At the conference “Syrffio’r silff: hynt a helynt llawysgrifau Chaucer/From glass case to cyber-space: Chaucerian manuscripts across time” held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on the 14-16th April 2014, the keynote speech on the final day was given by Professor Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. The talk, entitled, “Manuscript Digitisation: some retrospective thoughts”, was recorded on an iPhone 5s and covers the talk and the questions thereafter.
The second day of the conference at The National Library of Wales dawned but due to a comedy of errors I missed the first lecture, given by Dr Roberta Magnani of Swansea University and entitled “The Queer Margins of Chaucer’s Manuscripts” – such a shame, as I was really looking forward to hearing her interpretation of Chaucer’s work. I was, however, there in time to hear Professor Helen Fulton of York University on “English Prophecy in Welsh Manuscripts: Authors and Anthologies”.
Professor Fulton took Chaucer’s use of prophecy as a jumping-off point, and looked at “examples of Middle English prophecies found in multilingual Welsh manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”, describing a shifting boundary (the Marcher lordships) occupied by the descendants of Norman lords and the old Welsh royalty. Many of the most important manuscripts of the medieval age came from within Marcher Wales, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. On this basis, MS Peniarth 392D’s presence in Wales isn’t an anomaly, given Wales’ importance within medieval literature. Fulton suggested that Hengwrt (MS Peniarth 392D) was in Chester by the late 16th century and with Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in Meirionydd (1592-1667); by the 19th century it was with the Wynnes of Peniarth. Chaucer was obviously thought of as an author worth collecting, and the Marcher lords were seen as the guardians of language, with a multilingual border environment and a readership which, even in the 15th century, would have been familiar with different languages. Professor Fulton’s talk was fascinating, because it allowed us to envisage Wales as a thriving cultural hub, with Oswestry “the London of Owain Glyndwr’s land”, and prophecy used as a comment on the age.
After Professor Fulton came Holly-Jane Maddocks, a doctoral researcher at York University, discussing the illuminator of Chaucer’s Roumant of the Rose (Glasgow University, Hunter MS 409) and the context of its production. As Holly-Jane explained in her abstract, the manuscript “exists uniquely in Glasgow, Hunter MS 409)” but the manuscript “has received little attention from book historians, possibly because it is incomplete, messily-translated, and perhaps only partially by Chaucer himself”. The Roumant’s illuminator, however, can be tracked across many manuscripts, “and these indicate that this illuminator was active in London from the 1430s until at least the end of the 1450s”. Holly-Jane showed how illuminators can offer a starting-point for exploring a vast range of manuscripts, and were highly collaborative within their own communities, and suggested that Paternoster Row was the scene of work by William Abell, “a member of the London mistery of Stationers”, and an implied centre of activity for the production of many manuscripts. Abell seemed to rely on a specific group of border artists: this can be seen, said Maddocks, in specific, repeating features across manuscripts, and she gave some examples of the Roumant limner’s work.
After Holly-Jane came Professor Helen Phillips, of the School of English, Communications & Philosophy at Cardiff University with her talk entitled: “Chaucer’s unstable Wife of Bath in the manuscripts”. The Wife, said Professor Phillips, has been variously described as a Whore of Babylon, a parodic Virgin Mary, and the carnal old Eve; these representations come from the Wife’s Prologue primarily, and in fact the Hengwrt’s marginal label describes her as “The goode Wyf of bisyde Bathe”. There are, however, multiple scribal descriptions of her. Phillips suggested there were two main lexical sets: the Wife of Bath, a title destined to become popular even during Chaucer’s life and the “goode Wif”, corresponding to “goode Man”, which can mean a woman running a business, and also a female citizen of a particular town name, thus expressions like “the goode Wif of Barcapple”, etc. This rich multilayered interpretation was meant by Chaucer, Phillips claims, to have links to the Clerk of Oxenford, and the good man of religion, and whilst Chaucer might have meant there to be a socio-economic portrait of the Wife in the Prologue as a businesswoman her sexual and marital revelations have leached into our full readings of both the Tale that follows and the portrait that comes before it. The notorious, misogynistic display of a bad wife might have been ramped up for comedic effect, and the phrase Wife of Bath became a lexicological term designed to raise a giggle even during Chaucer’s time. The Wife is used, suggests Phillips as a misogynistic icon, and has come to represent a form of masculinist containment. But we should, she says, be careful how much we buy into this sort of belief. There has come to be a conceptualisation of women as wives only, despite their presence in business, and despite the fact that 80% or more of the words in the Wife’s Prologue describe her business state and the confidence her socio-economic status provides her. Chaucer’s time was “a golden age for widows”. We shouldn’t, says Phillips, substitute the notion of the good wife for a businesswoman, but we must recognise the instability in her representation.
After Professor Phillips’ fascinating lecture, and a short break for coffee and biscuits, Dr Liv Robinson of Brasenose College stepped up to define the Chaucerian manuscript through the spectrum of the Roumant of the Rose, the same work focused on by Holly-Jane Maddocks. Dr Robinson also highlighted the way in which the work has been sidelined, possibly because of it’s potential identification as being part of the “counterfeit canon of Chaucerian apocrypha”, and suggested that the way we describe something forms the way we respond to it. Therefore, if we describe something as being marginal, or fragmented, this erodes our sense of its authority. (There are parallels here, of course, to digitised manuscripts: it is so important to determine the words we use to describe our artefacts). The ubiquity of the term “fragment” when describing the Roumant, says Dr Robinson, perpetuates the negative way the work is perceived. The text is generally divided along Chaucerian or non-Chaucerian lines, with anything perceived as not Chaucer assumed to be derivative. Dr Robinson’s lecture was followed by questions and then lunch, and thereafter came Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan as the afternoon session’s keynote speaker. The afternoon, chaired by Professor Lorna Hughes and included talks from Dr Barbara Bordalejo of the University of Saskatchewan and Dr Malte Urban of Queens University, Belfast. The content of their lectures can best be shown through the tweets from the second day, which are incorporated within this Storify (and includes tweets from attendees at the conference over the first two days).
What is fantastic about this sort of conference is not just the opportunity to meet new people (I spoke mostly to Malte, with whom I shared the back row of the Drwm in order to reduce the annoyance to everyone else that might have been caused by our laptops), but the possibility of allowing you to see your own work in a new way or, better yet, (for me at least) to reinforce the ways in which you’re already working. What I was most particularly struck by was the passion everyone brought to their own corners of Chaucerian research, and how interesting everyone made it seem to me. That’s as much a testament to the various speakers as it is to the work of ol’ Geoff himself, who still manages to resonate all this way down the centuries.
“Seithennin, saf-di allan, ac edrychwyr-di faranres môr. Maes Gwyddnau rydöes.” | Boddi Maes Gwyddno, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin
When I was a little girl, I adored the Mabinogion, and the works of Susan Cooper. I loved the hints of the supernatural: the moonlit nights, the connections to an ancient land where magic was a reality. One could condemn a cheating wife to an eternity as an owl, or discover on their 11th birthday that they’re the last of an ancient line of guardians fighting a battle against the Dark. One of the most powerful stories I read, and which was included within Susan Cooper’s book Silver on The Tree, was the story of the Drowned Hundred, or the Kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod.
“Sure,’ Bran said. He chuckled. ‘From the Drowned Hundred, no doubt.’ Barney said blankly, ‘Whatever’s that?’ ‘Haven’t you heard that old story yet? About where the Bells of Aberdyfi ring, all ghostly out at sea on a summer night, over there?’ Masked by the dark glasses that covered his pale eyes once more, Bran got to his feet and pointed out at the mouth of the estuary, all of it sunlit now beneath wider patches of blue. “That was supposed to be Cantr’er Gwaelod , the Lowland Hundred, the lovely fertile land of the King Gwyddno Garanhir, centuries ago. The only trouble was, it was so flat that the seawater had to be kept out by dykes, and one night there was a terrible storm and the sea-wall broke, and all the water came in. And the land was drowned.” | Susan Cooper, ‘Silver on The Tree’
The story of the Drowned Hundred has several different versions, as a story so old is prone to do. But the simple outline is that the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod was a beautiful, fertile part of the realm. This land was protected from the sea by sluice gates, which were opened at low tide and closed again when it returned. However, one night a huge storm rolled in and the watchman, Seithennin, was too busy partying at King Gwydnno Garahir‘s palaces near Aberystwyth to shut the gates. Anybody remotely acquainted with the nightlife of Aberystwyth will understand how the unfortunate Seithennin could have been caught out in this manner, but the result of his night of frivolity was the flooding of Cantre’r Gwaelod, jewel of the land of Wales, which was drowned during the storm. Only a few members of the Royal Court managed to escape the deluge: over sixteen villages were drowned, and the people living within them. In other versions of the story, Seithennin is a visiting monarch and drunkenly seduces Mererid, the fair maiden in charge of the sluice gates, allowing the storm to do its worst to the lands and people of Cantre’r Gwaelod. Today, on still nights, it is said that one can still hear the bells of the old city tolling beneath the waves: tolling to remind the people of Borth and Aberdyfi of the loss of Gwydnno Garahir’s ancient kingdom.
This version of the legend is contained within the Black Book of Carmarthen, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, which is held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgel Genedlaethol Cymru in Aberystwyth. The manuscript is not only one of the oldest known works written in the Welsh language, it is designated one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales, and was written by a single scribe. The manuscript has been digitised by the National Library and is therefore available online via their website, where you can view folios from it, or access an image gallery. It is also part of the Library’s 4 Books exhibition, which unites for the first time the Black Book of Carmarthen and Book of Taliesin, also held at the Library, with the Book of Aneirin from Cardiff Central Library and the Red Book of Hergest from Jesus College, Oxford.
The recent storms in the UK, and the damaging effect on the Aberystwyth seafront and surrounding coastline, has done several things. It has allowed the story to take on another layer of resonance: we understand, now, the power of the sea and the inconsistency of nature: how it can turn on us, and take away something we thought was permanent. It has also physically returned Cantre’r Gwaelod to us, by stripping away the layers of sand and peat bog that have covered the area for over 4,000 years. Legend is made real once more.
Tonight I’m not going to post anything about my work or an article I’ve read recently: though indeed, it’s been a while since I did either of those things, and I must apologise for my tardiness. Tonight’s blog post is based on something that has happened recently in the town where I have been conducting my research for the last two years, and where I lived prior to that for eight years. A place which is as close to my heart as my home town: more so, in all honesty, because it was the place in which I grew to adulthood and where many of my best friendships were forged and my most enduring memories were created.
No-one can have escaped the poor weather we’ve been having recently. Here in my little part of South Wales the rain has been incessant, accompanied by howling winds and hailstones. But Aberystwyth, the town that captured my heart at the age of 18 and never gave it back, has been taking a beating. High winds and towering waves have combined to batter the Victorian promenade, gouging great holes in the sea wall. The shelter where I sat with my ex partner, talking and drinking wine and watching previous, less serious storms, has collapsed into the hole torn by the ferocious ocean. The bar, which hundreds upon hundreds of students and locals have kicked (a tradition that goes back many years and which is said to ensure the person kicking the bar always returns to the town) has apparently been swept away. The seafront halls, normally so foreboding, are dwarfed by giant waves and tonight stand mostly empty, the students having been evacuated to the campus.
As a former student, as a current student, as a previous “local”, seeing the pictures and the news footage has been awful. To see the places of my youth torn up and wrecked has awoken a part of me I’m not sure I knew existed. I feel fierce loyalty for the place, and immense sadness. Watching the news earlier brought me almost to tears – I feel like a part of my history has been taken away by the winds.
But the best part about Aberystwyth is its people, and they won’t let a little thing like a violent weather system tearing apart their town get them too down. Tonight they are huddled in warm, well-lit pubs and loading up songs with lots of water-based imagery in their titles on the jukebox. They are sat on top of Constitution Hill watching the waves bear down on their little town, enjoying one of nature’s spectacles. There are students evacuated to the campus eating free chips in the Union. That is not to dismiss what any of those people are going through, but they are facing down the storm in inimitable Aberystwyth style: surrounded by friends, possibly (most definitely) with a drink in hand. And they will emerge from this storm with brilliant anecdotes of bravery and idiocy, and tall tales that should be taken with a pinch of salt.
The attached picture is by Keith Morris, the Aberystwyth photographer who charts our lives in the town: the title of the blog is, of course, from Malcolm Pryce’s wonderful novel Aberystwyth Mon Amour. I apologise for the unashamedly sentimental tone of this post, but I don’t apologise for loving the place as much as I do.
**UPDATE: The bar is alive! Updates in my comments section and via my Twitter feed seem to confirm that the bar is still standing. Hopefully it’ll hang in there as a fitting testament to the toughness of the town and its residents.
An article in the New York Times recently discussed the merits for cultural organisations of liaising with members of the public to increase knowledge of a museum or library’s collections. In the article, entitled “Museum Welcomes Wikipedia Editors”, collaborators working with the Smithsonian Institute were encouraged to edit existing Wikipedia pages or to create new ones based on archival content. Based on an idea established by Liam Wyatt (Wikimedian and founder of GLAM-Wiki), an edit-athon, usually supervised by members of an organisation’s staff, consists of staff and gifted amateurs, “lured….by the prospect of disseminating knowledge, a behind-the-scenes tour and a free lunch” [New York Times, July 26th], who want to edit and/or expand upon the entries in Wikipedia’s digital encyclopaedia. In the case of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum in Washington, this meant identifying topics on Wikipedia that they felt needed more information or new entries and creating a list which contributors could choose from to work with.
The Bodleian Library in Oxford conducted an edit-athon this year in relation to their Queen Victoria journals, with the intent of improving the Wikipedia entries on figures and events mentioned within the journals.
The New York Times article notes the elephant in the room: that more and more online users are eschewing the websites of cultural organisations and going straight to Wikipedia for their information. It is beholden to us, then, as the people within those organisations, to ensure the accuracy of the articles within Wikipedia and to embrace it as a new knowledge base, rather than ignore the fact of its use and to dismiss it as inferior due to the fact it is edited by members of the public.
I love the idea of an edit-athon and think it could be an interesting and fun tool for the National Library to employ, not just for their artefacts generally but for their forthcoming Chaucer exhibition specifically. For example, what are the articles within Wikipedia like for the artefacts within the exhibition? What are their counterparts within Wicipedia like? One use of QR codes within an exhibition setting (incidentally, the topic of my current report) is often to link back to appropriate Wikipedia articles. If we do that, and the articles are not appropriate or not fit for purpose, we are undermining the very intent of an exhibition, which is to disseminate knowledge.
Of course, one small downside (although this does negate the rather tired argument that the problem with Wikipedia is that its additions aren’t monitored and are therefore inaccurate/inferior) is that Wikipedia won’t accept an edit or an addition to their encyclopaedia without citations, to ensure validity. To that end the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia has begun adding a Wikipedia citation code to the bottom of each object record, so that when someone comes to edit an article which relates to one of the museum’s pieces and needs to reference it, the code can be grabbed quickly and inserted into Wikipedia’s editing interface. I’m not proposing that this is feasible for all artefacts within the National Library’s collections, which run into the millions, but it is certainly a very good way of navigating the divide between the physical record of an item and its digital counterpart, with the citation code representing a very neat bridge between the two.
I’m giving edit-athons generally a big thumbs up. I think they could potentially be a wonderful way of collaborating with the local and student communities here in Aberystwyth, in a relatively non-pressured setting: around a table, with laptops, and some free sandwiches afterwards. And I think I can speak for everyone when I say, most people will go a good long way for a free lunch, so a trek into the digital hinterland shouldn’t be any great stretch of the legs.
I took a walk last Sunday amidst some of the loveliest weather we’ve had in Aberystwyth for a while. Here are some of the images I took whilst I was out and about. Something I didn’t know – apparently Penglais Woods is the only UNESCO Man and Biosphere urban reserve in Wales. I wonder if someone can confirm that?
As a slight deviation from the theme (but very much still keeping with the Aberystwyth vibe) I thought I would post some pictures that I’ve taken over the last few months back in Ceredigion. I hope you like them.