May 1st, 2004

Fishy Circumstances

Primary Sources

One of the great joys of being a medievalist is the problem-solving abilities it entails. No matter what country you come from, if you want to read what medievals wrote, you must learn a new language. Middle English is easy enough for a modern English speaker to learn since it has a great deal in common with what we still speak today, but ultimately, it has its own ideosyncracies and vocabulary, and learning to read it is an acquired skill. I spend so much time learning to read Latin because I want know to what people from the time period I study said in their own words.

Learning to read the language, however, is not enough. Medievalists who desire to work with primary sources directly must also learn to read all the handwriting variants which were used in their period. Paleography, the art of reading old forms of writing, is a puzzle-solving challenge in its own right. Most medieval writings were written in a fairly internally-consistant form of calligraphy, but handwriting possesses just enough ambiguity that plenty of readings of a given ambiguously-formed word are still contested. *

There are plenty of other manuscript-related skills which are very useful to a medievalist, depending on what that medievalist studies: diplomatics, codicology, and other courses which the Centre for Medieval Studies offers. The Centre, you see, is particularly focused on creating scholars who will be able to go out and produce publishable editions of these crytically written and fairly inaccessible old texts. Modern editions of medieval texts are crucial to expanding our collective knowledge of the middle ages. Editions enable other scholars to be able to use a text as part of a broader study by making it widely available and more accessible.

Neither is an edition a translation, although editions often enable translations to be subsequently made by other people. An edition is comprised of the original text, transcribed into modern print, often with commentary and background information, but inevitably including notes as to the points in the text were different manuscripts of the same text differ from each other - and sometimes multiple manuscripts can differ in very substantial ways, one from another, since the copyists who copied out each document were, after all, human.

When I was trying to decide on a dissertation topic, I knew I only had four years of funding in which to complete my topic. Much as travelling to archives was appealing, it seemed more probable that I could finish my dissertation about on time if I didn't have to travel at all. Thus it is that I am doing my dissertation entirely from other peoples' editions of the primary works on which I rely. I haven't had to take paleography since my MA year in York, but I still need Latin in order to read the editions in the first place. (Since I study intellectuals, most of my primary sources are in Latin.) If whoever made these editions made a textual error, then, like the medieval copiers of copies, I too shall pass that error on through my research.

Some people chose to do a degree like medieval studies in order to travel the world, or at least that subsection of the world where there was a Middle Ages. I'm saving that travel, waiting to learn more paleography, and waiting in general to acquire more primary source skills for after my current degree. There's always more to learn. These are all important skills and experiences for a medievalist, but they aren't ones which my current project requires. Perhaps in another year I'll be puzzling out the hands of medieval writers in an archive somewhere. For now, it'll keep.

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* C. tells me this would be a more interesting post if I gave my audience concrete examples of things like contested interpretations of medieval handwriting. The example I had in mind when I wrote the post was of something from Dante, but I can't find the reference offhand. You'll just have to imagine it for now, or supply your own examples.