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March / April 2003

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Literary Archaeology

Photo by Margaret Nagle

Literary Archaeology
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.


Cyber scribes
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 Linne Mooney.

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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 13501500.

"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 own use.

"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 scribes.

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 of science.

Mooney's index lists all poetry written in English from 12001530 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 they wrote.

"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
March-April, 2003

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