Lest I paint to 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.
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.
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!
I have spent a concerning number of hours over the past month or two puzzling over pages that look like this:
Gallica is the digital library of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and is one of the best freely accessible digital archives online, crammed full of brilliant historical sources. It’s fairly easy to navigate, and you can register to save documents and books to your digital workspace.
I’ve personally been using it a lot lately to access all the 19th-century editions of my medieval primary sources from the comfort of my bed, instead of having to trot all the way out to the Bodleian Upper Reading Room!
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.