Scribal Performance

Posted by Karen Jolly, Department of History

coversmIn 2005 I had an NEH Fellowship to work on a particular, and rather peculiar, tenth-century manuscript from northern England.  Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19, its archival name, is a unique compilation of religious texts written by multiple scribes in a rather hodgepodge fashion, including an extraordinary gloss translating the Latin prayers into Old English by a scribe named Aldred.  I used the sabbatical time—wisely or unwisely—to begin transcribing these added texts from the facsimile, checked against the manuscript itself in Durham.  It was tedious, probably as tedious as it was for the original scribes.  But I learned a lot from this “slow scholarship” about the scribes, their writing habits, and the interactions between them as they sometimes competed with as well as corrected  each others’ work.p1000922

In 2007 I attended an unusual workshop focused on the materiality of medieval manuscripts.  The Obermann Center at the University of Iowa brought together academics with a manuscript problem and practitioners—calligraphers, parchment and paper makers, and preservationists.  We made our own parchment and learned to write on it with quill and oak gall ink (“Scraped, Stroked, and Bound” is the title of the resulting volume of essays!).  For all of us, it was an extraordinary sensory experience—sight, feel, sound, smell—that caused us to rethink the craftsmanship of the original scribes we study.  No longer do we see the page in front of us as a static product, but as a time-consuming and engaging performance.

dsc_0141This sounds all very undigital—medieval not modern.  Yet what I am trying to do is build a bridge between the performance technologies of the medieval scribe and the digital world we inhabit, to leverage modern technology to understand scribal practice and make visible the performance of writing.  At the moment, all I have done is transcribe one set of texts, published in a monograph, but made available on ScholarSpace through our open access policy.  This at least makes the texts searchable to colleagues in my field who may be looking for the source of an odd turn of phrase or unusual name.

However, the project needs to move forward in at least two ways.  One is that I am continuing to transcribe the rest of the manuscript—the original Latin text of the main part (available in a recent scholarly edition) but including the Old English gloss translation added above the Latin, last transcribed in 1927 and not digitally searchable.  Second, though, I need to find a way to mark up the text so that others can search for variant spellings and for the correlation between the Latin and Old English words—right now my transcription in Word simply replicates the original by placing each Old English word, relatively speaking, above the Latin word it glosses.  I am still exploring the digital tools and markup standards under development to see what would work best:  see the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and teibyexample.


In the meantime, I am transcribing letter by letter and gaining insights into Aldred’s bilingual mind. I have a blog, Revealing Words, where I can speculate on this process as well as engage in a certain amount of imaginative play writing a fictional history of Aldred and his community.