Slow Food Manuscript

That moment when, after you’ve been trying and trying to decipher a series of lines that all look the same, suddenly everything falls into place and a WORD magically appears in front of you! Ahhh, Transcription, how I’ve missed you! It’s a rare feeling to look at a page of text completely baffled by its jumble of abbreviated words with mysterious diacritics, then to slowly unlock each word and see the manuscript’s prayers open up before you like a flower blooming in slow motion.

What strikes me this week are the continuities and the discontinuities with the manuscript studies of my graduate days. For example, I am shocked by how much the web has lowered the entry-level into manuscript studies. I plugged in a few words that I was fairly sure of just into a broad Google search, and out popped our first prayer, word for word! On the other hand. the technologies may have changed, but the rush from decipherment is still the same!  And there is no substitution for slow time spent with the text, figuring out its puzzles. Manuscripts are slow food, not fast food. Laura & I have been stumped on all of the rubricated initials, and after a lot of back and forth with thoughts we had a little breakthrough about one –it signaled the closure of one line on the lower half of the next line, starting in the middle. This is a common enough phenomenon in early printed books (and manuscripts, too); dramatic literature like Shakespeare’s First Folio or the Quartos or printed and manuscript poetry frequently position the ends of long lines onto the next.  I probably shouldn’t be as surprised as I am by how much my stronger background in early modern print helps with deciphering the Dragon Prayer Book. The last time I did an extended transcription of a medieval manuscript was over ten years ago in a Harvard graduate course I took with Roger Stoddard and Laura Light on the production of books and manuscripts before 1600, and I realize now what strong grounding I received from them.

I am, however, surprised by how a little Latin goes a long way and how much more Latin I know than I thought I knew. There is also an interesting tension between how formulaic the text can be –we can easily find these prayers easily on multiple websites through simple searches–, but how the graphic representation of the text is much less formulaic. Or maybe it is more formulaic than I realize, and I’m just not enough of a manuscript scholar to know the formulae.  I do believe that a great portion of ms studies comes from attentive looking that then translates into seeing.

Manuscript studies takes a village. We are so fortunate to have a strong and knowledgeable community to aid us in both our grappling with the material object and our representation of that object digitally. In the past weeks we’ve met with Bill Stoneman, a curator of manuscripts at Harvard, as well as several Northeastern University teams of librarians, web-savvy technicians, and DH graduate student specialists who are responsible for the digital repository and for providing support for the WordPress site.  We’ve got several meetings set up with local ms scholars in the coming weeks, including with the first person to give an initial description of the ms, Patricia DeLeeuw from Boston College, and a music specialist, Michael Cuthbert at MIT, who will help us with the music.  And next week we travel to the digitization center to learn about how the process works. But again, I am struck by how much wider the community of ms scholars has become since my graduate days: in addition to the print resources I used at the Houghton Library, now there are incredible digital tools on the web that quickly facilitate making discoveries. I can’t wait to learn more about the resources that we’d only dreamed of just ten years ago.

Getting the manuscript back from the digitization center last week was exciting –Laura Packard, who has caught the transcription bug, jump started us again with all kinds of new questions, noting missing folia, a free-floating piece of parchment containing a prayer for which we don’t know the placement, the stamps on the cover, and some interesting page designs.  One big question I have based on our recent transcription efforts is why this book starts with Compline prayers –evening prayers—instead of matins–morning prayers—which is what one would expect?



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