Friday, August 28, 2015

Sanctus Columbanus fecit hos caracteres

Well, that's weird.

In another Vatican manuscript (Pal. lat. 482) available in digital facsimile from the Heidelberg UB, there is a series of alphabetic signs in an otherwise empty column on f. 15v (click to see the whole leaf on the Heidelberg UB site): 

At first glance, this looks like a secret alphabet. In that case, the secondary literature probably starts with Bernhard Bischoff, "Übersicht über die nichtdiplomatischen Geheimschriften des Mittelalters," Mitteilungen des Instituts für österreichische Geschichtsforschung 62 (1954): 1-27. I don't find other examples associating Columbanus with secret writing, but Bishoff notes several attributions of secret writing to Irish clerics.

But several of the letters look quite normal. Is the series rather an initialism, with each letter standing for a word in some devotional passage? If that is the case, the secondary literature one needs is entirely different.

And one can't help but notice that there's a certain symmetry between the haloed "q" and the "p" signs at the beginning and end of the fourth line, or the "Christmas trees" on the left and right side, or the forwards uncial e in the third line and the backwards uncial e in the first line. Was there some kind of mirror-image game at the basis of these characters?

Who knows? It's weird. When you browse through manuscripts, you find weird things.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

BAV Pal. lat. 461: "Prophetia Sibille conscripta per Ioachim prophetam" = Gallorum levitas

For the last few months at least, volumes formerly held in Heidelberg and now in the Vatican library have been appearing in the digitalization project of the Heidelberg Universitätsbibliothek. I try to take at least a quick look at each miscellany as it appears, and one of them, Pal. lat. 461, included a "Prophetia Sibille conscripta per Ioachim prophetam," which sounded promising. The first few words quickly revealed this to be a garbled fifteenth-century copy of the "Gallorum levitas" prophecy:
Gallorum levitas / germanis iustificabit /
Ytalie gravitas / gallus confuse negabit /
Annis millenis tricentis novagenis /
Ter denis adiunctis / consurgit aquila grandis
Constantina cadet et equi de marmore facti
Et lapis erectus et erunt victricia signa
Gallus succumbit / vix erit urbs presule digna
Papa cito moritur / Cesar ubique regnabit
Sub quo cuncta vana / cessabit gloria cleri

This looked interesting, so I checked the secondary literature. Here's Robert Lerner (Powers of Prophecy 191 n. 11): "Unpublished MS copies of this text, which underwent numerous alterations, are so numerous as to be virtually beyond surveying."

Oh, well. But here's another one!

* * *

I've moved again. The new semester has already started, so posting will resume, but may be sporadic for a while.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A very short review: Sandra Rühr and Axel Kuhn, eds. Sinn und Unsinn des Lesens (2013)

Sandra Rühr and Axel Kuhn, eds. Sinn und Unsinn des Lesens: Gegenstände, Darstellungen und Argumente aus Geschichte und Gegenwart. Göttingen: V & R Unipress, 2013. 246 pp. 978-3847-101284.

Ceci n'est pas une Festschrift

This book is not a Festschrift. It is instead a volume of well-executed, thematically coherent essays with real scholarly merit published in honor of Ursula Rautenberg's sixtieth birthday. As the editors and authors have taken pains to avoid the defects often found in Feschschriften, the collected volume is a fitting tribute to the honoree.

The essays are arranged in order of their chronological focus, which spans the range from medieval manuscript practice to contemporary book marketing and the future of reading. These include the following:
  • Siegfried Grosse, "Versmaß, Reim  und Syntax: Überlegungen zur oralen Poesie" examines the significance of early twentieth-century recordings of story-telling during women's down-plucking circles for our understanding of medieval literature as oral performance.
  • Anro Mentzel-Reuters, "'Wer hat mich guoter uf getan?' Studien zur volkssprachlichen höfischen Lesekultur des Hochmittelalters" presents empirical evidence (based on page size, book weight, letter height, and internal lighting conditions) for the practical use of medieval manuscripts for individual or group reading. I'm already beginning to cite this chapter.
  • Nikolaus Weichselbaumer, "'Sie solllen lesen bei Tag und bei Nacht': Akzeptanz und Funktion scholastische Leseformen" treats the transition from monastic to scholastic modes of reading with exceptional concreteness and clarity.
  • Edoardo Barbierei, "A Peculiarity of the 'Glossae' by Salomon III. of Constance" suggests that a 1474 edition of the Glossae went to press before the actual extent of another included text was known.
  • Oliver Duntze, "'The sound of silence': Eine unbekannte 'Ars punctandi' als Quelle zur Geschichte des Lesens in der Frühen Neuzeit" provides a wide-ranging overview of punctuation manuals as sources for the history of reading practices.
  • Mechhild Habermann, "Lesenlernen in der Frühen Neuzeit: Zum Erkenntniswert der ersten volkssprachlichen Lehrbücher" finds in sixteenth-century didactic works on reading evidence for a new approach to reading based on meaning rather than letters, and for an increased regard for the value of reading.
  • Hans-Jörg Künast, "Lesen macht krank und kann tödlich sein: Lesesuch und Selbstmord um 1800" investigates medical treatises as a new source for the reading revolution of the late eighteenth century and official concerns about it.
  • Ute Schneider, "Anomie der Moderne: Soziale Norm und Kulturelle Praxis des Lesens" considers the formation of a literary canon and the codification of reading practices in the context of the formation of a German national identity during the nineteenth century. 
  • Heinz Bonfadelli, "Zur Konstruktion des (Buch-)Lesers: Universitäre Kommunikationswissenschaft und angewandte Medienforschung" treats a seemingly simple yet consequential question: how does academic study of media and communication differ from the study of media markets and usage within the industry, and how does the treatment of books and reading compare to approaches to other media in each sphere? A serious course about the German media should include this chapter on its reading list.
  • Lilian Streblow and Anke Schöning, "Lesemotivation: Dimensionen, Befunde, Förderung" reviews studies of reading education in Germany in the aftermath of the PISA-test debates.
  • Sven Grampp, "Kindle's Abstinence Porn: Über Sinn und Sinnlichkeit digitaler Lesegeräte in der Werbung" performs a close reading of a televised Kindle advertisement and dissects its use of gender roles.
  • Axel Kuhn, "Das Ende des Lesens? Zur Einordnung medialer Diskurse über die schwindende Bedeutung des Lesens in einer sich ausdifferenzierenden Medienlandschaft" surveys twentieth- and twenty-first century discourses in which predictions of doom for literacy, books, printed books as opposed to e-books, and reading as a primary cultural technique have been made; at the end, Kuhn remains optimistic for the future of reading and skeptical of the prophets of doom.
These are well-written, thought-provoking essays which together add up to more than the sum of their parts. Es lebe die nicht-Feschschrift!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Incunable leaf sizes

Confirmed: The earliest printed books look very much like books. Specifically, the ratio of leaf height to leaf width and the height-width ratio of the type space are precisely what you would expect.

That sounds complete uninteresting, but before making that statement in an article I'm working on, I wanted some actual data. That's the tricky part, however, as most incunable catalogs, and all of the incunable databases that I'm aware of, only record the format - as opposed to manuscript catalogs, which usually record the page dimensions, but not the format. Thanks to a tip from Oliver Duntze, I checked the British Museum incunable catalog. For 23 Mainz codex editions to 1470 recorded in BMC, the average leaf size ratio is 1: 1.44, while the type space ratio (from 25 editions) is a bit narrower, 1: 1.51. There is some variation, but most of these early printed books fall quite close to the mean, as the plot below shows. Leaf size is in red, while type space dimensions are in blue, with linear trend lines added to each.
 Fig. 1: Leaf height and width (red) and writing space height and width (blue) in Mainz codex editions to 1470.

To compare incunable leaf sizes rather than ratios, the BMC records for Mainz printing to 1470 might not be the best source, as many of those volumes are deluxe folio editions on vellum. Instead I referred to the Bodleian Library incunable catalog, which also provides leaf sizes. The graph below shows the leaf height for 15 folio editions, 26 quarto editions, and 2 octavo editions. More editions would of course be preferable, but since I don't have electronic records to work with, the data have to be entered manually. You can in any case already see the distinct formats: octavo leaf heights appear in red, quartos in gray, and folios in blue.
 Fig. 2: Leaf heights (mm) of a selection of folio (blue), quarto (gray), and octavo (red) incunables from the Bodleian Library.

Two things stand out: First, the folios clearly comprise different paper sizes, one with an average height around 290 mm, and another with an average height around 410 mm. Second, small quartos overlap with octavos. It would be interesting to look at more leaf sizes of these smaller formats.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The history of the late medieval book in one boxplot

One of the basic ways to describe the types used for fifteenth-century printed books is the method refined by Konrad Haebler that involves, among other things, measuring the height of twenty lines of type. The height of a typeface affected its legibility, or how far a reader could be from a text and still be able to read it. The height of the type was also significant in relation to the other types used in a book, as a type taller than the one used for the main text often identified titles and other structural paratexts, while a shorter type was typically used for marginal commentary. So what at first glance might sound like a number only interesting to antiquarians turns out to have some interesting implications for the history of reading as a cultural practice.

With the availability of the Typenrepertorium der Wiegendrucke as an electronic resource linked to the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke, it's now possible to survey type heights systematically, so it should be possible to look at how type heights develop during the fifty years following the invention of printing. What may not be obvious is that we can do something similar for German manuscripts as well, as the Handschriftencensus records the height of the writing space and the number of lines for manuscripts where this can be determined - so we can divide the writing space height by the number of lines, multiply by twenty, and arrive at the "Haebler height" for each manuscript.

The boxplot below summarizes the means and 25th/75th-percentile limits for German vernacular mansucripts between 1351 and 1450 (with approximate dates coerced to a single year), and printed books separated by decade (with the 1450s and 1460s combined due to the small number of editions from the 1450s). While we're measuring what I think are comparable things, they're not precisely the same: the left column is looking at the line height per manuscript, while the other four columns look at the line height per occurrence of a give type - so a type used in five editions over fifteen years will be counted five times over two different decades. This is, I think, the best way to determine what a typical book might look like, with a frequently-used type counted more times than a type that was only used once. (To be completely consistent, we would also need to look only at books printed in Germany rather than all incunables.)
The next boxplot limits the y axis to make the picture clearer.
What we see here is that the earliest printed books used types that were very similar in height, on average, to the line heights found in manuscripts over the preceding century, while the 1470s form a period of transition between the earliest printed books and the 1480s and 1490s, when noticeably smaller types were preferred. The use of smaller types allowed for the production of less expensive books, with more printed text per unit of paper, but it took a few decades before the technical possibilities of the printing press could reshape reader's expectations for what their books should look like.

Friday, March 6, 2015

One Republic of Learning: Counting Stares

Recently in the New York Times editorial pages - the most prominent platform for short-form opinion writing in the United States and equal to any in the English-speaking world - Armand Marie Leroi, a professor of developmental biology, argued that the humanities, if they are to have a future, must make the transition to a mathematically-based science.

There is much in Leroi's argument that I agree or sympathize with. The digitization projects of the last decade or more truly have changed what is possible in the humanities. We have easy access to a breadth of sources that was entirely unknown just a few decades ago. It is also true that scholars in the humanities sometimes make overly broad statements based on slim evidence, and that we sometimes make assertions with statistical implications without bothering to gather data or test the likelihood of those assertions. As Leroi states, "Digitization breeds numbers; numbers demand statistics." I've beat on this drum a few times myself. At the conceptual if not the computational level, statistical and computational methods are not out of our reach. With less work than it takes to learn Latin, we in the humanities can make these methods our own.

And yet several times while reading the essay, I found myself staring at the text and wondering what Leroi could possibly be thinking. Now that we have a decade of experience with digitization, we can recognize both its promise and its limits. Digitization does not turn "caterpillars into butterflies"; we have seen media change before, and we know that there are both gains and losses. The easy access to facsimile images obscures the difficulty of determining what other pamphlets were bound together as a single volume, for example, an important fact that would have once been obvious to anyone visiting an archive in person. And it is not only scientists who "know that impressions lie"; humanists have been studying representation and memory for a long time.

A telling episode in Leroi's essay involves a hypothetical graduate student who reacts to the argument of a traditional scholar based on textual evidence by downloading texts, running algorithms, applying statistical analysis, and visualizing the results in order to disprove the traditional scholar's point. Now, digital texts are marvelous things, but you have to understand what it is they represent. Is it an autograph? The first edition? The last authorized edition? A critical edition? A transcription of an early, fragmentary manuscript, or a late, complete one? You can postpone some of these questions, but you can't avoid them forever. Textual editing, electronic or not, is difficult, painstaking, and often thankless work. The point is that these downloadable texts don't simply exist; they have been created by people with particular outlooks and specific places and histories, and serious work in the humanities has to be aware of those aspects. And what algorithms should the graduate student run? The coin of the realm in the textual humanities remains close reading, with careful attention to context and levels of meaning. At the moment, the algorithms at our disposal enable only distant reading. It's certainly true that the graduate student and the scholar may end up talking past each other, but that won't do anyone any good (especially the graduate student, who will be fishing for recommendation letters when he or she hits the job market in a few years).

If we do in fact reach the point where the digital humanities expresses its results "not in words, but equations," where the "analog scholar won't even know how to read the results," then the digital humanities will fail. The humanities as academic disciplines have a particular set of guiding questions, and if a would-be contribution to the field does not address any of those questions, or does so in a way that is incomprehensible to practitioners, then it will be ignored. Leroi, a biologist, thinks that the new humanities disciplines will resemble evolutionary biology, with contributions from "biologists, economists, and physicists." While all of these disciplines have useful insights and methods for the humanities, what they do not have is a grasp on the questions that are of primary importance to humanists, or the language humanists use to express their findings. It is furthermore not at all clear that the tools of evolutionary biology, where reproduction is the first imperative of the most basic building blocks of life, should apply to culture, where it is not.

It is not as if we have not been down this path before. There is a history of mathematical approaches to the humanities, and it is a history littered with dead ends. While lurking in the stacks as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I would regularly come across books published in the 70s and 80s, precursors of a sort to the Mittelhochdeutsche Begriffsdatenbank, that attempted to semantically encode various medieval texts so that one could search for not just textual but rather significant semantic collocations. I know of no useful scholarship that ever came out of these efforts. On a happier note, corpus linguistics has been a well established discipline for several decades - but it has supplemented, not supplanted, other approaches to syntax and morphology. Leroi holds up the "unforgiving terms and journals that scientists read," and yet STEM peer review has not proved to be an effective arbiter of quality in the humanities. Instead, leading STEM journals have regularly published headline-grabbing articles that apply computational and statistical methods to historical linguistics, for example, and failed to recognize in the nonsensical results a mirror image of the Sokal affair. If the basic assumptions of one field (for example, that rates of gene mutation are predictable) simply don't apply to another (linguistics really and truly reject glottochronology), then the methods will not be transferable, not because analog scholars are hidebound, but because they have a grounding in their disciplines that their neighbors across the quad simply do not have.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How atypical are the editions in Eric White's census of print runs?

In the introduction to his census of known fifteenth-century print runs, Eric White cautions against taking his results as representative for all incunables:
As the census will make immediately apparent, a large percentage of editions for which we know the print runs were produced to fulfill institutional functions.... Remunerative and relatively risk-free for printers, the original commissions for projects such as these tended to end up in surviving archives, and they tended to afford very large editions. It should be noted, therefore, that the print runs known from such institutional commissions do not represent a normative cross-section of fifteenth-century press production, but rather a selection of large scale projects carried out with institutional funding and pressure to produce. As a group they almost certainly reflect higher-than-average print runs.... Moreover, the majority of the recorded print runs reflect the output not of the ‘average’ printing shop, but rather that of a few exceptionally successful publishers who received commissions from well-funded institutions. It is worth remembering that a documented print run may not be a representative print run.
White's characterization of his sample is correct. Compared to all recorded incunables in the ISTC, folios are much more prevalent in the print run census, while quartos are underrepresented, and broadsides do not appear at all.
Comparison of format distribution 

For each format, the books are also substantially longer, with the average number of leaves 60-100% higher than for the ISTC as a whole. (NB: Averages can be a misleading way to describe the distribution of leaf counts, but they give a correct impression in this case.)

Comparison of average leaf count by format

White's suggestion that the sample of known print runs enjoyed a better survival rate than other incunables is also correct, with an average number of surviving copies 20-65% higher than what one finds for the ISTC as a whole. (NB: Averages can be even more misleading for describing survival rates.)
Comparison of average surviving copies by format

This doesn't mean that we should ignore White's census of print runs as an atypical sample, however. Rather, we can say that its sample differs from the body of known incunables in various ways, some of which have well-understood effects. For example, the size and format of editions in White's sample are larger on average than for the ISTC as a whole, and the included editions likely benefited from association with an institutional sponsor, all of which are associated with higher survival rates than other fifteenth-century printed books, so that we would expect the survival rate for White's sample to be higher than for the ISTC as a whole.