My life as a scribe

I promised this post to Kees-Jan Schilt almost three months ago, in early April. I retweeted @KeesJanSchilt’s announcement of a new post at his blog and confessed at some point that he inspired me to write a reply.

Shortly after this exchange, we met in person at the glorious Scientiae 2014 conference in Vienna and although I kept thinking about the issues raised by Kees-Jan and their relation to my own scholarly workshop, three months had to pass before I found some time to write down my confessions.

C.J.’s lovely post about his work as a transcriber and researcher at the Newton Project at the University of Sussex, as well as the whole context of a great collection of hardly legible manuscripts he is coping with, made me to reconsider what I am actually doing as a researcher. It lead me to a simple observation that the backbone of my scholarly workshop is made by scribal practices. So here is my confession: I am a scribe.

Maybe my scholarly strategy has some other deeper, anthropological background or my mind is formed in such a way that I simply have to do this, but this is a fact: in order to made use of a primary source which has not been published in the form of a critical edition, I have to make an extensive transcription which is usually longer than the fragments I need to cite. Maybe some scholars do not need this, but I do. This is not a matter of my supposed frugality which would make me to transcribe these sources in order to avoid ordering some scans (which can be costly, by the way). I assure you, this is not the case. This is also not the issue of my general reading strategy, because there are books I can read without taking meticulous notes on them or without leaving even a single annotation on their margins. There is something in the manuscripts I am dealing with and with the early modern prints I am reading since October that forces me to digest them in this particular way: by making longer excerpts or copying them entirely.

Over the past few months, since the beginning of my project I kept doing this with some occasional breaks. Frankly, it started long before my current project and this was my basic method of gathering materials for my doctorate. Back then, I used to spend long hours at the reading room(s) copying notes left by Socinian students in their copies of Ramist textbooks or trying to decipher faded out scribblings left by Ioannes Broscius in his Ramist prints and notebooks. Since October, I changed only the object of my study and the chronology-and-calendar related manuscripts and early modern some of them quite rare, prints from a number of Polish libraries replaced the Ramist textbooks as well as the pro- and anti-Ramist marginalia.

Recently, when I looked back at the past few months and what I have actually done, I started to worry that I did very little, especially if you take into consideration the fact thatI am a research fellow with no teaching obligations. I turned two conference papers into two, quite longish, articles and gave two conference papers (one at Vienna and the other at York). I am currently working on a third paper I am going to give at the Computus Conference at Galway this July. I also gave three papers at three different work-in-progress seminars held at my Faculty and two of them will be eventually turned into articles. Three book reviews for scholarly journals and two other reviews addressed to general public conclude this list. These doubts are, I believe, quite common to all academics who live under the shadow of reports on their progress and have to remember that their research projects, especially those funded by external funding agencies, are expected to bring the promised output. And when the daemon of doubt started to throttle me, I suddenly remembered that perhaps I did not write much, but I spent endless hours at the desk, either in my room or at the library or archive, copying words of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century scholars. And the thousands of words I copied thus far constitute now a large corpus of both Latin and Polish source material.

At this point the gathered material is quite raw and still requires a thorough proofreading (no matter how slowly and carefully you transcribe, you will always make some typos or misread an abbreviation) and some decisions regarding the orthography and punctuation are still to be made. Although transcribing the documents is a painstaking activity, it gives me also a great satisfaction when, for instance, I manage to decipher some difficult part of a manuscript or when I suddenly hear echoes of other texts I overlooked earlier. This is also a great philological exercise which allows you to get to the level of historical text which is quite often neglected in the classrooms, even at the coursed dedicated to medieval and Renaissance literature. Eight years ago when I took an obligatory course in historical grammar, some problems seemed to me rather abstract. Now, when I decided to transcribe a considerable number of old Polish texts, some of them originated on the cultural and language borderlands, where Polish, Ruthenian and other languages influenced one other, the phonetic qualities and issues of the orthography of the old Polish become much closer than ever before. And so are these texts.

I believe that the work of a historian should be considered, at least partially, as storytelling. This point was made by a number of scholars, including William Cronon, who tackled the idea of historiography as strorytelling in his wonderful presidential address given at the 2013 AHA Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Yet besides the narrative skills, le métier d’historien is based also on editorship and and one of the goals of historians activity is to provide the sources with commentary and make them available to other readers. Editorship is for me as equally important as structuring one’s own argument, creating an interpretation of the past events or, to put it simply, writing an erudite narrative about them.

These documents, transcriptions of a number of manuscripts and polemical publications are awaiting for the second phase or stage of my work which will be twofold. Now, when up to a certain point I internalized these texts through transcription, I should provide them with critical apparatus that will explain both the peculiarities of their language and the arguments and references employed in the calendrical and chronological debates. Some of them will hopefully find their place in the appendices for the articles that still need to be written, some of them – and that’s the largest part of my scribal output – will provide a basis for a large editorial project which will document a large part of my both to date and future research.

Thanks to these long hours spent on transcribing some obscure Latin manuscripts from various Central European milieus and angry Jesuit and Uniate brochures regarding the calendar reform, I see layers of this discussion which could be easily dismissed after a one-time reading and I hope I will be able to render the qualities of these texts and the hidden currents of these debates in the editions and narratives to come.

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One thought on “My life as a scribe

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 3 | Whewell's Ghost

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