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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.

And on that note, here's a thematically relevant, but ultimately meaningless quiz...

Uncial
Uncial- You are simple and easily understood, but
tend to have many different faces.


What Calligraphy Hand Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

* 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.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
retsuko
May. 1st, 2004 04:22 pm (UTC)
Insular Majuscule
Insular Majuscule- You are spiritual and well
rounded. People look to you for advice, but
sometimes find you difficult to understand.


What Calligraphy Hand Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

This is a fascinating topic--I had always wondered about this, looking at reproductions of ancient art works. Neat.
retsuko
May. 1st, 2004 04:23 pm (UTC)
I mean, your topic is fascinating. The quiz is just a little bit of icing on the cake. ^-^;;
owlfish
May. 1st, 2004 06:58 pm (UTC)
I'm a medievalist 'cause I like looking at pretty things!
pittenweem
May. 1st, 2004 04:31 pm (UTC)
Insular Majuscule
Insular Majuscule- You are spiritual and well
rounded. People look to you for advice, but
sometimes find you difficult to understand.


What Calligraphy Hand Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla
juniperus
May. 1st, 2004 05:48 pm (UTC)
The usefulness of paleography can't be emphasized enough - I used it repeatedly when I was still hand-processing all registration forms. Amazing what passes for handwriting these days...;)
owlfish
May. 1st, 2004 06:29 pm (UTC)
I was wondering about that - how many people still send in their registrations by mail? Hopefully most of them are using the automated system.
juniperus
May. 3rd, 2004 06:55 am (UTC)
I was processing ALL pre-online registration.

It was ugliness. Sheer ugliness.

Now, however, it all goes through another office - they have the software and e-commerce thumbs-up from the U. lawyers. This year has been better for the online than last (the first year) and I expect in coming years it will have most of the registrations. There are those who are nervous about online transactions, and some who have called and admitted they don't have a regular internet connection...for those the fax, and increasingly less so the post, are the main routes.
owlfish
May. 3rd, 2004 10:45 am (UTC)
At least you became good at reading "handwriting"! It's some good to get out of tedious endless paperwork.

Not being much of a fax user myself, it hadn't occured to me that faxes might be more common than the post for sending in registrations. Of course, if I were more of a fax user, perhaps today's adventures in trying to get a fax wouldn't have happened. Who knows.
piratehead
May. 1st, 2004 06:26 pm (UTC)
Not the first time I've been called a bastard
Batarde
Batarde- You are bold and forward, but some people
consider you a bit twisted.


What Calligraphy Hand Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Personally, I hope to get by with as little paleography as possible. I don't have nearly the sort of procedural patience required to edit long texts anyway. However, I look forward to the possibility of producing needed translations.
owlfish
May. 1st, 2004 06:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Not the first time I've been called a bastard
I like the fun of deciphering paleography, but I figure if I only have time to learn one skill set while at Toronto, it has to be Latin - the Centre's just too well known for it, and there are other ways and means of picking up paleography. Anyways, in the field, I'm unlikely to need to know very many hands. I can learn to read the ones I need to know well, and the rest - well, there are always classes if I'm eventually so inclined.

I'm looking forward to someday being able to extensively cite translations and editions made by my friends!
hilly02
May. 2nd, 2004 09:10 am (UTC)
I was lucky enough to get a chance to take "Palaeography of Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts) during my MA at Manchester. I remember, for the first month, all the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were a giant blur of confusing letter-forms. Was it an "r" or an "s"? Was it a 'wynn' (favorite letter o' mine) or a "p" or a "thorn"? I remember sitting for hours in class, stumbling through passage after passage, reading aloud. After a few weeks, the letters began to arrange themselves and make sense. Words began to form. It was like figuring out a puzzle and I was fascinated with it. I think all graduate students should take a course in Palaeography, if given the chance.

Palaeography is one of my favorite aspects of Anglo-Saxon Studies (and Medieval Studies in general). I desperately want to pass the MA exam, not so much as to get it over with (of course I do), but to be able to have the prereq. to take the Latin Palaeography course the Centre offers in the Fall!

Yes, I am a Palaeography nut. Ascenders, descenders, uncial and miniscule. Love it!

maxineofarc
May. 3rd, 2004 10:17 am (UTC)
Speaking of languages...
Do you happen to know where I might be able to find a general pronunciation guide to medieval French? I've decided on something of a whim to compete in the local Baronial Troubador competition. Despite the fact that I've never been to a local event and the Baron wouldn't know me from Adam. Or maybe Eve.
owlfish
May. 4th, 2004 07:02 am (UTC)
Re: Speaking of languages...
The short answer: No, no idea.

The long answer: If you don't need it for this weekend, I'm going to be surrounded by more medievalists than you can shake a stick at this weekend, and some of them specialize in medieval French. I would be happy to ask around for a good guide.
maxineofarc
May. 5th, 2004 06:54 am (UTC)
Re: Speaking of languages...
Well, I definitely don't need it this weekend, but I'm sure you'll have other priorities. :)
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )