Dec 18, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

London, British Library MS Additional 18850, fol. 65r. Image: British Library.

Well, it's time for our annual Christmas post, and since some of us have been enjoying the art in the Bedford Hours, here's a Nativity scene from that manuscript: London, British Library MS Additional 18850, fol. 65r. (Click on the image to go to the British Library digital facsimile, where you can zoom in for more detail.) There's a little bit of text (Latin in the centre, and at the bottom two lines in French), but it's hard to escape the feeling that you're not really meant to read this page, but to look at it. The main picture shows Joseph and Mary adoring the Christ Child, who seems to have been moved out of the manger to the right and placed in a canopied bed that is surely quite incongruous for a stable -- not to mention the embroidered cushion on which Mary is kneeling, or the fine mantle she is wearing. Joseph, by contrast, is more plainly clad, although the accessory on his right arm shows either that a medieval man could carry a purse and get away with it, or that husbands have been stuck awkwardly holding their wives' purses since at least the early fifteenth century. We also have an obligatory pair of farm animals (the ox and ass of tradition) in the foreground. Looking over the fence are some spectators, probably the shepherds, and behind them a winter scene, complete with a deer cavorting through the leafless trees and a bear rambling through the snow, while God the Father shines down benevolently on all.

Around the main picture are an elaborate decorated border and some smaller pictures of scenes from the Christmas story: for example, that's probably another shepherd in the top left corner, while the two corner scenes below hint ominously at the Massacre of the Innocents. And if you can figure out why there are rabbits at the bottom of the page, and what they are doing, and what possible relevance they have to anything else, you probably deserve a prize, or you're overthinking it. Go eat a large roasted bird. Merry Christmas from fifteenth-century England.

Yin Liu

Dec 8, 2014

Heraldry as code

London, British Library MS Harley 3479 (the Harley Froissart), fol. 83v, detail. Image: British Library.

This miniature from the Harley Froissart, a sumptious manuscript made c 1470-1472 in Bruges, shows European forces attacking a walled town in North Africa: la forte ville dauffrique en barbarie, says the rubricated caption, ‘the strong town of Affricque in Barbary’. Among the many items of interest in this image are the flags carried by the attackers, camped out around the town. The artist has taken care to depict the arms of various European leaders on these flags: easily recognisable, for example, are the royal arms of France, azure, three fleur-de-lys or, on the third square flag from the left. Although this project deals mostly with medieval textual codes – what we usually think of as ‘writing’ – medieval Europe also had another highly developed non-linguistic semiotic code, that of heraldry, which often intersected with the world of books.

Nov 19, 2014

Information retrieval strategies

London, British Library MS Royal, fol. 1v. Image: British Library.
The image here is a table of signa, indexing symbols invented by Ralph of Diceto in the 1100s for his historical works, the Abbreviationes chronicorum and Imagines historiarum. They enable the reader to search for points in the text that deal with various topics or historical persons, such as kings of England and dukes of Normandy (a crown next to a sword), or conflicts within the royal family (two hands pulling a crown in different directions).

Information retrieval is one of the major industries of our digital world. It is both an academic field of study and a set of technologies and techniques. We often think of it, therefore, as something that we do with machines, or that machines do for us. If I want to find, say, a definition of ‘information retrieval’, I type the term into everyone’s favourite search engine and discover that the first hit is (no surprise) a Wikipedia article, followed by a couple of online textbooks and a link to an academic journal devoted to the subject. Here’s how one of the textbooks (Manning, Raghavan, and Schütze 2008) defines information retrieval:

    Information retrieval (IR) is finding material (usually documents) of an unstructured nature (usually text) that satisfies an information need from within large collections (usually stored on computers).

three main strategies for finding a particular item of textual information
I like the repetition of ‘usually’ in that definition because it reminds us that although we usually think of information retrieval as a computing activity, searching for stuff on Google is only one form – and generally not the most effective – of information retrieval.

How did information retrieval work in the Middle Ages? We can posit three main strategies for finding a particular item of textual information.

Nov 7, 2014

Who Glossed the Canterbury Tales?

Portrait of the Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere MS
In the last post, we discussed how the Latin annotations present in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in various manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales allowed readers the potential for multiple different readings. Many scholars have suggested that Chaucer himself may have been responsible for adding the glosses, and thus also providing these layers of meaning. If this is true, the depiction of the Wife of Bath that most undergraduate students encounter may be very different from the one Chaucer had intended. Chaucer may have viewed the Wife of Bath as more than a bold and independent woman who, perhaps rightfully, refuses to be subservient to her husband. He may instead have intended to create a less flattering picture of the Wife of Bath. Thus, for those seeking authorial intention in the Canterbury Tales, the question of “who wrote the Latin glosses” can become quite important.

Oct 27, 2014

Latin Glosses to Chaucer's Tales

San Marino, Huntington Library MS EL 26 C 9 (Ellesmere Chaucer), fol. 63v

Most people interested in a medieval work will turn to a modern edition in order to read a text. Modern typefaces are easier for most modern folks to read than medieval scripts. Explanations provided by editors of these editions can prove invaluable for attempting to understand parts of the work that use archaic vocabulary or refer to practices or events no longer typically in use. Unfortunately, many of these editions relegate marginal annotations found in the manuscript to footnotes, endnotes, or appendixes – if they are included at all.

Sep 13, 2014

User-friendly devices and device-friendly users

This 2000 sketch from the Norwegian television program Øystein og jeg has been a classic since it was posted on YouTube. One reason we (including medievalists) like it is, probably, that it reminds us that information and communication technologies we take for granted today – such as the codex – were once ‘new media’. In other words, reading a book is not learned naturally, like learning language; people have to be trained to use technology.

Aug 21, 2014

Books and bones

I’ve already written about the survival of the St Cuthbert Gospel (London, British Library MS Additional 89000), an eighth-century copy of the Latin gospel of John with its original binding, preserved in excellent condition because it was kept in the coffin of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne for centuries and afterwards treated as a relic. But the coffin and its history are at least as interesting as the book itself.

London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 83r. Image: British Library.
[Image: London, British Library MS Yates Thompson 26, fol. 83r, 12th century. This miniature, illustrating Bede’s prose life of St Cuthbert, shows Cuthbert’s arm emerging from his coffin to touch and heal a paralysed man.]

Take the activities of Alfred Westou, an eleventh-century sacristan of the church in Durham. The monastic community of Lindisfarne had relocated to Durham in 995, bringing with them the coffin of their beloved saint, Cuthbert, and the reputedly incorrupt body inside.

Aug 5, 2014

Asterisks in the Middle Ages

Astérix and Obélix. Image: the Indomitable Blog.
One of the jokes of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Astérix comics is that the names of the two main characters, Astérix and Obélix, are typographic puns: the asterisk and obelus (also obelisk, thus a double pun referring both to the punctuation mark and to the menhirs that Obélix carries around) were used since Aristarchus of Samothrace edited Homer in the 2nd century BC. The origins and early use of both punctuation marks are described in a chapter of Keith Houston’s cheerfully readable Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (2013), practically the only reasonably informative book in English about the history of punctuation since Malcolm Parkes’s more scholarly Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993). For more about the obelus (which became the modern typographic dagger), read Houston’s book. Here I will focus on the asterisk.

Jul 25, 2014

Augmenting human intellect

Medieval mouse, Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 24v
Engelbart's mouse, 1963

That’s the title of one of the foundational essays in the history of computing: Douglas Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework (1962). Engelbart is mostly known today as the inventor of the computer mouse, but this device was only one component of a much more radical, pioneering vision for using computers as tools to enable human beings to perform complex tasks – not just as giant calculators, which was what computers were being used as in the 1960s, but as partners with human beings in a symbiotic relationship between people and machines.

Jun 30, 2014

Users and readers

Johannes Sambucus, Emblemata (1564), p. 62. Image: Glasgow University Library.
The language we use to describe how we interact with various forms of information technology betrays the distinctions we make between these forms. To a print publisher, I am a reader; to a software company, I am a user. That is, we read books, but we use digital devices. This distinction, however, depends both on a very narrow sense of read and a somewhat artificial distinction between reading and use, and should be challenged.

Jun 21, 2014

Why the Digital needs the Humanities

University of Saskatchewan MS Ege 15 (verso): the Beauvais Missal
To my knowledge, I have made people cry only twice by talking about medieval studies. (I am not counting students upset about their grades, which is a different story, or colleagues losing their minds with boredom at the back of the room during conferences.) Both times, I was speaking about the University of Saskatchewan’s box of medieval manuscript leaves from the Ege collection, and trying to explain why we should still be interested in pages ripped out of books made hundreds of years ago, even if most people can no longer read them and they are no longer used for the purposes for which they were intended. The first talk was to a mixed group of academics, students, and members of the general public, at the University of Saskatchewan in 2005; the second was to an audience of art librarians and archivists at a conference in Banff, Alberta, in 2006. Both times, people came up to me afterwards and confessed that they had been moved to tears – not by my eloquence, alas, but rather by the very idea that human skill and dedication could produce objects (that is, medieval liturgical and biblical manuscripts) of such beauty and meaning, even when most modern readers could not really comprehend the full scope of their meaning.

Jun 6, 2014

The Winchester Malory

British Library MS Additional 59678, fol. 35r (detail)

The story of King Arthur and his noble knights is one of the most beloved medieval legends. Arthurian tales abound, but one of the most familiar English versions is Le Morte Darthur, written by an imprisoned English knight, Sir Thomas Malory, in the second half of the 15th century. Malory’s Le Morte Darthur is taken from a variety of sources in French and English, and is known to scholars today via two sources: a text printed by William Caxton in 1485, and British Library Additional MS 59678 (known more commonly as the Winchester Manuscript or the Winchester Malory), which was wholly unknown until a series of fortunate events brought it sharply into scholarly focus in 1934. 

May 22, 2014

The significance of the page

The layouts of a medieval manuscript’s individual pages expose valuable information about the manuscript, and therefore about texts. Some scholars are working ‘to reconstitute the page of the scribal manuscript as an authentic object in its own right. . . . [I]t is not a mere transparency through which the author’s “original” is to be viewed but rather an artifact of independent visual interest’ (Butterfield 49). Such scholars are trying to vouch for the worth of everything on any given manuscript page, because all added notes beyond the original text also reveal important information: ‘Every decision of layout—[including added glosses]—not only reflects the assumptions and cultural habits of medieval readers but also forms assumptions and habits that govern the way in which the text is received’ (Butterfield 49-50).

British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.i, fol. 13r, detail (opening of Psalm 3)

Apr 23, 2014

Public text and ubiquitous literacy

Image: Yin Liu (Wisconsin, USA, 2013)
Up until a couple of centuries ago, a sign like this (which happens to proclaim the availability of cheese, and more generic food, in rural Wisconsin), would have been not only unlikely but also mostly pointless. For there would be no sense in putting up the word ‘CHEESE’ by the side of the road, visible to all, if very few people could read it.

One of the most deeply influential social transformations of the 19th century, especially in the West, was the creation of literate societies – that is, societies in which a majority of people could be expected to read and write, and therefore in which public textuality could be functional and ubiquitous. If you are reading this, chances are almost certain that you live in a world of text, and that you perform countless acts of reading every day, not just because you want to but because you are required to do so to function in a literate society. Every time you buy a package of food, or travel down a road, or surf the Web, you are expected to read. The technology of writing has become so powerful and foundational that we find it very difficult to imagine a world without writing, or a world in which writing plays a very small and specialised role.

Apr 14, 2014

Calculation to communication

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia CommonsCC-BY 2.5
Do you remember when mobile phones were actually used as telephones? That is, people put them next to their heads and used them to talk to other people at a distance. But now, of course, your mobile phone (unless you have a very very cheap model) does a lot of other things as well. Phones are used as cameras, maps, notebooks, recipe collections, timekeeping devices, compasses, flashlights, mirrors, radios and audio players, reading platforms, organisers, entertainment centres, tourist guides . . . At some point, a significant transition took place when a tool designed for one use (real-time voice transmission over distance) acquired other uses. These shifts in technology use can be deeply transformative, not only affecting the physical design of the technology so used but also the social practices related to that technology. However, shifts in technology use are often overlooked when we focus simply on ‘inventions’ – the physical devices themselves – without considering what people actually do with them.

Mar 28, 2014

Not dead yet

Is this a book?

London, British Library MS 89074. Image: British Library.

I’d say yes; it’s a fifteenth-century English-Latin glossary, the Catholicon Anglicum, in its original binding. It's handwritten rather than printed, but I think most people would call this a book.

On New Year’s Day, 2014, Robert Bolick reflected intelligently and thoughtfully on the recurring meme of ‘the death of the book’ in this blog post. Since the early 1990s, various people, mostly journalists, have been loudly proclaiming ‘the death of reading’, ‘the death of the book’, ‘the end of books’. In 1991, the murderer was television. More recently, it’s the e-reader. Cautionary voices have responded by noting that it is too early to pronounce the epitaph for books, that new media have not killed reading, and that something that continually needs to be thumped on the head and declared dead is, on the contrary, probably not dead yet.

Feb 20, 2014

Latin in the margins

In a previous post, ‘Starting in the margins’, I noted that early examples of English writing were typically not standalone texts; rather, they tended to be glosses to Latin texts. In such bilingual documents from early medieval England, the Latin text was given prominence visually – the script was larger and it filled the main text block – while the English gloss, squeezed in between the lines in a smaller script or placed in the margins, was clearly meant to be apparatus in a supporting role.

British Library MS Cotton Nero D.iv (Lindisfarne Gospels), fol. 45r.

Although this relationship of Latin and English continued to be expressed in similar ways in documents throughout the Middle Ages, there are also many cases in which the two languages appear to switch positions: English as the main text, Latin in the margins.

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 12, fol. 10r (detail)

Jan 29, 2014

Things that talk

The Caistor-by-Norwich astragalus. Image: Christer Hamp.
This object is an astragalus, the ankle-bone of a roe deer. It was probably used as a game piece and was placed, along with a number of other such pieces, in a 5th-century cremation urn buried in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Caistor-by-Norwich, Norfolk. On it is scratched six runes which can be transliterated (roughly, because of font limitations) raihan. Thus this unattractive little object preserves what is probably the earliest known record of writing in England.

Jan 17, 2014

Security Issues

Image: The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 132.F.21, fol. 555r (detail)
In the 14th-century Middle English romance Emaré, the female protagonist is endangered when her evil mother-in-law, in a nefarious plot to do away with Emaré, repeatedly intercepts and replaces letters written from and to Emaré’s husband. The intercepted letter is a familiar plot device in traditional narratives; and Hamlet uses it in Shakespeare’s play to save his own life and send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. It has particular resonance, however, for societies experiencing anxiety over the security of information.

Jan 4, 2014


Last month, when messing around with this website, I did something (or Blogger did) to make several recent posts disappear. Of course, I immediately went into digital-illiterate panic mode, especially when I realised that I had not been very diligent in archiving drafts of those posts. Then I calmed down and restored the posts simply by searching for them and recovering them from Google’s cache, whereupon I ceased cursing Google and became grateful to it instead. But this little incident started me thinking again about the issue of preservation, which concerns not only archaeologists and archivists but also information technology managers. How does information survive?

Fadden More Psalter, cover. Image: National Museum of Ireland.