Usus scribendi and the Estoria Digital

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Back in 2014, when we were still in the early days of transcribing for the 2016 Estoria Digital, we came across the issue of how to expand the abbreviation ‘muḡ’ which appeared in E2. Should we expand to muger or mugier, since both appeared unabbreviated in the manuscript? Diego Catalán and Inés Fernández-Ordóñez’s studies have shown us that E2 is a composite manuscript put together between the 1320s and 1344, made up of folios from the Alfonsine scriptorium (E1), some from the Versión amplificada of the Estoria from 1289, and others from the 1340s. A little more digging showed that in E2 the majority of the ‘muger’ variants appeared in folios added in the 1340s, whilst the majority of the ‘mugier’ variants came from the Alfonsine folios. E1 also contained ‘muger’ and ‘mugier’, with a preference for the older ‘mugier’ spelling. We were witnessing linguistic evolution in progress.

It is because of the linguistic evolution in progress during the periods in which the manuscripts of the Estoria de Espanna were first produced and copied that here at the Estoria Digital, we have decided to follow the usus scribendi of each manuscript. Usus scribendi means scribal practice – how exactly was the scribe writing in a given manuscript? For example, if we see ‘n̄’, and we know that when this scribe does not abbreviate he habitually writes ‘nn’, as in ‘Espanna’, we follow the usus scribendi and expand to ‘nn’ (that is, we add a second <n>, according to the unabbreviated form used by the scribe: <nn>). We do not apply modern Spanish rules and substitute for an ‘ñ’. Following the usus scribendi of each manuscript means that rather than making a decision as to how to expand a certain abbreviation and then doing that consistently across the project, we take each manuscript in turn, and look deeply into how each abbreviation is expanded by the scribe(s) in that particular manuscript, and expand to that. In cases where there was more than one expansion, perhaps as a result of more than one scribe working on a manuscript, we go with the most common expansion, but we consider these on a case by case basis.

Following the usus scribendi of each manuscript is, of course, a more complicated and slower route than regularising across the whole project, and introduces inconsistencies between manuscripts. The reason why we decided to take the route we did is because of the very nature of material from Alfonso’s works, and those which were derived from these. As well as a commitment to creating an oeuvre without equal in breadth and depth in the Late Middle Ages, Alfonso was committed, as Roger Wright tells us, to creating this oeuvre in Castilian for significant socio-political reasons. His impact was such that the language used in his works became the basis of written Castilian, and the act of copying and recopying the Alfonsine texts over the following centuries can provide us with key information about how Castilian was changing during this time. It is highly likely that our edition will be used by those interested in looking closely at the language and writing used in the Alfonsine and later works. Differences in spelling between manuscripts can be evidence of linguistic change in progress, and can be used to help build a stemma, or a family tree, of manuscripts, showing which is related to which. Of course, they may also be genuine human errors, the outcome of a momentary loss of concentration by a scribe eight hundred years ago – but even these scribal errors can be gold dust for scholars. For linguists this information is just as important as missing or added material is for historians (for the latter, see Hijano, 2018). We don’t want to lose any of this information at the transcription stage, so we aim to keep as much as we can in order that our edition can be as useful as possible to as wide an audience as we are able to provide for.

In TranscribeEstoria we currently find ourselves working on the second of the five passages for transcription. At the end of the first passage we released a blog detailing some common transcriber errors. One of these was the way in which volunteers had expanded abbreviating macrons for the nasal <m> or <n> before bilabial stops <p> and <b>. Many transcribers had followed modern Spanish, and had expanded to ‘m’. For example, when faced with this abbreviation:

Many transcribers used the button on the character palette for m-macron, which would give the expansion as ‘nombre’, as we see in modern Castilian. However, this does not appear to follow the usus scribendi for this manuscript, in which the habitual usage is for the nasal before a bilabial to be an <n> when not abbreviated. Here we can see an example:

The word here is enperador, with the p-bar representing ‘per’.

Eventually, as you know, the transcriptions produced as part of TranscribeEstoria will be incorporated into an updated edition of the Estoria Digital, and will be used by people with many different interests and requirements, with each type of user representing a different intended audience. Whilst a printed edition can really only cater for a small number of intended audiences, a digital edition, as ours is, can be more malleable at the point of use. For example, according to their needs, users can access our edition as a diplomatic edition, with expansions expanded out, as a collated edition, or as a regularised edition, with the spelling edited slightly for the ease of reading by those unaccustomed to reading medieval Spanish. All of this is possible because of the detailed level to which we transcribed. The transcriptions created at this early stage in the project will dictate many of the editorial decisions which can be made at a much later stage, and will greatly affect the final edition itself. We must remember that our role now is as transcribers, not as editors, and although some would argue that even seemingly simple transcriptions require a number of editorial-style decisions to take place in the mind of the transcriber, that where the transcription involves the application of a mechanical set of transcription norms, the true editorial judgements are carried out later by the general editor of the project (see Bordalejo cited in Duxfield 2018). Our job as transcribers is to provide the editor(s) with the detailed transcriptions following the usus scribendi that will enable them to edit our transcriptions to update the Estoria Digital. Without our diligence when transcribing, the editor(s) may not be able to edit to the level to which they may like, so ours really is a very important job indeed.


Sources and further reading

Diego Catalán, De Alfonso X al Conde de Barcelos: Cuatro estudios sobre el nacimiento de la historiografía romance en Castilla y Portugal (Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1962), pp.73-75

Estoria Digital, The Discovery of the Past: Alfonso the Wise and the Estoria de España (2017) [checked 21/10/2019]

Polly Duxfield, ‘The Practicalities of Collaboratively Digitally Editing Medieval Prose: The Estoria de Espanna Digital Project as a Case Study’, Digital Philology 7.1 (Spring 2018) 46-64 <> [checked 21/10/2019]

Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, ‘La transmisión textual de la ‘Estoria de España’ y de las principales ‘Crónicas’ de ellas derivadas’ in Inés Fernández-Ordóñez (Ed.) Alfonso X el Sabio y las crónicas de España (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 2000) p.243

Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, ‘Estoria de España’, in Carlos Alvar and José Manuel Lucía Megías (eds.), Diccionario Filológico de Literatura Medieval Española. Textos y transmisión. (Madrid: Castalia, 2002), pp.54-80, p.62

Manuel Hijano Villegas, Procedimientos para la construcción del pasado en la ‘crónicas generales’, Coloquio Internacional “Hispano-medievalismo y Crítica Textual: 40 años del SECRIT (1978-2018) Buenos Aires, 9-11 May 2018

Aengus Ward, ‘The Estoria de Espanna Digital: Collating Medieval Prose-Challenges… and More Challenges’, Digital Philology 7.1 (Spring 2018) 65-92, <> [checked 21/10/2019]

Roger Wright, Early Ibero-Romance: Twenty-one studies on language and the texts from the Iberian Peninsula between the Roman Empire and the Thirteenth Century (Delaware: Juan de la Cuesta, 1994)

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