Show and tell

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Bodleian Library

As part of our celebrations in December we will have a display in the Proscholium of the Bodleian Library in Oxford (running from 6 Dec to 6 Jan, to be precise). We’re hugely grateful to the Library for this opportunity, which will provide another way for a wider audience to learn about the project, its history and its work. The project has had a long and happy association with the Library — for nearly three decades our work was housed within the Library and many of our sources can be found within its collections — and so we are proud to celebrate this link in such a high-profile way.

Choosing material to display, however, given that space in the display case is limited, our work is so diverse, and the Bodleian’s collections are so great, is not going to prove easy, as we are already finding!

Today we started in earnest on the process of identifying suitable manuscripts. Although many of our literary and technical sources have been edited (and lots of our documentary ones too), manuscripts are crucially important to us in many ways: first, they provide source evidence for editions and we regularly check the readings of printed texts against manuscripts where we suspect that the edition’s text might be corrupt in some way (e.g. a misreading or faulty transcription), but second they are in some cases still the only source for a given text, since so many medieval texts have not been edited, and this is true of various sources within the Bodleian’s manuscript holdings.

For any exhibition of medieval material, manuscripts are likely to be among the most eye-catching items on show, but they present us with a problem, since ours is an exhibition about the dictionary and indirectly the source texts (rather than the artefacts that contain them): those which are the most valuable to us are not necessarily the magnificent highly illustrated and illuminated texts that people might expect to find on display but rather simple straightforward columns of neat (or not-so-neat) Latin text which might be hard for the viewer to appreciate even with good explanatory captions including transcript and translation. To the casual eye one manuscript of plain text in an unfamiliar language and style of writing can look very much the same as another even though their different significances to us are the main point; and will most people look at the accompanying explanations?

So today we looked at half a dozen possible manuscripts from the Bodleian’s collections with a view to their suitability for this display (e.g. having some text that would be legible for a viewer and that is relevant to something we’d like to explain about our work, history, or the use of Latin in medieval Britain). These included several glossaries (a kind of medieval vocabulary list and so the ancestor, in a way, of our own dictionary), an account of the life of St Kenelm, and a mid-14th century record of the weather, all of which have been important to us as manuscript sources over the years. We still have another three or four possibilities on our initial list left to examine but even from today’s first foray we are confident we have items among these that not only tie in well with the story of Latin and of our dictionary but will also excite the interest of the passing visitor.

(In addition to the manuscripts we intend to put on show some early (pre-18th century) printed editions and some editions from more recent centuries: again similar considerations about selection apply. We also have examples of our slips, our working methods, and some material from our own archive relating to how the project was first proposed and established.)

We would be interested, as always, in the views of the users of our dictionary: do contact us or leave a comment below about the kinds of material that you might like to see in such a display (which we also hope to make available in images on our website, if are able to).

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