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A classic's tale of rewriting history

By Kevin George '13
September 25, 2012

The opportunity to work with a 500-year-old Latin document that had never been transcribed before provided Collin Moat '13 with a valuable hands-on learning experience and cemented his desire to pursue a graduate degree.

Collin Moat '13 spent his summer transcribing, for the first time, a Latin document that was originally written more than 500 years ago in a medieval British monastery.

It was a great hands-on learning experience for the St. Olaf College history and classics major that was made possible through the Student Research Opportunity Program (SROP), an initiative of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation that aims to increase the number of underrepresented students who pursue graduate study and research careers.

And perhaps even more valuable than the research itself were the opportunities Moat had to network with the faculty at the University of Michigan.

"The connections are extremely helpful," Moat says. "One of the professors I met at Michigan is a good friend of the professor I want to work with during graduate school at Boston College."

The SROP project was divided into two sections. The first focused on meeting with professors and learning what goes into the process of transcribing literature. For the second, Moat was turned loose to transcribe a liturgical piece from the Syon Abbey monastery. 

Transcribing is often confused with translating, but the two disciplines are very different. 

"The goal of transcription is to move texts into a format that can be manipulated and used more easily for further study, including translation," Moat said.

The script Moat transcribed, which is dated between the 15th and 16th century, now resides at St. John's College Library at the University of Cambridge. He was able to transcribe the piece through a set of pictures, allowing him to see all of the details on the original document, which he needs to make note of in his transcription.

Moat's job was to take every detail of the original text and make it usable for a wider audience. Details that might seem trivial to most readers, such as the color of the letters or abbreviations, make a difference for historical and practical understanding.

Although Moat said working with the Syon Abbey piece was interesting, in the future he'd like to work with documents from a slightly different era.

"I would like to work with history and literature from about 800 to 500 years prior to the Syon Abbey piece," he says. 

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.