with many thanks to Sara Schliep, Bob Tallaksen, Emily Wahl, Nicole Winard, and Heather Wolfe for their generous and careful assistance with this post. They are just a few of the folks who have been working on this project.
Thank you for your thoughts on the Crocodile Mystery post last week—as several of you noted, there is both Greek and Latin text on the page. What’s more, there is an additional oddity in the last word of the second line of the image:
Here, we do indeed have the Greek word “δυμαμ” with what seems to be a Latin ending “-is”!
So what on earth is going on here? Well, that’s a good question.
This page comes from the first of a set of sixteen notebooks that were written by the 17th century vicar, doctor, and all around ecclectic John Ward. Ward is perhaps best known for being the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon from 1662 until his death in 1681. In one of his notebooks, he records the probable reason for Shakespeare’s death.
Ward’s notebooks cover a vast period of time (from his student days at Oxford in the late 1640s all the way through to his death) and an equally broad range of subject matter. They provide an amazing look into mid-17th century medical and intellectual life. But, as you can see from even just this one image, Ward’s handwriting can be challenging to decipher.
Thirteen of the notebooks have been digitized (the other three are in need of significant conservation work before we can even think about digitizing them—the iron gall ink is severely eating through the pages on some of the volumes), and it has long been our hope to produce transcriptions of them. Various bits and pieces of the notebooks have been transcribed before, but when we all started working remotely in early 2020 because of the pandemic, we jumped at the opportunity that this time afforded us to produce a full transcription.
Over the last 18 months, over a dozen people have spent countless hours puzzling over Ward’s handwriting. We’ve created an alphabet book specifically geared to his quirks, we’ve given immeasurable thanks to Bob Tallaksen and his knowledge of both Latin and medical terminology and we’ve learned the Unicode for various alchemical symbols.
The image in the Crocodile Mystery post is from the oldest notebook in the set, and (like most of the first few notebooks) contains a lot of pages in Greek and Latin, notes from lectures Ward heard as a student at Oxford, and texts that he was studying. These early volumes are some of the most challenging to transcribe. Not only do you have to contend with Ward’s handwriting quriks (is that an a or an o? is that a c, l, r, s, or t?? Darnit, John, trim your pen!):
You also have to contend with a language (and even an alphabet) that is potentially unfamiliar.
So how do you transcribe text written in a language you don’t read? Much the same way you approach transcribing English secretary hand—carefully, with patience, and with as much help as you can find.
For Latin text, the alphabet used is at least mostly familiar, so you can start with a policy of “what do you see?” Sometimes it is actually easier to transcribe words from a language you don’t know, because you don’t have any assumptions or preconceived ideas about what a word ought to be; you’re literally just transcribing what you see.
However, that will only get you so far, especially with writing like Ward’s, where there are often several choices for what a letter is.
This is where getting help from someone who actually has a knowledge of Latin can be handy—when you’ve studied Latin, you get familiar with what the common letter patterns are, and you can generally made educated guesses about what a word should be. Fortunately, several of the Ward transcribers have had at least some Latin, so we’ve mostly been able to put our heads together and figure out what was going on.
Latin dictionaries help, as well. Start plugging words into the dictionaries on the Perseus Project from Tufts University or Whitaker’s Words or Glossa and you’ll be able puzzle your way through most texts—just remember that Latin is an inflected language, and so the endings of the words change based on their grammatical position; additionally, the stems of words (particularly verbs) can change drastically, so sometimes you need to get a little creative in your searching.
And, if all else fails, take the phrase you have and throw it into your preferred search engine, and see what comes up. Between Google Books, Internet Archive, and Hathi Trust, there are a lot of Latin texts available online. You might get lucky.
One final note on Latin: be aware of ligatures. There wasn’t a lot of change in Latin ligatures between the middle ages and the early modern period, so Adriano Cappelli’s Elements of Abbreviation in Medieval Latin Paleography is still incredibly valuable, and there was a lot of crossover between printed brevigraphs and handwritten ligatures, so Erin Blake’s post on brevigraphs is useful as well.
But what about a language like Greek, that uses a different alphabet?
Many of the same rules apply. We leaned hard on the “transcribe what you see” principle, utilizing the Greek keyboard on Lexilogos to input the correct characters. Fortunately, Ward’s Greek writing is generally quite clear so despite not knowing the language, we’ve been able to transcribe nearly all of the Greek text in V.a.284.
Which is not to say there weren’t some stumbling blocks. As you saw from the Crocodile Mystery image, Ward occasionally throws Latin endings onto Greek words, which confused the heck out of us at first. Sometimes his letter formations don’t quite match the Greek characters that appear on a keyboard, so there was a bit of a learning curve there as well.
We were completely stumped at first by this character:
Eventually, though, we discovered that it was a ligature—a combination of the Greek letters ο and υ. (Although it deals with print, William Ingram’s 1966 article “The Ligatures of Early Printed Greek” has been incredibly valuable for our work.) It seems to be one of the very few Greek ligatures that Ward uses, so we’re not sure if it has to do with the texts that he was copying from, or if we have to chalk it up to yet another personal quirk of his.
The transcription of V.a.284 is available with the page images in our Manuscript Transcriptions Collection on our digital image platform. We will make transcriptions of the other Ward notebooks available as we finish them. If you have questions about this project, please reach out to Heather Wolfe.
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