Why is learning to be a medievalist like going back to kindergarten?
Because you have to learn to read all over again. Letters are strange shapes, easily mistaken for one another; you struggle with the alphabet. And there's a lot of cutting and pasting as you make alphabets of scripts.
I started my graduate Chaucer course on this process yesterday, giving them a facsimile of the opening folios of the Chaucerian Text of the Week, along with an alphabet I made up for them (there went any chance of grading yesterday). "You were lucky," I said at the end of class; "when I was in graduate school, we had to get up at half-past two to make up our own alphabets, before cleaning the bottom of the lake with our tongues."
They did quite well, considering it was their first time looking at any medieval script. I made them work with books closed, though they had read the text in our edition. When they didn't know what to do with a word, they moved on, and came back when they recognized more letters. They learned to use rhyme to help recognize letters at the ends of words. They learned about the similarities of u/v/n. During their first attempts, I went around the room making suggestions to each pair ("That's two letters . . . What other letter looks like n? . . . You had this word in the first line . . . That's not e; what letter looks like e, in this script? . . . Look at the shape of the letter: does it extend above or below the line?"). At the end of an hour, each student was able to read out several lines, going around the room, one line at a time, even when they wound up reading at sight, not having got that far in their pairs.
I am pleased with their progress. And so, since the reward for a job well done is another job, each of them got a page of Hengwrt to play with before next week, when we will meet in the Rare Books Room to look at all the CT facsimiles my library can come up with. I hope they'll make their own alphabets.
It was instructive to see the kinds of errors they made, too. An important part of teaching is being able to anticipate trouble, and learning how to ward it off, to avoid student frustration. I should remind student paleographers that rhyme is their friend, and that it may be easier to begin with longer words rather than short ones. As usual, good vocabulary helps with everything: if you don't remember that sweven means dream, it will be hard to recognize sweuynys when you see it.
I no longer remember my initial attempts at paleographical transcription with any clarity. It was during my second year of graduate school, a time of considerable personal turmoil; and in any case, we studied Latin paleography, beginning in the classical period and giving very little attention to anything after the twelfth century, which is about when I come in. The history of letter shapes was certainly useful, as was learning the commonest abbreviations (and how to use Capelli); but applying what I learned in class to my own research, later, was a bit like learning classical Latin and then being turned loose to deal with medieval Latin---or maybe I mean proto-Romance---on my own.
And so starting students directly on vernacular paleography from a late period means there's nothing from my own schooling that I can re-use. I can only follow my instincts: work on something directly relevant to their studies. Do transcription in class, both to demonstrate that this is important (worthy of class time) and to teach how to go about it. Start with the hands-on time with facsimiles, and fill in history and theory later, if there's time, after students have discovered for themselves the questions that the history and theory may answer.
I'm not really sure how this work fits into the education of, say, someone who intends to specialize in 19th-century American literature, or 20th-century Caribbean poetry. But the point of education, surely, is that it does not need to be immediately and directly relevant. If it is, it's vocational training. I suppose that's what paleography is for me! And certainly one of the things I love about it is that it is concrete, with clear applications, and there are right and wrong answers. But looking at the variability of medieval manuscripts is a way of approaching literary-theoretical issues, as well: mouvance, for example, is not an abstract concept for medieval literature. Any given scribe is a reader responding to a text.
I wish I could provide my students with access to real manuscripts, not just facsimiles. I had very mixed feelings, last summer, when I heard talks about Otto Ege's biblioclasty. All my training makes me recoil in horror from dismembering even an already-damaged book; a mansucript need not be perfect to convey important information about its use. At the same time, I sympathize completely with the urge to get manuscripts, even fragmentary ones, into the hands of as many people as possible. I cannot condone biblioclasty, but I really wouldn't mind if my university owned an Ege portfolio.
But if facsimiles and digitized manuscripts is all we have to work with, then we'll work with them, and hope that some of my students will someday get their hands on the real thing.