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.