Monday, July 26, 2010

Apparently I am capable of intense focus

First day at the library. I'm here to look at one manuscript, and I wasn't even sure whether there would be anything of interest therein--I knew that it contained the oldest version of a vita that I've been working on, but knew nothing about this variant or what else was in the codex. Kind of a gamble, eh, for Field to spend upwards of $3000 for me to look at this thing? Sometimes this profession seems beyond absurd.

Anyway, so I get to the library right when it opens, figure out how to get a card (easy), and gain access to my codex. It shows up at about 9:30, after only a 10-minute wait; I use the time to review my edition of the vita and psych myself up. The codex is small and fat, elegantly rebound at some point--not recently, I'd guess, but certainly not in the fourteenth century. I start in.

First: I copy out the table (or rather paragraph) of contents on the first page, trying my best to decode the Gothic rotunda Latin. It's been...a long while since I engaged in anything approximating paleography. I am Rusty. However, it's not too hard to recognize actual Latin words as opposed to the monstrous mistranscriptions I sometimes concoct, so at least I know which words I'm most likely to have misunderstood.

The excitement begins when I spot my vita listed in the ToC. Then: another medieval woman's life! And a bunch of other random vitae and orae, as well as a totally indecipherable name.

Step two: Start looking through the book, page by page, writing down where each text appears. Blah blah blah. No pictures, occasional decorated initial (nothing fancy), plenty of red ink. Finally I reach my Vita. It's not terribly interesting, visually, but does have one intriguing bit of marginalia--intriguing because it suggests an interest in similar vitae, vitae like the unexpected woman's life. Hm. Okay.

Something I can't identify follows my vita. Ho hum.

A few pages later: WHAT IS IT??? I think. Something crazy! A drawing with a big red mandorla-shaped item in the middle, surrounded by words. Later, I come back to this, and figure out that the red splotch is a wound, and that it is made of blood flowing off of the cross above and into a little spindly, flower-decorated cross below. Coolness. And it contains a prayer of some kind that keeps referring to wounds (I need to translate it--can't be more specific yet. My Latin sure does suck, although I'm doing better than I would have expected ). Alas, the writing to the right of the wound is cramped and hard to make out, and the writing surrounding it is virtually illegible. I do my best.

A few pages later: More visual craziness! One page in a totally different hand lists what appear to be numbers of days associated with individual people (Pope So-and-so three years and twelve days, pope such-and-such sixty days, etc.). In the right-hand column are labeled drawings of, for example, a torch, a bleeding heart, and ten footprints in little boxes. I haven't entirely figured this one out yet. Actually, I haven't figured it out at all, but I'm looking forward to doing so.

Oh, and [indecipherable] turns out to be another contemporary female saint. Some kind of pattern might be emerging. Not sure what yet. Something else to follow up on....

"Madame." The librarian is standing in front of me, whispering. "On ferme."

What? No way. They must be closing early, I think. I emerge: It is ten minutes to five. I've been at it since 9:30 (minus the enforced one-hour break for lunch: the library is closed from 1 until 2). How did this happen? My hand, back, and shoulder ache. Good lord. Why can't I work like this all the time? Or at least one day a week?

12 comments:

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Working with an actual real live (so to speak) manuscript concentrates the mind wonderfully, rather as the prospect of being hanged is said to.

clio's disciple said...

I agree. I can really get into a groove when looking at documents (or facsimiles / microfilms / whatever thereof) that I apparently cannot duplicate under other circumstances.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

You have now inspired me to stop looking at blogs and get back to my prescribed reading for the morning. Thank you.

Ink said...

That sounds like an amazing experience! Woohoo!

Belle said...

Archival hypnosis? I remember similar instances in my own work - we didn't have a mandated break, so I'd tear self away for a bathroom break and discover I'd been hard at it for 7 hours. I love working in docs.

What Now? said...

Sounds exciting! I've had the same experience when working in archives, although in my Americanist case it was always about materials (letters, diary entries, etc.) secondary to the actual text I was concentrating on. So I'm sure it's been even more exciting in your case!

undine said...

An archive trance! What you've found sounds very exciting!

the rebel lettriste said...

thrilling!!

Sisyphus said...

ZOMG I want to see pictures!!!! And I want to know everything about the mysterious drawings and wounds and other weird stuff!!!!!

That sounds so cool ... way more cool of a detective trip than any of that Davinci Code crap, anyway.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Wow! That's awesome. I know it's not the same, but the school I was teaching Shakespeare at for the last three years has an original first folio. I've taken my Shakespeare students to see it every year, and this last year, the students got so overwhelmed and enthusiastic. Everyone was taking (non-flash) pictures and smelling it. It was thrilling. We were there for about an hour before we realized the time was slipping by.

The first time I held that book, I actually cried. I'll never forget it.

squadratomagico said...

Congratulations on the trance and the cool find! Keep us posted!

Good Enough Woman said...

I'm so glad you had this opportunity!