“From the late medieval period, [individual readers’] responses have been left to us in literally thousands of manuscripts, and they can be recovered by the kind of paleographical, linguistic, textual and iconographic analysis which, however, has not been popular work, mainly because it is detailed and hard.”
Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “Introduction,” The Medieval Professional Reader at Work, 7-13, at 7.

I’m analyzing the types of corrections made to a fifteenth-century manuscript of a fourteenth-century text by a later fifteenth- (or perhaps sixteenth-) century reader. It started with a list; the list is now becoming a frequency table; later it will become a graph. At the moment, it’s not so much hard as tedious. Just making the list (and checking it against first the edition, then the manuscript) has already taken hours of work. By the time I finish the analysis, it will be days. All this for one or two paragraphs (and, I hope, a footnote or appendix with some details) in the final product, a publishable essay.

This work has to be done. I’m arguing that the corrections are not mechanical but show attention to and interaction with an earlier text, making it more comprehensible for later readers; to that end I need to be able to prove that the corrector intervenes in particular ways related to linguistic changes. As I work on this essay, I’ve done various other tasks involving counting, sorting, and graphing of raw data: corrections by one reader, comments from another. This work shows me what these readers cared about, and that they cared about similar parts of the text.

I have to be the one to do it. Perhaps a research assistant could do some of it—the part based on the edition—but in doing the work, I notice other things about the text, which I would not see if someone else did the counting and listing. I also have to make decisions about how to count. If there are two words added to a single line, is that one line’s worth of correction, or two separate additions? Well, is it a two-word phrase, or words added at different points in the line? Do I need to know whether additions are made on erasures, squeezed into spaces in the line, interlinear, or marginal? (Yes, to all.)

And I certainly have to be the one to check my work against the manuscript. That’s crucial for accuracy, for work I will put my name to. What’s more, no research assistant from LRU has the training to be able to distinguish between the original scribe’s own corrections and the later corrector’s additions, nor would such an RA be able to read many of the corrections. I like to think that the scribal hand is easier, but that depends on one’s experience with paleography. My own is fairly extensive (for a literary scholar; I’m not an actual paleographer), but I barely have the opportunity to introduce facsimiles into literature classes at LRU: I have never taught paleography there. And there’s no one else likely to do it. So there’s no student who could be my RA, however smart, willing, and enthusiastic.

This sort of thing is why medievalists (at least, my sub-species) take so long to produce publications. I’d like to see my Americanist colleagues who publish about as fast as Joyce Carol Oates transcribe marginal comments in sixteenth-century secretary hands, or even fourteenth-century book hands. Besides the expertise in languages and paleography, I also have multiple manuscripts to deal with: not just the two that some of my readers have heard me talk about in the last few months, but other versions of this story, in different formats, some in different languages (though here again, I have to make distinctions: which ones are my early modern readers likely to have heard of or come across?).

And then there are the cultural referents. A literary medievalist needs to be about half a classicist, just to keep track of the allusions scattered through even the frivolous vernacular material I deal with, and about half a Biblical scholar, ditto. A third half should be a historian, to catch topical allusions and fit the whole thing into a social context. A social context: of course we will miss things, of course we cannot ever really read as my sixteenth-century commenter read; but we have to try. I have to try. It’s my duty to the past, to resurrect these readers, to tell you what they thought about their frivolous vernacular reading, to give a voice to the nameless people who created an audience for works that are the ancestors of the novel and all its sub-genres.

It takes time. It’s hard, sometimes (deciphering the secretary comments), and tedious, sometimes (turning lists into frequency tables), and at times deeply satisfying (making out a comment that an earlier editor gave up on). It’s frustrating, knowing that I still have at least a full day’s work ahead of me before I can even draft the paragraph or two that belong in the full-dress essay. And that’s before any work involving the Linguistic Atlas of Late Medieval England, if it seems there is enough material to make it worth attempting dialectal analysis. (My fourth half is a linguist.)

This is what I do, and this is why it takes so long. How I wish I could just sit at my desk and write. For this essay, at least, every paragraph written is the tip of an iceberg which, below the waterline, is made up of transcribing, counting, sorting, graphing, mapping, and other kinds of analyzing. The work is detailed and hard, and I’m grateful to Kerby-Fulton for saying so.

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2 thoughts on “Before writing

  1. Lovely, eloquent post! As a medievalist who also works with original mss., I often feel the same way. I especially wish those in other fields could have some sense of how difficult and meticulous the work is — those two paragraphs requiring so much intense work!

  2. Hear, hear! And thank goodness for blogs! At least here we have a place to say all of the things that we want to say, without having to footnote everything. I spent all of November last year making charts of texts for the Office of the Virgin Mary and I'm still not sure whether I'm going to be able to publish anything directly from them, but I had to do it in order to understand what I was seeing.

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