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.