Monday, December 30, 2013

That Blog of Geoffrey Chaucer

  My medievalist husband presented me for Christmas with a copy of the book of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog by Brantley L. Bryant (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), now revealed to the world as LeVostreGC himself. The spouse knew I was a great fan of the blog because I used to annoy the hell out of him by reading out all the best bits. He doesn't want to read it now because he says the rest won't be as funny, except for "Margery Kempe at the MLA", which he will read because he is rather fond of old Margery. He thinks the world has given her a tough time. Hmmm.
  Somewhere in this process is embedded some profound concept about the whole changing nature of the written word, from manuscript, through printing to the continually evolving landscape of electronic publication; multimedia, e-books, websites, blogs, Facebook, Tumblr et al and Twitter. I guess we're not finished yet. What is going to be the Next Big Thing for disseminating our words?
  I was a bit disappointed in the book at first because it has some introductory material that is actually serious. The blog itself is very erudite and intellectual, but definitely not serious. But while the reader is cackling away at some bit of nonsense, they can feel they are one-upping the ignorant world with knowledge of some esoteric reference. Classic academic humour.
  The comments to each blog piece are not included. Perhaps there are legal issues relating to copyright here, I don't know, but the comments made the blog a collaborative experience, while reducing it to the work of a single author makes it an authoritative work, as are all printed books (even if they're not). Then (shock, horror) the  author tells us he has edited the entries to remove errors and misfired jokes. So the spontaneity and muddlement of whacking something out on the keyboard and, with devil-may-care enthusiasm, thrusting on to the world with a click of the "publish" button, has been overridden by the editorial process as applied to printed works through the ages.
  And the author is outed. No longer can we wonder "Who the hell is this Geoffrey Chaucer bloke?" as we giggle over his cockeyed view of the world. The author himself asserts that this is partly due to "the expectations of print publication", so the reins of past technology are still attached to the bridle. Authority, editorial correctness and identity, as opposed to spontaneity, collaboration and deliberate anonymity. Bugger. And I was hoping to publish my outrageous novel about the workings of a charity book warehouse under the nom de plume Hipster Bookfairy. But hang on, authors of the past have had nom de plumes (noms de plume, noms de plumes, whatever). What is the rule? Does it have to be a proper nom, but not a nom that already belongs to somebody else particularly if they are dead, famous, or both? It does rather spoil the fantasy of the joke.
  Finally, it naturally has an end. There are postings on the blog that postdate the publication of the book, and while they may be getting sparser in quantity as the author has acquired a career and a life, they are just as good a read. And there is always the hope that there is another beauty still in the offing. Still, it is there in that ready reference, flip-the-pages form and I can have a giggle and hoot at Margery, or King Richard II's rider, or the purported lascivious doings at Kalamazoo, whenever the urge strikes. And if the entire internet suddenly goes foofoo for unexpected reasons, there will still be a reminder of what was in one little corner of it.
  Returning to some of the more serious discussion, Chapter 4 of the book is an article by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen entitled "Blogging the Middle Ages", which briefly discusses the history of blogs and other internet media in medieval studies. He notes that pioneers of the internet in medieval studies did not receive the same kind of recognition for their work as those who put printed ink on paper, and many fine pioneering medieval websites have either languished or disappeared as their authors have moved to other positions or projects.
  Been there, done that. When the medievalist spouse and myself were working on multimedia projects in the mid 1990s, the august  university we were working from was only interested in the production of educational product that could be sold to make money for the university. Never mind about continuity, development, posterity or the minor detail that they weren't actually paying me to work on the project. That is why everything out there with my name on it flies proudly with the banner "independent scholar". An awful lot of effort and brainpower was wasted in those early days on the internet because senior academics spent their time trying to pretend it wasn't happening while the pioneers made the history books (or blogs?) but not the professorships.
  The succession of internet technologies that has occurred does not need to obliterate previous work, as each type of technology serves a different purpose. Ye olde webbsitte is still the best place to build a complex and structured teaching environment. A blog makes a great journal for announcement or opinionated ranting (didja notice?), but its archiving features mean it can have relevance over an extended period. I am amazed from my blog stats that people keep reading old blog posts. Facebook is great for building networks of the like minded, and Twitter is fine for catching people's attention and pointing to more wordy publications.
  I am a little intrigued by the compilation sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, which seem to churn the contents of the internet around like a washing machine without necessarily adding much in the way of content, but I guess we will find creative ways of using it in time. After all, people initially used Twitter to announce to the world what they were eating for lunch. I have a sneaking suspicion that there are some committed souls out there who are using the above to ensure that stuff released as Creative Commons gets dispersed all around and truly becomes the commons before some bureaucrat changes their mind.
  What we need to do now is convince the dinosaurs that this can be real academic work. And it's got to be OK to have a laugh. Keep on bloggin' LeVostreGC.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Blockbuster Epic Resource for Paleographers and Historians

  Medieval Latin can be a cantankerous beast. Now the ultimate resource is available to tame it, especially for those who are scholars of texts from England. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) is a British Academy research project at the University of Oxford, and it is now published, having been one hundred years in the gestation. So you see, good things develop slowly.
  For many of us humble little medieval workers on the periphery of the world, this is a glimmer of hope at this stage. It's an expensive great beast, as you might imagine, and in this world that is tending to regard studies in the humanities as luxuries rather than essentials, you may find it hard to persuade your local library to fork out for one. 
  There are plans for a digital future, although it seems the exact nature of this has not been worked out. It is all part of the increase in accessibility of even the most esoteric resources which will be available when the world works out that not everyone wants or needs to be an IT worker or a manufacturer of better widgets.
  Rock on medieval resources!

Friday, December 06, 2013


  It had to happen. Some clever person out there has put medieval paleography exercises on to something more modern than ye olde PC. If you want to do your paleography exercises on your iPhone or iPad, there is now an app to do it. Check it out here.
  I'll just crawl back into my dinosaur cave, unless there are still a few old fogies out there whose eyesight is not amenable to medieval handwriting on a small screen. Congrats you guys at Leeds University.

Addendum: also available for Android from Google Play. Will do a review if I can get my head away from my phone for long enough.

Addendum again: sorry, no can do. Even my phone is too prehistoric. Slow down world!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Technology Bites My Bum - Again

  Back in the mid 1990s, Tillotson and Tillotson decided it would be a really good idea to produce some teaching software for medieval history using this newfangled multimedia technology. We thought we produced some pretty hot stuff for a couple of amateurs: amateurs at IT that is. Of course, we all know what happened after that; new operating systems every Thursday, the internet gets useful, then brilliant, development software companies go phut. The Medieval Writing website was the only thing rescued from the wreckage.
  Of course I backed everything up. How dare you suggest otherwise. I have multiple backups on everything from ZIP disks (remember them) to the cloud (just hope it doesn't rain). Only problem is, I have only one antique computer that can run the software I used to create these masterpieces, and it takes up half my study and is showing signs of being about to die.
  Now one of the very good pieces of advice I received at that stage, and dutifully passed on to everyone else, is that you should always keep a copy of the text of whatever you are doing in a simple text format so that it isn't platform dependent. Blush. I now discover that the text material in my multimedia files cannot be exported, or even cut and pasted out without displaying loads of crap code.
  Part of the reason I didn't  do it was because of ideas and experiments in multimedia design. IT gurus assured me that nobody these days would scroll down a page to see what was at the bottom, and that multimedia pages should be designed to fit on the screen. So the text was all broken up into little boxes, some of which popped up out of nowhere when you moused on things and dissolved away when you were finished, or appeared in separate little windows or did any number of those dinky little multimedia things which are SOOO 1990s. That also means I can't just print if off. And now everybody happily scrolls down web pages without having a nervous breakdown about it.
  I once wrote a blog posting about how web pages are more like medieval manuscripts than the pages of printed books, but now I find myself regressing in a less delightful way, copy typing madly like an old fashioned office slave in a typing pool, trying to beat that sneaky red stain which is creeping into the corner of my old CRT monitor and hoping that checksum error on bootup will allow me to ignore it for a bit longer.

  And there's a sample screenshot in all its glory, complete with clunky buttons, 256 colour graphics, popup subheadings on mouseover and navigation buttons all over the place, not to mention a strictly rectangular design that fits even on ye olde 800 x 600 screen (or whatever it was back then). Pity you can't hear the spasm of Gregorian chant that plays while you contemplate which button to push. Only the Glossary has so far made it to the web.
  Hope you scrolled down for a look at it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preservation of Books or Texts?

  I have recently resigned from a charity volunteer position which involved selling secondhand books for fundraising for a valuable cause. Never mind why. Charities do occasionally go through phases of losing their sense of direction. Suffice to say I might have a bit more time for medieval books and paleography now, with fewer big gaps between postings. And yes, I have found another good cause to devote some time to, but which might not eat up my whole life.
  The secondhand books are all donated by the public and sold at several huge bookfairs each year. The time in between was filled with sorting, pricing, processing and packing for the next blockbuster. People give the charity a helluva lot of books. Why? Because they are getting rid of them. They are downsizing, their parents have died, their kids have left home, they have bought e-readers or some other reason. Secondhand book dealers are becoming progressively more rare, don't want to buy big collections and their only alternative is to send the lot to paper recycling.

  The oversupply means that a significant proportion of the books end up in paper recycling anyway. Sometimes they are in ratty condition and frequently they are titles which appear in such numbers that they could not possibly all be sold at the bookfairs. The recycling hopper was at one time euphemistically referred to as the Dan Brown file. Sometimes there are strange old books that nobody wants to buy and you wonder if they should be preserved as historical curiosities.
  Now that so many medieval manuscript books in public collections are appearing in facsimile on the internet, interested folks are becoming aware of just how many of these survive. Of course, we know there have been massive losses as well. Fire, flood and vermin, not to mention deliberate destruction in order to replace dated texts with ones that were deemed to be more correct, all chomped up medieval libraries. Medieval monks and scholars made decisions about preservation and disposal as well.
  Every manuscript book which survives, however, is unique, not only in the decoration and presentation, but in the text. Apart from in liturgical books, the concept of the written content was still rooted in the oral tradition, with change and evolution of the text occurring all the time. This has made lifetime careers for some academics.
  With printed books, every example from a given edition is identical, and some books, whether modern bestsellers or older classics, have been printed in gazillions of copies over the years. There is a question of how much we should worry about the destruction of these identical industrial artifacts. Is it important to preserve the physical objects, or should we only worry about conserving the texts? There is a collectors' market which gets all excited and splashes money about for rare editions, but is this a reader's interest or merely an investor's ploy?
  The book will never die. There is too much pleasure in grabbing a favourite off the shelf and thumbing through it. But when I depart for the great library in the sky, somebody will sort through my eccentric collection and select what to keep and what to dump. Most unscientific. And you never know, one day Sotheby's might just sell the last ratty paperback copy of The Da Vinci Code.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Working Scripts for (Somewhat) Ordinary Books

  Standard paleography textbooks tend to categorise scripts neatly, then present the finest or most representative of each type, giving the whole process of medieval handwriting an aura of greater order and system than it really has. I quite regularly get emails from users of the site who claim that the piece of medieval writing that they are trying to untangle doesn't look like any of the examples in books, or on the website for that matter. I have started a process of putting up samples of scripts on Medieval Writing which are just a little bit ordinary, not quite as standard as the archetypes and generally a bit more real world. Many of them are from the bits of medieval detritus that are floating around the world at the moment.
  The current project is to indicate that the French term bâtarde covers a great range of styles and types, some of them exquisitely beautiful and legible and others a bit scratchy and hard to untangle. The latest example comes from a leaf from a little 15th century Flemish book of hours, with delicious little jewelled gilded initials and a bit of medievally leaf spray in the margins, but somewhat hasty and spiky calligraphy. It was probably somebody's wondrous treasure, but most likely not the Duchess of Whatsit.
  No matter how many classificatory schemes we cook up, and how many generic schools of writing have existed, handwriting is always an individual and unique expression. That's why we love even the scruffiest little scraps of parchment we can find. They represent the last traces of somebody's individuality.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ever Wondered What Paleographers Do?

  Or for that matter why they do it. Here is a really nice summary, with beautiful eye candy manuscript pics.

Sunday, August 18, 2013


  Do they make paleographers like that any more? Malcolm B. Parkes, Palaeographer Do any workers in the hurly-burly of modern academic life have the time and contemplation to do this kind of detailed analytical work any more? Or is everybody too busy filling out performance reviews and rushing out yet another conference paper? The works of the pioneering masters of paleography will never be redundant or outdated.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ferocity of Iron Gall Ink

  The subject of iron gall ink seems to provoke the most enthusiastic discussion on this blog, particularly the formulations for making it. There has been some excitable discussion here. I have mentioned its capacity for chewing into parchment in the iron gall ink section of Medieval Writing, but this posting from Johan Oosterman is a stunner, or is that a stinker, of an example of what damage the stuff can do. Self-cannibalising manuscript.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Oh for a Quill and Parchment

  I repeatedly grizzle about how those medieval manuscripts we love have lasted for hundreds of years, but our fancy newfangled computer files turn to custard in just a few. I have just upgraded the graphics and formatting of the script samples for humanistic minuscule on Medieval Writing, so that they actually bear a closer resemblance to the beautiful bits of medieval calligraphy that they represent. As computer technology steadily improves, we are getting somewhat closer to producing images that actually look like segments from medieval manuscripts.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When Did Latin Become Dead?

   It is commonly asserted that Latin was a dead language in the middle ages. Well, it wasn't. They simplified and changed the grammar, introduced a great deal of new vocabulary and used it for assorted daily purposes, especially in the church and the legal professions. However, by the 16th century it was getting decidedly wobbly on its feet, but English as a written language was far from standardised.
  The latest script sample on Medieval Writing is a small fragment recovered from a bookbinding, showing a segment from a legal plea roll of unknown origin, but on paleographical grounds it looks awfully like an English court hand of the early 16th century. These scripts can seem really difficult to read until you get your eye in, and suddenly they become easy. The fun thing about this one is the way in which Latin and English are scrambled together in the one sentence. It looks as if the scribe only knows the Latin for the standard legal terms and has lapsed into English whenever he got stumped for a Latin word. It suggests that Latin, if not exactly dead, was on life support at this stage.
  The only trouble is, English was not a fully literate language, in the sense that spelling, in particular, was horribly unstandardised. So while ever increasing numbers of printed books were being produced, written literacy seems to have taken a bit of a dive. The old scribes were probably going on about it the way grandmothers today go on about text messaging. Those newfangled printed books just mean that nobody knows how to write any more.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Medieval Digimania

  When the very first digital images from medieval manuscripts were posted on the web way back in the age of dinosaurs (late 1990s I think it was) the potential for such resources for scholars and hobbyists was apparent. Also very apparent was the massive scale of the enterprise in terms of labour and expense before anything like a useable academic resource was available. Web technology was less advanced, so images tended to be either rapid loading and crude, or very slow loading and high quality. Then there was the issue of what those who put the images up thought the users ought to be able to do with them. In many cases not much. My favourite (not) message was "You may not download this image." Yeah, OK, so how come I'm looking at it?
  When I first put up Medieval Writing around 2000, I attempted to include links to all sites with reasonable displays of digitised manuscripts. It was actually possible. Since then it has become harder and harder to keep up, and in the last few years there has been an avalanche of sites with complete digital facsimiles of such a quality as would enable various kinds of fairly detailed research.
  There seemed to be certain national characteristics in relation to the display of manuscripts on the web. German sites went for complete facsimiles with grungy interfaces. French sites went for beautiful displays of miniatures in thematic arrangements, but isolated from their texts. French provincial libraries displayed their treasures, often buried in municipal government websites, with complex and changing urls. Switzerland went in for the full bells and whistles, complete manuscripts, funky interface and open access with its splendid e-codices website. I believe a Scandinavian site from the Helsinki University Library was the first to claim its medieval manuscript images could be used copyright free, but that resource seems to have vanished. British institutions, on the whole went for selections of pages and illustrations, so that it was never possible to study a complete manuscript. And if you could, they told you not to. American libraries flaunted their translocated treasures with arty selections.
  Now the race is on to make the world's manuscript treasures available. And institutions are realising that they can allow people to make use of them, because for starters, how are you going to stop them, and for seconds, what possible harm can it do to the original? The circulation of CDs of dubious provenance sold on eBay from countries like Spain of material on the web claimed to be copyright has been followed by a crowd of scholars republishing and re-referencing material on blogs, tweets and other new media. Even the British Library now allows its digitised manuscript images to be used without copyright restriction for non-profit purposes. Now if they would only digitise a few more complete manuscripts ....
  While talk of persistent urls for specific manuscript pages has been going on in library circles for a long time, some manuscript sites are finally making use of them, allowing other users to construct databases on whatever themes they choose across various sites. But it is still all taking time. Every listing of digitised manuscripts on the web is incomplete or out of date.
  Now one Giulio Menna of the splendidly named Sexy Codicology website is plunging into the task of providing an interactive map of all libraries in Europe offering digitised manuscripts on the web. Check the progress here. Best of luck Giulio. Big job. It's an independent project and a labour of love. The guy is crazier than me.

Monday, May 27, 2013

One Small Step for Paleography

Well it's been a while since anything was done on Medieval Writing, but having corrected a couple of minor errors that were pointed out to me by assiduous users, perhaps we are getting back on track. Watch out for some new material appearing soon, hopefully.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

History and Mythology - 1066 and all that

  For a large number of years now, there has been a website entitled Secrets of the Norman Invasion. The site has grown and developed over the years as the author, Nick Austin, has developed his arguments, firstly, that the army of William the Conqueror did not actually land at Pevensey but at another site, and secondly, that the site of the Battle of Hastings is not the same as the site of Battle Abbey. Many of his arguments are quite persuasive, but there have been problems with getting the kind of historical proof that is required to convince heritage authorities and to fend off local councils which want to build roads all over the place.

  The game now appears to be getting hotter, with protesters and roadworkers facing off at what he believes is the site of the battle. You can read about it on his blog The Secrets of the Norman Invasion Blog. It has gone from historical detective work to political activism. Nick has produced a mass of material to read on the subject, should you want to get up to speed with it before joining the blockade.
  It leads me to a little philosophical rumination about what is history and what is mythology, and how the mythology is developed from history to serve various purposes. If William the Conqueror built the abbey that he had promised on a different site to that of the battle, despite his stated intention, he must have done it for a reason, but one that is lost to history. It could have involved suitability of terrain, or some political machinations involving landholding, of which there were many in the middle ages, or some shenanigans involving relations with the church, of which ditto. However, once a site of pilgrimage is established, and this is a kind of secular pilgrimage site, there are many interests in preserving the mythology. I mean, if Nick is right, the producers of commemorative crockery and teaspoons in Battle may suffer a severe economic downturn.
  To look at some other examples, Did the abbots of Cluny really believe that the remains of St James were miraculously transported to a remote spot in Spain called Compostella, or did they just think they were on to a good thing in setting up a lucrative network of pilgrimage routes? Perhaps the fact that the general pilgrimaging public fell for this ruse was considered a miracle in its own right.
  One of my favourite bits of historical mythology involves the Strasbourg Oath, as sworn by the grandsons of Charlemagne and their respective armies. It is solemnly represented as the earliest written evidence for the proto-French and Proto-German languages, based on having been written down in a Latin chronicle, the only extant copy of which is from several hundred years after the event. So how accurate is the transcription of these bits of proto-language, and how did the original chronicler acquire them? If he was there, how accurately did he hear them? If he was given an official transcript, how accurate was it given that these were non-literate languages? How accurately was it transcribed over the centuries? It all reminds you of the Sermon on the Mount scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Nevertheless, it is supposed to be a foundation charter for French and German linguistic identity.
  If you think it is important to separate historical fact from historical mythology, perhaps you need to be sitting down there on a roadworks site in Sussex. Right or wrong, if it is all dug up and tarmacked, we will never know. Mythology will win again.