Wednesday, January 07, 2009

2008, Year Of The Codex Digitalex

Codex Sinaiticus online
The main development over the past year has been the converting of more and more ancient manuscripts into digital form to make them accessible online. A Sunday Observer feature this summer, ‘Wood Block To ebook,’ had a chronology of developments, from printing’s beginnings with simple carved woodblocks pre-1000 AD, through Gutenberg’s 15th-C. invention of moveable type (which would spell the end of the handwritten book, or codex), up to the advent of digital reproduction in the 1990s. The chronology ends with Google’s massive book-scanning project (2004-), and Amazon’s Kindle wireless e-book reader, which went on the market in 2008. Google’s ongoing project to scan and digitally publish millions of mainly older books (using public and university library hardback copies) survived a lengthy legal action brought by US author and publisher groups, culminating in a settlement in October.
Such has been Google Books's success that Microsoft abandoned its own similar project, which it was working on with the British Library, in May. Google Books have now reached a million titles with ‘full preview’ access, meaning you can read the entire book online as it’s designated out of copyright. (Another 5 million titles are out of print but not copyright-expired and have only a certain number of pages available.) This includes older translations of many classic texts which fall within our area of interest here. Of course, the non-profit (volunteer-run) public access Project Gutenberg, which runs on donations, has been making out-of-copyright books available in basic formats for much longer. These are usually either plain ASCII text, or HTML where inline illustrations are important; in either case they can be downloaded as zip files rather than just browsed. ‘PG’ now has over 25,000 titles available, again including pre-1920s (copyright expired) translations of many pre-1500 works of interest here.
Project Gutenberg texts are now also available via Amazon’s handheld Kindle, the final step in the ‘woodblock to ebook’ chronology, and the ‘buzz’ techno-news item of 2008. As I haven’t tried it myself yet, I’ll just quote Wikipedia: ‘Amazon Kindle is an e-book reader, an embedded system for reading electronic books (e-books)…. It uses an electronic paper display …. and downloads content over Amazon Whispernet, which uses the Sprint EVDO network. The Kindle can be used without a computer. Whispernet is accessible through Kindle without any fee.’
The approach widely used by Google is just a scan of the original printed pages, which is not in itself printable or otherwise reproducible (there are sometimes download links to PDF versions in the webpage sidebar). The page-scan approach is also used by many organisational websites with a history-conservation mandate. A committee I sit on that has HLF funding to digitise local-history records has been discussing using a setup whereby someone accustomed to old-fashioned script can dictate handwritten document contents to a PC which has software like Dragon or IBM ViaVoice installed, so that it will transcribe their speech digitally, printing it on-screen so any glitches can be cleaned up at once. It’s difficult enough trying to read faded nib-pen entries in ledgers and so on, but with ancient codices written in Old Welsh, Mediaeval Latin, etc, this presents obvious additional difficulty.
Scholarly translators however need to access these original manuscript pages, to create new transliterations, translations and textual commentaries which are not simply dependent on earlier such (which can lead to errors accumulating, for early translations often contained mistakes). More primitive e-scan technology actually does go back some years. I remember reading John Steinbeck’s posthumously-published (1976) account of how he came to southern England in the Sixties to research his modern-prose retelling of the Arthurian legends (which he had read as a boy). To do so, he obtained a British Museum microfilm copy of Sir Thomas Malory's original 1470 manuscript, probably written while in prison and rediscovered in 1934 in Winchester College library. Steinbeck mainly kept Malory's chapter headings and his original title (The Acts Of King Arthur And His Noble Knights, rather than Le Morte d'Arthur, which refers only to the final ‘book’ and seems to have been the printer’s ‘commercial’ title). But Steinbeck rewrote the text in modern English, trying to present it in a modern equivalent of Middle English. Caxton’s new printing press turned Malory’s series of romance-tales into the first mass-produced single-volume edition, written not in the Latin or Old French of earlier hand-copied versions, but the new Middle English.
Reading microfilmed records on spools of cellulose necessitates a large, noisy ‘reader’ machine, and the new online access from any connected PC is a major improvement. The page images can be in high-definition and full colour (earlier microfilm images were often poor-quality black-and-white negative images), and scholars can view them at leisure, save them, print them out, from home or workplace. This access also allows ‘distributed’ research, involving teams in different countries etc, avoiding the traditional closed-shop approach whereby only a small elite group gets access to the documents. This was always a situation open to accusations of vested interests and career boosting, and even of conspiracy and coverup, as happened with the oldest known bible texts, The Dead Sea Scrolls. (Images and transcriptions are still not available for nearly half the scrolls, over 50 years after they were found).
The new ‘distributed’ research approach was publicised in 2008 re the search, sponsored by Biblical Archaeology Review, for missing pages of the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible text that includes vowels (clarifying pronunciation and in some cases, meaning). Another of the 3 earliest bible texts that lost pages when it was split up, the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus, also began to be put online in 2008, with the balance by July 2009. The website introduces it as ‘the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity [and] is of supreme importance for the history of the book.’ The Times noted this early cow-hide parchment book, reconciling Greek and Jewish Scriptures and including the oldest complete New Testament, is ‘important historically because its publication coincided with the conversion of Constantine the Great to Christianity and his decision to make it the Roman Empire’s official religion.’ The new online access is key because there have been attempts to seize or withhold it since 1844, when a German explorer, a professor from Leipzig University, removed parts of it from a remote monastery near Mt Sinai for ‘study’ purposes. He turned out to be an agent of Tsar Alexander II, and the British Library later had to pay Stalin £100,000 for the biggest section, in 1933. (As the Times said, the behind-the-scenes tale ‘reads like a script from an Indiana Jones film.’) Parts of the book are kept in different countries in secure conditions. The largest chunk, kept in the British Library, is inside a climate-controlled bullet-proof display case, making it unavailable for serious study. But the website [pictured at top] not only displays the entire book, but in places will offer translation notes helping identify the thousands of textual emendations made to create the familiar Bible narrative. (For example, the Gospel of Mark here makes no mention of the Resurrection.)
If you enjoy reading real-life of such literary quests for the contents of ancient libraries, you might also be interested in reading Marcus Tanner’s The Raven King: Matthias Corvinus And The Fate Of His Lost Library, from Yale University Press. This is a new account of the 19th-C. search across the Ottoman Empire for the remnants of the Corvinian Library, once belonging to Hungary’s famous Transylvanian ruler Matthias Corvinus, known as the ‘Raven King’. The 2,500 Florentine illuminated manuscripts had been taken by the Sultans during their conquest of Hungary, and the pursuit of them, to quote The Economist [17-Jul-08] ‘became something of an Indiana Jones-style quest.’ (Though I gather, unlike in Indiana Jones, there’s no dramatic revelation at the end, and most of the treasures remain unfound.)
Manuscripts can also just be lost by deteriorating physically, as nearly happened with the Dead Sea Scrolls. The holdings of another remote desert library, in Timbuktu, may be even more significant when results are finally in. The manuscripts found there in private local libraries have been called ‘The greatest archaeological find since the Dead Sea scrolls,’ and the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, the first UNESCO Memory Of The World Project, is a race against time to preserve and digitise the 700,000 volumes, which date mainly from the 15th-17thC., when Timbuktu was a great centre of learning, and trade caravans were detained while any manuscripts were copied out by keen university scholars.
Even fire-damaged manuscripts can be deciphered now, via an adaptation of medicine’s CT scan equipment, called multi-spectral imaging, which can distinguish ink from charcoal by analysing its chemical spectrum. In mid-2008, news this is planned for one of classical antiquity’s potentially greatest finds, the burnt remains found outside Pompeii of the library of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Preserved under the volcanic ash by Vesuvius’s eruption in AD 79, the ‘Villa Of The Papyri’ has around 1,800 blackened, shrivelled manuscripts - ‘the only library to survive from classical antiquity.’ (All the other great libraries, such as Alexandria’s, were destroyed by fire or looting.) Scholars are hoping some long-lost literary treasures will materialise out of these charcoal skins. A feature, “In Search Of Western Civilisation's Lost Classics,” published last August when the feasibility study was issued, speculates these might be titles such as the long-lost Book II of Aristotle's Poetics which is a keynote in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, or perhaps Homer's ‘Iliad’ source material, the epic poem The Kypria. Since the report was published this summer however, work has been held up due to the need for civic authorisation for further excavation. And there are allegations of a hidden, Mafia-led agenda here, to take over prime land, due to the fact none of the already-excavated manuscripts have been subjected to scholarly analysis.
Another major development in online access in 2008 was in the ancient Celtic province of Switzerland. (It was the westward breakout of the Celtic nation there, the Helvetii, which gave Julius Caesar his excuse for the conquest of Gaul and then Britain.) Much of the ancient manuscript library at the St Gallen abbey library, the Stiftsbibliothek, is going online with the help of a $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation ‘to provide access to the medieval codices in the Abbey Library of St. Gallen by creating a virtual library.’ The abbey was named after a 7th-C Irish monk, its library an outgrowth of the Irish-led era when monastic libraries and scriptoria (for copying MSS) were built up in locations out of the way from Viking raiders, and when the Celtic ‘illuminated’ manuscript school flourished. St Gallen’s has been building up its collection since the 9th C., and has around 350 manuscripts from that time or earlier. It began experimentation with digitisation in 2005, prompted by the Dresden floods which damaged many priceless artworks. The library gets over 100,000 visitors a year, but online visits already surpass this, though only 250 MSS are presently accessible on its website, the Codices Electronici Sangallenses (Digital Abbey Library of St. Gallen). These are of course MSS page scans or facsimiles and not translations, and many just familiar bible texts in Latin. But if you want to visit a website showcasing a range of codices in differing styles and see how handwritten books were done in the pre-Gutenberg era, this is it.
The Gallen project has been incorporated into ‘a larger plan to help make key sources of evidence for medieval studies available online,’ digitising all of Switzerland’s 7,000+ hand-written manuscripts. In fact, the European Union has just approved a $175 million fund for its EUROPEANA programme, to digitise libraries in EU member states, which hopefully will begin with the most ancient, pre-Gutenberg, works. Here in Britain, The National Library of Wales, which claims to be ‘a world leader in digitising its collections so literarily anybody from any part of the world who has access to the internet, can access our treasures online,’ continued its ‘Digital Mirror’ offerings with works such as St Bede’s 8th-C scientific treatise De Natura Rerum. (Among other achievements, Bede popularised the use of footnotes, an innovation which at the time was misunderstand and got him into trouble with the church.)

The rest of us enjoy the fruits of this new technology-assisted scholarly research process eventually (it’s a slow process), in the form of new books offering translations, commentaries etc. In 2008, there were several works following on the trend for somewhat revisionist translations being published as more than academic textbooks. In recent years we’ve had poet Seamus Heaney’s vivid rendering of Beowulf, a work which gained added interest from the film version that came out a year ago. Heaney’s rendering follows in the footsteps of poet Christopher Logue’s ongoing award-winning series of translations of Homer’s Iliad, reworking older translations into dynamic modern speech.
This year there was a new blank-verse translation of Rome’s founding epic, Virgil's Aeneid, the 1st-C BC work that was the Roman spinoff-sequel to Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey and related Greek works. (It starts with Prince Aeneas taking the Trojan royal sword to safety as Troy falls to the Greeks, an incident that made it into the recent Hollywood version of the Iliad). It’s said every nation needs a ‘founding myth’ and the notion Rome was founded by men from the Anatolian Troad may even have a factual basis. DNA has revealed that some of Italy’s early inhabitants, the Etruscans, did indeed come from Anatolia, though their own founding legend was lost. You may recall from Robert Graves’s 1930s novel I,Claudius (or its 1970s BBC TV adaptation) the future Emperor is writing a history of the Etruscans as their language has died out. (Graves adds a wonderful touch by having Claudius threaten to sue the local scribe shop because when they copy his book out for him, they add cute decorative elephants along the margins.) it’s been argued that the Latin name of the Etruscan state, Etruria, may even mean ‘out of Troy’.
The Aeneid has served not only the Romans but inspired writers ever since in building a sense of national destiny. It inspired the British founding epic (and proto-Arthurian Romance) Geoffrey Of Monmouth’s fanciful 12th-C. Historia Regum Britanniae or History Of The Kings Of Britain, which opens with Prince Aeneas’s grandson Brutus sailing to the white cliffs and (as the Americans put it) forging a nation in the wilderness, thereby getting Britain named after himself. This Latin pseudo-chronicle was in turn quickly translated into contemporary Saxon and Welsh as the ‘Brut.’ (I know ‘Brut-ain’ doesn’t really work etymologically, but the whole book’s like that, a wish-fulfilling slant on the past.)
With its opening lines, ‘I sing of war and warriors’ (or more poetically, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’), the Aeneid has been used by generations of schoolmasters since Augustan times to instil stoic martial virtues in future generations. This was done in the heyday of the British Empire via bowdlerised versions which cleaned up the gory descriptions common in Homer and Virgil, keeping the pious high-minded sentiments behind the action. Now, more accurate modern translations, with their blood-n-guts detail, are prompting a re-evaluation of the martial ethos, and in America have even been taken as anti-colonial or anti-war statements. A recent Times article [‘Virgil's Vox Regained In Translation,’ 15-Oct-08] suggested its appeal in America has been a ‘post-Vietnam’ one - though perhaps now we should speak of a post-9/11 era, for the question now asked in the US editorial columns, ‘Are We Rome?’ – meaning an empire on the verge of collapse as barbarians close in on a decadent regime. There have apparently been at least 4 recent English-language versions of Virgil's ‘manly epic’ since 9-11, but this new blank-verse translation caused comment in the press in 2008 as the first by a female translator, in this case Yale University’s Sarah Ruden, a poet and classicist who says her time spent living in South Africa helped her understand the work’s inherent violence. Another two US translations are on the way, including another by a woman scholar.
... Finally, such public access to various versions is also useful when self-promoting claims are made regarding the content of an ancient codex. We’ve seen examples of this in recent years where authors and publishers have played up sensational claims regarding long-lost biblical books and other ‘suppressed’ accounts of Jesus and/or the disciples in new books or documentaries. (You can sense the influence here on publishers of The Da Vinci Code.) Often, the experts who supported the claims have had to modify their quoted views after deliberate attempts at cultivating controversy backfired. Today, almost anyone can access different translations and interpretations, even if they can’t do the translation themselves.
The largest controversy in this area in 2008 has been over the Kolbrin or Coelbook, a set of codices said to have been salvaged from the Glastonbury Abbey fire of 1184, and translated into modern English (supposedly from Egyptian and Britonnic). It is being publicised online however as a lost ‘Bible’ text predicting the world coming to a fiery end in 2012, due to ‘Planet X’ reappearing. Now, for all I know, the world could come to a fiery end the day after tomorrow; but I can say that the ancient text itself, which I’ve read, does not in fact make any claims about 2012, or mention a new planet. Having said this much, I better add that it does describe in several grim passages a near-miss by a comet, meteor, or asteroid, called in the text The Frightener and The Destroyer. This suddenly appears, pollutes the atmosphere with flame and smoke, and as it passes close by has a disastrous effect on Earth’s gravitational field, with quakes and floods. This is indeed described as a cyclical event, but with a cycle of 52 x 104 = 5,000+ years. It doesn’t say how this was calculated, but the last pass described matches details in Biblical and Egyptian (Ipuwer Papyrus) accounts of the “slave” exodus after various plagues. The Exodus being generally dated to around 1500 BC, the next pass, if you do the maths, is not likely to disrupt the 2012 Olympics.
I suspect the 2012 date comes from speculation about the Mayan calendar, which reaches the end of a long cycle then. I myself have purchased (for its accounts of early Christian British settlement, including, apparently, Joseph of Arimatheia) the paperback version, and recommend using printed editions for proper study. But the point here is the text itself is available online on various sites, including Google Books, so even if you don’t want to buy it, you can make up your own mind the better by browsing the original text, ignoring any hype surrounding it.
--There were also some ancient source texts in the news in 2008 due to announced movie or TV versions, but I’ll cover these separately, next time.