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.
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"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?