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Just over two months ago, we announced the start of a new project based at the Centre for Medieval Studies here in Exeter: Learning French in Medieval England. Our aim is to produce a digital edition of Walter de Bibbesworth’s Tretiz, a rhymed French vocabulary of the mid-thirteenth century that has attracted significant critical interest for its insight into multilingual medieval England. Today, we’d like to take a few minutes to bring you up to date on what we’ve been up to since then, and offer a few hints as to where we might be heading in the near future.
Of course, it’s been a busy couple of months in the wider world as a whole, and the Covid-19 situation has, as you’d expect, had a knock-on effect on our project. In particular, the cancellation of the 2020 International Congress on Medieval Studies, where Edward Mills was looking forward to presenting on the project, has been very disappointing — although we are all of course in complete agreement with the decision reached by the committee. On a day-to-day level, we’ve shared the experience of researchers around the world in suddenly adapting to working from home, a task that has (in our case) been made far easier by the incredible work of the IT team here in Exeter. We’re very grateful to them for everything that they’ve done at very short notice, from bringing forward the roll-out of a new VPN to opening up access to Microsoft Teams; without their tireless work over the last month, our project (and much of medieval studies in Exeter more broadly) would have struggled to continue working during this uncertain period.
It’s thanks to support from colleagues, both within and outside of the medieval studies community, that we’re able to bring you up to date on some exciting developments in the project over the past few months. Since our initial blog post a couple of months ago, our work has been focused on transcribing the manuscripts of the Tretiz, many of which have (thankfully) been digitised by libraries in the UK and abroad. Transcription is the first step in our editing process, and aims to produce an accurate representation of what’s on the manuscript page before we start making editorial decisions: at this stage, that means we’re expanding abbreviations and recording anything that strikes us as particularly noteworthy, but not normalising letters such as ‘u’ / ‘v’ or ‘i’ / ‘j’ (two pairs which are often used differently in medieval manuscripts to how they are today). We’re also preserving the original word-spacing found within each manuscript, which can be a slightly counter-intuitive experience; it does, however, provide some valuable insights into the attitudes and decisions of our individual scribes.
As you can see, we’re transcribing in Microsoft Word. This might seem like an odd decision: why not transcribe straight into an XML editor such as oXygen, which is where we’ll soon start encoding? There are three good reasons for this. The first is a practical one: specifically, it gives us a shallower learning curve at the outset. We’re all already familiar with editing documents in Microsoft Word, and can do so instantly with very quick results — putting ‘ME’ to mark glosses in bold, marking difficult-to-read characters in red, and so on — which means that, at this early stage, trends and patterns across different manuscripts are far easier to see in Word documents than they would be in XML. The second reason is rather more subtle: under the hood, XML and Word documents aren’t all that different. That little ‘x’ at the end the filename in the picture above stands for ‘XML’, as since 2003, all Microsoft Office applications have used XML ‘under-the-hood’ (see Microsoft’s own summary for a useful little overview). In effect, this means that we can produce our transcriptions in Word, before then exporting them into XML and marking them up in oXygen. As long as we’re consistent in our formatting, a simple find-and-replace should allow us to preserve most, if not all, of our annotations.
The main rationale behind our decision to use Word at this early stage, though, is one of time. While we start transcribing the manuscripts and indicating what features we’d like to encode, the team in Digital Humanities can observe our decisions, take on board our project’s aims, and get to work on deciding how to represent them in our final XML files. For instance, should we make a point of identifying abbreviations in different Tretiz manuscripts, and if so, how should we represent them? These are questions that it will take time to answer, and by getting underway with our transcription in as low-maintenance a way as possible, we can allow these conversations between the different members of the team to continue for longer, giving rise to more — and better — solutions in the process. As things stand, we’ve fully transcribed four manuscripts of the Tretiz, with several more underway, so there’s plenty to keep us occupied.
Aside from our manuscript transcription, we’ve also started work on how the project’s website will look. Since this is where we’ll be hosting our edition, it’s important for us to get this right, and so at this stage we’re focused on producing ‘wireframes’. A wireframe is essentially a mock-up (in our case, hand-drawn) of what the site could look like, which a developer will then take and transform into a working web page. Not everything that starts life on paper will eventually make it to the website, of course, but working on design at this stage will give us a useful sense of what’s possible (and, within the project’s limited time-frame, realistic) once the site goes live.
As you can see, our latest design — sketched very roughly, and not at all indicative of what might actually be possible — is very much centred around allowing users to choose how they interact with the text, its manuscript traditions, and our critical notes, in whatever combination they choose. We’re always keen to hear from readers who are interested in using our forthcoming edition of the Tretiz, so please do if you have any thoughts on our design, or any requests for what you’d like to be able to do with the Tretiz once it launches. Remember to follow us on Twitter @medievalfrench for all the latest project updates, as well as a weekly close look at particular aspects of the text itself on #TretizTuesday. We’ve also just launched our project website, which we warmly invite you to explore if you’re keen to learn more about both the Tretiz and the project itself.
We hope that this latest update has given you a sense of how the project’s progressing, as well as providing some degree of entertainment for all our readers who are stuck inside. We’ll be back in a couple of months’ time with another post, when we’ll be shining a light on some of the more specific challenges of transcription.
Tom Hinton and Edward Mills
Learning French in Medieval England project
I’m at the beginning of a new project on ‘Popular Healing: Christian and Islamic Practices and the Roman Inquisition in Early Modern Malta’ (not medieval, but you can’t have everything), funded by a British Academy Small Grant. It’s a joint project, conducted by me and Dionisius Agius, in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter, as co-investigators. It also builds on Dionisius’s earlier ‘Magic in Malta, 1605’ project, on which I was co-investigator. I’ve written about ‘Magic in Malta’ on the blog before here and here but to sum up that earlier project examined in depth one unusual, and interesting, trial held by the Roman Inquisition in Malta. In this trial a Muslim slave, Sellem bin al-Sheikh Mansur, was tried for several counts of doing magic and divination for Christians. The project book should be out next year.
This time round, we’re hoping to answer some of the questions which the ‘Magic in Malta’ project raised for us by looking at a wider range of inquisitorial cases. In particular, it became clear that Sellem’s case was part of a much wider world of interactions taking place on Malta between the Christian majority and the substantial minority of Muslim slaves living on the islands. Many of these interactions seemed to be related to illness and healing. In particular, some Muslim slaves, like Sellem, were being accused of offering what the inquisitors deemed ‘superstitious’ or ‘magical’ ‘remedies’ to Christians – practices designed to cure illnesses, diagnose and counter witchcraft, and create or strengthen sexual relationships through love magic. Often this was a way for the slaves to earn some extra income. It was not only Muslim slaves who offered these services, however. Christian healers, both men and women, were also being accused of using magical or superstitious practices.
Our plan for the project is to compile a simple database of cases, in order to investigate this world of popular remedies in more detail. How many cases do we see, and what are the patterns of change over time? Are there differences in the services that were said to have been offered by these different healers – Christian or Muslim, male or female? How were these different healers perceived by clients, and how did the Inquisition treat them? Did clients seek out ‘magical’ remedies for particular types of illness or problem? Why did they seek out particular healers? Inquisition records are not unproblematic windows onto these questions, of course. Witnesses rarely came forward spontaneously (often they were sent by their parish priests after mentioning superstitious practices in confession), and they were often keen to present their actions in the least incriminating light. Moreover, as many scholars have shown, witness testimonies in inquisitorial records were shaped in numerous ways by what witnesses believed the inquisitors were expecting to hear, as well as by the (sometimes leading) questions asked of them. Nonetheless, the wealth of circumstantial detail in the records allows us to explore perceptions of superstitious remedies and the interactions between healers and their clients.
It’s early days yet. Our first research trip to the Cathedral Archives in Mdina is a couple of weeks away. We’re currently setting up our database, with the advice of Exeter’s Digital Humanities team, which is a bit of a learning curve for two academics without much prior experience of Microsoft Access. It’s a smallish project, with a more restricted focus than, say, the Dissident Networks Project recently begun at the Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, which also makes use of databases for Inquisition records, among other things – but we think the results will be interesting.
More at a later date on how it goes.
Catherine Rider, Associate Professor in Medieval History
This term I am based at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, working with the Traveler’s Lab research group. The Traveler’s Lab is a small network of scholars interested in medieval mobility and communication, and in using new digital analytical methods to explore medieval data. It is also distinctive – in the Humanities, at least! – in its use of undergraduate students as active researchers.
The Lab was founded by Gary Shaw (Wesleyan), Jesse Torgerson (Wesleyan) and Adam Franklin-Lyons (Marlboro College). I met Adam and Jesse at major medieval congresses in 2015 and 2016, and then had coffee with Gary at the British Library while he was in London on a research trip last year. The timing was fortunate: I was looking for potential members for a network on medieval news, while they were forming a group to explore the movement of information and people in the Middle Ages. We were also all interested in experimenting with new digital techniques – partly just to see what they could do! Having been vetted fully, they were happy to let me join them, even though it was unclear how this collaboration would work in practice. Not only am I usually based several time zones away, but we also make rather a diverse group: Gary, our reluctant leader, focuses on late medieval England; Jesse is a specialist in ninth-century Byzantium; Adam works on Aragon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; and I’m interested in twelfth and early thirteenth-century Britain. Indeed, until this term, this collaboration had been more prospective than real. However, the granting of research leave from Exeter has allowed me to relocate to Middletown for three months and to work closely with the Lab during their Fall Semester. I’ve also been lucky enough to be affiliated with the Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities (CFH), which has provided both office space and research resources – as well as a lively research environment.
What makes the Lab so distinctive is its close co-operation with Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Centre (QAC). Not only is this helping to support much of the Lab’s activity in terms of resources and student internships, but it also allows us to work closely with Pavel Oleinikov and his undergraduate students, who specialise in quantitative and digital analysis. This is a collaborative venture which allows for problem-solving and research development on both sides. Although the medievalists design and run the projects, the students and staff working with us use their own expertise to visualise and analyse the data – and this can take the project in new directions and raise important, new research questions. The fuzzy (sometimes very fuzzy…) nature of our data also poses interesting challenges for our QAC members.
Being based in Wesleyan this term has allowed me to be an active member of the Lab and to understand much more fully how the ‘lab’ model operates. I’ve been allocated a small group of undergraduate students to help me with a side project on Caesarius of Heisterbach and his social network. Two of the students are helping me to create and check a new database of Caesarius’ interactions, one student is using network analysis to visualise this data, and another student is mapping aspects of this network on the landscape. Two of the students are working for university credit, while the others are paid interns supported by the QAC and the CFH. The Lab also hosts regular Lab lunches, in which we discuss new ways of analysing data and trouble-shoot problems. These lunches are important as they help to make the Lab into a research community rather than simply students working with individual staff members on separate projects.
During my time here I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges of project management and the more technical aspects of working with and storing data. I now intend to use this experience to create something similar at Exeter in association with our new Digital Humanities Lab. However, transferring this approach is not going to be straightforward. It should, hopefully, be possible to set up some student internships through the College of Humanities to work on short-term projects, but it’s unlikely that other funding will be available. Likewise, the much less flexible system of credits and assessment in the UK means that it will be difficult to integrate this model into Exeter’s taught modules.
Having said this, digital approaches are the way forward and will become standard parts of the medievalist’s research toolkit in the near future. This means that we need to think seriously about developing these skills and collaborative partnerships sooner rather than later. Digital techniques certainly won’t replace traditional research methods, not least because the nature of our source material means that only some of it can be converted into meaningful datasets. However, we do need to be aware of what techniques are available and how they might be used alongside tried-and-tested qualitative approaches.
The sheer array of digital analysis possible was brought home to me this weekend at the Social Science History Association conference in Montreal. I was present as part of a session organised by the Lab, in which Gary, Adam and I presented work that had been produced in collaboration with our student researchers. Although ours was the only medieval panel, the questions raised concerning the organisation, visualisation and sharing of data all suggested ways that we could develop our research – both individually and as part of a bigger collaborative Lab project in the future. Particularly interesting were presentations by Ian Gregory (University of Lancaster), who has been developing new ways of analysing and visualising texts, and Anne Knowles (University of Maine), an expert in Historical GIS whose Holocaust Geographies project is pushing her away from maps and towards new, more abstract and expressive ways of presenting this data. It has to be said that the conference itself was a somewhat different experience to the standard medieval congress, not least in the longer sessions, more intense timetable, and the serious lack of coffee. However, as a way of finding out how other disciplines are operating in this new digital world – and how we, as medievalists, may be lagging behind – it was invaluable.
Helen Birkett, Lecturer in Medieval History
The Medieval Research Seminar has been particularly active of late. Hot on the heels of Anne Lawrence-Mathers’ fascinating discussion of medieval magic and Sarah Hamilton’s insight into reading and understanding rites, we were very fortunate to play host, on 10 March, to Miriam Cabré. Miriam works at the Universitat de Girona, Catalonia, and has published widely on courtly cultures of medieval Occitania and on the troubadours more broadly. Miriam’s presentation was entitled ‘Literary landscapes and real itineraries: The reasons for mapping the troubadours’. Her paper offered an insight into her latest project, which explores the role played by the troubadours in a broader pan-European culture, while focusing specifically on one particular aspect of her research: attempts to ‘map’ the networks of production and patronage of these works and poets in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Maps, as Cabré noted, are powerful tools in the hands of literary scholars, and have formed the front-matter of many an introductory text on the subject of troubadours. The production and use of any map, however, is fraught with implicit choices, which can have an important impact on how the works that they accompany are represented. Should the ‘boundaries’ of the map, for instance, represent borders of a linguistic or a political variety? In the context of the troubadours, how should maps represent the relative political importance of individual regions, or individual courts? Many maps (re)produced as front matter to troubadour anthologies ignore Catalonia entirely, and focus totally on the south of modern-day France: what is gained (or lost) through this decision?
Cabré outlined some of the opportunities that her project presents, particularly in emphasising the role of Catalan courts within the broader realm of Occitania. The map being produced by her team, she explained, will be digital: built from the ground up, it will use dynamic ‘layers’ to represent the movements of the troubadours’ courtly patrons, the activity of individual troubadours themselves, and key topographical features as they affected movement and literary production. Miriam offered an advance ‘sneak peek’ of some early builds of her map, demonstrating how useful it will be in visualising the itineraries and disparate geographical references implicit in works by troubadours such as Guillem de Berguedà. She presented an extract from Guillem’s Be·m volria q’om saupes dir (‘I wish someone would tell me …’), replete with place-names, as a particularly compelling example of the insights that this kind of mapping can offer:
Ja·N Ponz Ugz no·s lais adurmir,
qe segurs es q’om li deman
Rochamaura, qe fai bastir,
e la forza de Carmenzon;
e·ls murs q’a faitz a massa gran
lo reis los fara desrochar,
e·ls vals de Castellon razar.
[‘Let Sir Pons Uc not slumber, / For it is certain he will be asked to hand over / Rocamaura, which he had built, / And the stronghold of Carmenzon; / And the king will tear down / The thick walls walls he has had built / And raze the valley of Castellon.’]
Maps, as recent endeavours such as Medieval Francophone Literary Cultures Outside France have shown, can be powerful tools in helping researchers to appreciate the physicality of the literatures that we study. As Cabré’s Troubadours and European Identity: The Role of Catalan Courts project will aim to demonstrate, maps remind us that texts such as those contained in troubadour chansonniers were, ultimately, products of a particular time and place, composed in the context of specific geopolitical events. As Miriam herself explained, the broad scope of her project is reflected in the composition of the project team, which includes specialists in multiple disciplines and benefits from a healthy variety of approaches. The intersection between disciplines of ‘medieval studies’ was reflected in the audience for the talk itself, which boasted a healthy attendance of both literary scholars and historians.
All of us at the Centre for Medieval Studies would like to offer our thanks to Miriam for a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation, which certainly gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the potential of digital and multidisciplinary approaches for our own research. Miriam’s visit was organised by Dr. Thomas Hinton, a lecturer in French at Exeter who himself specialises in medieval Occitan (and who, in the true spirit of interdisciplinary, provided the translations for this blog post).
Edwards Mills, PhD student