Week 9: Codicology

Hello everyone and welcome to week nine with me, your host. Paige Bryenton. Codicology is the study of the physical manuscript and is apart of that process. When going over the material for this week, I did not realize how many different aspects go into the physical manuscript depending on its use. When looking over the readings for this week, Introduction to Manuscript Studies and Quick Guide to Liturgical Manuscripts, I found chapter 12 on manuscript genres in Clemens the most relevant to our course since most of us are dealing with liturgical texts and calendars. It is a good resource for more in-depth information on the the physical manuscript and what type of topics were written down. The Quick Guide to Liturgical Manuscripts is a useful tool in understanding more finer differences between different types of texts and is a great companion to Clemens.

The document


Some questions I would like to bring up is:

  1. When comparing the distinct letter forms discussed in the readings, which one was closest to letter forms we use today?
  2. a) What manuscript genre does yours fall under? b)What was its use? c) Is it a common document?
  3. Were the authentication methods used for charters effective?


What the %!@* are emojis?!

Automatically, when you read that title I am sure you filled in %!@* with your own thoughts, but what I really meant was “heck”. It is interesting to see how we have programmed our brains into reading symbols.

What the heck are emojis, and how do they fit into this medieval history class? Well, in the next 400 words or so,  I hope to bring some insight into this thought.

For me, transcribing my manuscript was extremely difficult. What I found even more frustrating was that we have endless resources online that could have assisted me (such as Latin abbreviations, alphabets and even guides on how manuscripts were written). Even with this resources, I was at a loss because I was not even sure what I was searching for. This got me thinking about emojis, and the language that we use every day. Are we documenting the meanings that we transcribe to emojis, and is that information even important enough for someone to consider documenting?

Let’s play a game. Take a look at these emojis and in the comments, leave your guesses to what movies you think that have been described in these emoji scenes. For us, this might be easy (or not). Imagine, however, in a hundred years (or longer), someone else trying to transcribe the meaning of the emojis. We have given emojis new meanings (the peach, and eggplant are just two examples of emojis that have new innuendos – not in this image, but in the context of texting now).

For example, the first one is the movie “Sex and the City” Image from: https://www.memecenter.com/fun/3287083/guess-the-emoji-movie

This is important to consider because our use of language reveals how our society reflects language. I would argue that we do not value language as much as those in medieval times did (or so I think that they did). We tend to skip words, ignore punctuation and add in images as often as we can. We limit ourselves to 240 characters or an Instagram caption. I do not think that we master linguists (honestly, I have no idea if linguists is a word and I think that proves my point), have decided that we can get our point across in as few words as possible, but rather I think we have become – lazy.

Emojis, can do the work for us. Just as abbreviations did the work for the monks who transcribed manuscript on manuscript. I think, their abbreviations were justified as they were probably sore from writing for hours as a day, versus us, taking one minutes (probably less) to send out a tweet.  It is important for us to examine how we use language in relation to how medieval manuscript transcribers used language. When we make parallels in our work, we will soon begin to understand their work better. I do not think that we are going to be finding any emojis in manuscripts any time soon, however, perhaps the emoji is the modern abbreviation (even more advanced than lol or rofl).

For your enjoyment, I have included a few emoji idioms to see if we can decipher what they say… Now we know how students in 3018 will feel deciphering our texts (if we live past clime change of course).

First one, “Hot Potato” Image from: https://www.sporcle.com/games/chaosBEE/idiom-emoji

A ‘Not-so-New’ Practice

I used to believe that certain practices from the past were lost to current society as time moved on. For example, how often do you find a piece of paper today that has been made by hand? It came as a startling eye-opener then when I learned that the practice of shortening words to write quicker was not as new as I initially thought. Avid texters and tweeters should be made aware of the fact that, though the actual abbreviations change throughout history, part of the reasoning for this habit remains the same.

Prior to the ‘lols’ and ‘btw’ that currently dominate text messages, medieval scribes possibly used abbreviations to lessen the amount of time it took them to transcribe. Does this sound familiar to anyone? When you look at a manuscript with abbreviations there can be various dashes and amalgamations of letters (for example xpi and di) that represent condensed words. Also, as a student I often use punctuation to shorten words in my class notes (n. often stands in for the word ‘north’) because it means I can keep up with the professor. This is not an original idea or practice because Adriano Capelli notes this exact form of abbreviation in his dictionary on medieval abbreviations. With the realization that abbreviations are part of our history, ’lols’ and ‘omgs’ then signify the present generation’s role in the story of human communication.

For anyone investigating medieval abbreviations, they know that it can be a frustrating process. The urge to scream ‘what does this mean’ or ‘why would you write that’ indicates that what was once common knowledge to these scribes has disappeared over time. It is interesting to make a comparison between a modern historian studying medieval abbreviations and one who, centuries from now, investigates twenty-first century abbreviations. No doubt this scholar will experience a similar frustration considering how rapidly our abbreviations change. Furthermore, the understanding that ‘lol’ does not necessarily mean someone literally ‘laughed out loud’ is important contextual information future academics might not possess. This comparison demonstrates the importance of the context that lies in every abbreviation. I know that ‘g2g’ stands for ‘got to go’ because I grew up with this knowledge, just as a scribe might have known that ‘xpi’ represents ‘Christi’ because he transcribed it multiple times. Additionally, future historians will have a difficult time decoding our abbreviations due to the emotional meaning often lurking in our text messages. While sometimes I lament the task of decoding a medieval manuscript I certainly do not envy historians who examine twenty-first century abbreviation.

Abbreviations did not magically appear alongside the growth in texting. This is a practice with strong historical roots, evident in the presence of abbreviations in medieval manuscripts. Even students today who try to transcribe their professor’s lecture employ a technique these monks used, suggesting that the technique lingers as well. Next time I hear someone complain that texting words like ‘ppl’ (people) and ‘pls’ (please) signals the downfall of written language I hope this person is ready for an impromptu history lesson.

A Project Update From Emily

The last couple of weeks in our class have caught me largely off-guard. I knew going into this class with little digital or medieval knowledge that aspects of it were going to prove to be difficult for me. However, I largely underestimated just how challenging it would turn out to be. I even had to postpone my trip to Montreal over reading week to focus on preparation for leading my seminar (despite being on campus for more than twelve hours everyday working on it leading up to the day I was supposed to leave). In this blog post, I will highlight some things I am struggling with in the course, as well as sharing some aspects that I am thoroughly enjoying. Hopefully I am not the only one sharing some of these struggles.

I will start off on a more positive note with something in our course that particularly sparked my interest. Those of you who were in my seminar will most likely be familiar with the fact that I was very interested in the medieval pecia system. This is a system in which universities rent out piece, or copies of textbooks, to allow students to write their own notes to study from. These notes are called pecia. Our text mentions these copies were later returned or the students incurred a fine. As many of you know, I work in the Carleton library and this system particularly sparked my interest due to the many similarities it shares with the reserve service we offer. Professors can request material to be put on reserves for students to rent for short periods of time to study and take notes from. If the material is not returned by the end of the time allotted, the student receives a fine on their account. Though hundreds of years later, the fact that we still have a similar system in place in our own library interests me very much. The pecia system is definitely something, when time allows me to, I would like to do some further research on.

Something that I have found particularly frustrating thus far is the digital tools we are downloading and working on each week. Our professor (thankfully) gives very straightforward step-by-step guides to navigating through these processes. One would think this would make the process simple, but I still somehow find a way to make mistakes. This can normally be fixed by watching many YouTube tutorials on how to use the programs and eventually figuring out how to do the simple task that was assigned originally. However, this normally takes me much longer than it should have taken.

I also struggled with transcribing the first couple of lines of my manuscript. Even though I was leading the seminar on paleography and had read about the different practices in medieval writing, I still could not decipher the letters in my manuscript. This was particularly frustrating to me due to the fact that my letters had initially appeared to be relatively clearly written. I had checked out a Latin-English dictionary in hopes of deciphering the first two letters and then looking to see if any words in that section were close to my manuscript. This proved to be a largely ineffective process that was very time consuming and I do not recommend it to any of you. In class when Marc mentioned that medieval Latin is a bit of a free-for-all when it comes to spelling, everything made a little more sense.

I can go on for much longer about how difficult I found it to prepare for my seminar and how time consuming it is, but I touched largely on that in my last blog post which details some struggles I encountered in my preparations. So, I will choose to end this project update here. However, if any of you have any questions about preparing to lead your seminar that I did not touch on, I am more than happy to talk with you (as are your other peers who have led seminars, I am sure).

See you all in class!

Getting Reading for Week 7: Abbreviations

*This week’s blog post is brought to you by Veronica and Lynsay*

This week we’re looking at abbreviations! Though many people today use abbreviations when sending messages over text, few might realize that shortening words isn’t actually a new practice. These readings will examine the use of abbreviations (and punctuation in the case of Intro to Manuscript Studies and Shady Characters) across various regions in Medieval Europe. The textbook introduced us to some new Latin words as well; distinctiones, positurae and a few other Latin phrases thrown around. Latin does not come naturally to me, so it tends to take longer for me to grasp the definition of certain Latin words. Here’s a quick reminder of those two words (because if I was reading this I would have had no clue what those were from the top of my head):

 Distinctiones: single points (punctus) that were placed at different heights to indicate different pauses while reading.

Positurae: a system that showed the reader how they should use their voice while reading (higher, lower, emphasis) using different punctus.

  • In what situations might abbreviations be preferable? What are the benefits and disadvantages for historians when looking at manuscripts that use abbreviations? What are the possible ways to overcome the challenge of understanding/transcribing abbreviations?
  • Much like the style of text abbreviations seems to vary across different regions. What might account for these differences? Why weren’t they just universal? Have you noticed during our time any differences in abbreviations across countries or regions?
  • Take a look at your own manuscript. Can you see any abbreviations or punctuation? Do they look like any of the examples provided in the textbook or are they their own alien punctuation?
  • Why do you think abbreviations were different depending on the region (Latin regions that is)? Why weren’t they just universal?
  • Not so much a question, but the third part of the Emoji article was published on October 14th, so I recommend taking a look: https://shadycharacters.co.uk/2018/10/emoji-part-3-go-west/


Expanding and comprehending abbreviations can be a frustrating process but it provides another piece of the puzzle when historians try to understand medieval manuscripts. The next step is trying to share what we know about abbreviations with the wider public in a way that does not come off as dry and boring. Also, we need to find a way to share what we know about abbreviations to help further academics with their transcriptions down the road. As you read think about ways we can share with others (both academics and the wider public) our understanding of medieval abbreviations.