Digital Critical Editions of Homer

Research student Chiara Salvagni from KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities kick-started the Digital Classicist 2012 seminar series with a presentation on Digital Critical Editions of Homer. You don’t often come across people whose academic paths are almost identical to yours, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered Chiara’s talk on the Digital Classicist summer programme!

While my interests lie more in the computational, user, front-end aspects of digital editions, Chiara has a more theoretical, editorial and classical approach. I’ve never been really good at conceptual frameworks so I’m lucky to have someone like Chiara to learn from.

Ok, so in yesterday’s seminar Chiara discussed her work on the creation of an open-source digital edition of book 1 of the Odyssey, with particular emphasis on the scholia. This is a cyclopean (check out my Odyssean terminology ;-)) project not only because of its scale and intricacy but, most importantly, because the oral register of Homer poses some difficult theoretical and encoding questions. After spending a year on reviewing state of the art printed and digital editions of Homer (including the Homer Multitext and The Chicago Homer), Chiara has now begun XML-ing the text in accordance with TEI standards. An analytical discussion on encoding choices and methodology was followed by the thorny issue of digitally reproducing the critical apparatus. The textual density of critical apparati in printed volumes of Homer as well as other major authors is visually tiring and, frankly, off-putting. Chiara’s research is trying to address this issue by assessing and proposing the digital edition as an advantageous means of unpacking textual compactness into a more readable format. Some people argued that the tool would only benefit those with large computer screens, that the digital edition should offer something the print cannot, etc. – all fair points but, hey, we can’t make everybody happy. Homer is huge and Chiara’s tool would enable users to filter Homer so to avoid squinting over large amounts of tedious text. Think also about the teaching and learning possibilities a digital edition would offer… Finally, in line with her initial discussion on open-source editions, Chiara intends to make her raw data available through a clean, simple online interface, similar to that of the Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters project.

Like Chiara, I’m spending the first year of my research reviewing existing literature in the form of a Google Spreadsheet, where I record extant digital editions, their features, strengths and shortcomings. My data collection is already revealing some interesting patterns so hopefully it won’t be long before I move to the next stage.

As ever, the whole series will be recorded and the podcasts + slides uploaded to the Digital Classicist website. If you can’t attend, you can always follow or join the conversation via the Twitter #digiclass hashtag.

Hope to see you next time!

Manuscript Digitisation: how applying publishing and content packaging theory can move us forward

CeRch‘s second seminar on manuscript digitisation was an insightful and beautifully presented paper by Dr Leah Tether from Anglia Ruskin University. With a background in publishing and medieval French literature, Dr Tether introduced some of the issues concerning the production of a digital edition of a manuscript from a publisher’s point of view.

Leah discussed Gerard Genette‘s Theory of paratextual spaces (whereby mixing paratextual spaces hinders the examination and interpretation of the manuscript’s contents) by way of a critical analysis of the Christine de Pizan project, particularly their display of manuscript annotations and decorations. The term paratextual is used to refer to those layers of information connected to a text (peritexts: titles, covers, prefaces, chapter headings, editorial commentary etc.) and those which are placed outside the text (epitexts: interviews, letters, diaries, conversations, etc.).

Cartoon teasing academic booksA preliminary remark stressed how important it is that digital editions be useful and usable (which reminds me, an excellent read on the topic  is Melissa Terras’ paper: Should we just send a copy? Digitisation, Use and Usefulness (2010) – freely available from the UCL repository). Tether believes that these two key aspects might represent less of a problem when scholars and publishers work together. While many scholarly-based projects have produced wonderful results, the scholar’s eye alone is not always sufficient when it comes to layout and interaction. Nor is that of a publisher when it comes to content. The ‘complementary’ relationship of publisher and academic almost mirrors the two facets of a digital edition, whereby the integration of the original object with its virtual representation offers the most complete viewing experience. There is no point in appealing aesthetics if the product doesn’t work. Viceversa, a stable, functional product does not attract if it doesn’t look good!

Genette points to different kinds of paratext accessories which attach themselves to the manuscript culture rather than the print. Scribes use headings, miniatures and punctuation to visually organise the script on the page; similarly, readers have a power over the text in that their annotations have the potential to be included in the next copy or edition of a manuscript. In truth, marginalia and medieval glosses can be considered a form of hypertext because both sit on the ‘margin’ of the text.

A digital manuscript edition isn’t merely a way of preserving and showing off the main content of a folio or a good facsimile. It has to include every aspect of the manuscript’s history, including its paratexts and all its intricacies. Still, a digital edition’s attempt to clearly display and guarantee reliable access to all the nuances of a document is often what makes it difficult to use, more difficult than the document itself (where manipulation is permitted, of course!). Nevertheless, they give readers a taste of scribal life.

Screenshot of Christine de Pizan project

Combination of peritext and epitext

The Christine de Pizan project not only perfectly underpins the issue of paratext display but, more importantly, it epitomises Genette’s theory of paratextual spaces. Christine de Pizan is an AHRC & BL funded project that aims to provide the reader with a comprehensive view of the editorial, decorative and production aspects of MS BL Harley 4431 . In particular, it attempts to coherently display the paratext by allowing the user to create his/her own reading space through the optional juxtaposition and manipulation of images, transcription and annotations. This is all very well in theory, but it entails an awfully complicated quest of the desired bit of text. Equally painful is the need to constantly readjust the image to the text as the former doesn’t synchronise with its textual counterpart. Another drawback is represented by the annotation pop-up windows which the user can only comprehensively view on a large screen (and whose editorial rationale is nowhere to be found). What makes one peritextual element more valuable than another? These pop-up boxes, in fact, only partially fulfil their initial intention as they only acknowledge the information instead of examining it. In some cases, peritext invades epitext (images are included in the transcription – figure on the left) – again, not clear why this was done. Finally, the level of zoom only provides two predefined views of the document.

However, it is important to stress that Christine de Pizan is only one of the many projects that raise these issues and, however cumbersome our experience may be, the digital edition has significantly contributed to our perception and understanding of the manuscript.

A more recent, excellent example of paratextual rendering is SharedCanvas, a data model which enables scholars to annotate a shared document using information from different repositories. In a nutshell, SharedCanvas works with layers of information  in the form of pop-ups which the reader can freely strip away and manipulate. As these pop-up windows are appended to the folio, paratextual space is preserved, thus allowing the reader to experience the text as it was originally intended.


The Morgan Library M.804 demo shows some of the SharedCanvas features

A digital manuscript can itself be seen as a paratext of the original document: its frame and format have an impact on reader-reception, experience and understanding of the text. If you think about it, online and medieval reading are very similar, in that as our disorderly bouncing between hypertexts almost emulates the medieval practice of flicking through folia.

To conclude, Dr Tether emphasised how valuable a publisher’s contribution to scholarly digital editions can be: publishers, in fact , are also know as content-packagers for their vast experience with engaging reading spaces, different platforms and formats which they all pack-up in wonderful, seamless ways.

[learn_more caption=”Learn more” state=”close”] Click here for the event website. The Twitter hashtag for the CeRch seminar series is #cerchseminars[/learn_more]


Royal Manuscripts Conference, British Library, 12-13/12/11

Royal Manuscripts posterScot McKendrick, Head of History and Classics at the British Library, introduced this popular conference by thanking all people and sponsors involved in the Royal Manuscripts project. Fifteen years of research and collaborative efforts now culminate in the ‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination‘ exhibition (which I strongly recommend!), opened by  the Queen on 10th November 2011.

The British Library’s online catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts now includes records for over 4.000 manuscripts and accompanying 34.000 images. The Library has registered 30.000 searches a month and over the past 12 months 115.000 unique users have used catalogue. Of these 4.000, 600 manuscripts and supplementary 1.000 images come from the Old Royal Library.

The Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition showcases 154 manuscripts of which 148 are from the Library’s collections and 111 from the Royal Manuscripts collection. Needless to say how crucial this wonderful new resource is and will be for the understanding of the medieval period and its textual production and transmission.

While the most heavily advertised, the exhibition and digital representations are only two of the project’s impressive achievements. Other outputs, in fact, include a smartphone and tablet app, two books, a blog, a forthcoming three-part TV series on BBC4 (to be launched on 9th January 2012) and, of course, the conference.

In terms of scholarship, digital surrogates of the manuscripts represent an invaluable tool, as the high quality photographs will enable scholars to freely access and examine the documents, thus conducting much of their research from their home location.

Monday 12th speakers & sessions:

  • A.S.G. EdwardsWilliam Forest, scribe and poet. Edwards presented the work of poet and scribe William Forest. Forest was responsible for the production and dissemination of the surviving manuscripts of his poems, three of which belong to the Royal Collection.
  • Matthew FisherThe Harley Scribe and Royal history writing. Dr Fisher explored the gap between author and text in medieval textual literature. Fisher described the scribal involvement in one particular Royal manuscript, arguing that the so-called Harley scribe did not merely copy but actively curated, revisited and translated some of its texts.
  • Dorothy KimHow Matthew Paris visualised the East in MS Royal 14 C. VII. Kim discussed the contents of another Royal manuscript, known for illustrating Paris’ journeys from London to Jerusalem and containing a complete copy of his Historia Anglorum. In particular, Kim examined Paris’ visualisation of the East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • Erin K. Donovan – A Royal crusade history: Livre d’Eracles and Edward IV’s exile in Burgundy. Donovan considered King Edward IV’s interaction with the Flemish manuscript illumination culture and the Burgundian culture of crusade through the analysis of the Livre d’Eracles (or Histoire des croisades).
  • Alixe BoveyRoyalty and the Smithfield Decretals. Bovey, whom you might remember from the BBC4 series In Search of Medieval Britain, explored two royal themes of the Smithfield Decretals, the collection of canon law promulgated in 1234 by Pope Gregory IX and illuminated in c.1300 in France. First, the representation of kingship in the English illumination and, second, the reasons behind the manuscript’s assimilation in the Royal Library.
  • Olivier De Laborderie – The first manuals of English history. Two late-13th-century genealogical rolls of the kings of England in the Royal Collection. De Laborderie introduced the afternoon’s dominating theme, dynastic genealogy, with the analysis of two  exquisitely  illuminated manuscripts, produced during the reign of Edward I. In particular, De Laborderie focused on the manuscripts’ marginal drawings which seem to suggest woman sponsorship.
Picture of the Shrewsbury Book

Detail from Royal 15 E. VI: Margaret receives the Book. © British Library

  • Marigold Norbye – “This figure maketh clere demonstracioun… descendid is of the stoke and blode of seint Lowys”: French and English propaganda wars through genealogical diagrams. Dr Norbye kicked off her session by briefly introducing the Shrewsbury Book (MS Royal 15 E. VI), one of the items on display at the Royal Manuscripts exhibition. The book was a gift of John Talbot, 1st earl of Shrewsbury, to young Margaret of Anjou, bride of Henry VI. Within the first pages of this manuscript is a wonderfully and lavishly illustrated genealogical diagram of Henry VI’s family. Norbye described this genealogy as a possible propaganda effort to confirm and defend the king’s controversial rule of France as well as England’s.
  • Sara TorresRomances of dynasty in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book. While mostly known for its beautiful miniatures, Torres examined the Shrewsbury Book’s textual function and the ways in which its narratives influence and develop the themes of dynastic genealogy.
  • Jade Bailey – An icon of Anglo-French Kingship? The portrayal of Charlemagne in text and image in Royal 15 E. VI. Bailey, a third-year doctoral student, analysed the role of Charlemagne within the Shrewsbury Book with particular emphasis on the Carolingian texts and the images.

Tuesday 13th speakers & sessions: 

  • Maud Perez-SimonAlexander under the Brush of the Harvard Hannibal: A study of Royal MS 20 B. XX. Perez-Simon explored the relationship between the text and miniatures of this unusually small and little known manuscript.
  • Anne D. HedemannConstructing Saint Louis in John the Good’s Grandes Chroniques de France (Royal 16 G. VI). Hedemann examined and discussed the differences between this copy of the Grandes Chroniques and the rest, particularly the large number of images and revisions, as well as the marginal annotations. Why is it different? Does the format tell us anything about its historical context?
  • Thom Kren - Royal twins? The Hours of Louis XII and the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany. Kren, Senior curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum, considered the affinities of these two manuscripts, with special emphasis on the miniatures.
  • Lieve de Kesel - A perfect match between Flanders and England: Flemish miniatures for the first Tudor King. De Kesel, a specialist of Flemish illumination, focused on two Royal manuscripts belonging to Henry VII, both showing illuminations by a Flemish artist. De Kesel then compared these manuscripts to another by the same master, the Roman de la Rose of the Harley collection.
  • Ilya DinesThe bestiary and its role in medieval education. Dr Dines discussed the medieval bestiary present in Royal 2 C XII, and the role played by bestiaries in medieval education, particularly of the Christian doctrine.
  • Lucy Freeman SandlerThe Lumere as lais and its Readers: Pictorial evidence from British Library Royal 15 D. II. Freeman Sandler analysed the images of a copy of the Anglo-Norman Lumere de lais, suggesting they represent the audience for the book. The theory, Freeman Sandler stated, is supported and corroborated by explanatory comments in the text itself.
  • Joanna Fronska – The Royal image and diplomacy: Henry VII’s Book of Astrology (British Library, Arundel 66). Joanna Fronska discussed Henry VII’s Book of Astrology not only as a response to the king’s interest in the stars, but also as a record of the continuous political and diplomatic exchange between France and England.
  • Sonja DrimmerA manuscript of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica and the quest for a Royal patron. Drimmer described Royal 12 C. III as the earliest illustrated manuscript of Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, a collection of hieroglyphics produced by Filippo Alberici for Henry VII.
  • John GoodallThe English Castle. Goodall concluded the conference with a presentation of his book The English Castle.
From a humanities perspective, while confessing my ignorance and limited understanding of many of the issues discussed, this conference has significantly improved my knowledge of medieval texts and their historical influence. From a digital humanities point of view, however, it lacked digital presence and, therefore, missed out on potential contributions from a much wider audience.

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Watch the Royal Manuscript’s video on YouTube.