Sunday, August 23, 2015

Flying Solo on the Word Wild Web

  I have had a website on medieval paleography and written culture up and running for around 15 years now, with my email contact on it. This blog has been running for a few years. A Flickr site has been up for a couple of years I guess, initially just for my personal use to help me organise and put into usable digital form a large and messy collection of photographs, but now with some embryonic developing projects. I also tweet in order to keep in touch with people and keep up to date with things. They all provide channels of communication.
  Periodically I get little waves of communication through email, blog comments or tweets, some of which seem slightly peculiar. I guess when you get out of the institutional environment where the protocols of communication and the hierarchies of expertise are carefully mapped, you get different perspective on how people perceive knowledge and expertise. As the various modes of internet communication have developed, the nature of the chains of communication has changed.
  In the early days a common request was from schoolkids wanting answers to very simple questions, or suggestions on subjects for their projects. When I hinted that I thought the idea of their school exercise was to look things up for themselves, I sometimes got told that the teachers had told them to get on the internet and ask somebody. Teachers have got a lot more savvy about the use of the internet since then and I haven't had one of those for a long time.

  I do remember that one of these ran along the lines of "I have to do a project on saints. Do you know any good ones?" Erm. The randomly selected one above is from St Mary Castlegate in York.

  Another common communication from the early days involved suggestions for external links for my website, often to very generalised link pages like or Wikipedia or even student assignments or the little hobby pages of individuals pasted together out of scraps from other parts of the internet. With the vast amount of valuable and authoritative information now being loaded on to the internet by all manner of organisations and institutions, these suggestions tend to get drowned in the flood. Replying to such suggestions involved care and discretion.
  Wikipedia has come a long way since then, even if it still has a lot further to go. One strange discussion got entangled with medieval nomina sacra abbreviations and the Holy Trinity. I know a bit about the first but get a bit lost in the haze with the intricacies of the second, but I remember having to try to explain, as tactfully as possible, that writing an article for Wikipedia then citing it yourself isn't the most totally convincing mode of academic argument, especially back in those days when conflicting views on Wikipedia dissolved into all in cyberbrawls.

  Symbolic representations in Thornhill church, Yorkshire.

  A facet which continues to this day is the belief that anyone publishing on the web is  a recognised world expert, and furthermore, in a vast array of fields. I have been asked questions on obscure aspects of paleography, textual history and analysis, iconographic representation, authenticity, stuff dug up by metal detectorists, medieval law, medicine and heraldry. Heraldry! I wish the College of Arms would put up a decent website that at least explains some of the concepts of heraldry and why no single individual, let alone one who has never got very deeply into the subject, knows the coats of arms of everyone who ever bore one from the dawn of the concept to the days of somebody's grandfather's boarding school. I've been sent pictures of arms on things from seals to teaspoons to 19th century boilerplates. 

  All Saints North Street, York. Treasure house of glass.

  Then there is the business of reading the legends on seals. Fortunately most of them just say SIGILLUM FREDDI MERCURI or some such, but that always seems to be disappointing to the inquirer. They think they contain coded information. I did manage to partially untangle a trickily organised inscription in old French on a gold ring once (Yay.) but the finder was taking it to the British Museum anyway and I'm sure they did a much better job.
  The queries about reading old stuff can be diverse and intriguing. I love the letters from folks who have been trying to decipher something for ten years but think I should knock it off for them over the weekend, with my vast knowledge of every script in use before about 1900 and every language known to man. Sometimes it's only something they've bought on eBay or in an antique shop and you're not sure why they want to know anyway. Other times it's some family thing that they suspect contains an amazing privilege, or links to great people or events, or perhaps the ownership of a suppressed abbey reclaimed by the crown and granted to a family ancestor. 
  The latter are sometimes very secretive. They want to show you something of their Amazing Document, but they don't actually want you to know what is in it, in case you gazump them and go claim their abbey or something. So they send a picture of a little corner of it, often chopped off without whole words being displayed and you can't see the whole alphabet or how the letters go together. When you say you think it looks 15th century or whatever, but you really don't have enough information to tell them much else, they think you're holding out on them.

  Any offers? Glastonbury.

  There have been some interesting documents cross my tracks this way. Acquittances from the Hundred Years War. A bit of marginalia in a different script to the main text by someone doing a transcription. I got the letters out but didn't know what it meant. One of his academic pals recognised the text when they were having a night at the pub. Nice to participate in an academic pub discussion in Glasgow from this end of the world. A very creepy Reformation era clerical confession found by somebody scrunched up in a hole in a beam in their ancient house. I think I found it more interesting than they did when I ascertained it wasn't about the house.
  Occasionally I have had images sent of things that have already been transcribed and published. When I've asked why they are reinventing the wheel they have replied that they believe something is incorrect, omitted, wrongly interpreted, but they can't actually read the thing themselves. Three mysteries here. Why would you set off on a project that you don't have the skills to carry out? Why would you think a previous transcription or interpretation is wrong if you can't read the original? Why would you contact a random unknown person on the internet to aid your cause? Demur politely on those. Not my specific area of interest.
  Absolutely on the rejection list are people who want their manuscript treasures valued. I had to put a specific disclaimer on the Medieval Writing website about that one. No way, no bloody way! Rather more strange are the people who want to know what I paid for my little medieval scraps. I even had somebody once demanding to buy one. Perhaps they think I'm running a clandestine manuscript scraps business on the side.

  Not for sale. Not even the strange Spanish ones with curly wurly writing that I can't read and mysterious notary's marks.

  There are people who send pictures of their treasures wanting them identified in some way, who then get slightly miffed if you don't give them the answer they were looking for. An intriguing oddity is the desire for something to be older than it is, even if it is old and interesting already. Then they want to claim they have the oldest whateveritis in the universe. Or they have read somewhere that a certain script, notation, style first appears in the xth century, so theirs has to be at least that old. I tend to go on a simple assessment that if it swims, quacks and waddles it's probably a duck, not a pterodactyl. But feel free to ask somebody else. Nope. They want to convince me. They don't understand that I really don't care.

  An old German duck. Mine. From the same scrap of codex as somebody else's pterodactyl.

  The type of query that baffles me particularly is when somebody wants me to give a one line, definitive answer to something that is the subject of academic debate. If I refer them to some reading, they say no, they want to know what I think. Why? Am I some kind of international umpire? Why do they think I'm qualified to speak on these diverse debates? The weirdest ones come from people who are interested in (Dare I mention it?) the Voynich Manuscript. Quiet now. I have been informed that the VM was written by a Hungarian mystic, that it is in old Dutch, that its mysteries can be solved through the study of late antique beekeeping. VM assertions and queries seem to travel in waves. I once got so sick of them that I wrote a blog post asserting that it was written by Leonard of Quirm (a Terry Pratchett character) and was so screwed up because it had been altered by travelling through the space-time continuum from Discworld. I then got an email from a person who had been trying, valiantly and apparently fruitlessly, to maintain a sensible and sane website on the VM saying that because of me he had had to put up a posting explaining to people the meaning of the word "parody". 

  One of the interesting aspects of having an open, non-institutional web presence is that you can get engaged in intriguing cross-disciplinary discussions. Legal contracts in the digital age or modern urban linguistics or medical science can have roots in the medieval past and there are experts in suchlike fields who are interested to explore them. It is surprising that academics out of their field can be as naive about methods of investigation as members of the general public. They can also be just as inclined to want you to do their basic searching for them. "Do you know of images of ... from medieval manuscripts?" Try the British Library images or Gallica for starters. Ten minutes later, when they couldn't possibly have exhausted those, "Aren't there any others?" Try Sexy Codicology. You can find them all there. Nevertheless this does open up interdisciplinary communication, and may even engender some mutual respect between workers in different areas. The disciplinary boundaries are very hard to breach in the seminar room or academic journal, where walls are built for protection against wolves.
  The madly enthusiastic hobbyists can also generate some great discussion, even if the protagonists get a bit carried away with their obsessions sometimes. I have had a swag of correspondence, by email and blog comment, on the subject of formulations for medieval ink. One modern scribe even wanted to send me a pot of his brew and had to be firmly dissuaded because of what customs and security might make of a vial of nasty, toxic brown stuff in the post. The longest and most enthusiastic blog comments were on this subject, with folks posting their favourite recipes and chemists and paleographers locked in mortal combat.
  The opportunity for such freewheeling discussion has been limited by the curse of blog comment advertising spam. It does seem that blog hosts have thrown in the towel on ridding the airwaves of this noxious menace. I can't even see what point it has for the spammers as I don't see how they can get to a target audience by this means. I guess the open invitation discussions just have to migrate to other internet forums.
  I hope this hasn't read like a long whinge or just a series of funny shaggy dog stories, because there is a point here about engagement outside the academic community. When I first started with this stuff, the university mob were more than disinterested. They were determined that they were not going to engage in this nonsense outside the limits of their traditional academic debating forums. A younger generation of academics is changing the way these things operate and using all the digital tools at their command. However, it would be a shame if this was just used to build fenced academic communities in cyberspace. Engaging with folks outside the ivory tower means understanding the interests, skills and aspirations of those who are not members of a club whose rules have been drummed into all its members.
  Personally, I think all academics should learn or be taught how to write outside their disciplinary environment. Some do. Some don't. Some won't. You can learn at least as much as you teach.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dianne, I enjoyed your post very much. I can't imagine having all that "interesting" correspondence! Having a sense of humor must be critical. Thanks for your blog, but mostly for your Twitter account. That's where I first encountered you.
---sue hawkins