Some readers do seem to care strongly about the plural spelling of stemma. Dictionaries such as the OED offer three standard meanings (the simple eye of certain insects / the record of an ancient Roman genealogy / the tree diagram showing the relationships among manuscripts of a literary work) and the standard plural spelling "stemmata." On the Macro-Typography website, stemma is being used in a fourth, novel meaning, as a term for any graphical representation of any branching inter-relationships. It is a sense that Karl-August Wirth used in an article in German reviewing four typical medieval graphic forms used in educational texts: the table, stemma, arbor and rota. This usage of stemma is preferable to "tree." The objections to tree are that the word is misleading, especially because it is loaded in favour of twig-like graphic patterns, but also because it has generated a long history of confusion about that figure's "correct" orientation. A broader term would be useful. But is "stemma" in this sense ready for prime time? With a plural that is drawn from Greek, stemma is bound to remain a term of scientific and scholarly jargon. Diagram, also of Greek origin, would not be a term in international standard English if its plural were still "diagramata". We need to anglicize stemma with a regular English plural, "stemmas", if we hope to bring the term into wider currency. The spelling "stemmata" will remain in place on the Macro-Typography website, because the audience there is mainly of historians, but expect the anglicized plural "stemmas" for wider audiences interested only in graphic design.


Burgos Exhibition

With interest, I see that an exhibition of a selection of key Genealogies of Christ is currently under way at Burgos in northern Spain (link). From October 2009 till June 2010, a series of facimiles of Beatus manuscripts will be displayed. The centrepiece is of course the Burgos Bible. Also fascinating is that the San Millán de la Cogolla bible and another Madrid genealogy are now online in complete, high-quality digital editions.


Loyset Liédet

The Loyset Liédet picture mentioned below is reproduced on the French national library website. I would not entirely agree with the summary attached to it: it is somewhat confused, muddling the contradictory "tree" concepts, but the images on the page are great. As my own introduction explains, the term "tree" leads to confusion since it has a variety of overlapping meanings in a medieval context.


Diagrams or Stemmata

A scholarly correspondent has taken me to task over the term "stemmata", saying these figures in the medieval manuscripts are properly called "diagrams" in English. That rather misses the point. Conceptually, there are three different ways of seeing the figures. One is to consider their meaning as art, contemplating the world of significance behind them. That is the focus of Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's book, L'Ombre des Ancêtres, which uses the extraordinary Arbre of Loyset Liédet as its cover illustration. The wordless Liédet image, showing various well-dressed people impossibly perched in a strangely sick tree, seems senseless unless one understands the art-historical context in which it was painted. Another aspect of stemma figures is clearly diagrammatic. Like geometrical figures (for example cubes and pyramids) or plans (such as that of the locus sanctus), they engage with our spatial intelligence and illustrate text, following the dictum, "One picture is worth a thousand words." But the third aspect of the figures is typographical, considering how text can be rearranged on the page to make its meaning clearer. The stemmata of Cassiodorus do not have to be arranged in graphical form (Mynors converted most of them back to linear text in his critical edition of the Institutiones), but, like poetry, these texts are enormously improved by a sympathetic spatial arrangement. The connecting lines support and enhance the connecting words. The stemma has a dual character: it is both art and text. The word "stemma" is the appropriate term for this special type, even if the figure can also be discussed in the wider categories of art motifs or diagrams. The Macro-Typography website focuses on how text is arranged to make its meaning clear.


At the Doctor's Surgery

After a morning of thinking about stemmata, I was at the doctor's surgery in the afternoon, seeing a case where stemmata do not work at all. A German doctor takes notes as a series of abbreviations scrawled on index cards, which are actually envelopes to contain the various pieces on paper on a case. It is plain that computers have not made a breakthrough here yet, and it is obvious why. Anything that requires a doctor to start from the general and proceed to the specific, as most computer programs do, does not seem to appeal to the German clinician. A stemmatic approach would be to take perfect health as the root of medical reality and follow the lines in search of the ailment. It would take ages. What my doctor was jotting looked more like a series of "tags" about me: sick for three weeks, runny nose, allergies ... In the eyes of an experienced doctor, the tags clump together into a diagnosis. The medical mind works more like the Amazon search engine, where you enter a couple of words and the software seems to read your mind and suggest precisely the book you were looking for. Yes, the illness will have a code under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) at the World Health Organization, which is a stemmatic scheme, but that seems a million miles from the practical world of clinical medicine.



After reading the literature and copying the stemmata from 9th-century Cassiodorus manuscripts to develop a feel for their divergent shapes, one is left to speculate on which of the various line forms is the oldest. In some of the manuscripts, the lines are minimalist in the extreme, often regularized to perfect semi-circles. Is this the feeling of Roman design? In other manuscripts, which may perhaps feature Cassiodorus's own visual creations - the images of lions, eagles, long-haired men and so on - the lines are fussy and tangled, or erupt like fountains. These lines faintly suggest the images of vines we see in some late Roman mosaics. Do they represent a Roman-period aesthetic? Perhaps we will never know.


Web Versions of the Diagrams

Rather than offering photographs of the old manuscripts, with all the attendant permissions issues, I am posting sketches of their designs, such as this one on consanguinity. Anna Catharina Esmeijer in her authoritative book, Divina Quaternitas, did the same, but the focus here will be purely on the shapes, with English translations of the Latin to make the content more easily comprehensible to the general reader. The initial drawings have been done with OpenOffice Draw or with Autosketch, and have then been converted to Adobe Flash files, which open inside a web browser. Most browser users have the Flash plug-in installed, so these files are not only accessible, but very compact. Best of all, they can be zoomed into on screen without any loss of quality. The drawing tool of OpenOffice is free and exports simple files to Flash format in a jiffy.


Start of the History Section

The Macro-Typography website starts a new history section today. For several months I have been conducting research on the early history of the stemma, the text diagrams commonly known as trees. The first page deals with a key source in stemma history: the definition of the Latin term stemma by Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiae.