedings being recorded in English, a relatively recent development when the book was first produced, rather than the traditional Latin, but this had resulted in a whole generation of legal clerks who had neither the linguistic or paleographical skills to read and present the primary source material for historical cases; necessary given that the English legal system is based heavily on precedent. The author suggests at the end of the introduction that some historians might also perhaps find it useful.
Now it seems that the English legal system has not actually collapsed under the weight of ignorance, but now historians are complaining that deskilling in these kinds of historical disciplines means that political and social decisions are being made from a position of historical ignorance, and even the curators of the evidence, archivists, are rarely adept in the language and paleography of the oldest of the documents they are curating.
This is happening just when there is some increase in popular interest in ransacking old records by folks interested in their family history, and in the collection of antique memorabilia. There does seem to be a lack of awareness of how recent some changes to things such as legal systems have been. I have been sent images, and seen other examples for sale, of 17th and 18th century documents that people were sure were medieval. I even bought one just for fun.
It is an enigma that the faster things change, the less people want to believe that change has happened in the recent past, and they less they believe that we can cope with change in the future. But what would I know? I'm so old I can remember when there was no such thing as the internet. My granddaughters think it is hilarious that when I was at school we didn't have smartboards, we had inkpots.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Horrible Old Handwriting

Whenever I decide to put up a new handwriting sample on Medieval Writing, there may be some debate on what it should be. The family medievalist is a historian of the later middle ages, and he thinks I should put up endless samples from the English chancery archives from the 13th century onwards, of every type of historical document. He has even been known to transcribe and translate them for me.
I am actually trying to gradually fill in a more broad ranging history of the types of medieval handwriting, including nasty old stuff. He reckons nobody would want to read that, but I have found that not only do people tell me that they have read it, I have even had exercises of very ancient and illegible scrawl corrected by assiduous users.
So in the interest of filling in some of the earlier history of medieval handwriting development, the latest addition is a piece of utterly horrible Merovingian minuscule book hand. I couldn't actually read it properly myself, so I have used a couple of cribs. That should mean, barring typos, that it is reasonably accurate. Nevertheless, any suggestions to the contrary will be gravely considered.
As an additional note, in relation to the last posting, I discovered that there were two copies of the French paleography book in question on the Internet Archive, but that both were slightly defective in different places. So while I am spending considerable time printing it one page at a time, I have saved a tree or two as a result of not printing the whole thing twice. The grand international digital library still has a long way to go, but it is getting somewhere.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Scribes, Copyright, Crime and Google

Now I know I do like to rabbit on sometimes about the continuities and discontinuities in written communication in the middle ages and today, but during the course of the last day or so I have truly found myself, like Alice, down the rabbit hole and behind the looking glass. It all started when I found a link to an interesting old French paleography book published in 1892.
In the days of medieval scribes, there was no such thing as copyright. No sooner had an author put away his quill than everybody was free to transcribe his words, paraphrase them and incorporate them into new contexts. It was only the industrial production of books which set up the conditions for protection of authors and publishers, and then not for some centuries. The purpose of copyright was not to inhibit the dissemination of words, but to encourage them by protecting the investment of those who had set up print runs of books. Authors got paid royalties, so they didn't have to rely on the patronage of kings and magnates in order to eat.
Many interesting books published long ago are no longer available, often because they are only interesting to a small number of people, but interesting nonetheless. Google has been collaborating with some very eminent libraries to make these available again through Google books, but there is a catch. Copyright laws are not the same the whole world over. Rather than try to untangle the mess, Google has simply made certain books unavailable in full text to countries outside America if they have been published between around 1870 to the 1920s, whatever their actual copyright status. This was the case with this old paleography book, written in France, which I was trying to access from Australia.
Trolling around the web to resolve this issue, I discover that one suggestion is to obtain a free proxy in America, so that Google thinks that is where you are. This is very easy. There are hundreds of them, and they make up new ones every day as the old ones are shut down. Furthermore, they advertise this service in terms of not allowing your web surfing to be tracked, and enabling you to access sites banned in your school, workplace or country of residence. The sites have a tendency to have "up yours" or "in your face" kinds of names. I have also discovered that this is the very easy fix to our very stupid country's very stupid proposed mandatory internet filtering. So here I am, consorting with pornographers, gunrunners, terrorists, clandestine Facebook users in the workplace and God knows who else, just in order to read a very old academic book which actually is thoroughly out of copyright, here and everywhere else. Furthermore, very respectable archivists and academics have shown me how to do it, because it is not illegal to read or download this book. It's just the kind of company you have to keep in order to do it.
Of course, there was a catch. The proxy would not allow me to download the book as a pdf file because it was too big. Another proxy with a large download allowance was not actually in the USA. So the second suggestion was to see whether it was on the Internet Archive as a text. It was, but ..... if you clicked on the link to download the pdf, you got sent to .... Google books. I am now part way through the process of printing a large book one page at a time from the Internet Archive, because it is one of those reference type books that are useful to have to hand. It's got huge bibliographies and a large dictionary of Latin abbreviations. Yawn! But it is still cheaper than flying over to Harvard to look at it in the library from which it was Googled.
Isn't it about time that the publishing industry got over its paranoia, and there was some means of releasing elderly books of specialised interest without hysteria about copyright? If the book is out of print, it should be available. The big publishers are not going to have their sales of the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown knocked off by a few harmless oddballs downloading dictionaries of medieval Latin abbreviations. I'm sure that long deceased authors of specialist academic material would be fascinated if they could know that somebody still did want to read what they had written, just as I'm sure that even longer deceased medieval scribes would be fascinated and bemused by people rescuing scraps of their work from the bindings of later books and poring over them.
Meanwhile, if you don't hear from me again, you will know what has happened. "Knock, knock!! "Ello Sunshine, you're nicked! You've been using HideMyAss in order to download a little cursiva bastarda. Just come along with me, Madam."

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Medieval Science

In writing a new introductory section on Works on Medieval Science for Medieval Writing, it occurred to me how entangled we get in matters of definition. Today we confine science to meaning knowledge that has been acquired by what we now define as the scientific method. In the middle ages it just meant knowledge, not separated from philosophy or religion and not requiring rigorous standards of testing or proof, just a good pedigree in the annals of scholarship.
Of course, in our modern times every day the media trumpets a new piece of data of dubious provenance, draws an untenable conclusion, and then spouts "Science proves ........". That is entirely ignoring the scientific method. When science becomes religion we might as well be in the middle ages.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kids, Computers and Literacy Education

Our crackpot government here in Oz has decided to steer us through the rough economic times by putting new buildings in schools, whether they want them or not. This is also supposed to resolve a supposed literacy crisis. After all, buildings teach people to read, don't they? And they keep builders in work. And if the builders are building libraries, then the builders also will undoubtedly become more literate, won't they?
In my granddaughters' primary school they built a new library. The school already had a library in a demountable building, so the government thought that the fair thing would be to take the old one away. It was pointed out to the powers that be that this would hardly be a nett gain for the school, and to avoid adverse publicity in this case and numerous others, they agreed to let them keep it. So then the school had to decide what to do with it. Various suggestions were mooted, including using it as a music room. In the end, they decided to keep it as the library, and to use the new, larger building as a computer centre.
So there will be no increased capacity to store books and other reading materials to increase literacy. And they are confining computers to an oldfashioned enclosed facility just at the time when laptops are becoming affordably cheap and new devices like Kindles, iPads and even phones are making it possible for the computer to be on the classroom desk as part of the equipment of literacy.
It is noteworthy that the kids have lessons in which they learn computing, rather than using computers as tools for learning literacy, numeracy or anything else that can be learned. The old computer lab seems such an 80s concept. Recently my elder granddaughter had a day off school sick, but not so terribly sick. She loves to write but for some reason simply cannot spell. We spent the whole day working on a Powerpoint presentation about Uluru, which they had been set for homework. She had not realised that you can type up your script on a computer, and then correct all the spelling so that it comes out perfect. So what do they do on these computers at school?
I have a horrible feeling that they are learning computing in the same way that some of the less literate early medieval scribes learned writing, copying letters out by sight with little or no understanding of the meaning of what they were writing. Now why didn't the government, instead of buying them a building, buy each of them a laptop and hire some inservice training people to get the teachers up to date with their knowledge of computers and how to fly them? Oh, I forgot. This was not really about education. It was builders that were going to be out of work.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Not that Voynich Manuscript Again

In the course of running Medieval Writing I get a number of interesting emails. I also get some uninteresting ones. (No, please, I don't want a 50 page document on the heraldry in your personal family tree!) I also get some rather odd ones. Some of these concern the Voynich manuscript.
For those who have been concentrating on their real work rather than following this, the Voynich manuscript is a mysterious beastie that resides in no less august an institution than the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University. It may be a fake, or maybe it isn't. It may be medieval. It looks like some old herbal and astronomical text that was written by someone who had perchance partaken of too many of some of the illustrated herbs, and is written in a code that nobody has cracked. It has been examined by experts in many different disciplines relating to language, paleography and cryptography.
The holding library seems to have a very generous attitude to dissemination of digital images of the manuscript, or perhaps it has just escaped from lawful custody. There are complete digital facsimiles on the web, and some dodgy CDs going around with images of all the pages. So everybody and his dog is having a crack at it now, and there are various blogs and collaborative websites where ideas are pooled.
This seems to be based on the Wikipedia principle that if you get enough people on the job, the obsessed and fruit cake cases will cancel each other out, and a variety of expertises will create a synergy that will lead to new approaches and ideas. However, it seems that an awful lot of people are just poking about in it and stirring the pot, creating a huge muddlement of unsorted theory and misinformation.
So here is my theory. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels there is a character called Leonard of Quirm. He is a mad multitalented intellectual genius who is kept incarcerated by The Patrician for his own protection, although he can escape whenever he wants to. I believe that the Voynich manuscript was written by Leonard of Quirm. The script is clearly Ankh-Morporkian minuscule and the code is one well known to the scorpion pits of that city, used to pass secret messages between the prisoners. Through a strange hole in the space-time dimension, it has escaped into our world where it is creating chaos and confusion, not only because of its incomprehensible cultural context, but because the fabric of reality has been distorted during the transfer. I am not prepared to discuss this theory any further. That is my last word on the subject.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing and Remembering

While we read vast amounts of verbiage, some of it of ephemeral or trivial content, we remember very little of it in detail. Medieval readers, particularly those from the professional reading classes, had techniques for remembering large amounts of written material. Writers also developed techniques for making their material able to be remembered.
Monks and clerics who performed their offices every day learned certain texts, such as their psalms, by constant repetition. Workers in the legal system had alliterative, rhythmic and often tautological phrases to remind them of their technical vocabulary. Storytellers used rhyme to help themselves in oral performance, and to help their readers when the stories were written down.
It would seem logical that scholars who studied complex theological and philosophical concepts might have read much more like we do, cruising along through the text trying to nut out the concepts, but not necessarily learning it off by rote. The latest script example and paleographical exercise on Medieval Writing is from a 13th or 14th century copy of the Sentences of Peter Lombard, written in a most excruciating manner so that it would seem to be almost impossible to untangle by any reader unfamiliar with the text, but containing those elements of repetition and rhythm and word play that would seem to indicate that it was meant to be learned off. Not being a scholar of medieval philosophy, this was a surprise to me. Perhaps we should get off the internet and try to remember a few things ourselves, like our favourite poem or something.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Books Real and Virtual

A recent story from BBC News has indicated that the Italian government is working with Google to digitise huge numbers of ancient books, pointing out that this means that the works will be conserved forever (??!), citing the example of thousands of rare books that were lost in the Florence floods of 1966. Digitising of whole books has been going on in the manuscript world for some time, in a somewhat lurching and uneven way, but the whole process reminds us that conservation and preservation itself has a finite, but ongoing, history.
This is really the conservation of the idea of books, rather than simply the conservation of objects which happen to be books. The antiquarians and collectors who rescued (or stole) manuscript books from monastic libraries, either those rendered redundant by the Reformation in England and other Protestant countries, or those left somewhat neglected in Catholic countries like France, were preserving beautiful and interesting old objects from a disappearing past. The regathering of these, and much other archival material, into formal government repositories, was also largely a conservation of objects. Now the libraries and archives are bursting with vast numbers of manuscript books, documents and early printings, and the conservation of these as objects, as well as the ability to make them accessible to those people who may find them interesting, is a huge logistical and financial issue.
Perhaps preservation of cultural heritage has actually advanced in its own history, and we are not so much in a collecting of objects phase, but an understanding of the ideas behind them, which requires conserving bodies to make those objects accessible to as many interested parties as possible, to allow those ideas to be explored. The idea of books has been kicking around academialand for some time, of course, and there have been whole conferences on the subject. But the attitude of galleries, museums and heritage libraries has tended to be cautious, and it can be hard to shake remnants of the mindset of jealous hoarding of objects.
There is nothing like the look and feel of the real thing , of course, but perhaps we need to be less excitable about finding new stuff, and more engaged with understanding a bit more about the stuff we have already got.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Unwelcome Visitor

Would the sub-humanoid who keeps attempting to post a link to pictures of his naked ex, along with unpleasant remarks, as a comment on this blog please note the following. 1. You are a waste of the planet's oxygen. 2. You cannot post a comment on this blog unless I approve it, and I ain't gunna. Go away!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

National Curriculum and Literacy

Here in Australia we are embroiled in politics over the implementation of a national curriculum for schools. Great idea in theory, generates more heat than light in any attempt at implementation. One of the objectives of the process is to ensure consistent standards of literacy. See previous sentence.
Our Prime Minister, who loves to be photographed with school kids, informed us that he was distressed that a small child he was attempting to commune with did not apparently associate the sounding out of "der o guh" with the written word dog. Therefore all children should be drilled in phonics. Apart from apparently being unaware that a very small child may merely have been a tad overawed by an assertive man in a suit making strange noises at him, it is a little alarming that politicians, who have plenty of other things to do such as making sure that our economy doesn't go down the gurgler, should feel that by such a trivial observation they can set themselves up as experts on the teaching of literacy.
I have just been reading an article by that eminent paleographer Malcolm Parkes ("Which Came First, Reading or Writing?" in Parkes, M. 2008 Their Hands Before Our Eyes Ashgate) in which he discusses the increasing legibility of writing with the introduction of Caroline minuscule. The abandonment of ligatures and the clearly differentiated individual letters meant that the letters of the alphabet became the basic unit of reading, rather than peculiar graphic signs representing whole words. In the terms of the modern debate about literacy, the writers of Caroline minuscule in the 9th century changed from word recognition to phonics. It helped that Latin was a phonetic language, which English isn't.
As the world gradually became more literate, and the methods and purposes of reading and writing changed, the association of script styles and page layout with modes of reading becomes a set of clues to the processes which the brain uses to decode the written word. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get some experts on the history of literacy and writing to engage in the debate on the teaching of literacy in the modern world, rather than relying on simple minded populist politicians' tricks to design the way we educate our kids? Hey, what was that big pink thing going "oink" that just flew past my window.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Electronic Scribes

My medievalist sidekick recently received a gift of a book from a person to whom he had given some assistance in the past regarding some historic family papers. She had been working on a book about her family history, and now it was complete. What was interesting was the publisher which provides a range of services for self publishing. Without running an advert for this firm, and there may be others out there performing very similar services, it seemed they were offering enormous flexibility for authors, from those who want to run off a few copies for their family or local Girl Guide group or whatever to those heading for global domination. And there were options for those who could do various parts of the job for themselves, and those who needed formatting and layout work, graphic, distribution or whatever.
It seems we may have finally got to a point where the medieval scribe can meet modern technology. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century meant that books could be duplicated rapidly and accurately, providing many more people with access to them. The more recent publishing models of the large publishing houses have meant that many authors have been excluded from the world of publishing because their market was small or highly dispersed, and the cost of storage of large piles of paper books meant that even the most worthy of books were rapidly remaindered. Mainstream publishing firms have been dinosaurical in their resistance to adoption of modern technology, and even their approach to so-called print on demand has been more in the nature of suppressing competition rather than attempting to supply a new market.
Here's hoping that there are some more publishers out there who are prepared to unite the author and scribe and their quill with the wonderful new world of electronic distribution and storage. The technologies of printing and distribution then no longer have to act as a damper on creativity, driven by industrial processes that only work on a large marketing scale. Now all we have to do is convince the dragons of academialand that it is perfectly possible to combine this technology with peer review and suchlike quality control measures, and people might even buy books on paleography again, or any other subject with a specialised readership and dispersed distribution.
Meanwhile, toiling away on Medieval Writing, the latest addition to the site is a nice and very historic little sample of Caroline minuscule, not hard to read, but very important to the history of reading and writing as an art.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Disappearing Paleography

In case anybody is wondering what the enigmatic comments on the last posting are about, they refer to the intention to close the School of Paleography at King's College London and eliminate the prestigious professorship there. If any readers out there who are struggling along learning their paleography from the internet wish to find out what this is about, and perhaps contribute to the discussion about it, then click here. We all know that paleography doesn't really suck, just that it is a difficult subject that needs to be taught well and researched creatively. This becomes a bit difficult when there is nowhere to do it.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Why Paleography Sucks

The most recent addition to the Medieval Writing website is an essay called Why Paleography Sucks. I have been wanting to write this for some time, but was afraid of being tarred and feathered by the paleographical establishment. However, now that I have passed my 60th birthday, I figure there is nothing anyone can do to me. I'll even paint a target spot on my head.
Actually, anyone who has looked at the website knows that I don't think paleography sucks at all, and that I am quite fascinated by it. I do know that students have hated it, and even postgraduates who had to get into it to approach their manuscript evidence found the muddle and density of the terminology of the subject totally daunting. It is not paleography that sucks, it is the battle to get your head around the subject and the confusing, even conflicting, approaches to it that have appeared over the years.
Please regard this as a little counselling session for all those suffering from Paleographicus terminalis.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Copyright and Old Stuff

Do you ever get the feeling that the whole issue of copyright is completely out of control? The ease with which things can be reproduced, and the various media in which they can be reproduced, have led to endless churning debates in which nobody really seems to have clear, legally sound answers. On the one hand there are the anything goes brigade, who seem to think that because an object is old, any reproduction of it should be copyright free. On the other hand, there are publishers and custodians of material who seem to believe that they have rights over any reproduction of anything that they have ever owned, or anything that resembles anything they have ever owned.
There are so many hypotheticals that can reduce the debate to a shambles. For example, if I decide to put a picture of my living room on my social networking page, and I happen to have a painting by a living artist or a published print on my wall, am I supposed to pay them a royalty? If I take a picture of a major heritage monument from the same place and in the same weather conditions as that in a coffee table book, will they accuse me of piracy? On the other hand, if I take their picture and work some digital jiggerypokery on it, will they hunt me down for pinching the source material, and anyway, how would they know, given that it is a large, public, inert object?
The issue arose with me recently concerning some illustrations of museum material, which had nothing to do with medieval manuscripts as it happens, in which a publisher asserted that illustrations of museum objects were copyright to the museum and permission had to be sought to publish them. Now as it happened, those illustrations were drawings derived from photographs which I had taken myself, but as I had taken the photographs in the museum under the condition that I sought permission if I were ever to publish them, I had actually sought that permission. However, to my way of thinking, that is not copyright, that is contractual obligation, not to mention common politeness. I believe that is an important difference, as I would seriously doubt that ancient objects themselves can be copyright.
I have had some occasional correspondences with libraries, and with users of Medieval Writing, over this issue in relation to the reproduction of medieval manuscripts. There are some who believe that because manuscripts are old, that they are not copyright. However, the photographs of those manuscripts may be subject to copyright restriction, and libraries may place conditions of use on photographs which are either purchased from them or taken with their permission within their walls. For photographs published in books, that is covered by copyright. For photographs taken by a user or purchased from the institution, I would assume that, like the museum objects, that would actually be covered by contractual obligation.
However, photographs have been around for some time now, and I remain quite unclear about the copyright status of old photographs found in somebody's bottom drawer, which they have handed on to me because they thought I might find them useful. I remain unclear about copyright claims that are couched entirely in the terms of print media when internet reproduction is different in so many ways. And I remain unclear about the actual rights of museums and libraries over the objects and their representation, as opposed to the reproduction of those objects under conditions which are clearly specified by copyright or contract.
I try to work within what is legal, and fair to both curators and users. There are a number of very important libraries and archives now that are putting up very impressive digital editions of manuscript material on the web, free for all to use. This makes material available to scholars and interested parties who might not otherwise be able to get access, and it does aid conservation by reducing handling of the originals, but it does cost money. What needs to be avoided is putting this material into the hands of corporations which have the objective of making profits, not increasing access to cultural heritage.
Meanwhile, the latest edition to the website is a script sample and paleography exercise of a bit of 13th century Gothic textura, full of speculative historical romance and devoid of copyright issues.