The transmission of early scientific writing: Mari-Liisa Varila’s doctoral defence

It is always a happy occasion for the whole department when a doctoral candidate defends their dissertation. This spring we were treated to not only one but two public examinations of doctoral dissertations. The first was that of Mari-Liisa Varila. On 28 May 2016, she defended her dissertation titled “In search of textual boundaries: A case study on the transmission of scientific writing in 16th-century England”.


Varila’s study concentrates on the text-production practices of scribes and compilers as they copied scientific (in this case, mostly astrological) texts in manuscript form. Early scientific writing has not been researched as much as the extant material would merit; nor has book production in the early sixteenth century been studied extensively, especially the production of manuscript books. Varila’s study helps to bridge both of these gaps in research. Her primary material consists of three English manuscripts including mostly scientific texts. These manuscripts have not been studied in detail before.


The opponent was Daniel Wakelin, Jeremy Griffiths Professor of Medieval English Palaeography at the University of Oxford. Professor Matti Peikola acted as custos. Wakelin and Varila engaged in a lively, intriguing discussion on matters scribal, textual and material. The enthusiasm with which both the opponent and the candidate participated in the discussion was palpable to the audience. Wakelin commended Varila on her innovative approach, which combines several disciplines in order to present an accurate picture of her manuscript material and conclusions.

The combination of approaches including manuscript studies, textual scholarship and historical discourse linguistics allows Varila to look at her material in novel ways and to understand the broader contexts behind the manuscripts’ production. She concludes that early scientific texts and works are often flexible in their boundaries. Scribes could copy selectively and the information content was often more important than the linguistic form. Material features are important: the constraints of the physical page can affect the texts being copied. Varila also shows that the connections between manuscripts and early printed material are a fruitful object of study. We were happy to attend such a successful examination, a fitting finale for the years of hard work!


Text by Sara Norja & Aino Liira
Photos by Miikka Varila

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