The Estoria de Espanna (modern Spanish: Historia de España) is a landmark 13th-century history of Spain written in Old Spanish under the patronage of King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ of Castile. Recently, the University of Birmingham created a digital edition of the Estoria by bringing together various extant medieval manuscripts. I was fortunate to be involved with the project, to read and touch the manuscripts, to attend two colloquiums and to write about my experience.
This article was originally published as two guest posts for the Estoria de Espanna project: From Zero to Sevilla and Up Close and Personal with the Estoria de Espanna in Madrid.
The first time I laid eyes on a medieval manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna, just over a year ago, I might as well have been looking at cuneiform or hieroglyphics; I could barely read a word.
I had just finished my first introductory course in palaeography, which involved transcribing 19th-century copies of the original 15th-century Capitulary Acts of the cathedral of Plasencia, in Spain’s Extremadura region. That experience whetted my appetite for further exposure to manuscripts, but the task itself had involved little more than reading and copying fairly neat and modern handwriting.
The Estoria, half a millennium older and with its myriad of abbreviations, inconsistencies, odd spellings and occasionally smudged text, would present an entirely different challenge.
Fortunately, I wasn’t required to actually read the 14th-century text I had been assigned – at least, not yet. After going through the online training materials provided by the project team, my first task was simply to insert line break tags into the existing transcription to correspond with the line endings in the actual manuscript.
There are three line break tags used in the project: one for lines that end with a completed word, another for lines that end with the middle of a word but without a hyphen – a very common occurrence – and a final tag for that rare treat: lines that end in the middle of a word with a friendly hyphen to help novice crowdsourcers figure out what they are reading.
Adding line break tags might seem like a fairly mundane task, but it was invaluable in helping me to get to know the manuscript. At first, I would just look for the word in the existing transcription that had a similar length to, and looked somewhat like, the word at the end of the line in the manuscript, and insert my tags.
But folio by folio, I found myself able to recognise and read more and more words, and I gradually began to figure out some of the common abbreviations. Eventually, I found myself spotting small differences between the base transcription text (which came from the ‘E’ manuscript of the Estoria) and the text of the ‘Q’ manuscript that I was actually working with.
After spending a few weeks acquainting myself with the manuscript and with line break tags, I was encouraged by the project staff to begin adding abbreviation tags and bringing the base transcription text from E in line with Q. My first attempt at this proved very difficult, as it took me an hour just to go through the first handful of lines while trying to find and insert the correct tags for all the unusual abbreviations I was coming across. But I worked faster with each passing line even on that first folio, and the assistance I received from the project staff motivated me to keep at it.
Within a couple of weeks I could recognise and tag most of the abbreviations without much difficulty and finish an entire folio (two pages) in two hours. Exotic-sounding abbreviations such as p-bars and superscript hooks – and their digital tags – were becoming second nature, and soon afterwards, I could modify tags to suit abbreviations that weren’t covered in the transcription guidelines. Eventually, Q and all of its intricacies and crazy abbreviations became so familiar to me that I began to long for them when I was transcribing other texts as part of my ongoing palaeography training.
As the year went on, I toiled away on Q whenever I could spare the time. My assigned folios covered the first part of the Estoria, which deals with primitive and Roman history – the latter being another hobby of mine. Through the pages of Q, I followed Trojan warrior Aeneas as he made his way to Italy, wreaking havoc in Carthage along the way by inciting the rage of Queen Dido. Later, I found myself in ancient Spain among great beasts while Julius Caesar’s wars raged around me.
Just when Q and I had put aside our initial hostility and become the best of friends, I was informed that its transcription had been finished, and that my new task would be to work on the ‘S’ manuscript that is slated to appear in a subsequent edition of the digital version of the Estoria.
I was hesitant to leave the (hard-won) comfort level that I had with Q, but S has made its own impression on me. For one thing, there are far fewer abbreviations, which delighted me initially but is now starting to perplex me instead – I often find myself asking the long-since departed S scribe why in the world he would bother writing out ‘que’ in full when a simple q̄ would not only save him space, time and effort, but also give me something to do here and there.
Beyond the abbreviations, the folios of S are easier to work with than those of Q owing to much clearer digital images, and I find the scribe’s rendering of gothic cursive script to be quite neat, too. After getting used to some quirky features such as the unusual spelling of words like ‘nonbre’ (instead of the modern ‘nombre’), hyphens as full-stops, and the i with a descender below the line that we are transcribing as a j, S has become a pleasure to work with.
With virtually an entire manuscript ahead of me, I’ll have many more opportunities to become even more acquainted with the beautiful script of S as the project moves forward.
My interaction with two Estoria de Espanna manuscripts over the past 18 months, while enthralling in its own right, has largely taken the form of looking at lines of text through a digital magnifying glass. In order to transcribe and tag the folios, it is necessary to zoom in to the point where I see the manuscripts as little more than lines of code. It’s beautiful code, of course – despite somehow managing to contain almost as much gobbledygook as modern computer code – but it’s code nevertheless. I rarely see more than three lines of text at any time, and I almost never consider the manuscripts as objects beyond the text I’m working with.
Seeking a different perspective on the Estoria, I recently visited the Biblioteca Nacional de España in Madrid. With the aid of the Estoria project team, I gained access to the 14th-century Q manuscript and could hold in my hands the very same book that I had spent hours tagging on a remote computer screen over the previous year-and-a-half.
Finally, the code had become a codex.
My first surprise when the manuscript was brought to me was how large it was. In my world, Estoria manuscripts are only as big as the top half of an 11.6-inch laptop screen. But in the Sala de Cervantes, I was handed a manuscript over a foot high and nearly three inches thick. Even at only 186 pages, its girth dwarfed the 600-page modern hardcover book I had brought with me to Madrid. Despite the lack of cover decoration, this impressive size conveyed a sense of importance all on its own, and reminded me that this was no ordinary library book.
After opening the old leather binding, I spent the best part of my morning slowly turning every creaking page of the 600-year-old manuscript, spellbound by this completely new experience of an object I had thought I knew well. The pages alternated in colour and texture (the flesh side of the parchment being smoother and lighter than the hair side), something that had completely escaped me while using the digital edition and working on only one folio at a time. The pricking and ruling on each page – more obvious on some pages than on others – was another thing that I had never noticed before because I was so focused on the text itself.
Following the ruled lines led me to the margins, which I had barely considered while transcribing Q on a computer screen. Some folios contained catchwords to make it easier to form quires after writing. Others contained notes in the side margins. One folio near the beginning (3r) even had the alphabet written out in the lower margin, which was perhaps the Q scribe’s way of helping future Estoria transcribers distinguish his letterforms (although I’m still looking for his guide to abbreviations…).
Once I had adjusted to this new, wide-angled view of Q, even the text itself delivered a few surprises. I found one page (57v) that had 44 coloured pilcrows contained within the text of just the first column alone. A few folios later (65v), even more pilcrows popped up, this time serving as medieval bullet points. Some initial capital letters, typically uniformly conservative throughout Q, had extra grandeur bestowed upon them, such as the P on folio 72r which is more than half the page in length. I also realised that many (but not all) of the rubrics begin with the phrase ‘De como’, another thing I had never noticed before while working on one folio at a time.
Seeing an Estoria manuscript in person gave me a new understanding of the physical objects that are at the core of the Estoria de Espanna project. With this fresh perspective in mind, it’s time to go back to my lines of code on a computer screen. But from now on, I will remember to zoom out and take a look around every once in a while to see what new discoveries are waiting to be made.
If you’re interested in Iberian languages, be sure to listen to Camino Languages, episode 1.6 of the Spirit of the Camino podcast. Check it out below or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts!