It’s easy to see that the advent of digital technology has revolutionized the modern world by enabling us to do things that would simply not have been possible before, and of course in many ways this is true. However, it is often easy to overlook those many ways in which technology enables us to do things that were previously possible more quickly, easily, or safely. The availability of digital images of manuscripts online from libraries around the world proves invaluable to us in this respect.
Much can rightly be made of the impressive collections of beautifully illuminated and decorated manuscripts that are increasingly being made available in this way, such as those at the British Library (further information here). The value of these as works of art and especially in inspiring interest in the medieval world is ample justification for this programme. But of course there is so much more to medieval manuscripts than their illustrations: their texts too are of fundamental importance to scholarship, and the increasing availability of images of these original sources is worth celebrating for what it enable researchers such as us to do.
Manuscripts and editions as evidence
The DMLBS uses the evidence of surviving Medieval Latin texts to identify and document the vocabulary of the language as used in British sources during its period. Sometimes this evidence is indeed available only in the original manuscript sources themselves, such as those in the National Archives; often, however, we are able to use editions of texts (printed or electronic), in which an editor has reviewed the manuscript evidence for a text and attempted to establish what was originally written by the author.
One question that regularly crops up as a result concerns the extent to which we should trust or rely on the available editions. A whole range of factors might bear on whether a particular edition is overall a reliable version of its text (or at least, whether it is as good as could reasonably be expected given the surviving evidence). Certainly a reading of a word or phrase in an edition can be treated as sufficient prima facie evidence for us to investigate the apparent usage, especially if it is unusual in sense, grammar, or spelling: indeed even when an edition has been superseded by another one that seems more comprehensive or reliable as a whole, the earlier version may prompt us to further research in respect of that part of the text.
In all editions, though, even those that we might consider generally reliable, at any particular point we may find a clash between our expectations as lexicographers (given all the other evidence we have for Medieval Latin, some of which may have been unknown to the editor of the text) and the text the editor has printed, which we might take to be based on the editor’s expert/specialist knowledge of the whole text, its author, the context of its composition, its manuscript tradition, etc. In such cases one strategy we may adopt is to review the manuscript evidence for ourselves to see how the edited text relates to it. What we see in the edited text could, for instance, simply be a typographical error in the edition that slipped through its proofreading or a misreading by the editor of a manuscript witness to a text.
At this point, then, we are in the position for an edited text that we are in for texts that have never been edited and exist only in manuscript form, such as the many archive documents that were read to provide material for the dictionary.
Checking physical manuscripts
Whereas we may have our own copy of an edition or have ready access to it in one of Oxford’s many libraries or online, the obvious difficulty with manuscript sources for the lexicographer is that they are unique: where they are is generally where they have to be consulted, and even another manuscript containing (apparently) the same text is just that, another manuscript (i.e. parallel or complementary evidence, if there even is another such manuscript). Thankfully many of the manuscripts in which we are interested are within collections that we can access fairly easily in person (e.g. in the Bodleian library, Oxford college libraries, the British Library, the libraries of Cambridge University and its colleges, the National Archives).
For others we regularly rely on the custodian archivists and librarians to examine the relevant manuscripts in their collections and check the readings on our behalf: without their efforts the work of the dictionary team would be very much more difficult and we are always grateful to them for all that they do in support of our enterprise. Recent enquiries have included, for instance, a check of a manuscript held by the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin which confirmed a reading in the printed edition of the Acts of the Privy Council in Ireland (HMC Rep. XV App. III (1897)).
We are nevertheless very conscious that we should not impose excessively on the good will of those helpful but busy archivists and librarians nor is it good for original source materials to be handled any more than strictly necessary, whether by them or us. For this reason it is now making a huge difference to our work that good quality digital images are becoming available of manuscripts that we might need to consult and that the creation of digital copies of their material is being increasing seen as a core part of the conservation work of libraries and archives.
It has in fact long been the case that many libraries or archives would be willing and able to supply traditional images of manuscripts in full or in part, but the process was typically slow and expensive: the DMLBS indeed holds a small collection of microfilms of manuscripts (and early printed works, to which some of the same considerations apply).
Now, however, we can often easily check readings for ourselves in manuscripts distant from us without troubling either their custodians or handling the physical artefacts directly. A couple of examples that have arisen in the last week go to show how much of a difference this facility can make.
(i) Throwing in the towel?
Col. 755 of T. Wright & R. P. Wülcker’s Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies (2nd ed. 1884) is part of a 15th century pictorial vocabulary list and includes the text:
The entry for touale is the cause of the query, with an English gloss perhaps meaning ‘towel’. We have many different spellings attested for a Medieval Latin word (tualia, toalia, etc.) corresponding to English ‘towel’ (itself also spelled in various ways at the time), and so this is not implausible per se. However, this entry is in a list of nomina ecclesie nessessaria (sic), and while the presence of a ‘towel’ (such as a lavabo towel or a cloth laid on an altar) in such a list is also far from impossible, the immediately preceding entries are for books, mainly liturgical in nature (missal, gradual, troper, antiphonal, etc.), as is the following (temporal). Since u and n are commonly very similar in appearance in manuscripts, this was an ideal case for checking the original if at all possible.
The MS edited here is now MS 594 in the Beinecke Library at Yale University and it is available digitally. A check of the relevant part (f. 3v col. 2, item 3) shows that the reading is very possibly hoc tonale, A. a tonal (i.e. a ‘tonale’ or tonal, a type of book pertaining to or containing chant tones, for which the Medieval Latin term tonarius is also found). [This is in fact the reading of WW silently adopted by the OED s.v. tonal at sense B.] This reading fits better in the context, is compatible with the MS evidence, and goes with the other examples we have of tonale (as, e.g., the 1368 inventory of church goods in the archdeaconry of Norwich, Norf Rec. Soc. XIX 29: j martilogium cum tropario, bonum tonale).
(ii) A Harrowing Tale?
Our second example concerns a quotation for a word elsewhere commonly spelled traha. In the course of our research we have come across an example printed thraa in Hervieux’s edition of the Fabulae of the 14th-cent. author John of Sheppey, no. 26 (Les Fabulistes latins IV (Paris, 1896) p. 427):
The fable concerns a harrow (the traha or ‘thraa’) and a toad, a proverbially familiar combination (cf. Kipling Pagett, MP: “The toad beneath the harrow knows | Exactly where each tooth-point goes”). Here again we wished to check for a possible error in the edition, and again the relevant manuscript images are available online (MS Merton College, Oxford 248 f. 26v). This time the reading of the edition as thraa is confirmed (top of col. 2), and we must take this simply as an example of the ordinary vagaries and variation of medieval Latin spelling (th for t, and h being optionally dropped).
When the DMLBS was first envisaged, the digital revolution could scarcely have been imagined, but the use of manuscript evidence was considered essential. A hundred years later we remain just as committed to such fundamental principles but can take advantage of new ways to see them into practice.
On another edition vs. manuscript question see Mark Thakkar’s recent post on sopositus.