So I've been trying to read Marco Polo in Old French, with the assistance of an Old French textbook, an online Old French dictionary, and my knowledge of modern French. It's surprisingly easy to get through, although it probably helps that Polo's discussion of Java and Sumatra is short and formulaic ('the people of [...] are all idolaters, and they do not pay tribute to the Great Khan'). I'm struggling a bit with Pigafetta because I don't know Italian very well, but with a bit of etymological nous and exposure to all of these texts in Old French, Latin, and Portuguese I'm starting to get a real grip on these Romance languages overall. And I have a good chunk of Pigafetta already translated into English in The Best of Borneo Travel.
It's interesting that most of the early European sources are in Romance languages, although Vladimir Braginsky, the Russian scholar of Malay, has drawn attention to several eastern Christian sources as well (I'm not going to attempt those just yet...).
I haven't just been reading these texts; I've been copying them. It seems to help with recall and understanding, which isn't surprising at all given the amount of engagement with each word this requires.
I started by making single A4 pages of calligraphic versions of Marco Polo (see here), but a while ago I decided to copy them into a couple of chunky hardback black notebooks with thick acid-free pages that I bought at Paperchase. That puts all the disparate sources on ancient Indonesia in one spot.
I started with a dip pen and a pot of Indian ink, but that's laborious to say the least. I transitioned to copying them with soft tip pens in a semi-calligraphic script called littera hybrida, but, after about a hundred pages, realised that it could be both quicker and less expensive than that. I was using Faber-Castell PITT calligraphy pens, which are certainly good quality, but they're clearly not intended for writing a hundred pages of dense hybrida; the edges of the tips would fray eventually, the ink would dry in the well, and the page would look scrappy and ugly. So I'd have to buy another one every dozen pages at £2.99 a go. Not cheap.
So now I've started a new notebook in a much easier but still sort-of-period-accurate script generally called secretary hand (or late court hand). It was used primarily for writing English between the late-fifteenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, and it's much less expensive than the old way, as I can use my normal Lamy fountain pen with an extra-fine nib. You can read about secretary hand here, on Cambridge's English department website, which was an enormous help. I also used Michelle Brown's A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 - a relatively inexpensive guide to older handwritten European scripts (it says nothing about print).
I've also started a notebook for the Chinese sources - all of the bits and pieces Paul Wheatley assembled a long time ago in The Golden Khersonese, the classic work on the historical geography of the Malay Peninsula. I want to find the other sources, on Java, Maluku, and so on, but I'll deal with the low-hanging fruit first.
As I've mentioned before, I'm also working on the old Malay script, Jawi, in which a large number of older documents exist. A while ago I bought a lovely book by Annabel Teh Gallop called The Legacy of the Malay Letter/Warisan Warkah Melayu, a study of the Malay letter-writing tradition published jointly by the British Library and Arkib Negara Malaysia in English/Malay parallel text. There are photographs of hundreds of Malay letters, most of them from the nineteenth century. Included are the two oldest known Malay letters, written by Sultan Abu Hayat of Ternate (in far eastern Indonesia) to King John III of Portugal in 1521 and 1522, and I hope to copy them at some point, as well as some of the older Malay poems and stories. The letters are surprisingly legible, and it's interesting that they come from the periphery of the Malay-speaking world. I'm going to copy the text of the Terengganu Inscription Stone as well, which is fortunately quite short.
I've been busy lately, as you can probably tell, and so I haven't been adding anything to my blog, but I'm writing a few posts about bits and bobs from the primary sources as well as a couple of other topics, so hopefully I'll be able to post regularly until the end of the year at least. There are some strange stories repeated in several European texts, and it might be interesting to explore them.
UPDATE: Thought I'd just add this picture of my horrific characters in my notebook version of the Chinese texts on the Malay Peninsula. I've read a lot of Chinese in my life, but I tend not to write very much these days...
|What Chinese characters look like if you don't write very often.|