This is a guest blog post written by Nick Leonard, one of the Estoria project’s merry band of crowdsourcers.
The first time I laid eyes on a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna, just over a year ago, I might as well have been looking at cuneiform or hieroglyphics: I could barely read a word.
I had just finished my first introductory course in palaeography, which involved transcribing 19th-century copies of the original 15th-century Capitulary Acts of the cathedral of Plasencia, in Spain’s Extremadura region. That experience whetted my appetite for further exposure to manuscripts, but the task itself had involved little more than reading and copying fairly neat and modern handwriting.
The Estoria, half a millennium older and with its myriad of abbreviations, inconsistencies, odd spellings and occasionally smudged text, would present an entirely different challenge.
Fortunately, I wasn’t required to actually read the 14th-century text I had been assigned – at least, not yet. After going through the online training materials provided by the project team, my first task was simply to insert line break tags into the existing transcription as part of the transcription of the Estoria.
There are three line break tags used in the project: one for lines that end with a completed word, another for lines that end with the middle of a word but without a hyphen – a very common occurrence – and a final tag for that rare treat: lines that end in the middle of the word with a friendly hyphen to help novice crowdsourcers figure out what they are reading.
Adding line break tags might seem like a fairly mundane task, but it was invaluable in helping me to get to know the manuscript. At first, I would just look for the word in the existing transcription that had a similar length to, and looked somewhat like, the word at the end of the line in the manuscript, and insert my tags. But folio by folio, I found myself able to recognise and read more and more words, and I gradually began to figure out some of the common abbreviations. Eventually, I found myself spotting small differences between the base transcription text (which comes from the ‘E’ manuscript) and the text of the Q manuscript that I was working with.
After spending a few weeks acquainting myself with the manuscript and with line break tags, I was encouraged by the EDIT staff to begin adding abbreviation tags and bringing the base transcription text from E in line with Q. My first attempt at this proved very difficult, as it took an hour just to go through the first handful of lines while trying to find and insert the correct tags for all the unusual abbreviations I was coming across. But I worked faster with each passing line even on that first folio, and the help and encouragement I received from the EDIT staff motivated me to keep at it.
Within a couple of weeks I could recognise and tag most of the abbreviations without much difficulty and finish an entire folio in two hours. Exotic-sounding abbreviations such as p-bars and superscript hooks – and their tags – were becoming second nature, and soon afterwards, I could modify tags to suit abbreviations that weren’t covered in the transcription guidelines. Eventually, Q and all of its intricacies and crazy abbreviations became so familiar to me that I began to long for them when I was transcribing other texts as part of my ongoing palaeography training.
As the year went on, I toiled away on Q whenever I could spare the time. My assigned folios covered the first part of the Estoria, which deals with primitive and Roman history – the latter being another hobby of mine. Through the pages of Q, I followed Trojan warrior Aeneas as he made his way to Italy, wreaking havoc in Carthage along the way by inciting the rage of Queen Dido. Later, I found myself in ancient Spain among great beasts while Julius Caesar’s wars raged around me.
Just when Q and I had put aside our initial hostility and become the best of friends, I was informed that its transcription had been finished, and that my new task would be to work on the ’S’ manuscript that is slated to appear in a subsequent edition of the digital version of the Estoria.
I was hesitant to leave the (hard-won) comfort level that I had with Q, but S has made its own impression on me. For one thing, there are far fewer abbreviations, which delighted me initially but is now starting to perplex me instead – I often find myself asking the long-since departed S scribe why in the world he would bother writing out ‘que’ in full when a simple q̄ would not only save him space, time and effort, but also give me something to do here and there.
Beyond the abbreviations, the folios of S are easier to work with than those of Q owing to much clearer digital images, and I find the scribe’s rendering of gothic cursive script to be quite neat, too. After getting used to some quirky features such as the unusual spelling of words like ‘nonbre’, hyphens as full-stops, and the i with a descender below the line that we are transcribing as a j, S has become a pleasure to work with.
With virtually an entire manuscript ahead of me, I’ll have many more opportunities to become even more acquainted with the beautiful script of S as the project moves forward. In the meantime, I’m off to one of my favourite cities in Europe – Sevilla – next week for the third annual Estoria de Espanna Digital Project colloquium. See you there!