Sep 7, 2016

Seeing the Forest

A frosty web, courtesy of a spider in my back yard. Image: Yin Liu.

The year 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web. There has been, understandably, a great deal of reflection on the significance of this invention, which is generally accepted to have come into existence when Tim Berners-Lee, a software engineer at CERN, the physics research facility in Switzerland, proposed a hypertext solution for information management there. The original proposal is available on the Web, and it’s quite readable: ‘Vague but exciting,’ in the words of Mike Sendall. I’d like my grant adjudicators to say that about my research.

Apr 21, 2016


It's very difficult to do research on line-fillers in medieval manuscripts. When we searched for 'line filler' on the Web, all we got were advertisements for wrinkle creams. (Try it yourself.) But a line filler, for a manuscript scholar, is a decorative element that continues a line of text to the right margin:

University of Saskatchewan MS Ege 10 (detail)
Line-fillers in medieval manuscripts have a couple of functions. One of these purposes is to create complete lines that reach to margins to create an appearance of balance on the page. Another purpose of the line-fillers was to act as a mnemonic device, to help differentiate pages and mark passages. Christopher de Hamel notes that 'People in the Middle Ages loved to see order and patterns in things, and readers of manuscripts were probably more visual than we are' (de Hamel 2001, p. 28).

Dec 21, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015

Luttrell Psalter, fol. 12r
It's been a very long time since we posted to this blog, and I apologise. Work on the Medieval Codes project is still rolling along, but a lot of it is being done by the student researchers on the team, while the lead investigator (that's me) deals with the shock of life (or sublife) after returning from sabbatical leave. We hope to have lots of good stuff coming in the new year. In the meantime, here's our annual Christmas post.

This time we went to an old friend, the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library MS Additional 42130). If you have looked at Courtney Tuck's post on the illustrations in this marvellous manuscript, you know that there is no lack of weirdness and wonderfulness in its margins. Here's an example: on fol. 12r, opposite calendar entries listing saints' days for the month of December, is this strange grotesque, which seems to be a scowly winged person with antlers. And they are illuminated antlers, at that. An angel crossed with a reindeer? Has our artist had too much anachronistic Christmas cheer? I don't know what to make of it either.

Let us learn to live with bafflement, and enjoy the holidays. Merry Christmas from fourteenth-century England.

Yin Liu

Aug 19, 2015

Using Technology

The typographically attentive reader will notice that the title of this post italicises the word technology, and thus that the phrase does not refer to using technology itself, but to using the word technology. A word that refers to itself should be distinguished from a word that refers to a concept (in philosophy, this is called the use-mention distinction), and the convention in print has been to put a word that refers to itself in italics or quotation marks: e.g. technology or ‘technology’. This convention is, itself, a result of technological innovation, and specifically of print technology. Italics were originally separate typefaces, but eventually were mixed in with roman fonts for various purposes: emphasis or variety, for example. I don’t know when italics were first used to indicate words that refer to themselves, but certainly this convention was not common before the 1700s, perhaps not before the 1800s.

Answere of Master Isaac Casaubon to the epistle of the most reuerend Cardinall Peron (William Aspley, 1612)

For example, here is the first use of the word technology recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary; it is from the English version of Isaac Casaubon’s Answere of Master Isaac Casaubon to the epistle of the most reuerend Cardinall Peron. This whole section has been printed in an italic font, and the word technology has not been made distinct in any way, although the proper name ‘Gregorie Nazianzen’ has been set in roman type. And, although we might find a certain charm in the idea of converting ‘Theologie into technology’, what Casaubon meant by technology was not something like an Electric Monk, but ‘learned, or artificiall discourse’ – the original meaning of the word. Thus technology originally meant ‘technical language’, then ‘the study of technical knowledge and skills’. It was not until the early 1800s that technology came to mean (in the words of the OED, s.v. technology sense 4b) ‘the mechanical arts and applied sciences collectively’. As late as 1934, Lewis Mumford’s classic study in the history of technology did not use the word technology in its title but an alternate term: Technics and Civilization.

Aug 7, 2015

Medieval Letters episode 2

More fascinating medieval letters, from Medieval Codes researcher Megan Dase:

Letter #3

 “Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land
comes to. He will not believe a fool.”- King Lear 1. 4. 660.

12th-century England

“Miles earl of Hereford to all his friends, French and English, of England and of Wales, greeting. You are to know that this Folebarba is my jester and my man. So I entreat all my friends that they look after him, lest harm happen to him. And if anyone does him good for love of me, I will know how to thank him.”

A 15th-century jester. Image: (c) The Broadside Parishes.
What we have here is a certificate that Folebarba (Funnybeard) the jester might have carried on his person when he was parted from his master. It is also imaginable that the earl of Hereford wanted to ensure Folebarba’s comfort and safety at their mutual place of destination where the jester was simply arriving before the earl. Whatever the context, this delightful note reveals how a slip of parchment could act as a device authenticating or vouching for the good character of its bearer.

In fact, it was common for vagrants and travelers to tote around “testimonies of trustworthiness” in the case their integrity came under scrutiny. In 1248, five men visiting Essex and acquitted of horse theft in the local courts were forbidden to return to the county unless they brought back with them “their testimonial of trustworthiness (warrantum suum de fidelitate).” In 1261, an apprehended horse thief, Robert de Parys of Battle, was released by the authorities on the condition he would fetch a testimonial of trustworthiness to present before the courts … but Robert never returned. Apparently he wasn’t very trustworthy.