Jan 28, 2022

The Text-as-Book Metaphor

Yin Liu

Quick, answer this question before overthinking it: if you could take only one book with you to a desert island, what book would it be?

Image from Pixabay

If you answered Robinson Crusoe, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or the Bible, apparently you are one of many people who would make the same choice. But wait. The question was ‘what book would it be?’ And your answer probably named a work. Let’s say you chose Joyce’s Ulysses. Which edition? The question is particularly acute for this work because the editing of Ulysses has been the subject of notorious controversy. Or, if you chose Dante’s Commedia, are you planning to read it in the original early 14th-century Italian, or in translation – and if in translation, whose? And if you chose the Bible . . . well, I won’t even start heading into the complications there.

The 1st (1719) ed. of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
I owe the distinction among work, text, and document to Peter Shillingsberg, and it is a very useful distinction because it reminds us that a text is an abstraction, and a work even more so. Only a document is a physical entity that you can take with you to a desert island. That means, if you chose Robinson Crusoe, what you will have to read on your desert island is a physical book – for example, a printed codex with your name on the flyleaf and a slight stain on the corner where it came into contact with a puddle of coffee, edited so that the spelling and font are easier on your 21st-century eyes than the typeset pages of the first edition would have been, with an introduction and notes added by an editor – or whatever your unique book of choice might be like. That is, we use the English word book to refer to a physical object, a document; but we also use it to refer to a text (e.g. the King James Bible) or a work (e.g. Dante’s Divina Commedia, in all its versions and translations). I’m going to leave consideration of the ‘work’ aside for now, because it’s even more complicated, and focus on the idea of the ‘text’ – and the way it gets conflated with the idea of a book.

Dec 22, 2021

Merry Christmas 2021

 Yin Liu

London, British Library MS Harley 2332, fol. 20v.

It's time to restart what used to be an annual tradition on this blog: the Christmas post. This year, let's look at a page from an illustrated almanac. This was a small book -- I haven't included the ruler in the cropped image, but the book would easily fit in one hand -- that included a detailed calendar, showing feast days of the Church, the Zodiac months, etc. The purpose was timekeeping (computus) and prognostication: the calendar would help you not only to figure out what day it was, but also what agricultural activities you should be engaged in, and possibly when it would be best to undergo medical procedures like bleeding. 

Sep 17, 2021

Remote Reading

Yin Liu

A student examines the 15th-century Brendan Missal, University of Saskatchewan Special Collections, 2017.

The University of Saskatchewan dairy herd. Lots of cows, not much parchment. 
When COVID-19 restrictions made most of us in Canada stay at least 2 m away from each other, shut down international travel, and compelled many academics to work from domestic spaces frequently traversed by cats and children, manuscript scholars faced, in a heightened form, a paradox that we have been grappling with ever since digital technologies gave us access to manuscript images online. On the one hand, someone like me, who lives in the middle of Canada surrounded by a vast expanse of farmland and a vast absence of medieval manuscripts, has had my teaching and research practice revolutionised by the wonderful array of manuscript images freely available on the Web, thanks to the generosity of many holding institutions and their funding sources. On the other hand, any manuscript scholar knows that staring at an image on a screen is not the same as holding a manuscript in one’s hands. Digital technology opens up some ways of approaching medieval documents, at the cost of shutting down others.

Aug 15, 2020

Medieval Codes Update: reflections on the long view

 Yin Liu

I have not posted to this website in a very long time. My thanks to the student researchers who have held the fort while I was sidetracked by other things. But it is about time I popped back into this website to explain what is going on.

Perceval and recluse
Detail from BnF MS Fr. 343, fol. 21v: a knight visits a recluse.


The Medieval Codes project continues. For four years it was generously funded by an Insight Grant from SSHRC, which enabled me to support a productive and keen team of student researchers. Many of them are still connected to the project as volunteers, and I consult some of them from time to time, even if I no longer have funds to pay them. Not only have they contributed content to this website, they have, much more, added project assets that you can’t see, and amassed a large pile of material that will keep me occupied for years to come. Their interests have also led me to areas I would not have ventured into otherwise, sometimes areas I didn’t know existed. I am immensely grateful to them all.

After the SSHRC grant ended and I was no longer bogged down by grant administration, I continued to be bogged down by other forms of administration. So work on this project has proceeded very slowly. And then, in March 2020,  community transmission of COVID-19 was confirmed in Canada, where I live.

Jan 11, 2020

Oak Gall Ink Explained

Alex Margarit

In my study of the Ripley Scrolls and trying to understand how medieval documents were made,
I created a large batch of iron gall ink. Iron gall ink is made from the tannins found in oak galls and iron salts. The recipe for iron gall ink differs depending on who writes it, but the general idea remains that it is a simple ink made from a vegetable dye and a mordant. One thing I discovered about oak galls, aside from the way they grow on trees, is that they differ based on the region they come from. In the image below are Canadian oak galls (top) and Eurasian oak galls (below):

Fig. 1: Canadian oak galls (above) and Eurasian oak galls (below). All images (c) Alex Margarit.