May 2016 Features

Filling in the Blanks


The class is huddled over a little book, barely larger than a smartphone but even more brilliantly illuminated. The Book of Hours is the centerpiece of a conversation taking place in a new class—Forming the Classics: From Papyrus to Print—being team-taught by Classics Professor Catherine Conybeare and Eric Pumroy, the Seymour Adelman Head of Special Collections at Bryn Mawr.

Although many faculty members make creative use of Bryn Mawr’s collections—Christiane Hertel’s class on allegory has been examining the holdings of early modern illustrated books, and Carrie Robbins’s students curated an exhibition out of the World’s Fair collections—Conybeare and Pumroy are teaming up on a class that takes a slightly different approach: that of textual history.

Conybeare’s area of expertise aligns with a core strength of Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections: the western European tradition and, in particular, the Latin intellectual tradition. And with Forming the Classics, her students are looking at the survival of texts from the ancient period up through the Middle Ages and beyond. Scholars have traditionally underestimated the importance of the medieval period in the transmission of these texts, Conybeare explains. “What we now read exists only because they were copied and recopied through the medieval period,” she says. “But to talk to a large number of my classical colleagues, the Middle Ages is a blank.”

History major Eliana Chavkin ’16 is fascinated by the subject: “I’ve really loved learning about the history of reading since reading is something I’m rather passionate about. Last week we learned about the origin of libraries as a place for silent study, and we’ve examined how reading evolved as a process from something that was done out loud to something done silently and in solitude.” Plus, she’s appreciated the chance to work directly with the texts. “It’s nice to have manuscripts pulled for us to look at,” she says.

Chavkin and her fellow students are reading secondary sources and encountering scholarly arguments about why certain texts were chosen for copying while also learning “in a slightly rough-and-ready way,” as Conybeare puts it, to read the original texts themselves.

“A true course in paleography [the study of historical handwriting] takes real time,” explains Conybeare. “You need to learn to read a whole range of scripts and styles.”

Conybeare_Book_altSo although reading a book might not sound like much of a challenge for a Bryn Mawr student, the texts in question do not, by and large, look like what you will find on the page of a modern book. For example, late classical Latin texts were written without spaces between words and sentences—a style called scriptio continua.

In their first solo foray into transcription, students worked with the first page from Bryn Mawr Manuscript 49, an early 15th-century compilation of texts relating to St. Jerome—his writings, writings ascribed to him, and writings about him. For the assignment, students were asked to transcribe Jerome’s letter to Eustochium, the daughter of one of his followers. Pumroy explains that in its time and for many centuries thereafter, the letter was “an enormously influential work on the importance of chastity in the lives of religious women.”

For Chavkin, abbreviations posed the biggest challenge. “If you aren’t familiar with the language or even, as in my case, you’re familiar with the language but can’t read it fluently, it’s hard to determine what each abbreviation might be standing in for,” she says. “Likewise, you may transcribe something incorrectly out of sheer ignorance. Add that to letters with multiple forms, smudges in the manuscript, and the tricks that your eyes play on you, and it becomes a very difficult task indeed.”

The survival of classical texts—abbreviations and smudges included—is based on a combination of luck, chance, and skill, adds Conybeare. Luck can dictate what survives; countless books were lost in the fire(s) at the Library at Alexandria. Likewise, chance can determine what people choose to preserve: today we have upwards of 400 copies of a versified retelling of Jonah and the Whale that was wildly popular in the Middle Ages and passé by the Renaissance.

Luck and chance are anybody’s guess, but skill? Skill can be developed as students like Chavkin learn to read texts and develop the conceptual chops to interpret what’s on the page.

Classics Professor Catherine Conybeare, with Eric Pumroy, the Seymour Adelman Head of Special Collections.