Tag Archives: Research

Those Scots

A lovely footnote from a current research project.

I was looking up genealogical records for the Birnie family of Broomhill, to try and figure out the provenance of Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room MS 274, which has the names of both Mr. Robert Birnie, Minister of Lanark, and John Birnie of Broomhill. (Robert (1608-1691) was relatively easy, since there weren’t many Roberts in the family; every generation had at least one John, though, but my bet is on John (1643-1716), Robert’s only son.) I was using a funny little genealogical volume, Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill, by another John Birnie (the son of John son of Robert), edited and printed in 1838 by W.B.D.D. Turnbull.

It’s a nice little volume, available on archive.org, that has the Account following an account by W.B.D.D. Turnbull on a particular dispute involving many members of the Birnie and Hamilton families, regarding church interment. Mr. Turnbull had previously (1833) reprinted a copy of William Birnie’s (1563-1619) treatise against the practice of church burials, and prints this volume of genealogy and documents relating to the later dispute as additional material.

At the end of the analysis of the dispute, which is a section labeled “Prefatory Remarks, we find a description of the heraldic bookplate that apparently appears in several books that Mr. Turnbull has before him. They do not, evidently, impress Mr. Turnbull, who remarks in a footnote that “Heraldry was never properly studied as a science in Scotland. The present officials of that elegantly organized establishment are about the most ignorant reptiles that ever crawled between earth and heaven” (xviii).

The object of Turnbull’s scorn? The Birnies of Broomhill, in creating their crest, did not follow the rules, resulting in what Turnbull refers to as “a heraldic freak” (xviii): “They have given to their shield as supporters, two parsons precant, sable, in reading-desks–all proper!! La voila!” (xviii-xix).

As substitutes for the usual zoological complement of lions, unicorns, and gryphons, it must be said that the parsons, even when referred to with the French-influenced language of heraldry as “precant, sable,” seem a little odd.




Birnie, John, Esq. Account of the Families of Birnie and Hamilton of Broomhill. Ed. W.B.D.D. Turnbull, Esq. Edinburgh: Printed for Private Distribution (Edinburgh Printing Company), 1838.

Genealogical material possibly taken from BL Add. Ms. 28850, but the BL dates the genealogical part of that manuscript to 1730, and the printed volume includes deaths up to 1733.

Dns .I. de Marignac, Or, Meotodes meahte

A research project has snuck up on me, as they often do, from where it was lurking in another project. While working at the Smith College Mortimer Rare Books Room, in my character as measurer of manuscripts, I came upon a thirteenth-century Bible, possibly from the Rhine provinces. A lovely big book, 33.5 x 22.6cm, with a pretty illuminated initial at the front. What caught my eye, though, was the inscription on the flyleaf, dated 1312.

IMG_0694 copy

The hand is difficult for me, and apparently for others as well; a mid-20th century interlinear pencil notation transcribes some of the words, but not all, and even some of those transcribed seem to be wrong. I pieced together some of it the first day, but I still didn’t have enough to figure out all of the place names. The next time I was in, after I finished all the measuring, I came back to it, this time with some help from an emeritus classics professor, with whom I pieced together more of it. By the end of that session (we were still working when the librarian needed to go to a meeting, so she locked us in at 5), we’d figured out almost everything.

Apparently I needed a project like this- a bit fussy, out of my sphere, and exciting. Really needed it, or maybe even needed a few, since I was already working on the Istoria della Fine del Mondo manuscript, which shares many of those characteristics. It’s become a minor obsession. I have half a dozen books out of the library, call numbers for half a dozen more, and a few ordered from interlibrary loan.

It refers to Dns .I. de Marignac, who was not Enguerrand de Marigny (chamberlain to Philip IV of France, and sometimes spelled Inguerrand), but more likely his half-brother Jean de Marigny.

So really, the power of the measurer (meotodes meahte, stolen from Cædmon, but taken here without divine implications) is apparently the power to come back to the library later and do more research. At least, that’s the power of this particular measurer.

New Year, New Projects (Part II)

Another new project takes me a little away from my usual literary and textual stomping grounds: to the late 17th century in Italy, and an odd little manuscript titled “Istoria della fine del mondo, nongià del quando ma del come finirà” [History of the end of the world, not of when but of how it will end]. It’s written mostly in Italian by a certain Americo da Firenze, about whom the holding library knows nothing else.

The manuscript is in the collection at the Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, fondly referred to at the University of Massachusetts as the Renaissance Center, and where I am a visiting fellow this semester. I’ll be working on a basic description and transcription of the text over the next weeks or months; I have found a few things I might disagree with in the existing description, and there is no transcription. The project might go in different directions from there, like translating the text or working on identifying sources, but the transcription will take some time. The text is occasionally messy, often crossed out, corrected in the margins, with four extra pieces of paper pasted in with more additions or corrections.

Right now, I’ve done the first page, which is two quotes from Augustine and then a large chunk of text to replace the introduction that was originally much shorter, on the next page. I’m also reading up on my Apocalypse, in the Vulgate and using Douay-Rheims for comparison. If I get to the point of identifying sources, I’ll have to decide what text to use, and how much research to do on possible Italian translations of the period.

I’ll be giving a talk on the work in early April, so hopefully more news on this project by then!


Discovery (writ small)

I was reminded a couple of weeks ago of the thrill of discovery, or perhaps “discovery.” I’m working with the Five College Medieval Manuscript Digitization Project (website), and was doing some basic work getting some images we can work with for cataloguing (while the nice images are being worked on), and measuring the leaves of the UMass Ege collection. I was curious to know what the next oldest book or leaf in the UMass Special Collections Library was, so I did a really basic search in the library catalogue: location Special Collections and date 1100-1600. I knew there was a copy of Giovanni Battista Giraldi Cinzio’s Hecatommiti from 1593, because I’d consulted it a few years ago. Turns out there are a bunch of early printed books, but more importantly for the Manuscript Digitization project, there’s actually another medieval manuscript!

It hasn’t been entered into the project catalogue yet, but I got a chance to look through it. It’s a list in alphabetical order of the interpretation of Hebrew names from the Bible, in a version that was common in the thirteenth century (incipit “Aaz apprehendens”). This particular exemplar has 38 folios (three gatherings of 12 and two leaves at the end), and ends with “Tirus angustia v[e]l tribulatio s[i]v[e] plasmatio aut fortitudo” (transcription from the MARC record).  It’s a fragment of a larger volume, as evidenced by the fact that the gatherings of this piece are numbered 32-35, in pen, in a much later hand. If the first 31 gatherings were also 12 folios each, it’s possible (likely even?) that it contained an entire Bible before the list.

The volume as it is now was rebound in the late 1980s* in marbled paper boards with a leather label on the cover. It also has a clamshell box that’s UMass-made. The library’s MARC record indicates that the volume was bought from Bernard Quaritch in 1988, and the special collections librarian I spoke to about it said that it must have been a gift, since they don’t usually buy from Quaritch. I’ve got a lead on a set of Quaritch catalogues, so I’m going to try to track down the sale and see what else I can find out about the volume. Once I know what sale it was, I might even be able to find out the price and who bought it, since Quaritch keeps an archive of sale catalogues, including as much of the sale information as they can.

In the meantime, despite the fact that this book was in the catalogue and not hidden, I feel like I’ve discovered something. It’s good to know that the thrill is still there.


* The rear paste-down has a watermark with the year 1985, and the special collections librarian was positive that UMass wouldn’t have done that rebinding, so it must be between 1985 and 1988.

Translation and Power

I printed up my dissertation last week and dropped it in all of my committee members’ mailboxes, which means that I have a few days during which I am allowed to think about something else. It’s lovely to remember, as one of my colleagues once mentioned, that there are other topics out there apart from the one I chose for my dissertation. She said it in the context of choosing entirely new material for conference presentations. I say it in the context of an encyclopedia article that I’m working on titled “Translation and Power.”

In some ways it’s a chance to look back at a topic that is fundamental to how I work with translation, but that I haven’t addressed explicitly in a very long time. It’s also a huge challenge, because I have to condense whatever thinking I come up with on the subject into a relatively small article with a limited number of references. I remember my advisor once discussing how she wrote an encyclopedia article on the topic of “Translation Theory” for the Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics and thinking at the time that I was glad nobody was asking me to do something like that. “Translation and Power” is certainly a smaller topic than “Translation Theory” in some ways (although perhaps not in others?) but now that I have it on my to-do list, I’m really glad that somebody did ask.