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.