Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Text Compression

One of the first challenges that a student new to Rauner Library must grapple with is the desire to privilege exclusively a book's content without also considering its container as well. This is especially true of our medieval texts, many of which reveal numerous clues about their cultural context through their physical presence. Details such as the size of a manuscript book, the layout of its pages, the various ink colors, and even the style of handwriting can be used to create hypotheses about the book's intended purpose and audience.

A great example of this in our collections is a pairing of identical passages from St. Jerome's Latin translation of the Bible, also known as the Vulgate. Both are written on sheets of specially prepared animal skin called vellum or parchment. Both contain the writings of an Old Testament minor prophet, specifically Zachariah 4:2-5:2. Both use the same color of ink and even the same basic script, or handwriting style. However, there are some important differences that might make it difficult for someone who is experiencing them for the first time to determine that the two texts are, in fact, identical.

For one, the texts are very different in size. The first two images above are of the first text, which is over 700 pages in length, nearly five inches tall, and contains written text which is so small as to be nearly unreadable. The second text, at left, is over a foot tall (close to 14"). However, the larger page contains only a few verses of text, while the equivalent page in the smaller text compresses those same verses into a space barely an inch tall. Such physical discrepancies provide us, and the students, with the opportunity to ask important questions: Why is the first scribe's handwriting so small? Why are there two sizes of handwriting in the second manuscript? Why is there so much room in the margins of the second text, compared to the first? All of these questions draw attention away from the actual content of the manuscript text, which is unreadable anyways to many students, and instead encourage students to think about the larger world in which these books were made and once lived. We won't ruin it by giving you the answers, just like we wouldn't for our students, but we encourage you to come by Rauner, explore these two beautiful manuscripts side by side, and come up with your own conclusions. If you want to cheat a little bit, you can read an earlier blog post about the first one.

The first text can be requested by its call number, Manuscript Codex 003202.
The second text is Manuscript 002279.

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