Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Blogological Mystery

  One of the strangest things about this blog is that the most read post by a country mile is a simple Christmas greeting I put up last year, which included the information that I had fixed a problem in the font size of some older postings. Now why do so many people want to read that?
   I can understand the passion about oak gall ink. After all, that is a topic to set anybody's pants on fire. A grumpy sneer at the wannabe English aristocracy is bound to be either mildly amusing or irritating to a number of people. I hope all the folks who tuned in to read about dirty medieval books were not disappointed that it was about greasy finger marks. And it is intriguing that people seem to be still reading an old posting from ages ago about shorthand. The disappearance of paleography from the English academic scene may be of interest to educational curmudgeons like myself. And there are always people interested in antique writing technology.
  Anyway, this is just a Christmas greeting. Merry Christmas, and best wishes for whatever seasonal festivities you celebrate in your part of the world among your people. My New Year's resolution is to finish all the technical updates to Medieval Writing, not to mention tidying up unfinished sections, and to provide some groovy new goodies. I will, truly. Next year.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Who Spotted My Deliberate Mistake?

  After receiving an email from somebody who wanted some information about Charlemagne's monogram, I discovered that I had left out a piece of the transcription in the paleography exercise of a Carolingian diploma, and nobody has told me about it. I'm sure you were all too polite to mention it, rather than never noticed.
  For all those quill pen freaks out there, I have put a little picture of a page where the pen went wrong in the Quill Pen section. Just a triviality to show that medieval manuscripts were not all perfect.
  And I'm still formatting and tidying up stuff.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hurray for Brewster

   I have grumped before about the ephemeral nature of the web, and now I am going to grump again. I have just upgraded the graphics and formatting for the script samples for formal diplomatic hands, most of which are papal documents. I had not gone into these in great detail as the Vatican Secret Archives website used to have a really good, extensive section on The Diplomatics of Papal Documents. It has apparently disappeared. It can be found on The Internet Archive here, so all is not lost.
   I can understand that some older web material might look a bit olde worlde after a few years. After all, that is why I am upgrading my own stuff. Some material is ephemeral or topical by nature. But when somebody (or somebodies) has taken the trouble to produce work which is of enduring interest, even if minority interest, and of educational value, and otherwise hard to come by, and very attractive to boot, why would you just remove it? I mean, when a paper book exhausts its print run, the existing books are still out there. When a website is gone it is gone. Well it would be, were it not for Brewster and The Internet Archive. May he and his mighty project live forever.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Authentic Fakery

  Every so often I get an email from somebody who wants to buy, or has bought, a bit of medieval memorabilia on eBay and wants to know whether they are getting good value. Note that I do not answer these queries; that is, I answer the emails but not the question. Everybody has their own idea of good value, and I am not a qualified valuer. Besides, I just might be bidding against them. One writer did once venture the opinion that all medieval manuscripts on eBay were fake. I could not imagine who would take the trouble to produce an authentic looking piece of medieval manuscript fakery for the sort of money that they generally get on eBay. There are 19th century calligraphic pieces in medieval style, but if it looks like a duck and quacks ........
  An item currently for sale has me intrigued. It is a carved and gilded book cover which is advertised as being a modern fake in 15th century style, produced by a well known forger in Siena. It seems that, so far, nobody wants to buy it. Is it because, the object having been identified as a fake, that it is difficult to identify or authenticate that it is the particular fake that it is purported to be? A quick google around art auction websites suggests that fake book covers by this particular forger can fetch several thousand English pounds. He apparently produced a lot of book covers based on some in the city archives in Siena. A known fake painting by the artist was sold to over twenty thousand pounds.
  So what is an authentic fake? Does a fake eventually generate its own authenticity? Is a fake of less value if you cannot authenticate the identity of the faker?
  Meanwhile, back at the coal face, the update to graphics and formatting of the script samples of all Gothic book hands is complete and I am about to start on the document hands. Yippee!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rejected, Discarded, Forgotten

  Have you checked out the blog Forgotten Bookmarks? It's all about the odd things that people leave in secondhand books. If you have ever bought secondhand books, you have probably found some yourself: restaurant menus, newspaper clippings, postcards, notes and annotations. They are little stories in themselves.
  I found a very unfortunate one the other day, while sorting for the monster secondhand book fair. It was in a guide to writing fiction, the book itself inscribed from one female person to another with "Follow your dreams". The insert was a publisher's rejection letter. It seems the would-be author chucked out the book, the letter and her dreams all together. Very sad.
  Have you ever wondered what happened to failed medieval authors? Did they just quietly starve, or get themselves a desk job in the town guild or the chancery? How did you get to be an author anyway, apart from getting yourself locked away for a number of years by your country's enemies in a reasonably comfortable prison with nothing to do? For every Geoffrey Chaucer or Thomas Hoccleve, were there dozens of government scribes whose colleagues ducked out to the privy when they saw them approaching with yet another manuscript in their hands? For every William of Malmesbury or Matthew Paris, were there dozens of monks being ordered to stop scribbling and get to choir immediately? We only have winner's history, even in the literary area.
  Upgrades to the scripts in Medieval Writing have got as far as Gothic bastarda. Sounds promising, but that is only the book scripts.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Right Royal Books

  I have just received an email suggesting that I remind you all about the exhibition of manuscripts from the Royal collection at the British Library. This exhibition will display some of their splendiferous treasures from one of their oldest, and most prestigious, collections. The British Library website has an announcement for the exhibition here. There is not much information at that site yet, but presumably there will be more when the exhibition opens in November. There has also been a continuing series of postings on the exhibition, the collections and the associated activities on the British Library blog Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts. Let us hope that once the exhibition is underway, they are generous with what they put online, for those of us who cannot just pop over to London for the live event.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

So Many Books!

  After five days of lugging books around and a week of entertaining two rampaging granddaughters, progress has resumed on updating the formatting and graphics in the script sample section of Medieval Writing. I am now into Gothic textura book hands. Wheeeeee!
  The book fair I was helping at is a truly amazing thing. It started many years ago in a modest way, and has grown continually, so now they can run two main fairs a year, and supply a number of smaller ones in other places, in an absolutely enormous building with over 200,000 books laid out on rows of tables. All books have been donated by the Canberra community. It is, I believe, the biggest book fair in Australia.
   The organisers of the fair are themselves somewhat perplexed by the continuing growth of the event, and are wondering just what will happen in the future. More books are being donated, and at the same time more books are being bought, but can it continue? Possibly some of the growth in donations can be attributed to the demographics of Canberra, a city that has been populated by young professional people who are now becoming older retired professional people. Many are probably at a downsizing stage, not to mention a departing stage.
   The buying public is still turning up to recycle the books, however, so reports of the demise of the printed book are currently a little premature. There are some interesting things to note. Fiction turns over at a great rate. I think more people actually buy books, then recycle them, rather than borrowing from libraries. Classic literary fiction does not sell all that well. Perhaps the free downloads of out of copyright material, or purchases for a few cents from Amazon of such works in Kindle format, are the making the first inroads in the e-book department. Then again, perhaps everybody is sick to death of Jane Austen. Personal prejudice there.
   I will be interested to see how the whole thing progresses over the next few years, I should get a close view, as I have been persuaded to continue helping by sorting and pricing dictionaries and thesauruses and the like. Now those are books where you still need to riffle the pages.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Slight break in Transmission

  Updates to Medieval Writing have hit a slight delay. Sometimes real life has a habit of interfering with the tranquility of virtual reality. You see, it started with a fire and explosion in a chemical factory. No really. Let me explain.
   The family medievalist, now he is retired, helps out at a charity called Lifeline which offers telephone counselling. He doesn't do that, but does help with their major fundraising effort, two gigantic secondhand book fairs each year. This involves sorting books for six months and then selling them over a three day fair, which is occurring next weekend.
   But there was a fire and explosion in a chemical factory in the suburb where the books are stored and nobody could get in for several days, so they couldn't move the books to the place where they sell them last weekend, when there are young and able bodied volunteers available to move and unpack them.  So they are having to move and unpack 200,000 books over the next few days with a team of aged retired warriors. I took pity and offered to help. Books are heavy you know. Maybe there is something in this e-book thing after all.
  Add to that the usual level of chaos in the family circle, and there might be a few little delays, but I will get back on the job. Sorry if this sounds like a "dog ate my homework" story. More updates coming eventually.

Monday, September 12, 2011

By Gode's Bludde, Forsooth!

  BSL, just when I thought Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog was the silliest medieval oriented thing on the web, I find out about this. I received an email from an anonymous private secretary to the Lord of Kinterbury requesting permission to link to my website if I would link in return to The Ancient and Medieval Honour Guild. Now Medieval Writing is entirely public and anybody can link to it. Feel free. But his Lordship's little effort is only accessible, apart from a few entry screens, to persons who can prove they are descended from medieval knights and who hold a manorial title such as Lord or Lady, and they are dedicated to the highest moral ideals of chivalry etc. Well, that last is a good thing, but I wonder whether it extends to chivalric attitudes to the descendants of jugglers and criminals, recent immigrants to Olde Englande and other diverse members of the human race.
   I mean, are they really still like that in England? I do remember when I was living there at some stage in the past there was talk about reform to the House of Lords, and a peer of the realm was arguing quite genuinely on TV that he was one of the people who should be leading the country because he had a hedge on his estate that dated to Anglo-Saxon times. They dutifully showed a picture of the hedge, and I couldn't believe my little Aussie ears.
  I suppose the private secretary didn't know he was writing to a lefty, pinko, socialist, republican Australian descended from miscellaneous bods who had fled their motherlands to live in a country where they were not subjected to anachronistic, feudal-descended attitudes. I answered him quite politely. I think.
  PS. In relation to recent postings on this blog, the header of said site is illustrated with a picture of some ye olde distressed parchment and a modern fountain pen which has leaked blobs all over it. I invite learned iconographic analysis of this imagery.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Boring Jobs and Bizarre Coincidences

   I am plodding resolutely through updating the formatting and graphics in the script samples section of Medieval Writing. This may drive me bonkers, but I guess it is a good thing to do. I have worked my way into the protogothic section. That still leaves an awful lot. There still seem to be plenty of people making use of the site, so it shouldn't look too aged and daggy (unlike its author). I have discovered that some of the examples that I put up fairly early in the piece not only have sad little graphics, but I was also still experimenting with how to present transcriptions and the like. I guess it will come out rather more consistent eventually. I have lots of new stuff to put up, but I am (currently) maintaining steely resolve to tidy up the backlog.
  An odd distraction came up during the week, when somebody in England sent me a picture of a page of a manuscript that they had had in their possession for twenty years or so to ask me some questions about it. It was a liturgical sheet on paper with musical notation in the form of German hufnagelschrift. The odd thing was that it seemed to be an exact match in every way with a leaf I had acquired only a few months ago from the USA; not identical of course - it was a manuscript - but identical in script, notation and every decorative detail. 
A bit of mine

  She emailed the dealer I had bought mine from, and he was equally sure that it was from the same manuscript as the one from which he had sold several leaves. There is nothing odd about the way manuscript leaves from the same book have fluttered around the world, having been split up and passed around at auction and through dealers. It does seem a large coincidence that they should be randomly reunited by email across the world.
  The conversation we had, which involved references to various German websites displaying liturgical manuscripts, was reminiscent of several others I have had in which people somehow want their treasures to be older than they seem to be, and then claim that they have got the oldest whatever-it-is in captivity. Now I think paleographical dating may be a tad overrated, but I do think you go on some sort of Occam's razor principle. Or in modern parlance, if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and swims like a duck it probably is not a highly advanced pterodactyl. Just mentioning it in case you think you have the earliest whatsit in the world in your little bottom drawer.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Surging Forward into the Past

   Having spent a good deal of time rescanning old photos and reorganising my photographic collection of medieval manuscripts, I have begun the process of updating some of the more manky old photos in the script examples section of Medieval Writing, as well as reformatting, updating links and all that jazz. This will take some time, so be patient and we might get there in time for the next great leap in the digital revolution.
   However, there are a few points for users to note. If the photographs are larger and less compressed, they will take longer to load. If you are still running on a windup clockwork modem, please be patient. I cannot turn scans from black and white photographs in old books into living high definition technicolor. I cannot make the script in the photographs more legible than it is in the original manuscript. I cannot remove difficulties like flaws in the vellum, stains on the page, or writing visible from the other side of the page, nor should I try. These are the difficulties you encounter in the real live world of manuscripts.
   I am not going to rescan the sets of alphabet letters. I had a number of discussions with colleagues right at the beginning of the project about the use of alphabet sets. Personally I think people just carry them around and stick them under their pillow rather than use them effectively if they are available. That is why they are all on rollovers so you can't just print them as sets, not, as one correspondent suggested, that I think you might steal them. Hey, you can have them. They're yours. I actually think it works better to hunt for the letters in context, but I included the separate letters so as not to cause palpitations among the troops. But I'm not doing them again.
   Somewhere along the way I will get tired of all this reinventing, and sneak in some new stuff from the increasing piles around me. Meanwhile, have fun with it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Literacy through Mouse or Quill?

  A few weeks ago there was a tiny flutter in the media as a "research" project was published that purported to show that children gain better written literacy when they learn to write with a pen, having to form the letters themselves, than when they type on a computer. The one little trouble with this piece of research was that it was backed by a company that makes pens. OK, calm down pen guys. Even those of us who do most of our composing on a keyboard still have plenty of use for pens. And yes, handwriting can be a very satisfying art. Platoons of calligraphers cannot be wrong.
   It is kind of intriguing to note that pens of the very sort I was obliged to write with in my school days are being sold today as calligraphy pens, not fountain pens as they were called in my youth. I think that name came from the way ink would cascade in fountains over your fingers, or your books and your lunch when they leaked in your bag. Very satisfying to write with, but I wonder if they have fixed that little anomaly.

   Way back in the 1980s, when typing text was just about all you could do on a computer, school teachers were going through a bit of a crisis in the teaching of literacy. They claimed that children got all traumatised if their written work was corrected, so they didn't. There is a generation out there that can barely spell or punctuate. It seemed impossible to convince most teachers to let the kids use these new computer thingies to type their compositions, because they could correct them and end up with clean copy. One teacher of my acquaintance who did use a computer this way claimed that the kids got huge satisfaction out of it, but in those olden days the one class computer had to be severely rationed among the class.
   Now that computers can do practically anything and kids wander round with thumb drives on tapes around their necks and every classroom has a smart board, the one thing they do not seem to do is use them for straightforward compositional writing. My granddaughter is a terrible speller, and she was amazed to discover that she could produce a perfect assignment by correcting the spelling on the screen. They can google, they can email, they can rip MP3s, they can edit photos, they can even produce beautifully formatted text work in amazing fonts with clip art, but they don't use the technology simply to help them spell or punctuate.
   In the middle ages they recognised that there was a difference between reading and writing literacy. There were people who could read but not write, like Charlemagne and many women. There were scribes who could painstakingly copy out letters and words without much comprehension. That is why they made so many mistakes.
   Today we demand high levels of competency at both aspects of literacy, so it would make sense to make use of all the tools at our disposal: pens for learning letter forms and wiring our brains for understanding them; computers for developing fluency, correcting mistakes and encouraging original composition. It couldn't possibly be the case that both sides of the debate could be right, could it? 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Medieval Recycling

  The most recent addition to the site is a script sample of 15th century French cursive. Only trouble is, the document has been used for centuries as a parchment book cover and is in horrible condition and incomplete. This is good practice for looking at mucky old documents in archives rather than exquisite paleography samples in books. 
  For some reason I am always fascinated by recycled scraps. You always feel you have discovered something, even if you can't work out what it is exactly, and you do wonder why it got thrown away in the first place. 
  When printed books came in there was probably the same sort of handwringing angst that there is right now about e-books (No, please don't start on that one again!), and the work of many scribes was recycled into book covers and pastedowns and wrappers and heaven knows what else. The kinds of books most likely to turn up in this context were liturgical works and law texts, as the printed versions which replaced them were all identical and were not supposed to have any mistakes. You see, the great advantage of printing was not so much ease of production, as it was a very cumbersome process if somewhat faster than handwriting, but content control.
  So it is a bit intriguing to find an old deed in the recycling bin. Families have held on to these things for centuries on the basis that they are heirlooms, and you never know, they might still entitle you to something. I saw an Elizabethan document the other day from a family collection that was signed by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Cool! I guess families die out, or become so impecunious that they have to sell their useless old deeds for bookwrappers.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Sing, Sing, Sing!

   There have been some roistering discussions on the subject of digitising books, but those of us in love with medieval manuscripts can only applaud the ever growing corpus of fully digitised manuscript material that is appearing. I mean, yes, we would love to be able to see and feel and pore over and smell the originals, but we can at least see a much greater sample these days from our own desktop. The e-Codices site from Switzerland is one of the most magnificent, and continually growing.
  Their most recent newsletter reveals a project that has taken this to another level. Musical Treasures from the Library of St Gall shows us some significant samples from a project on early church music. Notker Balbalus (840 -912) was an important composer of early church music, inventing certain musical forms. He is better known to historians as Notker the Stammerer, who wrote a life of Charlemagne. I don't know what it says about historians that he should be known forever by his affliction rather than as Notker the Magnificent Musical Composer.
  His work has been reconstructed by ploughing through various copies which are to be found on the e-Codices site, and having them recorded by the early music ensemble Ordo Virtutum. On the website you can see pages from the various manuscripts while listening to the music from those pages being sung. Fascinating for those of us untutored in early medieval musical notation who think neumes look like trails left by worms across the page. If you really like it you can buy the CD. There are links to all manner of other related materials.
  What makes this a second generation digital project is that not only is it a quite splendid multimedia presentation on the web, it was actually generated from material already displayed on the web. A few Anglophonic institutions which retain suspicious attitudes to anyone wanting to actually utilise images of their hoarded treasures would do well to take a look at this and ponder.
  And yes, I know that the limitations of early musical notation mean that we don't know if it actually sounded exactly like that, but it does bring the pages alive.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax

   Well, sealing wax anyway. I have been pottering around doing bits of housework on Medieval Writing, and decided the section on Seals needed a bit of jazzing up. It will be an ongoing process, but I have started.
   In relation to some ongoing discussions, I have discovered that the multiple volumes of the old catalogues of seals in the British Museum are now available on the Internet Archive, so it is getting easier to get hold of old books. I just have to remember to put "manuscripts" into the search terms, otherwise I get the catalogue of seals and whales from the natural history department. Doncha just love the English language?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Hard Drive, Catastrophe-Proof Bunker or Peat Bog?

   A couple of interesting items have appeared in the news this week relating to the interests of the people who frequent this blog. The first is that the Internet Archive is setting up a facility to preserve paper books that they have digitised. This relates to some issues covered in the posting Reprise on Google, e-Books, Copyright and All That Jazz. The idea is to have one copy of everything they can get their hands on, not for regular consultation, but as a "seed bank" if needed to check or resurrect digital copies. Take a look at the original article by Brewster Kahle Why Preserve Books? The New Physical Archive of the Internet Archive. There has already been considerable commentary on this posting and some on other blogs, some of it thoughtful, some of it a little nutty. I was slightly intrigued by the putative author who thought that archiving his book would be a breach of copyright. It's going to get a bit rough when authors come knocking on your door to see what you have done with their books.
   It was also of interest to note that the Internet Archive preserves old hard drives which contain digitised material, as well as microfilms. Somewhere along the line, I guess we will find out which of these media survives the best.
   The process was evidently inspired by hearing that some libraries were culling their collections after books had been digitised by Google. Now libraries have always culled, but I guess there might be a critical mass developing out there. It is about one good generation since a huge expansion in universities, and their libraries, and there is an ongoing expansion in the number of books, as well as journals, published. We are rarely presented with the definitive work on any subject these days. Decisions must be made about what to preserve and how to preserve it, and we all have our favourite causes. Trashing perfectly good old books always seems like murder. I mean, maybe everybody threw out their copy of A User's Guide to CP/M, like I did not so long ago.
   Meanwhile, in Dublin, the National Museum has just put on display an 8th century psalter found in a peat bog in 2006 and finally conserved so that it can be displayed. The museum has an article on the find and its conservation The Faddan More Psalter. Click on the PDF file link for more information on the conservation and some photographs. The Independent has an article about the item going on display Public gets first look at ancient book of psalms. Now while it seems that a peat bog is not the ideal conservation medium for ancient books, it is better than a damp cellar, inflammable library or bug ridden attic. The book is severely damaged, but it is still there and evidence for ancient Irish written culture. But why was it in a peat bog at all? Is it possible that it may have been culled from a monastic library centuries ago???
   There is a story that Gerald of Wales, the 12th century cleric and traveller through Britain's Celtic realms, saw the Book of Kells. He certainly saw and described an ancient book which he admired, but nothing about it suggests that it was the Books of Kells. Rare finds like this latest remind us that there were many wondrous things that have been lost.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Writing of the Illiterate Lombards

  Right, I promised some more paleography, so here it is. As I have been discussing paleographical nomenclature recently, particularly with regard to the ill-named National Hands, I thought I would fill in a small hole by adding a script sample for a predecessor of, or an early form of, Beneventan minuscule of southern Italy. Some paleographers in the past have called this script Lombardic, even though the Lombards mainly hung out in the north of Italy and were probably illiterate. Others have called it snappy names like scriptura latina minuscula antiquior. It is mainly interesting for its horrendous ligatures. There is probably not a single example of it in captivity that has not already been transcribed by some erudite scholar, so don't panic. Just enjoy.

   On the ongoing ink discussion H. Doug Matsuoka has come up with something intriguing from the web as usual. Trouble is, I don't think that reference he has given us could be classified as a medieval ink recipe; more of a modern kitchens ink recipe. The vinegar in that is for dissolving steel wool into iron acetate salts and the tannic acid is derived from tea, not oak galls. Same underlying notion, but different methodology. However, his reference led me to Monastic Ink: linking chemistry and history which is a description of a high school science project to make iron gall ink, complete with some details of the underlying chemistry. I love the linkage here. Our high school science projects always seemed so abstract and tied to the laboratory rather than the outside world. Come to think of, so did my entire chemistry degree. In that article it is claimed that in the 16th century they started getting their iron salts by putting nails in sulphuric acid, so that is a bit closer to the steel wool method.

Monday, June 13, 2011

You Want Vinegar with Your Oak Galls?

   My attempts to tidy up my back office were recently interrupted by a verbose and apparently excitable correspondent who took exception to my suggestion that iron gall ink can turn brown over the centuries. Apparently I was not supposed to mention this because it doesn't start off brown. However, time and tide wait for no scribe. 
   He also objected to my mentioning the use of vinegar in the manufacture of iron gall ink because, basically, according to him, it wouldn't work for various reasons involving Ph and ion release and suchlike chemical stuff. Well, I have no practical knowledge of whether it works or not, and can only point to the transcriptions of various medieval ink recipes mentioning either vinegar or wine that have been published and say, well if it doesn't work, they wrote it down anyway. Check out Inks and Pigments and follow the external links.


   An odd thing was that only a day or so previously I had received a request from somebody at the BBC who was making a program about oak forests and wanted to know if I would pop down to a bosky grove with them and whip up a batch of iron gall ink next week. I pointed out that I live in Australia and don't actually make my own ink. Apparently they found somebody more useful, so when the program appears, watch it and see if they use vinegar. It must be the oak gall harvesting season or something.
   The only thing that came out of this was that I discovered that a couple of links I had on the subject were out of date. Fixing these was the first work I had done on Medieval Writing in a couple of months, so I figure it is about time to do something about that. Some more paleography coming up soon.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Domesday or Bust

AAAAAAAUUGH!!! There, that feels better.
  You know, my cyberlife didn't begin with Medieval Writing. About fifteen years ago there were some other projects on the go, all relating to medieval topics, and produced on a program called Toolbook, which would have been very good had they got the bugs out of it, kept it up to date with new releases of Windows, properly hooked it into the internet age and generally not flushed it down the toilet. Well, I figured it might be time to try and rescue some of the material from these, which were in use for a number of years by my husband in teaching medieval history, but he doesn't do that any more.
  Discovered to my horror that two of the projects, the most useful ones which had had the most work put into them, were on an ancient version of Toolbook that won't even run on my current computer. So stoked up the boiler and fired up the wheezing old contraption that contains such arcane hardware as a floppy disc drive, a zip disk drive, a SCSI port with an old scanner attached - you get the picture. At least I can copy and paste all the text out of them. I will have to do all the fancy interactive graphics and maps again. The photographs are all in 256 colour bitmap format, which is about as useful as ..... well, since we are in public, something which is not useful. Still, I've just finishing copying and backing up all the masters. The only data transferring device that will work on it, as well as on my current computer, is the card out of my camera, as the old beast at some stage acquired a simple card reader to add to the multiple USB devices hanging off it to make it do things it wasn't originally designed to.
  We designed things differently then. Screens were smaller and lower res, and the multimedia guys straight out of school told us that people would not put up with scrolling pages, so everything was divided up into little gobbets of text. To get more on a page you put in more little boxes that popped up when you clicked things. It makes it look as if there's not much there, but after copying and pasting for three days, I discover I practically have a thesis on the subject of the medieval towns of York, Lincoln and Norwich; and these are only suppose to be examples of how to go about investigating medieval towns. My excuse is that I was still suffering from post-PhD thesis verbal diarrhoea. It can take years to get back to being able to write a single clause sentence using only the words available in the Scrabble dictionary. Then, of course, the web was only just being invented, so there is no webography, and there are numerous interesting sites on various aspects of medieval towns now. 
  I think,having rescued the text, I might park that one for now and launch an assault on the other old one; a synopsis of the structure of the medieval church. It is much snappier, I think ... I hope. The glossary from it is already done and on the web. Easy peasy!
  Just to cheer myself up, I took a look at the current state of the 900 year anniversary Domesday project. This was launched in 1986 as a grand and ambitious snapshot of the nation in digital format. Trouble was, they stored it on 12 inch laser disks which would only run on BBC computers. Well, 25 years on they have launched the website Domesday Reloaded, which contains some of the data from the original project; more promised. The official site is all very cheery and upbeat about how they are going. An article in Computing History is a little more circumspect, daring to use such terms as digital obsolescence and reverse engineering. The Centre for Computing History claims to now have three (count 'em) working Domesday systems complete with players and disks, and has been active in digging the project out of the sludge of obsolescent oblivion. Oh well. at least my little effort hasn't taken 25 years - yet.
   The Luddites have been cheerfully yodelling that the original Domesday Book is still there after 900 years, and perfectly functional. However, big bad Willie's commissioners didn't just take that  grand tome into the field and write the final entries into it. There was once a whole archive of material in the royal treasury that had been used to compile the book, but it disappeared centuries ago. Probably disappeared into the Chancellor's fireplace to warm his feet once he figured that they didn't need it any more. History wouldn't be any fun if all the evidence was still there.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Reprise on Google, eBooks, Copyright and All That Jazz

  An enigmatic personage by the name of Dr Beachcomber has sent me an email with a link to his posting Google Burns the Library at Alexandria. He has included my reply as a comment on his blog, so I am returning the compliment by referencing him here. Is this what you call some kind of hippy blog-in?
  While I have mildly chastised him for over dramatics in headline writing, the books not actually being burned as a result of having been digitised, there is a issue of concern regarding the quality of scanned digital editions, and another issue brought up by another commenter on the recopyrighting of material already in the public domain as a result of it being reprinted or republished. There is also the very tricky issue of the destruction of original printed or written material after it is digitised.
  Taking the last first (Hey, I'm in Australia, we are upside down here!), I was many years ago doing a research project which involved examining museum records and objects. Now museum curators have a habit of updating their records when they think that a person looking at them is some kind of expert and they ask them questions about things. For historical reasons, I wanted to know what the original records said about the objects. With the old handwritten cards and registers, it was possible to separate the original records from later annotations, and even to work out who had made the annotations and when. Only one museum had an electronic catalogue at that time (1991), and they were quite disappointed that I actually wanted to look at their tatty old paper records. I guess the question is, how many old paper backups do we need to keep for safety? The same applies to books.
  On the second issue, I was told many years ago by a copyright legal bod in my university that it was legal for me to scan out of copyright visual material and republish it digitally, but it was illegal to reproduce digital scans from modern facsimile editions of out of copyright material. My only question about that is, how could anybody tell? At the moment the business interests are noisily defending ever increasing copyright restrictions, but the ready availability of copying and reproduction technology is going to make soup of that, and real soon. I suggest that if you have some favourite old, genuinely out of copyright, books in your particular area of interest or expertise, digitally reproduce them yourself, circulate them among your friends and colleagues, and loudly announce them as public domain.
  The quality of some of the old material scanned and placed in the public domain is an issue. Dr Beachcomber is determined that Internet Archive editions are better quality than those from Google, but I bet he has never spent three days printing a long book page by page from two separate Internet Archive scans, hoping that the pages missing from the two editions do not actually coincide at any point. The end result was a largely black and white edition with occasional colour pages, none of which had bookmarkable or cut and pastable text as they were simply image scans of pages. And the Kindle editions are similarly unnavigable and messily formatted. And the text only versions are unformatted to illegibility and full of OCR errors. But apart from that they're alright. I suspect that there is just some degree of luck with the digitisation of particular works, and how carefully they have been done.
  I have touched on these issues in earlier posts, Eeee! Books, and Scribes, Copyright, Crime and Google, with a short note at the end of Horrible Old Handwriting. I guess the whole issue is just not going to go away real soon.
   The whole issue of preservations of books and text is, of course, not new, but there are so many texts to preserve these days. We have almost no original Roman era texts of the Latin Classics, because they were written on papyrus rolls which fell to bits. These works are mainly preserved from much later copies in vellum codices, much more durable, produced by Christian monks. The thought of these celibate ascetics solemnly copying down the erotic poetry of Ovid and the like is always good for a giggle, but they did. There have even been conspiracy theories that the monks actually forged all the Latin Classics. I doubt it, but how much did they edit, correct, annotate and standardise these texts? Perhaps Cicero or Livy might be surprised to discover what we think they had written.
Postscript: With apologies to Dr Beachcomber, after rechecking, it seems that the download I had such trouble with was a Google scan, although I accessed it through the Internet Archive. It was one of a large set uploaded by one tpb, who seems to be a very messy worker. Perhaps I was dead unlucky, because there appears to be another edition of the same book available through the Internet Archive which is not from Google, so at least they are not claiming a monopoly for their grotty scans.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bang the Drum

   Got this reference from the blog gladly wolde he. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education is getting rolling in the USA. I read their list of principles and cheered. Let's just hope they can get the people with influence to listen and are not simply outshouted by the economic rationalists and big business loudmouths who think the whole world should be run for their personal economic benefit.
   One point which resonated strongly with the medieval enterprise in this household was the matter of the use of technology. Yes, some of us have been using it in education for years, and no, it doesn't save money. Using internet and multimedia technology in teaching can be used to do more than simply provide a feed for information. It can be used to enhance the educational experience and to increase inclusiveness by making opportunities for more people to participate. But it is a helluva lot of work and requires an intelligent combining of expertises in specific subject areas with that in the technology itself. And then it all goes out of date and you have to do it all again.
   The whole issue of governments wanting some kind of increased output from higher education while putting less in themselves, and restricting access by making the whole process too expensive for many potential users, is not confined to the USA. The same process is happening here in Australia. There have been protests in the streets on the matter in Britain. In fact, if anyone knows of a country where this trend is in reverse, we all need to know about it. I suggest that this is a campaign that everyone in the educational sector, or for that matter, everyone with a brain, should be getting behind, wherever they be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Literacy Teaching - Again!

  My two granddaughters, aged nearly 8 and nearly 11, have just been participating in what are called NAPLAN tests at school. I can't remember what NAPLAN stands for, National something-or-other, but they are basic tests of literacy and numeracy, the basic function of which is to see whether kids across the land are meeting appropriate standards in these subjects. Pretty harmless and sensible, you might think.
  Schoolteachers, however, have been whipping themselves into a frenzy of hysteria over it all. Apparently teachers are the only members of the work force who should not be subjected to any kind of scrutiny on the quality of their work. They are also, by their own telling, so naturally dishonest and devious that they very idea that their pupils may be assessed will inevitably cause them to cheat on the testing. And to think that they keep lecturing us on the subject of "values"; a concept dragged into the school lingo by a previous Prime Minister of our fair land who thought that the only people who had any were right wing, avowedly Christian, white males in suits. Ouch, we are getting  political; time for a diversion.
  The teachers also claim that the tests put incredible stress on the kids. I checked this out with my two, who seemed perfectly cheerful about the whole process. When I asked them if anybody had got upset, they did mention one boy, but he has a habit of throwing stress attacks while playing sport, at birthday parties, and possibly represents a child at the stress laden end of the spectrum. As my older granddaughter has a mode of spelling that would grace Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, I cannot imagine she will do much for their general score, but she was not in the least stressed about it.
  Personally, I think a little stress to achieve does you good. Not that I would advocate beating Latin grammar into the little possums with a birch rod, like they did in the middle ages. It seems a little strange to me that we are so accustomed to literacy and its use in every aspect of what we learn that we find it hard to imagine how much was learned in a non-literate mode in ages past, but we think that assessing the level of literacy that we are achieving poses unacceptable stress. I think there is possibly more stress involved if your deficiencies in the area of literacy only show up at your first job application.
  There has been a little hiatus on updates to the website lately, due to real life interfering with virtual reality, but hopefully I will be adding some new sections soon.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Everything in Boxes

  I hope you all had a good Easter. I did. I spent the whole time at a folk festival - great music and dancing, food and drink, and generally good fun. Somehow though, the talk at these events always gets round to "What is folk music?" or "Is this really folk music?". Frankly Scarlett, I couldn't give a damn. It's all music. Sing, dance, pluck, strum, blow, bang, whatever.
  This set us talking about how the chattering classes are always discussing the classification of things. Botanists in Australia have spent years of their lives arguing about how many species of Eucalyptus trees there are, but the trees grow in the forests just the same. Somebody who was singing a song about starfish claimed that zoologists now insist that they should not be called starfish as they are not fish. Instead they should be called sea stars. Trouble is, they are not in the sky and they don't twinkle. I personally have inflicted on the world a PhD thesis on the ethnic classification of the Dayaks of Borneo, and how it doesn't really work because people are not classified by their characteristics in common, but defined by their differences from others, and they usually have relationships with various different groups of others. Phew! It has taken me about sixteen years to reduce my PhD thesis to one sentence.
  We took one of our granddaughters to her favourite science museum, where we went to a presentation on dinosaurs. They explained that Brontosaurus did not exist, because it had previously been discovered and called something else. There were even suggestions of scientific fakery in order to create more classifications of dinosaurs. Some large critter left those bones behind, and he existed, and wasn't classified for millions of years. It must be very galling to be declassified if the corollary is that you didn't even exist. I shall insist on being cremated when I die so that they can't do it to me.
  I bought a chalumeau at the folk festival. That is a kind of proto-clarinet. On looking up the history of these instruments, there was great argumentation about the precise stage of the process of gradually modifying sound holes and adding levers which makes a chalumeau become a clarinet, and whether the person who is credited with inventing the clarinet really did so, or whether he merely modified a chalumeau. Well, I can blow notes on it now, so a big raspberry to that one. Just stop arguing and make the music.
  Language came into the discussion. There was a French singer who had lived for many years in northeast England and who spoke with a brilliant Geordie accent. She said she hadn't known that there were people in England who spoke other than "proper" English. She originally came from Nimes in the south of France. I went there once, and discovered that there were people who spoke French in a manner that my old French teachers would have thought was most incorrect. But we put all these things in boxes and write rules and fail to recognise that the rules don't always fit. In an earlier posting English 4 U I wrote something about the changing language and got emails from people effusively congratulating me on confirming their prejudices about the necessity to retain "proper" English, when I was saying the exact opposite.
  Paleography, of course, is not immune from this kind of discussion. Learned folks are always arguing about whether you can define a script by the funny little twiddle on the top of the s or whether you should define it by the slope of the ascenders or other minutiae, when we know that in the real world there is an endless range of variation which tends to clump into loosely defined patterns which we dignify with names. But then we talk as if the classifications were the reality, not simply something which we have made up in order to help us think. I have had numerous emails from people sending me pictures of bits of writing so that I can tell them the name of the script so that they can read it. (??!)
  I recently acquired a couple of books about medieval musical notation, and discovered that the same old story goes on there. There are names for the various evolving styles of musical notation, but no exact place where one turns into another. But somehow the emboxment becomes more important than understanding the process of evolution. So we are back where we started, with music, having got absolutely nowhere.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Scripts, Hands and Emails

  There is one particular type of email I get on a recurring basis. Somebody is trying to read a piece of medieval handwriting, but it doesn't look like any of the examples on Medieval Writing. The writer wants to know the name of the script so that they can read it. Alternatively, the writer knows the name of the script, but it doesn't look like the one on Medieval Writing.
  I have included a piece on Scripts and Hands to try and shed some light on this conundrum. Those of you who have been reading medieval handwriting for years know that every piece of writing does not look like its script prototype, and what to do about it. Those just starting out might need a few tips. But then it starts you thinking about the whole process of writing and why it looks like it does and ...........

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Eeee! Books

  I have just read another article predicting the imminent demise of the printed book as we know it. E-books are about to rule the world and publishing houses of the traditional kind will plunge into the abyss of bankruptcy if they don't get a new idea. At the same time, our fair city of Canberra is in the middle of a regular twice a year secondhand book fair which is run to benefit a local charity. It is absolutely huge, and gets bigger every year. Are the buyers stockpiling against the paper book millennium? Are those who donate the books turfing out their libraries in order to replace them with a petite electronic gizmo or two?
  I recently acquired a Kindle; not the most sexy of electronic devices, monochrome with a little screen and lousy book navigation. In fact a tiny girl of about two who keeps coming to investigate it when I'm filling in time at my granddaughter's gym class thinks it is the most useless and boring Nintendo DS she has ever seen. Nevertheless it has its uses. I can download for free very imperfect scans of old books that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, or unobtainable. I can also download recreational reading without filling up my ever decreasing bookshelf space. It's great for reading in bed, because if you fall asleep, it does too, and it doesn't lose its place. It does have the unfortunate feature than when it goes to sleep it displays a grainy old picture of some defunct author. It is quite scary to wake up in the night and find Harriet Beecher Stowe glowering at you over the bedcovers.
   There are some books I think I would always prefer to be in paper form, such as dictionaries, reference material where you might want to have six books open at the same time, or highly illustrated material. I once wrote a review of an electronic dictionary for a journal of online and multimedia matters. The editor said she would never have believed a review of a dictionary could be so funny. A representative of the dictionary wrote an indignant letter with a long list of what he claimed were factual errors or unknowable things, for all of which I was able to prove him incorrect. The journal went belly up, but I don't think that was me. Hey, all I did was speculate on what kind of book you could write with a dictionary that included esoteric Australian slang and a rather peculiar assortment of proper nouns, including the names of French philosophers and nuclear physicists. Then I said I preferred a dictionary with pages.
  I suspect (Nostradamus moment!) that paper books and electronic books will co-exist for a long time yet. Publishing houses will have to get out of their 19th century industrial mode of production and distribution or they will go the way of the dodo. At the moment, it is faster and cheaper to order a paper book online for yourself than have a bookseller do it, and if publishers don't provide electronic services, they are doomed. But for some things, we just like our books.
  The electronic book might just send the book back into a more medieval mode. We have all been taught how naughty it is to write on our industrial type books or to alter things, but with the capacity in electronic media to make annotations on other people's work, or update our own, we might end up with something more like those medieval glossed works with commentary dribbled all around the core text and every version just a bit different. Librarian's nightmare!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Little French Things

  What this website needs is a few little French things Patsy. Saffy, pop down and get us a few little French things sweetie!
  No seriously, Medieval Writing needs a few more French things, so I have started with a script sample from a 14th century letter close of Jean le Bon in French Secretary cursive script. I have not done the paleography exercise yet, but will do it soon as it is just a wee little document. Much more fun than sorting out notes and backing up files.
  I have just noted that the Dirty Books article mentioned a couple of posts ago has had its illustrations restored, in a natty format so they zoom out of the page at you when you click on them, so you can see the grubby finger marks, as well as the beautiful manuscripts that they were left on.
  Oh, and about the mulberry tree. Well I will get back to that, but I'm afraid that manuscript has a rather similar effect on me as the consumption of gross excesses of mulberries. I will endeavour to finish the exercise though, imperfect as it may be. I just have a bit of a problem with all that horticultural and gynaecological imagery all mixed together.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Paleographical Passion and Archivist Angst

  Much of the basic groundwork in paleography and in the study of archives was done a long time ago. That is not to say that good work is not still going on, but to get back to the roots of it, it is necessary to ferret out some rare old books. That has had me ratting around in The Internet Archive and printing out great tomes at painful speed, or more recently downloading bad scans of imperfect copies of old books to my Kindle. It all has deficiencies, but better than not being able to get your hands on things at all.
  A noticeable feature of academic writing of earlier times is that authors were allowed to express their passion, and by crikey did they get passionate about their subjects. The following is a series of quotes from Hubert Hall 1908 Studies in English Official Historical Documents Cambridge University Press. This is a working guide to the English Public Records, with a bit of concise history about the various classes of records and what happened to them over the centuries. Pretty dry stuff, you might think, but the following decontexted grabs express some of his feeling about how the records were treated during the 18th and 19th centuries:
  “... we have to deplore almost incalculable losses through premature decay and systematic abstractions. These losses are chiefly due to the deliberate neglect of later official custodians and to the still more wanton refusal of the parliaments and ministries of the 18th and even the 19th century to adopt the simplest precautions ofr their safekeeping.”
  “...the anxiety displayed by enlightened antiquaries to save some specimens of historical evidence from these putrid heaps of parchment ...”
  “By dint of groping on his hands and knees amidst the dust and corruption of the low-roofed cock-lofts of the Exchequer treasuries  ....”
  “Almost within living memory the public Records have been sold for glue by the soldiers and workmen employed to remove them from one pestilential vermin-haunted den to another...”
  “... after a further period of official procrastination, illumined by various destructive fires, the Records are still found in festering heaps...”
  “... the officials who should have been engaged in their jealous preservation were employed as sub-commissioners in preparing worthless texts, imperfect calendars, and misleading indexes...”
  Hubert Hall would no doubt be much delighted with the way in which the Public Records are now housed, and made available for study; another subject on which he expresses strong opinions. He would also, no doubt, be pleased that since his time local record offices have acquired back vast numbers of records that were in private hands, another area that he laments. Not much to be done about the glue or the rats though.
  Perhaps the main point is that modern writings tend to be laden with jargon and complex conceptual baggage, and nobody want to be caught out having an emotionally charged opinion about such matters. After all, Hubert doesn't give the impression that archivists were the dull sort of people of their (probably unfairly ascribed) reputation. We can never convince governments about the importance of educational matters if we just jabber in tongues among ourselves, and never let rip with our angst and passion.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Glossed Bible

And a little bit of medieval detritus that I found has turned out to be a torn fragment of a page of what was once probably a very nice glossed Bible. I have put a segment of it here so you can have a peek.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Monastic Pressmarks

OK, I promised I would sneak a little something in. There is a set of new script samples of cursive writing from the 14th and 15th centuries, as found in monastic pressmarks, basically inscriptions in books as to where they are stored in the library. These are interesting on a few counts. They show the diversity of cursive hands, but they also show something of medieval monastic library practice, and they point out avenues which have been used by researchers for discovering the history of books.
I have made some minor changes to the frame structure of the site, and before you say you hate it anyway and I should throw it out, I might point out that it is only there so that I can do some of these reorganisings when certain sections get overloaded, as I only have to change the navigation frame, not umpty gazillion pages. The script index now has its own section, as that is what a lot of people use the most, and it is getting kind of large. The navigation frame is wider, as I figure you have all got wider screens than the one that it was originally designed for. If the site comes up looking really weird next time you load it, just try clearing your cache so that everything fits again. If your favourite section has somehow got lost in the wash, please let me know.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Medieval 90s

  The stuff you find when you start looking through old files! No doubt I thought this primitive bit of computer cartooning infinitely hilarious in nineteen ninety something, but it's a variation on the monk in a scriptorium joke that every medievalist had some variant of on their pinboard at the time.  What is really scarey is that the computer the chap is typing on was just like the one I had at the time, complete with little foldup screen which, in my case,would not have displayed that lovely coloured capital as it could only manage vile electric green in chunky pixelated lumps. I wonder if I should re-do it with him holding an iPad, or has this lame old monk/computer joke run its course?
  Actually, I think this was originally a monk with a typewriter joke that I pinched in concept from somebody else. Ah, the 20th century was so medieval!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Dirty Medieval Books

  OK, so here I am dutifully typing up catalogue entries from scruffy old notebooks and sending files into The Cloud and vowing not to do anything fun until the job is done, when the family medievalist walks in with something he found while looking for something else in the London Metropolitan Archives, and I'm hooked.
  One of the things that has always intrigued me in my own collection of medieval manuscript detritus is the greasy finger marks which can be quite apparent on the edges of the pages. I'm sure there is some residual DNA in there, and we could clone ourselves a friar or a devout lay person or two. I even once snagged a tiny little miniature on an orphan page from a book of hours. It went cheap because it was smudged. As it was an image of Veronica's handkerchief, odds on it was smudged by having been kissed by its owner. To me that is value added, but not to the buying public apparently. But somebody else of significant stature in the medieval art history world has got right into this subject.
  Kathryn Rudy has spent some time, effort and ingenuity actually measuring the amount of grot from finger marks on books of hours in order to work out which parts were read most frequently. A brief article entitled Measuring Medieval Dirt can be found on the website of the London Metropolitan Archives. Her longer article, Dirty Books, appears on the website of the Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Volume 2, Issue 1. You have to look it up from the home page as it appears that the site will not let you in through a direct link. It is a long article, but unfortunately the many illustrations appear to have been removed. (They have since been restored.)
  A couple of her main conclusions indicate that late medieval folks were a bit like us; they hit the indulgences pretty hard for fear of the hereafter, and they didn't manage to stay up late enough to complete the entire daily round of offices. Mortal humans all.
  There seems to be a bit of lateral thinking going on in manuscript studies at the moment, with new ways of looking at things and new questions to ask. Those who claim that paleography is dead just need to broaden their definition of the term.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scribal Anxiety

  I guess new writing technology has always caused anxiety. I mean, a block of stone marked with a chisel has so much greater archival stability than those marks made with black liquid on some flexible but fragile medium. When I was at school, newfangled ballpoint pens were banned because they would cause our writing to become messy and illegible. (They may have had a point there). We had to use fountain pens. (Ask your grandma!) Essays had to be handwritten, not typed, so that the teachers could tell you had actually done it yourself. There were even neurotic fears among the professions that used typewriters for a living. Legal firms employed very accurate typists, because no corrections were allowed on legal documents, as it would then be impossible to know whether the document had been tampered with.
  Then along came computers, and a whole lot of other issues to get anxious about. From the beginning, a major source of anxiety was the storage of our files. My first computer used a cassette tape (Ask your grandma about that as well.) to load and save very small text files very slowly and frequently inaccurately. We printed everything. Then floppy disks came along. (Ask grandma again, and perhaps dad might have a hazy memory of these.) Horrible things happened to these in the early days. People put staples through them so they wouldn't fall out of envelopes for posting. They carefully saved files to them and stored them on top of those oldfashioned monitors that oozed heat and magnetic fields. They left them in the gloveboxes of their cars. My greatest scribal anxiety about them was that if the computer was merely rearranging very small magnetic fields on a thin plastic film, why did it make a noise like a woodpecker in full spate while it was doing it? Possibly they just included that noise as an extra so that you would be reassured that it was doing something.
  Teachers developed new anxieties about the authenticity of students' work when presented as a computer printout. They demanded that students hand in their drafts as well as the final product, not understanding that with this new technology, writings were edited, not redrafted. I remember my now middle aged son carefully editing backwards his school assignments into a more messy form to hand in as a draft. (Hey, it's a life skill!)
  Hard drives were a great boon, and they didn't sound so woodpeckery; more like death watch beetle. Even the youngest of you has one of these I presume, but the earliest ones had a tiny little capacity compared to those of today. As computers became capable of manipulating graphics files, audio, animation, video and all the fun of the multimedia fair, we had to find somewhere to store those files.
  We were advised to use CDs, as hard drives suffered from "bit rot". Mind you, every computer problem I have ever had that was supposed to have been caused by "bit rot" wasn't. It always turned out to be something else. Recourse of the lazy IT help desk expert. Reinstall Windows - bah humbug! On the other hand, those floppy disks suffered from some sort of rot. Anxiety attack as everything stored on them had to be transferred to something else. Worse than silverfish in your vellum codices. Floppy disks were stockpiled by manufacturers then abandoned by so many users so abruptly that stocks were being sold that were ten years past their use by date. Came the time when about fifty percent of floppies in an unused box turned out to be unusable. 
  I have a large collection of photographs of things of medieval interest, used for teaching by the family partnership. They were originally on slides. (Ask grandma again.) They dated from the days when cameras contained little rolls of photosensitive strips, which gave you beautiful images that then started decomposing immediately. We got them put onto CDs, initially by professionals at great expense, but then doing it ourselves as the equipment became available. And always an extra set for backups. 
  Then scribal anxiety again, or rather, illuminator's anxiety. Apparently CDs are not archival after all. Ha ha, tricked you. Buy a whomping great big new hard drive and copy the whole lot on. Apparently they don't suffer from "bit rot" after all. My scribal anxiety at this point was based around wondering how any dumb machine could remember where so much data was and be able to find it again.
  Assorted portable devices for storing and transferring files from one computer to another came and went; very small volume portable hard drives, Zip disks (The players went crick, crick, crick and died, taking the contents of the disk with them!), thumb drives or sticks (OK for short term use but not recommended for archival.) Come on guys, where can a girl get a good scriptorium when she needs one?
  Bought a new laptop and discovered that the hard drive on this slim device has more capacity than the whomping big one originally used for backups. Copy everything on to that. But now we have another cause for scribal anxiety. Offsite backups used to be stored in the family medievalists's university office, but now he is retired, moved all his stuff back home, and everything is in the one place. This in a country replete with droughts and flooding rains, and bushfires.
  Now some clever clogs in the family has convinced me that my backups would be better out there in The Cloud, wherever that may be. Makes sense, but there is a conceptual difficulty. I can't see it, and I don't know where it is. I choose faith over reason and go down that track. But what if governments fall, there is revolution, another global financial crisis, someone steals my data and finds an antisocial use for pictures of medieval manuscripts and misericords .... what if, what if?
  I now have more backups than a dump truck, but I still have to sort out the muddle of handwritten notes stuffed into filing cabinets, printouts of scanned images, overdue library books and other things that have accumulated untidily since I first started this project. You can see where this shaggy dog story is going, can't you. I am just trying to explain why there might not be a lot of new material on the Medieval Writing website for a little while as I rearrange the deckchairs and wait for the next iceberg. Trouble is, as I work through this stuff I keep finding interesting little bits I want to use, so I might sneak a few little things in.
  The good news is, as I work steadily through all my material, I have only discovered one thing so far that appears to be actually lost. It is a rather obscure Old English transcription, and it was on a piece of paper.
PS. If you want to know what my first computer looked like, click here. They've put it in a museum!!

Monday, January 10, 2011

It's Personal

There is something about handwriting that links us to the writer; or at least, we are under the delusion that it does. I must admit to a naive delight in handling a scrap of paper or parchment that a real person has toiled over, marking in their own quite individual way, even if that person is entirely unknown to me.
I guess that is why people collect autographs. A cricket bat or a sports shirt or a CD or a concert program or a book is all very well as a piece of memorabilia, but so much more desirable if somebody associated with it has scrawled their signature and a message on it. I guess we feel in some way that it connects us to our heroes.
When I was a young thing at school, all the authors that we read were dead. So recently I resolved to make an effort to read some literature by people who are still alive. That's how I came to be reading Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man. Somewhat depressing book, full of screwballs and losers. Perhaps the saddest thing about it is that the protagonist (he could not be called a hero), who trades in autographs but is only interested in collecting for himself the autograph of one elderly film actress, ends up discovering that he has invented a persona and a life quite different to that of the owner of the autograph. 
I guess we might be doing the same thing when we immerse ourselves in those historical documents penned by people involved in the affairs of the day. Still, when you know that somebody was clerk of the council during the minority of Henry VI, became bishop of Chichester as well as Keeper of the Privy Seal, and ended up murdered in the street by a mob in Portsmouth because the folk were angry about the losing of some possessions in France, you have to think that your romances and fantasies could be no more exotic and out there than the simple historical truth. It's not just paleography any more, it's personal.
There are people who claim that all history is fiction, but who cares!
Photograph by permission of the National Archives, London E28/G8/18