Monday, July 16, 2007

I can't read!!!!

You have to imagine the post's title in the voice of a distraught dog (if dogs could talk). It's a reference to a dog treat commercial from about 5 years ago where the dog gets all excited when his human comes home from the store with bacon-flavored treats. He runs around the house, trailing her, while a voice-over cries in excitement, "Is that bacon?! Do you have bacon?! Is there bacon in there?! It sure smells like bacon!!" And then when the bag comes down to his eye-level, he cries in utter despair, "But I can't read!!" Totally hilarious. At least to me.

Anywho, I chose this lament as the post's title because today I spent my first day having to deal with 15th century documents in Latin. Oy. So far I've been ridiculously lucky in that everything that I've encountered up to this point was in English. But starting today, my luck ran out. Now, you're probably thinking, "Hey, you're a medievalist. *And* you went to Catholic schools. Don't you know Latin?" Yes, I do. But not fluently. I need a grammar and a dictionary by my side. And that's when I'm reading it in modern, printed texts. These texts, you see, are manuscripts, written in a 15th century version of the "Secretary" hand, which, if you ask me, is the Worst. Hand. Ever. (Though I'll take the 15th century version over the crazy mad loops of the 16th century version.) Here's an image for those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, but let me tell you, it looks all nice and neat and easy here and that's *not* what happens when it's in a civic record! And when 15th century (or any medieval century) people write in Latin, they don't write everything out. They abbreviate every damn word, leaving off endings and sometime middles. And to top everything off, my paleography skills are rusty. Though they've gotten better over this trip, it still sometimes takes me a long time to decode what a particular scribble is supposed to say. When it's in English, it's a bit like playing Hangman -- get enough letters and the rest falls in place. When it's in Latin, and abbreviated, and your Latin is hella rusty, well, you suddenly feel pretty damn illiterate. Hence the title of this post. (Hm, maybe I should go buy this. Cute.)

Oh, and I'm reading from microfilms, which also makes it a little difficult, though these are pretty damn good ones, at least. And on the upside, I can make copies of and print out the relevant pages and work out the words I'm missing now when I get home to my dictionaries and grammars. Plus, what I'm looking for are records about a particular person -- who once owed a manuscript I'm writing about -- and so it makes it an easier task to go through the records looking for his name. I don't actually have to read the pages I'm looking at unless they're about him. But, oh, god, it's incredibly boring. Imagine paging through hundreds of pages of strings of digits looking for repetitions of a particular string and you'll get the idea.

I think, by the way, this is one reason why I like good police procedurals. I empathize with the characters when they have to pour through some civic records office looking for some suspect's adoption records or whatever because all they have is part of a name and a general time span, or something like that. I feel their pain.

So why am I doing this? I'm not entirely sure! Seriously, I don't know what I'll find and if I can use it, but I figure the more information I have about the owner of this manuscript, the more I can say about how the fifteenth century additions to it in the margins and flyleaves reorient the book as whole toward this owner's social world. But man, getting back to the literary texts in the manuscript itself is going to be such a treat!

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh yes. I've made the police procedural connection myself. I know what you're saying . . .

The Pastry Pirate said...

That bacon commercial is one of my all-time faves... Tee hee!!

Ancrene Wiseass said...

In case anybody out there's wondering, yes, Secretary Hand really is that bad. Ugh.

What Now? said...

Okay, I'm a little embarrassed to admit this (but I'm an Americanist! I have an excuse!), but I thought this Secretary Hand you've been talking about must be the handwriting of a particular person known as The Secretary, and that you were looking through his records and had gotten good at reading his particular handwriting.

So now I know! Thanks for the link with the example; ya learn something new every day!

the general said...

Ugh, 15th c. secretary is crazy... can't tell you how happy I am to be working in the 13th. Several little research birdies have told me that if you get a copy of the microfilm, people have been able to scan the microfilm onto CD-ROM and oh my, the picture quality is absolutely amazing. Apparently you can zoom in on the little hairs on a MS page. Apparently it's much better than taking a digital photo and converting it to CD-ROM. So if you don't want to go too blind and drive your optometrist crazy on your next visit, you might want to see if your library at home can do microfilm transfers. This way you won't have to deal with horrible 15th c. secretary, bad microfilm or photocopies and generally squinting at little squiggles on a page that will probably make your eyes go a little batty all at once. Dare I ask, what are the microfilm readers like in your archives? I'm always amazed at how old they are in certain MS libraries in the UK (prime example-the Bodleian... ummm, totally from the stone age and doesn't work half the time... in fact, when I went to look at the MS of the restricted MS Laud that you get to look at, all two machines were completely knackered)...

Dr. Virago said...

Well, the microfilm readers where I'm currently working are in are good working condition, but they're very simple (fewer things to break down) -- some are even hand-crank!

And yeah, Rust Belt U has microfilm readers connected to computers for making PDFs. That's what I did with the Laud MS when I was still working with the microfilm (a copy of which I bought and worked with long before going there -- it's not all that expensive, btw). I may ask if I can get copies of some of the microfilms I'm using now because there's no way I'm going to get through all the ones I want to look at. But the cost may not be worth it. I'm basically looking for a few needles in a haystack. And the copies are actually pretty good, all things considered. But this archive and its documents were an "only if I have time," so I'm not going to stress too much about it.

Btw, I figured out why B3 let me look at the Laud w/o a fuss. 1) I told him I'd been working with the microfilm and just couldn't read parts of it (true); 2) I was interested in parts no one's ever interested in, so I was a novelty!

medieval woman said...

Oh, god - I hate those little Latin abbreviations! Hope you find the needle soon...

And I think I know exactly who you're talking about when you write B3 (hee, hee) - he was helpful to me with something obscure as well...

Success to you!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

And again, glad I'm an early MA person. Thanks goodness for those mad folks at the PL and the MGH! That and Carolingian miniscule! Still, it sounds like you're getting a good bit done ;-)






hlibrias

Ancarett said...

Sympathies on the reading since I know it always takes me a week of steady work to get back up to speed on almost any sixteenth century manuscript reading (English OR Latin).

New Kid on the Hallway said...

HEE HEE HEE HEE HEE, something medieval I can actually do! My beloved secretary hand!

(Sorry to sound insane, it's just that I love being able actually to point to a skill that I actually possess. Love the lovely secretary hand!!)

(Though I should admit that when it hits Latin I'm much less enamored.)