Thursday, June 17, 2010

Getting My Groove Back: Transcription

As a medievalist, one of the trickiest things to deal with is transcription of our documents. We take specific classes in paleography, which is simply the art of deciphering centuries-old styles of handwriting.** So, first you learn Latin, then you learn the complicated system of abbreviations, symbols, ligatures, and contractions, and how to count backwards and consider the date of Easter when a document is dated something like ".xiiii. kalendis ffebrerii anno quod supra." Not to mention (though I guess I will) the fact that some letters look entirely different from the way they do now, some (such as c, t, and r) are nearly indistinguishable from each other, and a lack of dots on the "i" makes figuring out a word like "minima", written in cursive, nearly impossible to figure out. There are, of course, some guides to this, but they don't cover everything. Add to that the inevitable holes, liquid stains, ink bleed-through... well, you get it.

And then, just when you think you've got it figured out, some punk decides to start writing in the vernacular, but in some messed-up medieval version of it.

Advantage: they abbreviate less, because all the good abbreviations are in Latin.

Disadvantage: There are absolutely no orthographic rules, and while you might take a course in medieval Latin before you hit the archives, and if you're an England specialist you will have studied Middle (or Old) English, you probably won't get one in medieval variants of Venetian, or Breton, or Gallego, or Proven├žal. Unless you're at some super-fancy school, in which case: Thhbbbtttt!!!!

Anyway, I'm here transcribing (most emphatically not translating) and summarizing stacks of documents in the vernacular. I'm finding it's going more quickly than I had anticipated: I can get through 100 lines a day right now, rather than the 50 I had reckoned with. Of course, this may be a function of the document type -- some are just easier to work with than others. But I remember what a slow slog this was as I worked on the dissertation documents. And it's nice to know that there are some things that your brain actually hangs on to, other than Brady Bunch episodes and that Schoolhouse Rock song on the preamble to the Constitution.


**In that, I understand, we may be more fortunate than our colleagues who study the 18th century: while the handwriting they have to deal with is not as difficult, there are no specialized classes to train them in reading it. They just have to figure it out as they go.

11 comments:

Random University Student said...

Sounds fascinating, good luck!

squadratomagico said...

I never took a palaeography class, and I deeply regret it. My mentor never suggested it to her students; she just assumed we'd figure it out in the archives. To a great extent, I did, but I still struggle with certain texts.

clio's disciple said...

Also delightful: trying to extend your work from one century to another in which scripts can be significantly different. I can make something of 14th-century scripts, but 15th-century notarial scripts are beasts.

Clemens Radl said...

If anyone wants to get a look at the above mentioned Lexicon Abbreviaturarum, it is online here and here.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Jeezus motherfuck! You gotta lotta fucking patience, NPD. I would last about five minutes with that shit before giving up and hitting the MFJ.

Anonymous said...

I do the early sixteenth century in France, and never had a chance to take a paleography course, despite going to one of the top grad programs in the field. So I learned how to read the three different scribal hands, as well as the personal ones, via photocopies of 19th century transcriptions of correspondence from the era. This was after spending THREE hours to figure out one line of text on my first day at the BN :)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Anon, you did better than I. After the first hour and a half staring dumbly at documents, I turned the registers back in, went home, and cried a little.

Susan said...

Never had a paleography class, and chancery hands still are very hard for me to read. Good 16/17 century secretary hands, on the other hand, are a piece of cake!

Grad School Drama said...

it is "Conjunction Junction" for me... :)

Geophrie said...

I feel your pain, sister. When i wrote my undergraduate thesis, I had to do all of my own Greek and Latin translations. Oh how I remember the pain.

Best of luck!

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I learned to read 16th century hands in the school of hard knocks. My first day in the archives I got through maybe ten lines. It did get better. But I still cry sometimes at some of the German and Dutch hands that I encounter. Someone can be cheerily writing away in a sloppy but legible humanist script (in Latin), and then they mention a German name and write it in German script--awful!