Tips for Transcribing (2)

It pays to keep in mind that the vast majority of words in a text are not nonsense, but real words in whatever language is being employed. That might sound bleeding obvious, but desperation does cause people to think they are writing something out letter by letter, even when it doesn't make sense. It pays to keep your dictionaries by you, and look up any unfamilar words. Of course, it is necessary to bear in mind that medieval Latin contains many words that are not to be found in a Classical Latin dictionary, so a medieval Latin word list is essential. Languages like English, French or German have changed greatly over the centuries, existed in different dialect forms and did not have standardised spelling. You may need historic dictionaries to hand, and be prepared to test out a variety of possible spellings. Words have also changed their meanings over time. Fortunately dictionary resources available on the web have become very comprehensive.
Holy Meditation A section from a poem Holy Meditation (British Library, Egerton 3245, f.193, by permission of the British Library.
The fifth word on the fifth line of the segment above is turtil, but the combined brains of the medieval enterprise here could not accept that Jesus was being compared to a turtle; that is, until a colleague with a vast knowledge of medieval animal imagery pointed out that it referred to a turtle dove, a symbol of fidelity. You just have to think in context.
If you are looking at a literary text, there is a pretty good chance that somebody has already produced a printed edition. Web searching techniques can not only find texts with known authors and titles, but can ferret out strings of words to help you identify your text. Don't be fooled into thinking, however, that you just have to identify the passage and copy it out from the printed edition. Manuscript works are full of variations and errors, so you have to check every word carefully.
There are various kinds of transcriptions. There is the absolutely literal, with every letter recorded as it is written. There are edited versions in which spellings are standardised, missing word endings added and modern punctuation inserted. There are even more processed versions in which spelling and grammar is modernised. There are footnoted editions in whcih variations between different manuscript versions are noted. There are translations. Whatever you intend to end up with, it pays to start with a very literal transcript, such as you find in paleography books rather than literary editions. It should be clearly indicated where abbreviations have been expanded. This can be a problem with cursive scripts in vernacular languages where it can be hard to determine whether a flourish at the end of a word is an abbreviation mark or a bit of decoration, or in hastily written Latin documents where most of the word endings have been left off. When in doubt, transcribers tend to insert an apostrophe. Educated guesses at illegible or erased bits should also be indicated. Use your own private code for these things if you like, rather than the difficult systems used in printed texts where the transcriber is working within the limited bounds of typescript, but keep it consistent. Once you have your literal transcript, you can work it up from there into something more reader friendly.
My resident medievalist, who works mainly with legal documents, would claim that the above advice is absolute nonsense. He would say find the relevant names, the date and what the document is actually about and don't worry about intricacies of spelling or expression. Well, if you are an expert in a very specialised area, you can probably do that, but most people using this website are still on a learning curve, and I stick by my advice.
I have been asked whether it is better to work from the original manuscript or a photograph or scan. Sometimes you have no choice in this matter, and with recent developments on the web, it is possible to look at scans of manuscripts that would only have been accessible through an expensive overseas trip. On the other hand, photographs are not always available. My resident medievalist is going to have to make a trip to view a document in poor condition that is around 20 metres long, made up of several long sheets formed into a roll. You can often read the damaged bits more easily when looking at the original, and there is always the option of looking at them under ultra-violet light to enhance the visibility of the ink. If your manuscript is a precious personal possession, you may want to use a photograph or scan to reduce handling, but check back to the original for details. Keep it in an acid free protective sleeve as much as possible, wear cotton gloves if you are really particular and only use pencils, not pens, for transcribing. That makes it easier to correct the errors anyway. If you are working in a public archive or library, they will have their own rules about these things and you just have to go along with whatever the system may be.
And finally, don't jump to conclusions. There seem to be some earnest souls about who think that if they find the name of an ancestor in a medieval document that they own an abbey or suchlike. Many legal documents may be a bit incomprehensible even when you have a transcript, as they may represent only one step in a series of legal processes, and if you don't have any information of what has led to the document being issued, it may be hard to work out what was going on. Getting out a whole text will probably be a time consuming process involving a great deal on concentration, but you will be rewarded with the knowledge that you are the world's leading expert on some little corner of the historical universe.
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