For some months a copy of Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan has sat next to my computer, pestering me to read it. Today I gave up and fed it to the sheet-feed scanner. It is no more; just a PDF, floating in the void. Even as I write, Adobe Acrobat Pro is OCRing it.
I did try. I really did. But although the book is full of erudition, it is just so annoying to read. This is entirely the fault of the author, for departing from normal standards of scholarly writing, and introducing a literary conceit.
Jones pretends that the legend of St Nicholas is like a person, and so his chapters bear annoying and pointless titles such as “Boyhood”, “Maturity”, and so forth. This neatly conceals the content in a quite amazing way.
But there is worse. Jones refers to the legend as “N”. He then writes, in his text, how “N” does this, or that, displays this or that human quality. It is utterly, utterly wearisome, at least to me, and again obstructs the reader as he tries to work out exactly what is being said. Jones displays formidable erudition. But he also displays a tendency to make literary digressions. Need I add that his footnotes are all banished to an appendix? And the numbering restarts with each subsection of each chapter? And that the table of contents does not list those subsections? To a busy man seeking specific information, such casualness is a burden.
I did try to read through it twice, but gave up. The last time I did so, I came across a short section which he had translated, so he said, from the Mombritius edition of John the Deacon. I put a couple of bookmarks in the book, one in the text and one at the back in the notes. Today I compared that translation with my own text and translation of John. It was no translation at all, but rather a paraphrase. No doubt all his translations are the same. At that point I snapped, and decided that a searchable PDF would be of infinitely more use. It is gone.
A couple of days ago, a kind correspondent wrote enquiring about the Gotha manuscript I. 81, containing versions of English and Cornish saints’ lives. This manuscript is described as containing a rather better text than that of John of Tynemouth. I found a website run by the Gotha collection at Erfurt University. I was delighted to find that a good solid number of manuscripts were online. But the website is clearly a first generation effort, constructed by people who never consulted a manuscript in their lives. It seems to be impossible to find out whether or not a given manuscript is online.
So I wrote and asked if this manuscript was online. It is not, and not scheduled to go online for a year. But the photographs already existed; and, for money – seemingly to cover their time – I could have a copy. I have since been trying to get hold of these. I get the impression that the library staff are genuinely trying to help. But the process is much more clunky than it needs to be. I will probably write something about this, simply as a historical record of what researchers could have to go through in order to access a manuscript, even as late as 2023.
But I am very tolerant of these babysteps by institutions. The pace of change in their world is breathtaking. They have limited resources, yet everyone expects everything all at once. They all have to start somewhere. Erfurt at least understand that they must move with the times, and are trying. But the old habits of paperwork die hard! Still, we have come so far since the days when I was pestering the British Library about these matters. What I’ve been doing, from a mobile phone, over the last two days, would have been unthinkable a few years ago.