Medieval literature scholar is bringing the words of the Middle Ages
into the 21st century
About the Photo:
Linne Mooney is using computer technology in manuscript research,
undertaking projects that soon will make medieval scribes and their
verses available to an online audience.
The transition from manuscript writing to print in the late medieval
era has much in common with the transition from print to electronic
media today, according to University of Maine Professor of English
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Imagine discovering a new world,
finding facts that could rewrite history or reading pages of text last
perused six centuries ago. Such revelations are possible not as a result
of an archaeological dig, an expedition to the hinterlands or a dive
2,000 leagues beneath the sea, but by "reading" done in libraries in
England by University of Maine Professor of English Linne Mooney.
She says it's like being a literary archaeologist.
"I go back to the primary materials, sifting through medieval
manuscripts like tons of sand to find a text that gives information
about the literature, history and social background during Chaucer's
time," she says. "It's painstaking work."
Mooney has a window on life and thought in medieval England that is
rarely found in history books. It is based on interpreting and
translating Middle English as it was written and spoken between
"It's amazing the number of manuscripts that no one has looked at,"
Mooney says. "Primarily, Middle English scholarship has focused on The
Canterbury Tales. Hardly anyone has looked at the everyday manuscripts
written by physicians, parish priests, people hired to keep the books
for an estate — those who knew how to write and who had enough interest
in literature to get access to literary manuscripts to copy for their
"I've found many new texts written in English that no one knew about,"
she says, "and even physical evidence of use of some of the manuscripts.
Years ago, working in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (England), I opened
a manuscript of veterinary instructions and texts about which herbs
should be used for which medicinal preparations. Seeds, stems and leaves
fell out that had been trapped in the spine and between the pages for
hundreds of years. It had apparently been used by a medieval owner as a
press for storing the herbs he was collecting: I could even recognize
the rosemary leaves between the pages describing their use in medicines.
The manuscript had been in the library for more than 400 years."
Mooney has devoted more than two decades to the study of late-medieval
English paleography (the study of handwriting) and codicology (the study
of books). She has been one of the pioneers in using computer technology
in manuscript research, undertaking projects that soon will make the
scribes and their verses available to an online audience.
Mooney recently completed a yearlong appointment as the Leverhulme
Visiting Professor at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of
York in the United Kingdom. While there, she worked on an online,
revised edition of The Index of Middle English Verse. She also developed
a prototype for a Web site cataloging the handwriting of medieval
When completed, her electronic version of The Index of Middle English
Verse will provide a high-tech resource for researchers of medieval
English literature, medieval literature in other vernacular languages,
Renaissance literature, English literature from later periods, medieval
social and political history, anthropology, linguistics and the history
Mooney's index lists all poetry written in English from 1200–1530 and
indicates where the original manuscript is located. Her volume follows
the first index of its kind, published in 1943 by Carleton Brown and
Rossell Hope Robbins, and updated by Robbins and John Cutler in 1965,
which is now both out-of-date and out-of-print. Mooney's revised
electronic index will include more than 350 additional pieces of verse
from discoveries and publications made since 1965. It will allow
scholars worldwide to search the entire 20-megabyte text by title,
author, word, subject, genre and verse form.
Information for many of the new entries was discovered when Mooney was a
visiting professor at Cambridge University for two years, beginning in
1995. Her quest led her to small libraries, graveyards and the great
houses of the English countryside.
"Bits of verse have survived on tombstones, on wallpaper, on paintings
on cloth, carved into balconies or painted on the walls in great houses.
Often, I would go out not having any idea of exactly where the
inscriptions were. Now that it has been identified where they are and
what they say, anyone looking in the index can know that someone carved
graffiti in the third pillar of the left aisle of a nave in a particular
church," she says.
Mooney's ability to read ancient text, including her expertise in
recognizing the handwriting of particular scribes, has led her to begin
a large-scale endeavor to identify and catalog their works. Currently,
she is writing a book on the more than 150 professional scribes from
15th-century England whom she has identified. She also is developing a
Web site that will feature digital images of the medieval manuscripts
"Before photography, top manuscript scholars made all kinds of mistakes
identifying handwriting because they couldn't carry the manuscripts from
library to library with them, and they had to rely on memory," she says.
An online reference will speed up and enhance manuscript analysis.
Mooney says the ability to identify scribes is important because it
sheds new light on the history of the period. For instance, one scribe
produced six of the surviving copies of the prose Brute Chronicle of
England; all six belong to a group of 11 manuscripts that leave out
about 25 pages of text. He also produced a copy of The Canterbury Tales
that includes an additional tale about the pilgrims.
"To have a scribe making this many copies from the same original (with
the 25-page defect) is important information for the study of how
manuscripts were produced in the last years before the introduction of
print," Mooney says. "This scribe was producing multiple copies of a
long and popular text just before William Caxton set up the first
printing press in England in 1476; his efforts to do by hand what the
press did better and quicker demonstrate that the printing press came in
response to need when booksellers recognized that they couldn't produce
enough by handwriting to meet the demand."
For the past three years, Mooney has collaborated with an international
team of scientists working on a project called Studies of Textual
Evolution of Manuscripts by Mathematical Analysis. The goal is to
determine how software and methodologies developed for evolutionary
biology research can help determine which medieval manuscripts were
copied from which others, creating family trees of surviving manuscripts
of a given text.
In addition to looking at parallels between DNA evolution and the
evolution of manuscripts, the same biochemists are studying the DNA of
ancient parchment. The hope is to one day be able to determine what
sheep herd or breed the parchment of a particular manuscript came from,
and thus know where the manuscript was produced.
Mooney's continuing research will focus on the scribes who wrote
manuscripts in late medieval England — the 100 years leading up to
introduction of the printing press and in the 50 years thereafter when
manuscript and print competed for market share.
"More and more manuscript images are being made available to everyone
through the Web," Mooney says, "but for me there is still a magic about
handling the original object. I have no idea what my first manuscript
was, but the feeling I had then is something that hasn't faded, even
though I've handled a couple thousand manuscripts."
by Gladys Ganiel
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.