medieval / gothic doorwayLife as a literature PhD student is, almost always, quiet and sedentary. We conduct most of our work in libraries, poring over countless books and articles. Even when our research does involve travel, our time is nevertheless spent in yet more enclosed spaces: archives, rare book rooms, perhaps the occasional museum. In a way, my summer was more of the same. I spent most of it in a library roughly 2500 miles away from Berkeley. But, within that library, I developed the skills to put over 1000 years of human voices in conversation with my own.

Thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation, I had the privilege of spending this summer at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (PIMS) in Toronto, working towards a diploma in Manuscript Studies, as well as conducting my own research. Since its founding in 1929, the Institute has served as a premier research center for medieval studies in North America. Its comprehensive library has become a pilgrimage site for medievalists from across the globe. As a first-year graduate student, the opportunity to work at PIMS was extraordinary. Not only did I have pretty much any book I could ever need at my fingertips, but I was also able to discuss my work with some of the field’s giants, both at PIMS and at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies.

As part of the program, I first spent three weeks learning paleography: how to read and date medieval manuscripts. Many of these are unintelligible to the untrained eye. Indeed, the handwriting of thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas looks exactly like chicken scratch. Supported by the Institute’s scholars and accompanied by fellow researchers from five different countries, I deciphered the handwriting of scribes who died a thousand years ago. I also dated books and documents according to paleographic elements. I learned, for instance, that we haven’t always dotted our i’s and that certain scribal abbreviations gained popularity at different times in history. Turns out that textspeak is way older than we think it is. But instead of ttys and fyi, for the Middle Ages it was all about “DS” (Deus or God) and “DNS” (Dominus or Lord).

Following this crash course in paleography, I spent the next three weeks learning about editorial practices and, in particular, the editing of Latin texts. Written before the invention of the printing press, most medieval writings survive in more than one manuscript. And, owing to a text’s transmission history and to the quirks and errors of individual scribes, no manuscript is the same. So how does one turn such an array of distinct texts into a single modern edition?

After discussing several editorial theories, we spent most of these three weeks learning stemmatics, a systematic approach to textual editing first developed by the nineteenth-century philologist Karl Lachmann. Using this method, the textual critic constructs a family tree for a text’s surviving manuscripts. She assumes that if two manuscripts share a number of errors, they must have been copied from the same source or from each other. Eventually (and after a lot of work), the editor can figure out what the original text must have looked like. Regardless of the validity of this method, learning about textual editing helped me think about the spread of information more generally. By figuring out the transmission of several classical and medieval texts, I began to consider how a single idea can travel through the centuries: how information is transformed, interpreted, and structured throughout space and time.

Besides learning about paleography and textual editing, I also made use of the Institute’s facilities and library holdings and spent many mornings working on my own research. In addition to 150,000 printed volumes, the PIMS library holds an extraordinary 9000 reels of manuscript images in microfilm. Surely, I spent roughly a week learning to use the microfilm reader itself. But once I had mastered this ancient technology, I was able to look at hundreds of manuscripts from throughout Europe without leaving Toronto.

Although my own doctoral research project is still at a very early stage, for a long time I have been fascinated by the formatting of poetry in medieval manuscripts: verses are often written in a different script or in red, while rhyming words are sometimes joined together with little brackets. Throughout my six weeks in Toronto, I studied over two dozen microfilms of medieval books, focusing on the visual presentation of English poetry in manuscripts primarily made up of Latin prose. While I haven’t reached any conclusions yet, I think that these manuscripts’ page layouts may tell us a lot about emerging theories of poetry and poetics in Late Medieval England. I am very excited to use the new concepts, skills, and findings that I gathered in Toronto to look at the medieval manuscripts housed in Berkeley’s very own Bancroft Library.

Of course, I didn’t spend the entire summer locked up in a library, however great a library it may be. I lived right in downtown Toronto and spent many afternoons and evenings walking around the city. Among many adventures, I explored incredible neighborhoods and museums, attended a street salsa festival, celebrated the second largest Pride event in North America and Canada’s 150th birthday festivities, and hunted down pretty much every vegan restaurant in the city. Having made many great friends this summer, I can also say Canadians are as nice as the stereotype says. The adventures and the learning are, however, not over. In order to complete the diploma, next summer I will be heading to Rome, which I’m sure will offer six weeks filled with many more medieval manuscripts, art, and great food!