Lost in Transcription

This is not actually a picture of my document. It is a trial record from the Archivo Diocesano de Pamplona. For reference, this is also a VERY nice legible hand.

I have to say, one of the most difficult things about doing a thesis-sized project on a document that’s over 3,000 miles away, across the ocean, and into the foothills of the Pyrenees is obviously the distance. Although there is one major transcription I can work with that provides me a clean and authoritative version of the words in el Quaderno, there is a whole lot lost in…well, transcription.

For those of you who have never studied actual manuscript primary documents before, reading handwriting adds a whole new dimension. Although I already discussed a little the difficulties inherent in reading a tribunal notary’s 16th century script, there are also many benefits to reading the actual text. For one, although this does not always result in accurate historical conclusions and is very likely the cause of a multiple of variables, sometimes you feel as if you can read some of the emotion that the writer is working with. One thing is for sure, you can tell when the scribe is getting tired (lines of text lose their straightness), when their hand is cramping up (which I suspect results in disjointed letters and frequent ink renewals), and even when they may be in a hurry (more abbreviations, much to my aggravation, and more messy in general). Sometimes these little things can help you to reconstruct or at least hypothesize (which is probably the safest thing to do historically), what may have been going through the writer’s head. This is one reason why I miss working with my document.

Another reason I miss el Quaderno is the impetus to work and discover it brings. My work ethic has never been that great to begin with; I rely too much on my writing ability when I’m in a crunch. But being in the actual archive and reading the text everyday was an elixir to my procrastination woes. Though the library can sort of replicate the feeling of doing archival work, there is nothing like being in the archive, forced to remove the distractions (cell phones, facebook) because of archive policy.

Finally, I simply miss the closeness of such a fabulous historical artifact. The one thing that has really driven me to tell this story is the “justice” I feel I may be doing to my neglected Inquisitors Becerra and Valle and the story of their witches. Although it may all just be made up by the victims in an attempt to evade torture or the result of hysteria later disproved by the “glorious” skeptic Salazar, when you read of 65-year-old women who imagine sex with the devil in their poor village where hardship and loneliness and rejection may prevail, it is difficult not be moved. This too is something lost in transcription.

Although I certainly love Gutenberg’s invention for the ease with which ideas could be spread and for the subsequent inventions which result in our awesome laser-printers today (imagine printing my 5 chapter thesis with movable type?! HA!), the art of manuscript and the emotion and connectivity to the past that it conveys is not easily replicated with the printed word. I suppose this is a conclusion that I would only come to after reading so much manuscript; but while there is especially moving work written even today that is disseminated through print, nothing can replicate the feeling of hand-writing. Think about it, nothing says thank-you better than a hand-written note! Maybe I just feel closer to the man of the past with their mind, hand and pen when the giant machine pressing ink is out of the picture.

I miss my text. 🙁