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Nouvelles Pod #2 - Frank Coulson



SB: My guest today is Frank Coulson, Professor of Classics at Ohio State. He specializes in paleography—old writing—particularly the writing found in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance manuscripts: Roman Capitals, uncials, minuscules, Carolingian, Gothic, and the like. He is Director of Paleography at the Ohio State Center for Epigraphical and Paleographical studies and convenes the annual Texts and Contexts conference here. The next conference is November 1st, and the Virginia Brown Memorial Lecture this year is being delivered by Jan Ziolkowski, the general editor of the Dumbarton Oaks series of medieval literature. He has also a scholar of the reception of Ovid as well as the medieval and Renaissance reception of the Classics more generally, and he has directed many successful doctoral theses in the field. He has just completed editing the Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography, a wide ranging project, which brings together the most up to date research in the field and which will be published shortly.

SB: Welcome Frank.

FC: Thank you.

SB: So I said published soon. When is it coming out?

FC: Well, it's just going into production. We had a little problem getting the final contract signed, but I think they're all done now. So it should be going into production. We're hoping it'll be out next year. It's been a rather long process.

SB: Yes, so that was one of my questions. What's involved in editing something like this?

FC: Well, I suppose part of the problem to begin with is conceptualizing how you're going to do it, how you want to organize it, how you want to emphasize certain aspects of the material. I must say that our idea at the beginning was that it would emphasize particularly paleography, handwriting. So that would be the focus of it, but there were also two other sections that have turned out to be fairly developed, one in codicology and the other that I sort of called the placement of the manuscript, the way in which certain genres and types of texts were transmitted in the Middle Ages. So it's a little bit like what people recently have tried to do looking more at the archeology of the book as opposed to just focusing on paleography. But the process has really taken about six or seven years I suppose, from beginning to end.

SB: So you mentioned codicology and the archaeology of the book. What else is in it, and what is the balance of introductory material and summaries of the most recent research in the field?

FC: I suppose one would say that it focuses about 70% on paleography, and what we tried to do is—we've been editing the work, so what we did was we commissioned essays, the various specialists within the field. So I think that one of the strengths of the handbook—well obviously I edited it, so I think there are several strengths—but I think one of the strengths of the handbook is the fact that it gives pretty full coverage to virtually every script from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. And in fact some scripts, which in previous handbooks have gotten rather short shrift, have fairly fully developed essays and articles in our handbook. So I think that's one of the advantages. I would say it's definitely really a handbook of paleography.

The section on codicology covers the major areas and aspects, like how is it that a manuscript actually set up? How does one, what can one learn about things like comparative codicology? Those sorts of aspects. But I would say that it's probably not intended to replace the Cornell volume that they use here in the CMRS course because I think that particular volume focuses primarily on codicology as opposed to paleography. And then there's a, as I say, fairly developed section at the end where we treat things like libraries, particular scriptoria that were important to the development of script. We treat various genres, so we have a section on theological texts; we have a section on Books of Hours, those sorts of things.

SB: How long did it end up being? [mutual laughter]

FC: It's about 700 pages in total, so it's a pretty long volume. And I must say, I think one of the other strengths of the volume is the fact that it is copiously illustrated. There must be, I shudder to think, there must be like a thousand plates and figures and things which illustrate various aspects of script.

SB: So is this something you would envision using in your own paleography class?

FC: Yes, I would. The difficulty is that these handbooks, even though they come out as paperbacks, I think Oxford is still pricing them at about a hundred dollars. So it might be a slight problem in terms of using it within a class, I'm not sure. We hadn't really originally envisaged it just as a textbook. We had envisaged it as a kind of supplement to textbooks on paleography like [Bernhard] Bischoff and [Jacques] Stiennon. And one of the reasons for undertaking it I think was the fact that—and I don't know if you've ever worked with Bischoff, but Bishchoff was a brilliant paleographer—but the problem is that it's been translated from German, and it's a little bit difficult to follow and read in the English translation. And one of the problems I discovered was that apparently they didn't get the rights for some of the illustrations in the English translation copy, so they virtually talk about script without any illustrations. So our handbook will update the research since Bischoff, which was published about 1980, 82, and it's fully illustrated. The other thing is that Oxford made us do all of the articles in English, so even though we must have had about 18 to 19 articles in German and Spanish and French and Italian, they all had to be translated.

SB: Do you find that to be a strength or some and some?

FC: Well, I hate to say this, but I do think that if something is not published in English these days, it will not be as widely read. Is it a strength? Well, the difficulty really is the fact that some foreign languages, as you know, work quite differently from English, so some of the essays were quite metaphorical in terms of the way they talked about script. And part of the problem was finding a kind of language that worked better in English. So we did have to go a little bit around with contributors.

SB: Did the authors, the contributors, generally translate their own, or did you have to do them?

FC: We translated them, so I did most of the French, and here I must say that I did not do this on my own. I have a co-editor who's Robert Babcock, and he was responsible for the German, and then Consuelo Dutschke, who is at a Columbia University, had most of the Italian ones. So it worked out fairly well. But as I say, the strength is that the fact that all of this is published in English will certainly make it more accessible.

SB: So what are some of your, if you can say, some of your favorite parts or maybe parts you would like to highlight?

FC: Well, I guess I'm rather fond of the fact that all of the scripts are given quite close coverage and quite detailed coverage. One of the things that I particularly liked about it was that some of the scripts, which as I said are sometimes given a half a page or a page in traditional manuals are here really quite fully treated. I'm thinking of scripts like Old Roman Cursive and New Roman Cursive, which are usually mentioned in passing.

SB: Those are terribly difficult to read.

FC: They are extremely difficult to read. And I have to say there are very few people in the world who can talk intelligently about them. We were very fortunate to get Teresa de Robertis, who was at Florence, who wrote really two wonderful articles on the script. And I think that the two scripts, and I think they'll probably be the go-to articles. The other thing that I thought was particularly good was the fact that a few other scripts, which as I say are generally either not taught or don't have very full coverage, were also treated, like Visigothic. We have an extremely comprehensive overview of Visigothic. I suppose one of the things I might also say, the thing that I particularly liked was that it was quite heartwarming to work with some of these contributors and to see how enthusiastic they were about their own particular script. And since my expertise lies a little bit more in Carolingian and Gothic, it was certainly a very good learning experience for me.

SB: Did you contribute?

FC: Yeah, I contributed a couple of smaller articles. I did the introduction, and I did the article on punctuation. But I didn't—we tried to find the person who was the expert within that particular script. So to just drop a few names, we had Francis Newton on Beneventan, and we have Albert Derolez on Gothic. And again, Teresa de Robertis stood a very good article on humanistic script. David Ganz did Carolingian. So I think they're all quite authoritative articles.

SB: Really an all-star cast.

FC: Yeah, one of the things that was interesting as well was to see the sometimes slightly different perspective that people have on paleography as a discipline and the way one looks at a script.

SB: What are some of the…?

FC: Well sometimes people can be much more categorical in that they're interested in looking at very specific letter shapes and classifications.
Sometimes people are much more interested in looking at the sort of more calligraphical aspects of the script and the fact that for them writing is a kind of human experience.

SB: So script for script’s sake.

FC: Yeah, exactly. And I would say some of the Italian contributors had much more that kind of perspective.

SB: That’s a delightful attitude.

FC: Yeah. But again, I suppose I would say the strength of the book really is that most of the articles follow a certain set up, and usually you're taken through the script and so you’re shown what are the major features, what are the things that are the particular shibboleths, and then most of the contributors actually have a couple of examples of the script where they actually take you through and show you what are the distinguishing features within that particular example. And then they actually transcribe a certain piece. So in some respects it can be used as a kind of learning tool.

SB: Yeah, it sounds like you can almost do self-study, maybe if you’ve had a paleography course, say, and forgotten things, or if your expertise lies in one script.

FC: The real difficulty I have now, and I'm teaching paleography, is that I'm not sure there's a really good manual out there for paleography as such. I think the Cornell manual is excellent from the point of view of book history and the archeology of the book and codicology, but it doesn't really give a full treatment of all of the scripts. Stiennon of course is extremely good, but it's in French, and so I'm a little bit stymied sometimes in trying to find a text that is appropriate, so I'm not sure I can assign the handbook at a hundred dollars, but I think I will probably use it. The intent is—we were adamant about this—we wanted it brought out in a hardcopy initially, but I think the intent is that it will eventually go online, so they can be consulted a as individual chapters.

SB: I didn't realize that was a choice for the individual handbooks. So they're not all—if the library subscribes, they're not all necessarily online unless…?

FC: No, I don't think they are online. I think our editor felt that our book was such that it could probably benefit from being online. I'm old enough that I'm a little bit concerned about things just being online. I want to make sure there's an actual hard copy which exists in libraries.

And I suppose one of the, at least for me, one of the other great problems was just the difficulty of technology because there were so many figures and so many illustrations, and as someone who did their dissertation on an IBM typewriter, I'm not sure I realized all of the problems that can come up with layout and getting the illustrations in, and also a setting it up so that the people who are actually doing the copy editing can follow. I mean one of the things that was particularly perplexing for me was that apparently we had to four copies of each of the articles so that one just had the text, one that had just the illustrations, one had text and illustrations, and one was pdf. So it required him a fair amount of technological expertise. I kind of relied upon the kindnesses of my graduate students.

SB: Is there a section in the book on—speaking of technology—digital humanities and all that?

FC: There is a smaller section dealing with the question of projects that are being used to digitize manuscripts, but, and this may reflect the biases of the people who were editing the volume, but no, I would say that they're probably is not a large section devoted to that type of work. It tends for the most part to be a fairly rigorous, conservative, a little bit old school kind of approach to paleography.

SB: No, I was curious what you thought about all that because it seems like….

FC: Well, I mean I'm very much in favor of it. The thing that I'm very glad to see is that people are actually digitizing complete manuscripts. I think it in part before they would only digitize things that were quite beautiful or had lots of nice pictures, and they might only digitize parts of it. So I noticed now while I've been working a lot with the Vatican website, and one of the things they're doing is I think they're attempting to get most of the manuscripts digitized. So I might here just say that I started my own work on Ovid working on a particular commentary which was written in France, and I had to start working from it from a microfilm, which was incredibly difficult. It really meant actually changing—physically changing—lenses so that you could blow up the script to see it a bit better.

And I must say that last year the Vatican put a fully digitized a copy of the manuscript up, and they must've done something with the, I think it's called the pixel quality, so that when you blow it up, you still have a really finally formed picture, so the text doesn't disintegrate as you blow the image up. And I must confess, we’re editing this particular text with a research team in Zurich at the moment. And I must say that being able to work with it in a digital forum has just been an incredible life saver.

SB: This is the only copy?

FC: No, it's not, unfortunately. Virginia Brown, who was my dear supervisor when I was your age, a graduate student, she made me go through virtually every European library looking for copies. And when I started they were four and I actually found twenty more copies in European libraries. And the question, and this is sort of related a little bit to the paleography manual, but one of the things that we have to ask ourselves is how we're going to go about editing it, because one of the big problems is that it's so dense and the script itself is so difficult that I think if we edit, if we try to do a traditional Lachmann kind of edition, we're not going to finish before I die.

SB: Is that the stemma?

FC: Yeah, the kind of stemmatic one where you examine all the manuscripts and try to decide how they're interrelated. But as I say, part of the thing is that digital reproduction has really facilitated the work on that in a way that I could never have imagined 30 years ago. And of course you can pull it off the website at any time. And the thing that's quite unique, and I haven't worked that much with digitized copies, but is that you can actually see every form of the letter, whereas before when you were working from a microfilm copy, it was very difficult to see how things were actually written.

SB: Because the level of detail wasn't high enough?

FC: Yeah, exactly.

SB: Do you worry there'll be a bias until, say, some future time when everything is digitized, a bias towards things that are easily accessible?

FC: That's a good question. I think at the moment digitization might be used a bit more in teaching then it may be in research, but I think it's moving in the direction when, particularly with things like the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich and the Vatican film library, and some of the big digitization projects in Switzerland and France, that at a certain time most of the material is going to be available. So you'll be able to use it in research as well as teaching.

SB: Well, I guess a related, or maybe this is my own experience. It's easy to get things that are digitized, and then I sort of haven't learned the system of getting money to be able to go travel to Europe to be able to go look at the more obscure libraries.

FC: Well, I suppose one of the negative aspects of this is that as things are being digitized, it's more and more difficult in libraries to actually see the manuscript. And even when only a fairly bad microfilm exists, even then when you're on spot, it's virtually impossible to actually see the manuscript. I was in Seville in the fall, and I actually went to the library, and they would only let me look at the manuscript on microfilm. I said, “Well, you know, thank you. I have a microfilm.” And Paris is quite bad in this respect, too, at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Now when I was your age, I used to be able to go, and I could actually work with the manuscript for a month. You would just put it on reserve each night, and it would be there the next morning. The last time I was there, even though I knew one of the curators behind the scenes, I only got to look at an Ovid manuscript for about three hours in a morning, which was quite difficult to extract what I needed.

SB: Was it you who the story of, I think it was the Spanish library, back in the day, people just sort of smoking and…?

FC: Well, actually this was at Seville. I worked at Seville in 1989, and yes, that's true. I walked in, there was a round table, and there were four or five people—this was when you can actually see a manuscript—and there were four or five people sort of [smoking gesture]. Of course, everybody's smoking back in the 80s, so it may not have been too abnormal, but it was quite shocking for me. Yes, I was the one who had that story.

SB: So they’ve changed their standards.

FC: Yes, they’ve changed their policies. And I think part of the thing is knowing people, I have a good friend who's in Spain and she said, “Oh, I know the curator at Seville, so I can get you behind the scenes to see the manuscript.

SB: Yeah, it's a sort of very letters of introduction and yeah, knowing people.

FC: Yeah, but I am a little bit concerned that some of these documents are going to become inaccessible with digitization, and it’s not so bad with things like the Vatican because they're doing such a good job with most of their scans, but with some of the scans they bought up, they're not really very well done.

SB: Cropping things out by accident? Not focused enough?

FC: Yeah, part of it is not focused enough. Of course I do agree that there is no substitute to actually seeing physically the actual manuscript. I mean there are certain things that you absolutely do need to look at from the actual physical copy.

SB: Yeah, especially from the codicology….

FC: Yeah, from the codicology aspect.

SB: I was going to ask you about the Piggy Center, if you want to say a little bit for people listening about what you guys do, or maybe the Beneventan archive.

FC: Sure. Yeah, yeah, sure. I’d like to say something about that. The full title of it is the Epigraphical and Paleographical Center. We actually focus on epigraphy, which is writing on stone, and then writing on manuscript. It was actually set up about 1991, primarily due to the hard work of Stephen Tracy who was an epigrapher here who was quite renowned. And at the moment we benefit a little bit from having an endowment, which helps us do a certain number of things. We have a very good collection related to classical texts, so we have a lot of postdocs who come through who are interested in reception. So in the last few years, in paleography we've had people from Spain, Italy, Switzerland, usually either graduate students who are finishing or postdocs. The other thing that really helped us was that we received Virginia Brown’s papers and her Beneventan collection, which means that virtually overnight we kind of became the go-to center for the study of Beneventan script.

SB: Could you tell people why that’s so important?

FC: Well, the Beneventan script was actually the script that was written in Italy from about 800 or so down to about 1400 or 1500. It was in the Duchy of Benevento, which is sort of just south of Rome. One of the reasons why it's particularly important for classicists is that a lot of classical texts exist only because they were preserved in Beneventan manuscripts.

SB: This is Monte Cassino?

FC: Yeah, particularly at Monte Cassino, texts like Apuleius, Varro. There is an important Ovid Metamorphoses manuscript as well. It's done in Beneventan, and Virginia was probably the world's leading expert in Beneventan, so she was kind enough to leave us her library and all her working papers. So I think for people who are working in that area, there's a tremendous amount of material that is there.

The other thing we do is that, as you mentioned at the beginning, we sponsor this conference every fall, in which—well, it's now moved more into a sort of seminar format—we had a sort of conference format for years, and then we decided we would move into a one-day seminar format in which we focused on a particular topic every year. So actually next year, if I might anticipate—this year, we're having Jan Ziolkowski—but next year we're actually doing a sort of one-day seminar on the legacy of Virginia Brown because she unfortunately died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, but a lot of her students have gone on to do relatively important work in areas. And we're also hoping—at some point our goal is to try to set up an endowed chair in Latin Paleography at the Center, which would be named for Virginia. And so we'd be moving towards that, but paleographers are not quite as well endowed as businessmen, so it's been a slower process than, yes.

SB: So I suppose to conclude, what advice do you have for a doctoral students or what generally do the—maybe this is a separate question—but what generally do your students or the postdocs that come through, what are they working on? Are they doing editions?

FC: Sure. Yeah. That's a very interesting question. There are lot of Europeans who, much to my surprise, were still doing extremely traditional dissertations. They were still working on things like text editions, codicology, paleography. I would say that probably American students are perhaps doing a bit less of that. My advice to graduate students, and it may be a bit Pollyannish-y, but it seems to me that I think you should do what is your passion and follow it because when I was a graduate student, people told me that I would never get a job where I am. And I've had a number of students who worked in what might be seen as relatively arcane areas, and they've gone on to have relatively stellar careers. So sometimes it's just question of happenstance, but, I will say that one of the things that concerns me a little bit is that I don't want to see paleography and those kinds of disciplines merely be taught in private, wealthy colleges. I think there will always be room for it at places like Princeton and Harvard, but I'm hoping that the tradition will be able to continue at important public institutions.

SB: What's your sense of how many paleography classes there are in the public universities?

FC: In America?

SB: Yeah.

FC: Well I have to say, I think there are very few. I mean I would say that probably Chapel Hill and Ohio State are the two places to go to now for paleography. And here I would like to point to the important work being done by Eric [Johnson] in the library. He's been quite influential, and Leslie Lockett, in developing the program. The thing that concerns me is that I think schools that were really, really strong 15 or 20 years ago have either not replaced their paleographers or have let things slide a little bit. And I suppose one of the things that people may not realize is just how much out there is still in manuscript: unedited, untranslated. I think sometimes graduate students have this impression that everything is kind of done, so they don't really need those kinds of skills any longer.

SB: That is how it feels sometimes, especially in, especially in Old English where at least all the Old English texts have been pored over pretty well. But not the Latin.

FC: No, no, definitely the Latin tradition is—I would say that in the area that I've worked on, which is primarily Ovidian reception, I would say 98% of the material is still unedited, unexamined, uncatalogued. So in that area we're kind of at the state we were at the beginning of the 19th century in Classical Studies, where so much still had to be done in terms of editions of the text, catalogs, those sorts of preliminary work. And I suppose here I might just mention that one of the other big projects I'd been working on—and it was Virginia Brown who got me onto this—but it's a big project looking at the medieval and humanistic commentaries on the Metamorphoses from 400 to 1600. And it's a very cautionary tale.

SB: A massive…

FC: Well, I say it's a cautionary tale because I started it quite naively as a graduate student thinking that I might find 20 or 25 commentaries, and I now have—well it’s almost finished—but I have discovered 110 commentaries in about 700 manuscripts. So it gives you at least some indication of—and most, I would say 90% of these manuscripts were unknown. And just to give you one other further indication of how much important work is still out there: we always think that classical, all the manuscripts of classical authors have been discovered. When I was looking in various European libraries, I actually found 120 new manuscripts of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

SB: Wow.

FC: That were not known. And last fall I just managed to find a fragment at Fordham, at their university, and a new fragment of Giovanni del Virgilio, who is a very important Italian humanist. So I mentioned this because, you know, it's an exciting discipline. Still lots of important primary texts still to work on.

SB: Well, thank you very much, Frank, for talking with us today. That’s very exciting.

FC: Well, thank you.