Mad science, palaeography, genetic mutation and manuscript transmission

I’ve just been mailed about what sounds like a project that could be completely misguided, well-guided but bonkers or actually really quite cunning. Observe this page at the website of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, and ask yourself what a research group in Plant Biology are doing with a picture from the Canterbury Tales on their page. Is it just that they’re observing “Whan That Aprille” week? It seems not.

In fact these guys are working on testing a theory (which has been published in Nature and therefore presumably isn’t utter babbasquadgeness) that scribal errors accumulate down a manuscript stemma in a manner with analogies to the accumulation of mutation in DNA sequences. What would that tell us, I wonder, and the answer apparently is: they’re not sure yet but maybe something about likelihood of copying error? I guess it might give us tests for how many redactions a text had gone through from an exemplar, and I can see how there might be theoretical parallels: an error that fits well with its context may be preserved (for example, “bretwalda” for “brytenwalda”, no?) because it makes sense, in the same way that a favourable mutation might… I suppose? They also mention using it to clarify processes where one text was made from several different ancestor manuscripts, and I suppose it could make that process of comparison more rigorous although to be honest comparison of variants is already pretty gosh-darn scientific in that field when done right (that is, by people who actually understand statistics, who are sadly scant in medieval studies).

Anyway, in order to test this they are getting volunteers to copy some medieval texts and then they’re going to analyse the errors. I would have thought that observation would weaken the scientific validity of this: if the volunteers know their errors will be counted, they’ll make them differently surely? But I expect it to generate some bad science coverage in newspapers all the same. If anyone reading is interested in taking part, bearing in mind that it’s in Cambridge UK and as far as I know none of you reading are, and bearing in mind that there is no pay, you can apparently contact Professor Howe for more information.

N. B. I owe the word `babbasquadgeness’ to an old friend, John van Laer, and if he asks, I went thataway


Their references are: Christopher J. Howe, Adrian C. Barbrook, Matthew Spencer, Peter Robinson, Barbara Bordalejo & Linne R. Mooney, “Manuscript evolution” in Trends in Genetics Vol. 17 (Amsterdam 2001), pp. 147-152; and Adrian C. Barbrook, Christopher J. Howe, Norman Blake & Peter Robinson, “The phylogeny of the Canterbury Tales” in “Scientific Correspondence” in Nature no. 349 (London 1998), p. 839.

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4 responses to “Mad science, palaeography, genetic mutation and manuscript transmission

  1. I remember going to a presentation on some of this research at KCL Centre for Computing in the Humanities (probably about 7 or 8 years ago). At that point they were focusing on the fact that you could use comparison techniques from biological classification to produce stemmata on manuscripts. The problem was (as was pointed out then), you can get automatically these neat diagrams as to which manuscript is closest to which. What you still need is someone to work out which way up/round these links should go, because the computer can’t work out that. So it looked like a useful tool, but not the answer to everything.

    I’m more sceptical about whether the analogy of mutation/copying error is useful, because copying errors aren’t random/evenly distributed (whereas I think genetic mutation is supposed to be). Rare words, words with abbreviations in, words with more than one spelling are all more likely to get changed than ‘ordinary’ word, but I’m not sure how you can quantify that for a particular passage. (And given that for most early medieval manuscripts of greatest interest, we normally only have a few half-burned mss, it’s probably all irrelevant to us anyhow).

  2. A vote for `completely misguided’ there then? I should have thought that the arrangement of the links could be computed, at least partially, although it would still have to be input by someone who knew manuscripts. But someone of that sort is surely going to be involved in any serious application of this idea, rather than the method-proving stuff they’re currently (still! 7 or 8 years?) doing. I do think, however, that you’re quite right about mutation: even if it is or isn’t random in biology, modelling for the way it isn’t in manuscript copying surely removes all the original input from analysis like this, because you effectively have to tell the computer what to look for. That surely means that you’re rejecting the usefulness of the biological analogy, and that you’re back to the ways that computers are already being used for this sort of analysis…

    Still, they’re getting their papers out of it. I wonder if the receiving journals will include a medievalist in the reviewers?

  3. I wonder how big the grants are?

  4. If Magistra’s right about how long this project has been running, clearly not large enough to keep their attention!

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