Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Scholarship in the age of the internet

Tenthmedieval and I have been having a little discussion about my recent post 'Evidence of Connection' and the intriguing idea that Alfred sent one Sighelm to Kerala, and whether he came back with spices, or whether Indea was a copyist's mistranscribing of Iudea. In this evidence as to whether Sighelm actucally came back with pepper seems crucial, given Kerala's role in the spice trade.

Now, I'm a geek, and couldn't resist googling Sighelm to see what I came up with. The earliest online reference I could find was in Robin Kerr's General History of Voyages from the late eighteenth century.

This reads:

Voyage of Sighelm and Athehtan to India, in the reign of Alfred King qf England, in 883 '.

Though containing no important information, it were unpardonable in an English collection of voyages and travels, to omit the scanty notice which remains on record, respecting a voyage by two Englishmen to India, at so early a period. All that is said of this singular incident in the Saxon Chronicle, is *, " In the year 883, Alfred sent Sighelm and Athelstan to Rome, and likewise to the shrine of Saints Thomas and Bartholomew, in India, with the alms which he had vowed." [Bartholomew was the messenger of Christ in India, the extremity of the whole earth.]—The words printed in Italics are added in translating, by the present editor, to complete the obvious sense. Those within brackets, are contained in one MS. Codex of the Saxon Chronicle, in addition to what was considered the most authentic text by Bishop Gibson, and are obviously a note or commentary, afterwards adopted into the text in transcription.

This short, yet clear declaration, of the actual voyage, has been extended by succeeding writers, who attribute the whole merit to Sighelm, omitting all mention of Athelstan, his coadjutor in the holy mission. The first member of the subsequent paraphrase of the Saxon Chronicle, by Harris, though unauthorized, is yet necessarily true, as Alfred could not have sent messengers to a shrine, of which he did not know the existence. For the success of the voyage, the safe return, the promotion of Sighelm, and his bequest, the original record gives no authority, although that is the obvious foundation of the story, to which Aserus has no allusion in his life of Alfred.

" In the year 883, Alfred, King of England, hearing that there existed a Christian church in the Indies, dedicated to the memory of St Thomas and St Bartholomew, dispatched one Sighelm, or Sithelm, a favourite ecclesiastic of his court, to carry his royal alms to that distant shrine. Sighelm successfully executed the honourable commission with which he had been entrusted, and returned in safety into England.

After his return, he was promoted to the bishoprick of Sherburn, or Shirebum, in Dorsetshire; and it is recorded, that he left at his decease, in the treasury of that church, sundry spices and jewels, which he had brought with him from the Indies."

Of this voyage, William of Malmsbury makes twice mention ; once in the fourth chapter of his second book, De Gestis Regum Anglorum ; and secondly, in the second book of his work ; entitled, De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum ; and in the chapter devoted to the Bishops of Shirebum, Salisbury, and Winchester, both of which are here added, although the only authority for the story is contained in what has been already given from the Saxon Chronicle 3.

" King Alfred being addicted to giving of alms, confirmed the privileges which his father had granted to the churches, and sent many gifts beyond seas, to Rome, and to St Thomas in India. His messenger in this business was Sighelm, bishop of Sherburn, who, with great prosperity, which i9 much to be wondered at in this age, penetrated into India ; whence he brought on his return, splendid exotic gems, and aromatic liquors, of which the soil of that region is prolific."

" Sighelm having gone beyond seas, charged with alms from the king, even penetrated, with wonderful prosperity, to Saint Thomas in India, a thing much to be admired in this age; and brought thence, on his return, certain foreign kinds of precious stones which abound in that region ; some of which are yet to be seen in the monuments of his church."

In the foregoing accounts of the voyage of Sighelm, from the first notice in the Saxon Chronicle, through the additions of Malmsbury, and the amplified paraphrase by Harris, we have an instance of the manner in which ingenious men permit themselves to blend their own imaginations with original record, superadding utterly groundless circumstances, and fancied conceptions, to the plain historical facts. Thus a motely rhetorical tissue of real incident and downright fable is imposed upon the world, which each successive author continually improves into deeper falsehood. We have here likewise an instance of the way in which ancient manuscripts, first illustrated by commentaries, became interpolated, by successive transcribers^adopting those illustrations into the text;

and how many fabricators of story, first misled by these additaments, and afterwards misleading the public through a vain desire of producing a morsel of eloquence, although continually quoting original and contemporary authorities, have acquired the undeserved fame of excellent historians, while a multitude of the incidents, which they relate, have no foundations whatever in the truth of record. He only, who has diligently and faithfully laboured through original records, and contemporary writers, honestly endeavouring to compose the authentic history of an interesting period, and has carefully compared, in his progress, the flippant worse than inaccuracies of writers he has been taught to consider as masterly historians, can form an adequate estimate of the enormity and frequency of this tendency to romance. The immediate subject of these observations is slight and trivial; but the evil itself is wide-spread and important, and deserves severe reprehension, as many portions of our national history have been strangely disfigured by such indefensible practice"

So Kerr had doubts, but also gives us clues as to where the enhancements may have came from.

Fascinating though this is, I actually want to make a serious point - I found this out in three minutes with a Google search. It's not scholarship, but is shows how powerful and useful having resources online and instantly searchable is. It also shows that time spent tracking down resources is really no longer part of scholarship, but that knowing, understanding and analysing things (still) is.

So, desk based research is possible, even easy. What is interesting is that while the mechanics of e-research are simpler, the processes of scholarship remain the same.

This presentation from last month's educause gives one view, one in which well regarded blogging and publication online journals are seen as important as print journals, ie one in which we are still talking implicitly about peer review, or more accurately being able to demonstrate that one's work is held in reasonable regard by other scholars working in the field.

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