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Manuscripts!

April 28, 2014

Last Friday I seized the opportunity to visit Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with my UConn colleagues. It was a fantastic workshop. A number of manuscripts that we had specially requested were on display, an earnestly beautiful collection of psalters, romances, legal tracts, everything under the sun. Seriously, most of western European civilization was represented in that room. I spent most of my time with Osborn a35, a massive manuscript in English containing the last will and testament of Sir John Fitzjames (died c.1542), a justice of the Court of King’s Bench during the reign of Henry VIII. It was interesting for a number of reasons but mostly, from my perspective at least, because it differed so dramatically from the medieval wills that I have become familiar with, most of them ranging from the 13th-15th centuries. This was much less formulaic and the author was much more overtly concerned with mundane everyday belongings – Sir Fitzjames was clearly very attached to his down bedding, napkins, table cloths, etc and strangely concerned with their destinies. Surprisingly, the will completely lacked a certificate of probate, or any kind of official approval, which means this may not have been the “official” copy that would have been proved in a probate court and enrolled among either parish or civic records. That was the piece I was actually looking for, because it would be evidence for testamentary process in the 16th century. Unfortunately I will have to look elsewhere, but now that I have been introduced to the Beinecke I know I will be back to peruse its collection, and I can’t wait.

Our little manuscript workshop went a long way to assuage anxieties about my own upcoming archives tour of Dublin. Basically, I’m terrified of archival research: terrified that I’ll sit down with a manuscript that I need to read and understand, and it will be gibberish. I will spend my valuable hours staring at something that looks like Elvish, go home to my hotel room, cry, drink a Guinness, and repeat the process the next day, and the next, and the next. Then I’ll go home and plot my next career change. Florist school sounds kind of nice…

The problem isn’t just the Latin language, though my Latin vocabulary is abysmal and foreign languages in general are definitely my biggest weakness. Many, many times in the course of my studies my attempts to translate sources have led to the proverbial ‘head/desk’ moment and I’ve asked myself “why oh why oh why did you choose medieval studies? Why not early America, that’s fun and interesting! Witches! Traitors! Minute Men! Hoopskirts!” But, no. I’m deeply immersed in the Middle Ages and destined to slog through Wheelock’s Latin for the remainder of my academic career.

And these medieval Irish sources are soooo much fun, because they’re not just simply written in Latin. Oh no, that would be too easy. The Latin I’ll be dealing with in the manuscripts is abbreviated legal Latin. Which means this: I encounter a word. This word has a little sign over it that tells me “hey, guess what! There’s a bunch of letters missing from this word, but we’re not going to tell you which ones, we’ll only tell you that the word ends in ‘c-e’ and you have to figure the rest out on your own.” And with my abysmal Latin, I may as well be playing The Wheel of Fortune in cyrillic, without a dictionary or a translator. So those are my fears; that my time in the archives will come to nought, and I’d be better off spending my time in the Dublin pubs instead (which will probably happen anyway, unless I can wrangle a chaperone).

But that’s not the whole story either. Every once in a while my sources love to throw a little Norman French at me too. I don’t even know modern French! So this makes me sad. And that’s when I knock on my colleague’s office door, hand him/her a nice cup of coffee and a box of munchkins, and beg them to translate for me. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will, because who knows what kinds of gems are hiding in those little Norman French civic records, and how will I know if I simply gloss over them without translating them? Argh. At least there will be Guinness. Loads of Guinness.

So, anyway, this workshop really did ease my fears a bit. The key to a productive archive session? Massive preparation. Here are some tremendously helpful tidbits that I picked up:

  1. order digital images of the manuscripts you need. Study them. Transcribe them. Play with the abbreviations until it begins to make enough sense that you sort of understand the gist of it, or at least enough to know whether the source is useful to your dissertation or not. And if it isn’t, voila. Knock that MS off your archives list and move on to the next.
  2. Bring published calendars, transcriptions, and editions, dictionaries and paleographical guides with you to the archives. This is why iPads are wonderful; pack as much of your medieval library into your device as you can. Learn as much about your intended manuscripts as you can. This will, inevitably, pay off with a gentler learning curve once you sit down withe the real thing.
  3. Know your archives; plan your schedule around the opening times of the archives. Be polite and friendly with the archivist. If they like you, only good things can happen.
  4. Bring a letter of introduction from your advisor or another recognizable scholar vouching for your student status, describing your project, and explaining how you are simply not the type of person to eat Fritos while handling a manuscript or use a Bic highlighter on a 12th century text. Be able to justify why you need to see the original manuscript, because apparently some archivists are fond of sitting you down in front of a microfilm, even after you’ve traveled a couple thousand miles and spent a couple thousand dollars to be there. Now that would be a riot, wouldn’t it?
  5. Some archives allow photography. If you are taking pictures, be sure to photograph the shelf mark of the MS first; you will be thankful you did when you sort through your photos later.
  6. When you first sit down in front of a manuscript, take some time to learn how it “drives.” How is it organized? Is there a running head, or an antiquarian table of contents? What is the marginalia doing? How is it bound? What kinds of hands does it contain? Can you match the hands to examples in Michelle Brown‘s or Bernhard Bischoff’s classic paleographical guides?
  7. Some practical matters: visit the loo before you get locked in a room with your chosen manuscript for the day, and watch your wallet in shared archive spaces; you might get so immersed in your manuscript you won’t see your belongings walking out the door (this has actually happened).

To wrap up, I offer some photos, courtesy of my UConn colleague Alexandra Ashley, of the most stunning manuscript we viewed, Beinecke MS 229, Arthurian Romance in French.

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