This Is How King Horn Ends

KingHorn manuscript ending lines

This is how the world ends,
Not with a whimper but with an amen.

What better way to celebrate reaching the end of a project than with a wistful amen and an ascent into heaven. The screenshot above features the final lines of King Horn, followed by a slightly modified version of the final lines of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.”

Yes, this is how I celebrate the countless hours spent doing the textual mark-up for the King Horn section of the Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud. Misc 108 manuscript as part of the Archive of Early Middle English.

I started working on this project with two of my peers as our final project in my Digital Humanities class. During our class session, Amanda encoded lines 1-17 and 250-500, Shlomit encoded lines 501-700 and 901-1000, and I encoded lines 17-249 and 701-900. After our semester ended, I continued working on the project and encoded lines 1001-1570. For those counting, I did encode approximately 1000 lines of 13th century text.

Because I have experience reading Middle English, it was not difficult to plunge into the 13th century story or even to understand the idiosyncrasies of the spelling and grammar. More challenging was to dance with paleography and discover not only the words but also the art of the writing.

I started out hopeful, encouraged by how quickly I was able to begin reading and understanding the manuscript. I wasn’t afraid of the linguistic eccentricities until the time came to encode them. Using the AEME and TEI guidelines, I began the somewhat tedious process of comparing the digital manuscript to a transcription provided by my professor. Even when I was utterly confused by the manuscript, nothing was unreachable. Not even the extended “amen” with its seemingly superfluous red curls was out of reach.

Whenever I would finish encoding a page, I felt successful. Satisfaction washed over me and there was nothing to stop me from continuing my madcap dash to the ending line. Until, of course, I reached the ending line and sent the fully encoded and validated file to my professor.

Don’t worry, this isn’t the end. Now that I have a taste for encoding, I’m not going to let it slip from my grasps.

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Filtering Texts and Making Editorial Decisions

Have you ever thought to question why teachers ask students to get that exact version of a book for a class? I never did in high school or even during my undergraduate college experience. I would roll my eyes and think “What does it matter? Aren’t they all the same?” I was, of course, very mistaken. Every edition of a text has something different going on and often we discount the editorial decisions made because we don’t even think about them.

Now that I have encoded a portion of the text of a 13th century manuscript for the Archive of Early Middle English, I understand more and more how editors have to make qualitative decisions when preparing their editions. In my encoding project, I physically wrote the TEI/XML code that will ultimately showcase two different outputs. I am, in many ways, filtering the content of the original manuscript into something readable that does not require palaeographic knowledge.

In the original manuscript, there are realities of the time that no longer apply to modern English. For example, the letter thorn, þ, which generally is read as the “th” sound. Scribes also use abbreviations materials like combining tildes over a certain letter to denote more letters that can be inferred but do not exist in the original text. And I am responsible for marking those in a choice tag: a “diplomatic” view that preserves the original letters, abbreviations, marks, and more, and a “critical” view that adapts (or corrects) those linguistic eccentricities that no longer exist in modern English.

Why does it matter that editors filter the texts for the reader? Someone has to make decisions in the editing process in order to make texts more palatable for the common reader. Whether it’s the person transcribing the hand written fair copy for printing or someone condensing a long story into a more succinct version (I’m thinking now of the 200-page Les Miserables that I read in high school), there are editorial decisions being made. Because I was encoding the process from manuscript to text, I had to make some of those larger decisions. What if that word doesn’t make sense? Do I fix it? How about when the letters don’t work together? Do I change them? No matter what editing decision I made, I tried to always put the text first. This was not my story to tell, but it was perhaps my opportunity to help the modern reader understand this story as told in this particular manuscript.

So how can we be more judicious about the texts we choose to read? As I learned in my seminar for research methods, it is a mythical quest to hope for one definitive edition because there are always editing choices made. The best thing we can do is to be aware of what those decision are. Does this edition preserve the original lettering or, as in my critical view, update things that will not make sense to the common reader? Does this edition preserve the original spacing? What manuscript, fair copy, or other edition was used in preparing this edition? What extra-textual material is included and how does that shape the reception of this edition (e.g. introduction, footnotes, etc.)? These are all good questions to ask and, after spending considerable time working on an edition of Laud Misc 108, I’m capable of answering some of these questions myself.

This post was originally written as a summative piece in December 2015 after taking a course in Digital Humanities during my graduate program and posted as a discussion piece on the course blog. It’s a reflection on approximately two months of encoding the King Horn section of the Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 108.

My Fear of Sergers

I learned how to sew when I was 15. I grew up with my mom and grandma constantly making things for me, so when I decided I wanted to learn how to do it too, I did. I primarily use a Brother Ex-660 because it was the machine given to me for my birthday that year, though I’ve also dabbled with other machines (including but not limited to Viking, Bernina, Singer).

But I never learned how to use a serger.

Both my mom and my grandma have sergers and both of them use them from time to time. About half of my sewing friends have sergers, which they’ve let me use for straight lines under their supervision. But I have no idea how to use one and reading the manual for my Singer Ultralock (a gift from a former coworker who had never used it) did not help me an ounce. My biggest issue is with threading the machine and an even greater concern is in accidentally unthreading it. I’ve read the guides, watched the youtube tutorials, and tried time and time again to thread both my and my mom’s sergers. I just can’t figure it out.

Hopefully that will change. As I’ve been working on new projects this year, I want to have clean seams wherever possible and vastly improve my personal craftsmanship. I have plans for projects that use velvet, satin, organza, spandex, and even more fabrics where a serger will be helpful. And I want to make use of the machine I was given so it doesn’t just gather dust.

I wish I could say that “No Fear” from The Swan Princess plays through my head but this serger has been a desk ornament for the past few months precisely because I am full of fear. Since I don’t want to let a perfectly good machine be a paperweight, I’m going to reread the manual for the umpteenth time, scour countless online tutorials, and do my best to follow the color-coded numbers that tell me exactly where I should place each thread.

Wish me luck.

visual of serger thread guide
After threading the machine & successfully sewing a few lines! (Sorry for the lint.)

My Dialogue with Dickens

The year was 2012. I was cloistered in a cabin in the rural hills of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland with four women at two months into my semester abroad. With about ten books and a flighty internet connection at my disposal, it was time to delve into criticism surrounding the monstrous women in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

Now, you may find yourself wondering what Northern Ireland had to do with it. Well, despite a wireless connection that worked only in the Ceili House (one of the ten cottages nestled in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains) and only if less than ten people used it, 24 undergraduate students were to do the bulk of their research for the semester’s term paper on a topic not yet decided. As I read through a wealth of Dickensian literature, I found myself perpetually pulled toward “the most unearthly I ever heard in my life, or can imagine” (1) – women seen only as monstrous, brittle, and unforgiving.

As I wrestled with Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle’s rejection of the idyllic angel, the expected and accepted trajectory of a woman’s life in Victorian England, I also wrestled with David’s perception of Jane and Rosa “whose stories are told only elliptically” (2). As I developed a paper that focuses on David’s view of Jane and Rosa, I simultaneously questioned why these characters are not offered redemption. Because David is the narrator, the reader understands Jane and Rosa as offensive and unforgiving. Because this is fiction, we are not meant to care for these dark, angry women… And yet I did. I wanted, more than anything else, to find a space to forgive them, to relieve them of their anger, and to see them for more than what our narrator allows.

As I ruminated on David’s perceptions of Jane and Rosa, I realized how I had few resources with which to engage in the scholarly conversation. Understanding the concepts of ideal Victorian femininity was simple enough and even finding criticism to support that was like melting chocolate in a fondue pot. But finding the appropriate articles on a dwindling wifi connection while the nearest (religious) library was at the Catholic monastery two miles away by foot? When it felt impossible (which was often), I would fix a cup of hot tea, stare out the cabin windows at the mountains above me, and consider my place in the story.

Despite, or perhaps in spite of, my limited resources, I was able to piece together a compelling paper that accomplished my two primary objectives. First, it considered how Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle become demonically domestic, perhaps to spite that angel-wife syndrome. And second, it questioned how these women “enter into unaccommodating structures of patriarchal language only through the painful marking and scarring of the female body” (3). David Copperfield chooses his language as carefully as Charles Dickens does and David’s descriptions of the physical disfiguring of both Jane and Rosa mirror his views of their ruptured femininity. Jane and Rosa become David’s monsters, the nightmares that a Victorian man must fear when a Victorian woman rejects her lot in life.

What then were my monsters, as a millenial woman in a foreign country with only 26 other Americans to keep me grounded? At the time, it seemed that no amount of reading or hard work would conquer either this term paper or the pages upon pages I had yet to finish reading for my courses. At the time, I vacillated between focusing on my academic work when the sun was up and shifting gears to interpersonal relationships as the sun went down. At the time, I wondered if I too would end up like Rosa Dartle, a little dilapidated and with a fire wasting away inside me (4).

Somehow, whether through hard work or an inability to bend when pressured, I made it through that semester of transient life, the weather of Ireland, an unstable internet connection, and a term paper that called into question not merely Jane Murdstone and Rosa Dartle but also my understanding of my own path in life. Literature has a way of revealing our innermost fears and desires. It is what we decide to do with those fears that marks our futures. No, I would not be left with rage that would catch fire; instead, I would choose to take back my power in the way that I secretly wished for Rosa. A faulty internet connection and scarce resources could not rupture analytical study, nor would my own literary id lead me to carry unencumbered indignation.

To struggle with our text is the first step in knowing that we are asking the right questions. I am not the first student who has lacked access to resources in the midst of a term paper, nor will I be the last student to struggle with an unreliable internet connection. But I am one student who faced it and survived. Often when we feel there is no way for us to overcome the challenges ahead, there is a new idea around the corner. While I do not advocate ignoring the critical conversation, lacking a way to access the vast wealth of scholarship on Charles Dickens’ work allowed me the ability to think clearly about the questions I wanted to ask of the text and, in turn, of myself. Each time we comment on a literary work, we also ask questions about our understanding of that text. In my case, I wondered how to ethically understand characters who are only given a whisper of life. In the many cases of my peers (and future students), they will find other questions that bring their biases and nightmares into the forefront. This is the story that I will tell.

Works Cited
(1) Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. Electronic edition.
(2) Schor, Hilary M. Introduction. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.
(3) Michie, Helena. “‘Who Is This in Pain?’ Scarring, Disfigurement, and Female Identity in ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend.’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2 (1989): 199-212. JSTOR. 10/31/12.
(4) This refers to David’s original description of Rosa in David Copperfield.

This post was originally written as a response to the following prompt:
Consider a piece of writing you have completed for a class, and discuss the challenges and satisfactions you gained from completing that particular project. Are there elements in your experience that other student writers would find valuable?