Paleography Class & Online Databases that Catalog Manuscripts



This morning it started raining on my walk over to Senate House. Like a good Oklahoman, I had bought an umbrella, but did not have it with me. Very light rain though, and I was actually glad to be a little damp since the classrooms were very hot. (Its 26 degree centigrade right now, but I have no idea what that translates to in Fahrenheit. I just know, its cooled off quite a bit this evening.)

Paleography Class

The first class was an introduction to paleography. Elizabeth Danbury is a really lively speaker. (Really. She's just a riot.) After zipping through a bibliography of all the books on the subject that she thinks are worth owning, she proceeded to run through all the various forms of calligraphy that one might encounter in English texts. (Including one that is amusingly called, "Bastard Script." I took notes of the various works that might be of interest to the calligraphers of my acquaintance, and all the ones that might be reasonably useful to myself.

Medieval Carbon Copies

The photo at the top of the page is a 12th century contract that was the medieval equivalent of a carbon copy form. The text would be copied exactly the same at the top and bottom of a page, with lettering of some sort written very large in the middle. The sheet would be cut in half across the middle of the large letters, so that only the two originals would match the letters up exactly. It was a way of trying to prevent forgery and fraud.

Where are the Missing Letters?

She used this manuscript as an example of Latin abbreviation. The text at the top reads:

"Notum sit ominibus quod ego"

The dash over the U in "notu" indicates that there's a letter missing after the vowel. (It's that much harder to make an M than it is to make a dash?) "Sit" is completely spelled out, but "omib" has a gob of letters missing. Obviously the squiggle over the I isn't a dot, it's to notify you that the scribe left out an N before the vowel. And the thing that looks like a semi-colon is actually an abbreviation for US. It continues on this way with abbreviations in almost every word.

Have I mentioned how happy I am that my thesis research is on a manuscript written in book-hand, which doesn't make use of abbreviations like this? Latin documents like this example were written by specialists who assumed that only other specialists would read them. Books for normal people (well as normal as anyone could be who could read in the 12th century) were written in a more readable way.

Electronic Databases that Deal with Medieval Manuscripts

The afternoon class was SO hot that I caught several people nodding off. The instructor, Mura Ghosh, is the digital librarian in the Senate House Library. (It specializes in Manuscript Studies.) She gave us an extensive list of databases and went over them but really the most important piece of information I took away was that there is a site called Humbul that lists all the other databases that are worth anything, and gives a description of what's in them. If one was looking for something in particular, one could root around in Humbul to find a database that would have it. The url is:

The Senate House Library & Vellum Samples

I took a tour of the Senate House Library after the classes were over. Very cool. They have a sample book of different kinds of vellum and parchment so that you can see what different finishes of calf, sheep, and goat look like. I commented that that was very useful, and the manuscript conservationist next to me said, "Rubbish." She says that you can sometimes tell them apart by look and feel, but that even experts in the field are fooled sometimes. She says the only way to really know is to snip a piece and send it to the lab for chemical analysis.

Book of Margery Kempe & a New Medieval Cookie Recipe

I met someone who is doing his dissertation on the Book of Margery Kempe, (14th century autobiography of a somewhat annoying woman who wanted to be declared a saint after her death.) He didn't know that there is a recipe written on the inside cover of the book. It was presumably put there when the monks at the abbey loaned it out to some noble woman or other. The PhD student promised faithfully to look for me, and to email me the recipe. (For my part, I'm supposed to email him the reference to the article where I saw it mentioned.)

Moving Everything I Brought to England for the 4th Day in a Row

  • Friday I packed all my things.
  • Saturday I toted them around an airport.
  • Sunday I lugged it all to the tube station and then to the dorm.
  • Today, they made me move rooms.

I tried to be gracious about it. I was unsuccessful-- but I did try. At least the new room had a non-smoker in it this past semester, so it smells much better. It overlooks a little courtyard that's in the center of Connaught Hall.

Italian Men & Morris Dancing

So one of the conservationists in the class was distressed to learn that I didn't have anyone to go around with. She decided very firmly that I should make friends with the two Italians, because, "they look fun."

I'm obviously just in a different zone, I was thinking it would be nice to go to dinner with the elderly woman who does manuscript repairs at Canterbury Cathedral. She was telling me about all the toys the British Library has that she sometimes gets to play with. (Like a machine that makes and prints archival boxes the exact size you need for a particular book.)   Or perhaps I'll go to the free Morris Dance lessons at the Cecil Sharp house. Ah well, we all have our own kind of "fun" I suppose.

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