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.

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?

Thinking about my research

As part of my first year as a PhD research student at Aberystwyth University I have to undertake a series of general research training modules.  Last week’s provided an introduction to critical thinking. It  was an interesting session, but having returned to the academic world after a significant gap it did leave me wondering about my own way of thinking.  Just how do I think about my research?

This question makes a nice change to my worrying about what I do not remember from my undergraduate studies.  A worry I really out to let go of given Aristotle’s view that memory decays as we get older.   Personally I’m putting my lack of recall down to lack of practise.  I haven’t had to recall specific historical events, views or arguments for quite some time and getting those brain cells to behave themselves is not an easy task.

My view on this being due to a lack of practise seems to be backed up by so far by my current experiences of learning Welsh simply because the more Welsh I do the more Latin, French and German I can recall.  Interestingly when I recall my Latin I actually see an image in my mind of the tables and lists I wrote out as an undergraduate.  Much in the way Aristotle suggests we store memories.

Anyway back to my thinking process.

Dealing with medieval history I follow the following general steps:

  • Through reading/chatting/watching TV programs an idea will appeal to me and raise questions that I want to answer.
  • I will then read around the topic to assess if I have something new to say.
  • When dealing with the past I try to be as impartial as I can and assess the work of others within their the context of their own times and belief system.

In short I will have an idea, test it, assess the results and adjust as necessary.

However the putting of myself in another’s shoes is vitally important.   It does not mean that I agree with everything I read or learn but it does mean that I can at some level understand their point of view.  This is essential in researching the medieval period.  You have to try to place yourself within the medieval world-view, let go of your preconceptions in order to evaluate the evidence.

It is impossible to take yourself completely out of the equation because even in being ‘impartial’ your own life experiences and beliefs which still shape how you deal with the evidence and the arguments surrounding it, but you have to try. It will be evident in your writing to what extent you have succeeded.

I have had comments expressing the belief that what I want to do is impossible because the medieval world is so different to our own.  But to be honest I feel that argument could, to a certain extent, be applied to any time, any country and any individual.  The hardest thing we can do is to really empathise and see point of view different to our own.

So I will continue to read, analyse and apply what I learn.  I hope that I will be proved right but I am equally willing to accept that I may be proved wrong.