Irma instead of Sir Orfeo

I’m facing a preemptive weather day off school thanks to Hurricane Irma. The announcement was made Friday, for classes the following Monday. While Tuesday remains a question, my guess is there might be a delayed opening, but no full cancellation. Although given that both my classes Tuesday-Thursday are in the morning, it might effectively be a second day off. We’ll see. I bring this up because it got me thinking about how technology has changed the logistics of how these things work.

On the plus side, the announcement went through quickly, as opposed to ye olden dayes when a phone tree might have been used to ensure the message got out. I got both an alert on my phone and an email. The cancellation also features prominently on the university website, and you can’t even go to the email log-in without the red banner near the top of the page informing you of no class Monday. Similarly, through digital technology I can quickly and with relative certainty notify students of both the cancellation and of what to do instead of class. In this case, I posted on class D2L/Brightspace pages an alternative online assignment. It’s not ideal, but it ensures that we can keep moving on with the calendar instead of having to rewrite it or move everything back a day. I also sent out an email alert to the classes telling them where to go for further information.

In the downside, if power goes out, as it certainly will in some areas, then students may lose the ability to see further communications and access certain materials. No power of course equals no wi-fi, and while it’s possible a smart phone might still work, doing a full class assignment on one strikes me as unreasonably difficult. Unless the student does the assignment by hand, takes a picture, and then uploads it onto the D2L dropbox, but I doubt anyone will be thinking that creatively. This does not solve the problem of accessing online lecture outlines or in the case of my British Literature class, the annotated TEAMS version of Sir Orfeo. Most people should have it in the textbook, but a few students with older editions may have to use the online version, which, again, may be difficult to not possible without power.

It’s also a little disappointing that I won’t be doing my manuscript demo in class, since that involves being in person and having access to a digitized pages of Ashmole 61, and pages of the Auchinleck manuscript. The Ashmole manuscript is especially fun to bring up in class because of the scribal signatures, both the name and doodle of the fishy that show up after most of the texts. Students usually have some fun speculating what the fish means and why the scribe draws it. It doesn’t fit to push this back until Wednesday because we’re doing Chaucer that day, which is a whole new set of manuscripts and related issues which don’t’ really lend themselves well to brief class presentations or discussions. If I ever get the chance to teach a full Chaucer course, then heck yes, we’re going there, but this is a Brit Lit 1 survey; it’s just not really feasible. I might have to wait until two weeks from now when we get to the Second Shepherd’s Play (our representation of medieval drama) to bring in manuscript context, and by that point, there’s no guarantee anyone will remember the courtly romances in enough depth. Plus, the questions and manuscript situation for the mystery plays is just plain different.

The final possible inconvenience that technology might cause is not entirely a bad thing. If there are widespread losses of power and therefore access to digital resources, I would guess that students will email questions using their phones. This means I either have to use phone battery life or wait for a backup of emails when I next get into my office. The downside is getting behind in email and students potentially getting worried or frustrated; the plus side here is the forced unplug. While I recognize it just means putting things off in some ways and facing more work when tech is back up and running, for the while it lasts, going old school with paper and pen/pencil is good for a person, or at least for me. Then again, I have the benefit of being from the window of people who experienced a childhood without digital technology, but experienced it early enough in life to be relatively at ease with it now. It’s possible that students, most of whom are from the first generations to grow up with digital technology, may not share this sentiment, but who knows? I’ve seen reports and studies suggesting that even later Millenials recognize the value of getting away from tech every now and again.



Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.

Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

Updates, or why books are better

Technology and software updates are now a fact of life. But they are still a supreme annoyance when major changes are made. For example, I have an I-Pad and an OS update was recently issued for it that made some major changes in both the user interface and in some of the permanent apps. I hate the new way News is set up, and it’s so much less customizable and user friendly. The worst part though is that if you go into the app store, there’s no option to review it. It’s like Apple did this on purpose, knowing it would upset people but not caring. There was no need for such extensive revisions; I liked the app. But now I can’t see everything list chronologically the way I could before, and if I want to see all the listings from a favorite publication, I can’t just look for that; I have to look through all of the articles for the general subject category, and they’re no longer in clear chronological order.

I understand the need to update things, and I know change can be irritating. With the same system update I also had to relearn how to convert a Pages file, but it was easy enough to figure out. Pages itself remains much the same in terms of function and interface. This kind of thing I am accepting of. Complete overhauls that change things for the worse and that give no outlet for venting, not so much.

I do have a relevant point here, not just a rant against the new I-Pad OS. With technology, these problems are inevitable; the case as much with innovations in actual books is different. As funny as it is, I doubt here is much realism in the following link to a video concerning medieval tech support:

When new structures were added to books, they did not change the entire interface or functionality of the object. Instead, often “updates” were added to help with use, including indices, TOC, text titles, glosses, or accesus (a technical term that basically means an abstract). The following images are from British Library Additional MS 11859, a 15th century book containing the Gospels:


The penciled-in addition in the upper margin and the note on the outer R margin do not alter the main interface, but adds further information.



This table of contents was added much later (you can tell by the handwriting as well as the fact that it’s in pencil), but does not interfere with the original function or user interface. Instead it provides optional extra information.

You had the option of customizing a book as you chose. For example, BL Add. MS 22283 (possibly my favorite book in the BL):


Not only does this book have decoration, it also has some added notes (you can see in the upper R corner of this page).

Another adaptation was to have the original text surrounded by professional scholarly commentary as in Add MS 11727, Thucydides’ Historiae with scholia by Marcellinus:


You could even leave feedback for posterity concerning something that happened to the page, for good or bad. For example, in Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249:

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

The finger pointing to the smudge and the note explain what happened, are a fifteenth century version of a feedback comment (namely the monk/scribe’s annoyance at how a cat had altered his work in progress).

Such innovations were usually added alongside what was already present.  Major changes, such as from scroll to codex, or from parchment to paper, happened gradually, and rarely were total. An exception could be when the printing press was introduced, as to my knowledge there would not be a good way to reproduce a scroll-style text using the mechanism, although you probably could print a series of pages and the attach them in scroll form?

Whether or not the technology would make scrolls possible, the codex represents an improved interface simply because it makes for more convenient back and forth between locations in the text. Even if you preferred the scroll form, the change from scroll to codex was gradual, like the change-over from VCR to DVDs. VCRs were still being made until 2016, decades after the introduction of the DVD, so if you had a preference for the older technology, you had a long while to make the change. It wasn’t forced upon you suddenly.

A note on the images: I have included the links to the original sources, though not always the exact page, all of which all publicly available online.

Key Books for Most Any Medievalist

***This list is not exhaustive, nor is it permanent. It will be updated periodically. Let’s say it’s a permanent work in progress.***


The Owl and the Nightingale


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

A Parallel Text Edition of Chaucer’s Minor Poems (there are also some Supplement volumes)

De Nuptiis Philologiae Et Mercurii (The Marriage of Philology and Mercury) by Martianus Capellanus

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series


Prose or Poetry-for-not-strictly-poetic-reasons:

The Art of Preaching by Alanus d’Insulis

The Metalogicon by John of Salisbury

Ars Versificatoria: The Art of the Versemaker by Matthew of Vendôme

Anything in the TEAMS Middle English series



Riverside Chaucer edited by Larry Benson

Middle English Debate Poetry: A Critical Anthology edited by John Conlee

Medieval Grammar and Rhetoric: Language Arts and Literary Theory, AD 300-1475 edited by Rita Copeland and I. Sluiter

Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism, c. 1100-c. 1375: The Commentary-Tradition edited by A.J. Minnis, A. Brian Scott, and David Wallace



European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius

Medieval Narrative: An Introduction by W.A. Davenport

The Life and Times of John Trevisa, Medieval Scholar by David Fowler

Style and Consciousness in Middle English Narrative by John Ganim

The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and its Critics by Kathryn Hume

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600 by Vivienne Law

Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: an Institutional and Intellectual History by Gordon Leff

Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages by A.J. Minnis

Handbook of Medieval Studies :Terms, Methods, Trends. Ed. Albrecht Classen

Old English and Middle English Poetry by Derek Pearsall

Reading Middle English Literature by Thorlac Turville-Petre


Manuscript Studies:

Introduction to Manuscript Studies by Ray Clemens and Timothy Graham

A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 by Michelle Brown

Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts: Literary and Visual Approaches by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Maidie Hilmo, Linda Olson

Pause and Effect: An Introduction of the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B Parkes

Cambridge University and a few Colleges

Cambridge University Libraries, Special Collections

Links to searching the collection, brief subject guides, and ‘image of the month’.

Special Collections blog (CUL)

Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

This page contains information on the library in general. Of particular interest is the Early Manuscripts link which contains access to the James catalogue, and names of other resources for using the collections.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University

Special Collections at the Bodleian

This is the homepage for Special Collections (this designation includes manuscripts). Links include access to digitized versions of the Quarto and Summary Catalogues, the two main catalogues of the medieval manuscript collections.

Online Collections Catalogues

Many of the collections detailed here are well known. The information includes details about the collections in general as well as individual manuscripts.