Researching the Unknowable
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Researching the Unknowable

One of the first -- and hardest -- lessons I have had to learn about research is that sometimes you just can't find the answers.  In a few instances, that may be a good thing, of course,  since there are facts that no one wants known.  When you need information, however, missing information can be maddening. It's important to know when to stop hunting.

In 1992, I was working on a translated edition of Latin letters written by a twelfth-century Anglo-Norman bishop. One letter in particular was causing me problems as I tried to identify a person referred to only by his name, Milo. Medieval scribes, you see, frequently abbreviated words to save precious vellum, and their abbreviations can be confusing to later readers.  In this case, there was a single word with two possible meanings.  The word that came before  Milo's name had a mark at the end that might -- or might not -- be an abbreviation.  If that is what it was, then Milo was a messenger or someone who was simply transporting the letter in question. If it was NOT an intentional abbreviation mark, the sentence identified Milo as the scribe who had actually written the letter. Other scholars had disagreed on which was the correct reading.

Foolishly I decided to solve the mystery.  The earliest copy of the letter appeared in a manuscript held by one of the colleges in Oxford. Since I happened to be teaching in a summer program at that college, I assumed it would be an easy matter to get a close-up look at that word and decide for myself whether it was an intentional mark or something accidental, such as a spatter from a rough quill or even a fly speck on the page.

I presented myself at the library soon after arriving in England and found the door barred by the "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" librarian.  "No," she said. "You may not come in." Well, she outweighed me by at least100 pounds, and when I say she blocked the door, she literally did so. Our little summer program, she told me, was simply renting space at the college.  I had no credentials in England; her library was only for REAL scholars or researchers. No amount of pleading by the head of our program would budge her. And that was the end of that.

I was not ready to give up. Milo's identity still puzzled me.  So four years later, I went back, this time carrying official letters from my college and from my PhD-granting university. Didn't matter.  I still was not getting in. She agreed, finally, to send me a microfilm copy of the manuscript, and a year later it arrived. Problem solved?  Nope!  You can't identify ink marks from a photo.

Fast forward to 2002.  A third trip was in the works, and this time I contacted an English scholar who had been hired by the library to catalog their collection.  He graciously interceded for me, and this time, after almost nine years of effort, I received permission to see the original manuscript. My letter ordered me to report to the front door, credentials in hand, on a specific day and at a rather odd hour and precise minute.  "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" met me at the door and stood back to allow me to squeeze past her.  She practically frisked me to be sure I wasn't carrying a camera or a pen or pencil.  Then she handed me a pair of sturdy white gloves and insisted that I put them on before I entered the reading room.  She led me to a desk, where the manuscript lay on a cushion and announced that I had only fifteen minutes to examine it. The entire time, she stood looming over my right shoulder to be sure I did not damage the pages in any way.

There it was, finally -- my mystery mark -- and I still could not tell for sure.  The ink colors were, perhaps, a bit off, which would suggest a later added mark, but I could not tell for sure, and there was no way to magnify it or improve the lighting.  If it was a fly speck, as I suspected, I could have discovered that with a simple flick of a fingernail, but the heavy gloves and the looming supervisor made touching it impossible.  

So my fifteen minutes passed.  I watched the elusive folio disappear from its cushion as I was ushered out the door.  No happy ending here.  Some things you just can't find out, no matter how good your research skills.  As a poker player might say, "You have to know when to fold 'em!"