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.