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.