PhD and the end of year 2

It’s just about the end of the second year of my PhD and looking back over the past two years I feel that I have accomplished a tremendous amount of work, but at the same time not nearly enough. A common enough feeling amongst PhD students at this point in their research.

The transcription and translation of manuscripts, and the drawing out of themes is a lengthy and drawn out process. There are no shortcuts when working with unpublished manuscripts.

Transcriptions of the document are needed. In the first instance these are often made from microfilmed copies of the original. I have also worked with the original manuscript and the difference in readability is amazing. The original in this case is much clearer and when looking at how the manuscript was used being able to see the colours of the ink and the amount of pen pressure are essential.

Of course not all transcripts result in lovely published critical editions.  Much of the manuscript that I have transcribed will be incorporated into the text of my thesis, but a large amount of the work will be relegated to an appendix.

So the third year begins in October and I will be spending the next year reading and writing like a demon and wondering where all the time has gone. But I’m still enjoying the research and seem to be on target.

Wish me luck.

Working in the Margins 1

I love marginalia. I love the challenge of deciphering the notes left behind in manuscripts and books. I love the idea of connecting with an individual who learns as I do – by marking books.

C16th handwriting

I have always written in books. Nobody ever told me it was wrong to write in my own books. It was only inappropriate to do so in someone else’s books, and that of course made perfect sense. So I grew up writing in the meanings of words and commenting on what I had or had not understood. Of course I never wrote in library books or books I borrowed from friends.

For me reading and writing are linked and at this stage that is unlikely to ever change. Not even with the advent of digital markup. I think differently with a pen in my hand than when I markup a document on an iPad. The handwritten note stay with me longer and I am more confident in utilising the knowledge I have gained.

But It was only when I came to study marginalia as an academic subject that I learned differently. I learned that for some any marking of a book is horrifying disfigurement of a precious object. I’m just relieved that people wrote in the margins of medieval manuscripts as these marginalia allow us to explore how these documents were used and read.

At the moment I am working on a manuscript that has marginal notes on nearly every page. The majority of which can be assigned to two particular readers. I don’t know who they were but they do have distinct styles of writing and approaches to the text.

Once I have finished this chapter I will get back to you and share some of my findings or at least some of the problems that may arise in the course of working out just what these marginalia meaning within the context of the manuscript and medieval reading practise.

PhD update

The PhD is progressing quite quickly now and the work to date has covered:

  • transcribing one Middle English Manuscript
  • translating one Anglo-Norman poem for three separate audiences
  • transcribing the annotations of two C16th century readers
  • transcribing the annotations of several readers of C17-19th (these are much smaller in number)
  • completing a comparison of Brie’s collated copy with my manuscript
  • completing a draft chapter on translation
  • identifying the themes for each chapter

So all in all a substantial amount of work and I am now ready to move on and write-up the medieval section of my thesis.

This is a sample of the handwriting I have been working with.

C16th handwriting
C16th handwriting

The handwriting is generally quite good to read, but the sample here is one of the more difficult sections to transcribe. I’m just waiting for my supervisor to check that I have this bit right.

Context does help with the interpretation, and compared to deciphering my own handwriting this manuscript is a joy to work with.

I’m intending to post regularly on my progress now that I have the transcriptions completed and the analysis begins in earnest. If you are interesting in hearing more do let me know.

Medieval Storytelling

Last year I participated in an AHRC workshop on medieval storytelling. The workshop was not what I expected, but It was an interesting experience. Although not all of the stated aims were met, but again from my experience that is not unusual.

The focus of the workshop was on storytelling for children in general rather than on the retelling of medieval stories for a modern audience at keystage 2. There was some discussion of adaptation in terms of what needed to be removed from the ‘original’ medieval tale, but not much about what needed to be retained in order to keep a sense of the medieval world.

For me the modern adaptation of stories created and told within the medieval period depends a great deal on the reason why these stories are being adapted for a modern audience. If the purpose is to give keystage 2 children a sense of life in the medieval world then much of the ‘original’ story would have to be kept.

Adaptations of these stories should be recast in language accessible to children and yes they would on occasion have to be rendered less sexually explicit, but on the other hand removing all religious references and recasting gender roles would mean that the modern retelling no longer reflects the medieval culture within which these stories were told. Such heavy recasting is of course perfectly acceptable if you are simply telling a story without placing any educational constraints on it.

Adaptation, retelling, recasting – however you want to think about it has a long and well accepted tradition. What matters is why you are telling the story in the first place.

What do you think?

Old English – widow

I’m busy working away on the first stage of my analysis for my supervisor which is due at the end of this week. It’s an undertaking which is opening up a myriad of interesting avenues that I need to keep well under control.

One of these is due to the fact I am working with Old English again – a language which I love to hear spoken when academics and enthusiasts get together to discuss their latest ideas.

It is difficult to access the mind-set of past times and some would say impossible. But I believe that examining language is one way of at least attempting to understand older societies.

That is not just to translate, but to examine the range of meanings associated with a particular word and to attempt to apply that broader understanding my ideas of cultural context.

So for today here is a word for you to think about:

láf  – meaning widow

The other meanings of this word include – remnant, relict, remains, remainder, survivors of battle.

What does this suggest to you about the way widows were considered within the Anglo-Saxon world?

Conference Abstracts part 1

My first year of research at Aberystwyth University has officially come to a close as I have now completed my registration for the second year. The first year consisted of my undertaking two research training modules:

  • Research Skills and Personal Development – which consisted of a variety of short lectures on topics considered relevant to the modern researcher. Two assignments were part of the process. I know that some of the postgrads found it very useful but I had covered most of the subjects before as part of my undergrad and MA studies.
  • Ways of Reading – consisted of a 2-day series of lectures. The assignment was a single essay on a topic of our choice.  Although, again, I had covered much of the material that was presented this module did have the benefit of being pertinent to my particular research interests.

For the rest of the year I attended workshops and conferences that were extremely helpful in clarifying just how I was going to approach my research topic. The rest of the time was spent transcribing a Middle English chronicle and translating a selection of Anglo-Norman material.

Now I have to work on a more detailed analysis of the material that I have collected and as part of this analysis I now have to start thinking about the conferences I wish to attend and the papers that I wish to share with the wider academic community.

Conference papers are an essential element within the PhD process as it gives the researcher an opportunity to test out theories and approaches in a relatively friendly environment. The questions posed by an audience of your peers can be enlightening whether you can answer them or not. Questions and answer sessions allow you to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your research, and often open up new ways of looking at your material.

But the first hurdle to overcome is having your paper accepted by a conference in the first place. Acceptance into a conference is dependent upon the abstract that you send in to the conference organisers. This abstract not only has to encapsulate your paper, but it also has to be interesting enough to sell itself to the organisers. Not an easy task in abstracts of 200-500 words.

I am now in the process of writing my first selection of abstracts for a number of very interesting conferences, but I am finding this to be a difficult task. This is despite having completed a research training skills assignment which basically analysed a selection of abstracts in order to decipher what makes a successful  abstract.

Abstracts take practise and a lot of thought. Each one has to be tailored to suit the individual conference theme. But for conferences in general the following basic rules apply:

  • Ensure that the conference you are considering is appropriate for your work.
  • Check if the conference provide examples of what they wish to see – not all do.
  • If guidelines are given – follow them.
  • Write the abstract.
  • Have your supervisor check it over and listen to their advice.
  • Double-check the abstract submission guidelines and deadline.
  • Don’t write under the minimum word limit.
  • Don’t go over the maximum word limit.
  • Submit the abstract on time.

Once I have been accepted to give a paper I will go through the process that I took and share it here. I’m not going to share my ideas on conference abstract writing before then, after all I’ve no idea if my approach will work – yet.


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