Palaeography Tools

Two invaluable online resources that have been lifesavers for me as I’ve started to work with unedited manuscripts:

A. Cappelli’s Dizionario de Abbreviature – The indispensable and definitive guide to Latin abbreviations, this online version of the Italian edition is much more comprehensive than the later English edition.

Enigma – In what I can only imagine was the result of an inspired friendship between a medievalist and a computer programmer, this brilliant tool allows you to enter as much of the word as you can make out, together with a host of wildcard options, and then provides you with a list of every possible option, courtesy of Whitaker’s Words. Particularly cleverly, it allows each minim (the identical vertical strokes found in ‘i’, ‘u’, ‘m’, and ‘n’) to be entered as a ‘!’, so for example,  ‘!!!!!!!ere’ spits out only three possible options (innuere, munere, numere) which you can then narrow down based on context.

Advertisements

If Only They’d Thought of Me …

One of the inevitable frustrations of working with primary sources is that they don’t always say what you would like them to say. Worse, they don’t take what seem like golden opportunities to say what you’re pretty sure they were thinking, but never seem to actually articulate. It’s almost like they weren’t writing with you, a graduate student roughly 800 years in the future, explicitly in mind!

For example, in my efforts to discover the ‘theological culture’ (for want of a better term) of counsel, I’ve been trawling the Bodleian library catalogues for 12th century biblical commentaries, particularly those written by key intellectual figures, such as Peter the Chanter and Stephen Langton (both writing in Paris). I thought I would start with III Regum (I Kings) 12, a passage in which Rehoboam, son and heir of King Solomon, abandons the counsel of the elders who advised his father and turns instead to the advice of his young friends. It’s a stock exemplum in the medieval period which often crops up in the moral literature written for princes as a clear case of what-not-to-do.

Peter the Chanter’s commentary on the Books of Kings (MS Bodl. 371) perhaps falls short of pure research gold, but it’s headed in, from my perspective, the right direction. For example, commenting on the verse in which Rehoboam ‘took counsel’, he writes, ‘In this he did well, but since he acquiesced [to their counsel], he sinned’,[1] which neatly touches on the very important distinction between listening to counsel and following it. Peter also touches on the danger of having a young ruler, in sense if not in actual age, and his susceptibility to flattery and youthful desires.

Heartened by my progress, I turned to Stephen Langton’s commentary (MS Rawl. C 427). Langton went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury and was involved in the political struggle against King John which led to Magna Carta. (Incidentally, he’s also credited with the modern division of Bible chapters.) Of anyone, you’d think he’d have something interesting to say about bad kings who don’t listen to good advice. Unfortunately, on his commentary of the Rehoboam passage, he is much more interested in the content of the bad advice, i.e. an increase in taxes, as well as the precise nature of Rehoboam’s metaphorical ‘scorpions’ (apparently larger than a scourge, similar to the Saracen scourges with lead balls at the ends, in case you were wondering …), than on providing me with a pithy analysis of the nature of royal counsel.

Of course, any natural disappointment in not finding material is only exacerbated by the fact that each inch of translation from manuscripts is necessarily hard won, following tentative transcription, attempts at translation, refinement of transcription, further attempts at translation, etc. However, considering a year and a half ago I could only admire a medieval manuscript in an aesthetic sort of way, it would seem progress is being made …

[1] Fol. 44r: Iniit [Roboam] consilium, in hoc bene agens, sed quia si adquievit, erravit.

 

 

Transfer of Status

It’s nearly the end of Trinity Term now, as evidenced by the wonderfully long evenings and occasional almost-summer’s day. My obsession with punting remains, but my luck seems to have deserted me and my last few forays on the river have been accompanied by decidedly less-than-magical weather. Still, I hold out hope for sunny days to come!

The main excitement of Trinity for us First Year DPhils is the Transfer of Status, the first proper milestone of our degrees. Essentially the purpose is to verify that, given six months or so of research, those research proposals which we threw together for our DPhil applications way back at the start of our master’s programme have now blossomed into something relatively coherent and feasible—and to someone other than us and our supervisors. The ‘transfer of status’ refers to our official transition, upon successful completion of the process, from Probationary Research Students (PRS) to fully-fledged DPhil Students.

Continue reading Transfer of Status

Humbert de Romans

Humbert de Romans is surprisingly overlooked as a historical figure, given his influence in the early shaping of the Dominican Order in the mid-thirteenth century.

Elected as the fifth Master-General of the Dominican Order in 1254, only a few decades after the Order had been established, Humbert reorganized and thereby standardized the Dominican liturgy, had a new edition of the Order’s Constitutions prepared, drew up new Constitutions for the nuns associated with the Order, and wrote a number of influential and—for modern historians—informative works concerning the operations of the Order.

Some of his key works include:

  • De eruditione praedicatorum (On the Instruction of Preachers) – Reflecting contemporary changes in the makeup of society, Humbert writes of sermons preached ad omne genus hominum (to every type of person), taking into consideration the dominant circumstances of the audience and varying the sermon accordingly. He also discusses the value of private conversation for edification.
  • De officiis ordinis (On the Offices of the Order) – A very informative treatise on each of the various types of officials within Dominican convents, from the master-general down.
  • De dono timoris (On the Gift of Fear), a.k.a. Tractatus de habundantia exemplorum (Treatise on a Wealth of Examples) – A highly popular collection of hundreds of exempla, or illustrations, for use in sermons, around the topic of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Humbert de Romans’ collected Latin works can be found in Opera de vita regulari, edited by J. J. Berthier (Rome, 1888). His Treatise on Preaching has been translated into English by Walter M. Conlon (London, 1955).
The most useful secondary work in English is probably Edward Tracy Brett’s Humbert of Romans: His Life and Views of Thirteenth-Century Society (Toronto, 1984), which includes a summary of each of Humbert’s works.

 

Out for a Ramble: Oxford’s Parks & Gardens

Everyone knows that Oxford is a stunningly beautiful place, especially when the sun is shining, but in addition to its picture-postcard medieval and Neoclassical buildings, it also has some wonderful green spaces perfect for a contemplative stroll of a warm afternoon. Below are some of my favourites!

Continue reading Out for a Ramble: Oxford’s Parks & Gardens

Take a foreign language, write it in an unfamiliar script, abbreviating every third word, and you have the compound puzzle that is the medieval Latin manuscript.

Preface to English translation of A. Cappelli’s The Elements of
Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Paleography (1982) 

Minding My P[er]’s & Q[uae]’s

I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:

CAM00638
Geoffrey of Trani, Summa super Titulos Decretalium (1491 ed.), fol. 47.

Continue reading Minding My P[er]’s & Q[uae]’s

DPhil Year 1: Michaelmas Term

After a down-to-the-wire wait to fulfill my academic conditions, my tenure as a doctoral student in Oxford officially began in October. (Though officially, I’m actually a ‘probationary research student’ until I go through the Transfer of Status process towards the end of the year to become a fully-fledged doctoral candidate.)

Given how little course time was involved in the master’s last year, at least after the first few weeks, I assumed the doctoral programme would feel very much the same. However, I underestimated the difference between having a least one weekly seminar with required reading and embarking on a programme that essentially consists of, ‘Welcome, DPhils. There’s the library. Have fun!’ The amount of self-discipline required to drag oneself to said library is exponentially increased when the deadlines are nebulous and generally very far away.

Fortunately, I do meet with my supervisor every three or four weeks, which is helping to keep me on some kind of track. Since my research topic overlaps a number of different historical fields (England, France, political history, intellectual history, law, theology, historiography, etc.), I’ve primarily spent the last term wading into various academic conversations, seeing what’s out there and trying to fill in the blank spots in my background knowledge. Every month or so I try to summarize the main points of interest into a rough essay of a few thousand words for my supervisor, and then I move on to something else. I’m sure (I hope!) all this rooting around will be very useful later, but it can also feel a bit directionless at times.

Of course, there are also research seminars and lectures to attend, as well as language classes. (A beautiful Oxford moment was sitting with a little Latin reading group in the All Souls common room, sipping tea and translating Gerald of Wales … ) As I’ve discovered from my forays into untranslated twelfth- and thirteenth-century chronicles, my Latin is still pretty weak at the moment, but I have a feeling it’s going to be rather good by the time I’m through!


Outside of the research, it is lovely to be in Oxford for a second year. The pressure of doing everything and seeing everything has eased off, and instead I can look forward to repeating those things I most enjoyed last year. I’ve moved colleges, to St Cross, one of the graduates-only colleges (which, though a creation of the 1960s, has thoughtfully ensconced itself in Victorian neo-Gothic walls, complete with a tiny little Oxford quad). Though I’ll admit to a slight hankering after the medieval colleges, there is a benefit to the graduate colleges, particularly as they are rather better at remembering that students do still exist outside the undergraduate terms.

Oxmas has now passed (complete with the Bodleian’s Christmas tree and as many candle-lit carol services as one could possibly wish), as has Christmas. The libraries are closed from December 24 to January 2, the perfect time for entirely guilt-free relaxation (entirely different from the I-really-should-be-reading kind!)

dscn0075
Magdalen’s Deer Park, outside my bedroom window!

 

 

How Medievalists are Born

[As a child] I assumed that medieval people all believed what popes told them to believe, or got burned as heretics. Some historical misconceptions are 100 per cent fantasy. Other have an infinitesimal grain of truth and blow it out of proportion. My own view of the Middle Ages hovered between these categories.

Then doubts began. Putting the medieval church in a black bin bag to throw it away could do it no harm. The people concerned were long dead and out of harm’s way. But we might do harm to ourselves, I reflected, if misconceptions about the past were to distort our views of own places in the world, and where it was going.

So I encouraged the doubts.

– Alexander Murray, introduction to Conscience & Authority in the Medieval Church

Drum roll, please! (Long Vac)

Last Friday, the Board of Examiners met to render judgement on our dissertations and determine our final marks for the course. And today, at long last, the marks were released.

In the old days results were apparently posted as public lists in the Exam Schools, but in recent years this practice has been scrapped in favour of more discreet methods (a decision which is apparently still being mulled over at the Other Place), and sometime this afternoon we all received an email inviting us to log in to Student Self Service to view our individual marks and final award for our degree. Already a nail-biting moment, it was even more nerve-wracking for those of us with mark-based conditions on our offers for the DPhil, which was due to start in a few weeks.

A few tense clicks later, and I found that the examiners (bless them!) had given me marks to match my highest hopes, granting me a Distinction for my degree. Quite a thrill for someone who started the year just hoping to pass!

My mother’s response when I relayed the joyous news was ‘Hooray! … What does that mean?’ Unlike the undergraduate examinations, which result in a degree class (1st class, upper 2nd [2:1], lower 2nd [2:2], 3rd), the master’s degree classifies its final award in the same way as it does the individual papers: Fail (<60), Pass (60-69), or Distinction (70+). Distinction in the degree generally requires an overall average 70 or above, plus a distinction mark in the dissertation and at least one of the essays.

Bizarrely, my highest mark was for my first essay on historiography, which was easily the paper that I submitted with the most uncertainty and trepidation!

A poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins

New-dated from the terms that reappear,
More sweet-familiar grows my love to thee,
And still thou bind’st me to fresh fealty
With long-superfluous ties, for nothing here
Nor elsewhere can thy sweetness unendear.
This is my park, my pleasuance, this to me
As public is my greater privacy,
All mine, yet common to my every peer.
Those charms accepted of my inmost-thought,
The towers musical, quiet-walled grove,
The window-circles, these may all be sought
By other eyes, and other suitors move,
And all like me may boast, impeached not,
Their special-general title to thy love.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins (1865),
whilst an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford

Submission Day! (Long Vac)

At long last, Friday was dissertation submission day, and as I threw open the curtains I was delighted to find that Oxford had graciously decked herself out for the occasion in her best blue skies and sunshine. My own dissertation copies had been bound at the print shop on Holywell Street the afternoon before and had been sitting in their envelope addressed to the

Chairman of the Board of Examiners
of the Master of Studies in Medieval History
c/o Examination Schools
High Street
Oxford,

on my desk all evening, forcing me to resist the temptation to flip through them one more time to discover each typo that had inevitably made it past a dozen rounds of proofreading.

Unlike the last time we submitted at the Exam Schools, an August submission day is a relatively anticlimactic affair. Unsure of when others planned to submit, I just walked into the nearly empty Schools on the way into town, filled out my submission slip, and handed it to the lone woman behind the desk. As I walked out, my little yellow receipt was the only evidence that I had, in fact, just completed an Oxford master’s degree.

I found the rest of my classmates camped out in the upper sitting room of the Turl Street Kitchen, addressing envelopes and waiting to collect their various oeuvres from the binders.

‘You look very relaxed!’ was my welcome.

I waived my yellow slip triumphantly, bringing down a kindly stream of curses upon my head.

After a stop at the binders, we then processed back to the Schools, assuring each other along the way that it was fine, that we were fine, that it was all going to be all right. A picture on the steps with dissertations in hand, and then two minutes later we were all out again, suddenly feeling strangely bereft.

A celebration was called for, however, and we decided on true Oxford tradition: a picnic of the finest drinks and comestibles that Tesco had on offer, partaken in the dappled shade of Christ Church Meadow. A few of us tried to ban all talk of anything occurring before the 1950s, but that didn’t prevent a long discussion on popes, bawdy comments about monks, and a  discursive on ancient college feuds.

Our attempts at punting then being stymied by the previous night’s rain, which had irremediably waterlogged our prospective crafts, we settled into lawn chairs in the garden of Balliol’s Holywell Manor, mixing slumber with desultory conversation on such things as colleges and croquet, letting the stress of the past eleven months slowly drift away with the breeze.

My Dissertation in Numbers

Number of…

  • Words: 15,000 (exactly!)
  • Pages: 41
  • Footnotes: 158
  • Primary sources: 26
  • Secondary sources: 67
  • Mentions of the word ‘counsel’: 210
  • Reading rooms used for research: 10
  • Hours spent formatting footnotes and bibliography: 6
  • Steps climbed up and down in the Bodleian: Countless

History & Physics

According to modern physics, nothing is as solid as it seems. Things that seem so turn out to be tiny points of energy, in precarious equilibrium, giving our rough senses only an impression of solidity … This truth in physics holds also in the fields of politics, law, and economics. There are plenty of things that seems solid enough, like ancient empires or modern armies or (in the economic field) money. But on careful inspection these, too, turn out to be points of energy, in temporary equilibrium, in the beliefs and feelings of individuals. When these change, the seeming solid dissolves into its constituent points, which then reassemble in new forms—with an equally deceptive appearance of corporeality.

– Alexander Murray, ‘Excommunication & Conscience in the Middle Ages’

%d bloggers like this: