Who needs a system of sigla?

Does anyone actually find alphabetic sigla for manuscripts helpful, in a book? I’ve been sitting here trying to sort out Wormald’s system of sigla (for which the directory, for some reason, is on page 167, rather than sensibly at the beginning or end of the book), and listing manuscripts mentioned in other books which I may also have to add, and it occurs to me that the whole enterprise is more confusing than helpful.

There’s no central directory- so my manuscript, Cotton Nero A.i, is variously ‘G’, ‘I’ and ‘Y’, just in the books I have around me on the floor at the moment. A sensible option might be to refer to everything by it’s Ker catalogue number, but then what do you do with new books, or relevant books not in Anglo-Saxon? Individual sets of siglum, relevant to the topic at hand, are the only really tenable option. For it all to make sense, though, you have to presume that the reader is reading your whole book- and that’s an unrealistically optimistic outlook. Fact is, people pick up books and flick through them looking for the bits they need: unless your work is really relevant to them they’re not going to read the whole thing, and searching around for lists of siglum is a downright nuisance.

Me, even when I am reading a whole book, I get the alphabetical sigla horribly mixed up. Are we talking about MS G part i, or MS GI? Which one was MS O again? Personally, I’d be quite happy if books were routinely identified by a short form of their MS title. It’s hard to get confused about what ‘CCCC 201’ means, and personally I’d find it easier to remember the difference between ‘CCCC 201′ and CCCC 265’ than MS C and D. Perhaps it’s that the longer string of numbers turns on my pattern-retention reflex, which is actually pretty good.1

Does anyone else feel this way?

Of course, the CCCCs are a fairly simple example. If only we could call them 4C201… My manuscript, BL Cotton Nero A.i(B) is rather more problematic, though. I can’t call it Nero- there’s another legal text, Cotton Nero E.i, which I may have to refer to. I can’t call it Nero A.i, because I have to refer to the first part of the composite, Cotton Nero A.i(A). So that leaves me with Nero A.i(B), which is rather lengthy and perhaps contains too many different types of information to read smoothly (as opposed to the CCCCs, which contain only two pieces of information even though the shorthand is hardly short).

writingI could call it Nero B, as opposed to Nero A, and specify that any other Nero manuscripts will be reffered to by their full shelf/number/part designations. Or I could use a siglum- in which case, I’d have to use sigla for the whole lot. Or I could teach MS Word to autocomplete Nero A.i(B) and save me the bother of typing it out every time…

What do you think, people?
Which would be the least odious form to read?

~

1. Which is why I never forget a randomly generated pin number. Don’t ask me why I can’t remember my own mobile phone number, though.

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16 Responses to “Who needs a system of sigla?”

  1. bronislava Says:

    well, i have no idea what you’re talking about, but on a happy tangent – i’ve always wondered why people still use —— instead of the author’s name in bibliographies (and ibid, etc), when now that we have computers, it’s REALLY NOT THAT HARD to write something SLIGHTLY MORE MEANINGFUL! it took me ages to work out what ibid and all those crazy conventions meant and i’m wholly unconvinced that they are necessary.

    i will be using them in my thesis, however πŸ™‚ better to be safe than sorry with these historian types…

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Now, I like ibid and op cit and so on. But probably because I like the fact that they’re easy to type. Ibid is ok, you can just scan back up the list and find the work. Op cit is a bastard, though, you have to keep looking back until the last time that work was mentioned- possibly chapters back!

    I’m not ALLOWED to use ibid and op cit, anyway. That’s the only thing JP cares about- use a comprehensible system, and don’t use IBID and OP CIT, under paid of death.

  3. B. Hawk Says:

    I dislike siglas for the same reason you do. If they were consistent, they would work. The only system I’ve found that works (for remembering and for my own writing) is using the manuscript titles in shortened form (CCCC 201, Cotton Nero A.i)–which seems to be standard practice recently, in articles though not books. I think scholars writing articles just want to be simple for a specific topic, but in writing books they want to distinguish for such a broad study so they shorten the forms to mere sigla. But it doesn’t seem to work across the whole broad spectrum of medieval academia. So I’ve taken to just using the manuscript title short forms, even if it can be lengthy an tedious.

    When I presented my paper last week, I used Cotton Nero A.i throughout (dropping the BL and the A/B section altogether), and thought it might be tedious (specially to read out loud), but the audience thought it worked well (and they weren’t all in the field of medieval studies). So, on a practical level, I have no complaints. For the A/B sections of Cotton Nero A.i, I just note up front that the manuscript is divided into two parts, the B part being my focus, and thereafter drop the B and assume that readers follow that change.

  4. B. Hawk Says:

    Damn. I meant siglum, and ended up writing *siglas anyway. Forgive the slip-up.

  5. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I think I would expect short-forms like CCCC 265 (which I’ve seen, ha ha smug) and Nero A.i(B). I agree that the latter is confusingly built but it is at least distinct, and really, it’s ambiguity that will fell you here. You can’t assume people know as much as you do even when they patently will. I mean, your rubric will have some guidelines presumably, but I think ‘drop no detail that can’t be reconstructed from immediate context’ is a good guide. Of course you need to bear in mind when I say that that almost everything I’ve ever submitted has had eight miles of footnotes that I’ve then had to brutally prune.

    A compromise solution may be to adopt someone else’s sigla or invent your own, and then make darn sure it’s in the list of abbreviations you will almost certainly need at the beginning anyway. MS references are more transportable, but it’s amazing how much messing with citation format can save you in words when you’re cutting to fit under a limit…

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    Jonathan- you’re a smug Cambridge toff. πŸ˜‰
    Rubric? Guidelines? In *Medieval Studies*? Hah, yeah right. I have JP (the co-ordinator)’s old essay guidelines, but messing around with sigla is a bit much for undergrad essays. I have the English Department hons. guidelines, and am working from them, but normal English students don’t have to mess about with manuscripts at all.
    I was going to adopt Wormald’s sigla, but they don’t cover quite a lot of the MSS I think I’ll be referring to, and if I can’t keep them straight in my head (which I can’t), they’d be a nightmare to use and why on earth would I expect anyone else to make sense of them?

    Brandon:
    I meant siglum, and ended up writing *siglas anyway. Forgive the slip-up.
    I thought sigla was the plural anyway?

  7. Lawrence Says:

    A post about sigla! My favourite thing! Seriously. I am writing an article about some of these problem. Really I am. Anyway, so long as you remember that they’re arbitrary and only matters of convenience you’ll be fine. In general know that the siglum refers to the WORK contained in the MS, not the MS itself: thus a single Piers Plowman MS can have two sigla (and often does): say, MS N for its A-text portion, and MS N2 for its C-text portion (simply because another MS already has dibs on “N” for the C text). The editor gets to decide. One project has re-assigned Piers Plowman sigla so they refer to the document not the version: “N” is that document, and what was N of the C text is now “Nc”. But that raises its own set of problems. Which I am always happy to get in to but won’t just now. LW

  8. highlyeccentric Says:

    Lawrence, hey! Thanks for dropping by.

    In general know that the siglum refers to the WORK contained in the MS, not the MS itself

    That doesn’t seem to be the convention for the types of Anglo-Saxon MSS I’m working with- possibly because individual texts are so short and scattered. My MS and the other half of its composite MS (some fifty years later) aren’t even given separate sigla in some cases- not sure why THAT is, it’s downright silly.

    Let me know when your article comes out, sounds like fun πŸ˜€

  9. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Smug, yes; Cambridge, yes; toff, I dispute. I’ve seen it, because it was fished out as an example of the sort of thing the Parker Library has when I was applying for a bibliographer’s job there that in the end I didn’t get. Someone else got to work on that one. I promise you madam, I was only there grafting.

  10. highlyeccentric Says:

    what kind of job is a bibliographer’s job?

    *harumphs* i suppose I can tolerate your smuggity, if you solemly swear you are not a toff. πŸ˜›

  11. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Well, as you know they have one or two MSS in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College here, and they also have a big project afoot to digitize lots of them, working in collaboration with Stanford University in the USA. Part of doing their that is assembling bibliographies for each manuscript, saying what work has been done on it, what’s in it, what’s been done on those texts, and so on, generally tying them up to their scholarship. So they had a trial project, intended to work out how much that would cost, so that they could submit a funding bid for it. I was one of the triallers, and when we were done they thanked us all and told us they’d be in touch when the funding came through. And it did and they weren’t…

    As for the toff bit, I am not going to solemnly swear it at all; I’m just going to dispute it. I suspect anyone with my accent could never convince an Australian that they hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, so my safest course is to quibble about definitions πŸ™‚

  12. highlyeccentric Says:

    Hunh, sounds like cool job, pity you didn’t get it…

    I suspect anyone with my accent could never convince an Australian that they hadn’t been born with a silver spoon in their mouth, so my safest course is to quibble about definitions πŸ™‚

    If your accent is *really* that remarkable, you’d have more trouble with keeping the antipodean swooners from piling up on the floor than with spurious assumptions about your ancestry…. πŸ˜›

  13. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I’ve been told I have to go to Kalamazoo for the same reason. What can I say, it doesn’t work round here…

  14. highlyeccentric Says:

    Much like prophets, excellent accents are never appreciated in their home countries.

    My sympathies, good sir.

  15. B. Hawk Says:

    Yes, sigla is plural; siglum is singular–and I’ve completely made a fool of myself on that front. Oh well. It looks like this discussion has been good and productive!

  16. highlyeccentric Says:

    I now have the feeling that siglum may not be the nominative singular though. Lawrence was using ‘sigil’ in class the other day…


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