I recently came across these excellent guides to palaeography from the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (St John’s University). As well as access to a number of helpful resources, they have virtual courses in Latin, Syriac, and Arabic scripts, as well as guides for manuscript transcription.
I don’t expect too much from a medieval scribe. I accept that he may not always know the correct spelling of a classical name or whether he needs a subjunctive and he might occasionally have to fudge it a bit. I accept that he contents himself with only writing about a quarter of the letters, leaving me to fill in the rest. I accept that his speed of writing may result in a certain loss of legibility.
I would, however, expect him to write from left to right in a reasonably straight line.
Lest I paint too grim a picture of the doctoral student’s life and efforts, I should clarify that while there are days when researching with medieval manuscripts feels like a very slow attempt to squeeze meaning from a stone, there are at least, in compensation, the days when you actually find something, even the something, that makes the previous weeks of fruitless research almost worthwhile.
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)
I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:
Word Tools: Thanks to the wonders of the internet, there are now various Latin word tools that will tell you not only what any Latin word means, but also that it happens to be a genitive singular future passive participle, or whatever the ‘case’ may be.
Whitaker’s Words – My personal favourite, partly because it does take into account some medieval spelling and vocabulary changes)
Health Advisory: While brilliant for making your way through a tricky translation, I would recommend using online word tools sparingly when it comes to actual Latin study – it’s easy to get dependent and forget to actually learn the vocabulary and grammar yourself, which comes back to haunt you later . . .
Dictionaries: Most Latin-English dictionaries only reflect classical usage and vocabulary. The best dictionary for medieval Latin is the recently completed Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) published by Oxford University Press, which is also available as a subscription service online and through the Latin/Green online dictionary search Logeion.
And so, unbelievably, the end is upon us! Or at least, the last week of the last term of the year. Seminars and lectures are ended, undergraduates departing, and only those of us with research to complete over the summer are getting ready to bunker down in the (mercifully now much emptier) libraries.
A few events of note:
This week I requested my first manuscripts from Special Collections – which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you take into account that this involves a Bodleian librarian cheerfully handing over 800-year-old books into my
grubby carefully scrubbed hands.
With a week of Latin class under our belts, and yet still another week until inductions and welcome events start in 0th week, we are feeling somewhat betwixt-and-between as students at the moment.
Two levels of Latin tutorials (not as helpful for the grammar, but really good for medieval Latin vocabulary from common types of medieval documents), some paleography tutorials, and a couple other goodies.
And so it begins! I am newly settled into my little Victorian bedroom in East Oxford (above) and am now in the process of settling into my new identity as a bona fide Oxford student.
Latin Class. My first official University of Oxford class, Intermediate Latin, started this morning. The History Faculty very helpfully offers those of their students who have not yet acquired sufficient skills in Latin the option of attending a three-week presessional course prior to the start of term, at either a complete beginner or at a somewhat intermediate level. In the intermediate class, we have about 20 students from various different programmes–a fair number of MSt students in Medieval History and Medieval Studies, but also some MSt, MPhil, and DPhil students in other history programmes who anticipate needing Latin for their research.