Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital Scriptorium and Becoming (a) Medievalist

by Mary Kate Hurley

Now I'm sure that everyone in the medievalist world has heard of the The Digital Scriptorium, a fantastic resource created through a cooperation of my home institution (Columbia), Berkeley, and other universities throughout the country. Essentially, it has high quality pictures and their catalog records (5,300 manuscripts and for 24,300 images) online and available. Digital Scriptorium is a fascinating project, not merely because of its use for scholars, but because of its use for students. As Chris Baswell said in the opening class of "The Medieval Culture of the Book" last week, it is possible to work on manuscripts in an entirely different way now, even at the student level. Actually teaching graduate students how to read and work with manuscripts is far easier (and, from what it sounds, more pleasant) with the digital technology available on the web, replacing the far more difficult work of transcribing from fax or from a photocopy of the original MS.

Now I'm clearly referencing Deleuze and Guattari in my title, but it's interesting to think through Digital Scriptorium with regards to my own progress in graduate school. I'm beginning my fifth year. I passed my exams, the dissertation is currently underway. I'm teaching University Writing for the fifth semester in a row. However, were I to be honest, the two classes I'm taking (Medieval Culture of the Book, which is also known as Codex and Criticism, and Paleography) are the first time I've really felt like a medievalist. I've always known that my academic heart was, first and foremost, in medieval literature, but all too often I've felt like the only difference between being a medievalist and being a twentieth century-ist is that my texts aren't in Modern English.

But this is different, somehow. This foray into the world of manuscripts feels older, somehow. And yet, to access this knowledge, to learn how to decode these old texts, I'm not really confronting the things themselves (though Consuelo Dutschke -- the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Columbia's Rare Books and Manuscript Library, and the professor for my Paleography course -- is of course having us look at the physical manuscripts and codices as well). I'm still getting my input, so to speak, through a technological medium. My first thought is -- what is lost by transcribing from a virtual manuscript, a picture on an internet site? But even as I write that question I realize that the question that's more interesting is the one that reminds me that medieval manuscripts themselves, and the writing which inhabits their (once-living animal skin) pages are both forms of technology, if in many cases less "shiny" than my computer screen.

So yes -- this is a semester of Paleography for me, one I hope to put to good use. Reminding myself that there's more to "technology" than meets the eye, it's kind of cool to think that by re-engaging medieval texts in a medium for which they were not meant, the reading of those manuscripts becomes itself a different experience, one that can help me think through media in today's Internet and television driven world.

In short: once, I dreamed of being a Paleontologist, until I realized that I had no talent for science and no patience for digging up things in remote deserts. All I wanted to think about was the dinosaurs, their world -- what it was like to live back then. Although there is a paucity of dinosaurs in medieval literature (Saint Augustine excepted), I find that my interest in paleography is another way of returning to the things I find most moving about medieval literature: the way in which words touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time. The way in which the physical object of the book survives from the past, and faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer. But we still get to try. And even without dinosaurs -- that's pretty amazing stuff.


medievalkarl said...

Nice post, MKH, and I don't have much to say, now, except, first, I'm glad you're taking the paleography course: I had a great time in it, and I'm sure you will too. I'm also wondering--and I'm just throwing this out there without any real commentary behind it--about writing on things other than paper and parchment: writing on stone, on bone, on wood (as in the Lai de Chevrefoil), on written words much less private, and, of necessity, much more efficient, than the words of books.

Unfortunately, that's all I have to say: they're just on my mind.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Thanks for this post MKH. My own experience of "becoming (a) medievalist" resonates with yours, I think. While I never wanted to be a paleontologist (although I did once try to dig up my backyard in search of dinosaur bones -- and that was pretty hard, given that I lived in Baltimore city "row home" (hon!) with a cement backyard), I always fantasized about being an archeologist. I suppose I was too enamored by the mystique of "Indiana Jones," but gave up on that dream for similar reasons as you did yours: mostly not wanting to spend time digging things up in desserts etc. The desire to connect tangibly, viscerally with a past also, I think looking back, fueled my interests in medieval musicology, since so much of that sub-discipline seems predicated on a the pleasure of preserving and deploying arcane knowledges. Here I think that L. O. Aranye Frandeberg's work is so illuminating, esp. the last chapter of her "Sacrifice" book.

That said, there is a feeling that, like you, I've had on several occasions when working with MSS: a feeling of legitimation. I'm not sure what the ratios are, if ever discernable, between that feeling being self-projected and institutionally normed -- nor am I sure I really want to find out. There's also a certain profound joyfulness in working with these material artifacts. We've all heard the stories of surprising, career-making/defining discoveries haphazardly made. Or, similarly, the disappoint met when the MS turns out not to be what we had hoped, or that it is suddenly unavailable, despite whatever preliminary steps we might have taken to ensure access to it. But, then again, the joy that can be made from that despair. Jorie Woods here at UT-Austin always likes to say how "radical" archival research is, and I think there's a real truth to that: not because it (necessarily?) goes against (some perceived?) prevailing research trends but radical both in its call for "rootedness" in a material past and its ability to profoundly alter our perceptual fields.

I think Karl is exactly right to re/call our attention to the truly wide-ranging examples of medieval writings beyond paper and parchment. To his listing, I would add ritual objects like crosses, vestments/textiles, chalices, and the built environments for these objects (stained glass, altars, etc). What might be made of the inscribed names of those parishioners who were the benefactors for those objects? What about the walking-words worn by clerics in procession? What about non-liturgical, superstition-based amulets?

Again, I think Karl's right to note how such "written words [are] much less private, and, of necessity, much more efficient, than the words of books," and I want to extend that insight further afield, in ways the above questions intimate. In part, I'm interested in thinking more widely about medieval textual cultures as beyond the "literary" proper to include the more fragmentary and transitory.

There's also a phenomenology to be done here, whether some kind of an "historical" one (perhaps such as early modernists like Bruce Smith and Jonathan Gil Harris have been doing) or a phenomenology of medievalist enjoyment. At issue in both, though, is precisely how we construe that phenomenality. I think it would have to be a phenomenology that takes into account excess, embodiment, and responsiveness. Here Levinas and Merleau-Ponty would certainly prove key, but I also think it would useful to look toward the post-Levinasian "phenomenology of call and response" in Jean-Louis Chretien and the vitalist phenomenology of Michel Henry.

Well, that's all I have for now -- and I had no plans to write this much, either!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

But even as I write that question I realize that the question that's more interesting is the one that reminds me that medieval manuscripts themselves, and the writing which inhabits their (once-living animal skin) pages are both forms of technology, if in many cases less "shiny" than my computer screen.

I love those lines: they are worth thinking about deeply. The technology of vellum and ink captures the text, wrenches it from its own time perhaps (a medieval writer handing us the only version of a classical work we have for example), passes it on for an enduring life in a new form. A codex captures many of these texts, builds them into an organism they never knew they'd create together ... The key is not to think that digital manuscripts ruin the experience of the text by mediating it: all texts are mediated by technology, and all texts ARE technology.

I was lucky enough to come to manuscript study early. At the University of Rochester I did an independent study with Marjorie Woods on paleography, then was hired by the library to translate and classify scraps of medieval Latin texts that had been donated to the library by a collector. It was fun, especially for a sophomore who was thinking about beinga medievalist.

Anonymous said...

I'm fascinated by this thread. One thing I find remarkable about the Digital Scriptorium is how it merges two pretty different textual modalities so smoothly. To me, this moves the unReal of the Middle Ages (the domain of Other, the strange, the immaterial, the historically 'lost') into the materiality of textuality -- the tactile, animal-fleshed MS page; but then continues this line of flight into (again) the immaterial Real of the digital archive. Does this bring us closer to a Middle Ages, or push us farther away? Yes. (Or is that the wrong question? Likely.)

Last week, while teaching Chretien's Yvain to a group of upper-level English majors here at Stonehill College, I brought in a few show-and-tell MS pages from my own very modest collection. The idea was to give them a sense of the embodied nature of medieval texts -- vellum, handwritten, etc. Their reactions were remarkably muted, as if what they were looking at wasn't 'authentic' somehow, as if there's no such thing as authentic anyway, as if everything is aways already a simulacrum. And perhaps nothing is more simulated than a material artifact. Their collective reaction was one that I was anticipating (hoping for?), but we came at it from pretty different directions.

Jeffrey's comment that "the key is not to think that digital manuscripts ruin the experience of the text by mediating it: all texts are mediated by technology, and all texts ARE technology" answers my questions above very nicely.

prehensel said...

Jeffrey, you wrote:

At the University of Rochester I did an independent study with Marjorie Woods on paleography.

That's funny to me because Jorie was the reason I am/have/will be(came/coming/come) a medievalist. All it took was her marching us over to the Harry Ransom Center at UT to look at, smell, and experience MSS. I was hooked.

Perhaps we should start a poll to see how many people she shepherded into medieval studies; I know she also was partly responsible for Anne Laskaya here at Oregon.

That's 3 so far!

Nic D'Alessio said...

You can count me as one of Jorie's sheep!

theswain said...

Congrat Mary! My own story I think I'll tell at my blog, its long. But I wanted to say here that I took the opposite route and rather than note the differences between the texts in manuscripts on which I work, I note the similarities and how little the "technology" has changed in contrast to the DEVICE (techne vs. tool). I used to teach once upon a time "Word Processing", not unlike doing composition for English departments....but for example I'd note that many of the most common fonts we use trace their roots back to the middle ages, the shape of the paper on which we print, etc..... Great post and comments.

i said...

Jeffrey, Prehensel, Nic -- I was ushered in by other people, but Jorie's work was a huge inspiration as I started my dissertation. I think I only realised how much when I met her and heard her speak this summer.

Eileen Joy said...

As regards Nic's comment about thinking about a phenomenology of medievalist enjoyment, I just want to share that, partly thanks to a suggestion from Karl at last year's Kalamazoo meeting, one of BABEL's round-table sessions at the *next* Kalamazoo Congress is devoted to "the place of pleasure" in medieval/historical scholarship [Nicola M., Peggy McCracken, Cary Howie, Carolyn Dinshaw, Dan Remein, and Anna Klosowska will be on this panel, along with Elizabeth Freeman--not a medievalist but someone who has written on the erotics of historiography], and then I noted, too, recently, that Exemplaria's session for next year's Kalamazoo Congress in devoted to "the pleasures of the medieval text," which I think should be really interesting.

i said...

Eileen -- I hope you know (you must know), that when we hosted the ASSC Colloquium this February, our theme was "Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England." It's funny; for us, it wasn't coming out of research into what was going on, but from a deep desire for an approach to AS lit founded in, and aware of, pleasure. But since then, I keep getting CFPs on that theme....

Eileen Joy said...

You know, Irina, I *did* know about that ASSC grad. student conference at Yale, partly because I read Aaron Hostetter's paper on "Andreas" and Mary Kate's response to it, but had forgotten its theme was pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England. Something is in the air on this one. The BABEl panel is aimed more specifically at pleasure in relation to the practice of scholarship/historiography, whereas I imagine the Exemplaria panel might have more to do with the conversation richly unfolding here relative to the pleasures of texts themselves and negotiating/handling medieval texts and textual technologies.

Anonymous said...

I have had two experiences with Medieval document -- one, much like Jeffrey Cohen's though I was a tad older and the other even more profound at Durham Cathedral.

In the first, A class was taken by John Fisher to Indiana University's Rare Book Room and we were actually allowed to touch examples of their MSS collection including some AS fragments. It was a confirming experience.

The other was far more profound. You probably don't know that I was the Chief Guide at Wharram Percy for many years. I spent 15 summers from the mid-70s to 1990 at that site. It was a kind of "living" the Medieval period.

Some friends at the dig had previously arranged for a tour of the Durham Cathedral MSS collection and after lunch I was ushered into, I think, the Cathedral kitchen where the texts are housed. I was shown a few glorious MSS which I "Oh-ed" and Ah-ed" over. The librarian then opened a long drawer in a cabinet and pulled out something rapped in suede leather and began unrolling it on a table. It was unlike any manuscript I had seen (I haven't seen all that many to be honest) in that it was almost black, absolutely covered with fine writing and hanging from its bottom were what seemed to be dozens of great lead seals.

He asked me if I knew what it was and I had to admit that I didn't. When he told me that it was one of, I think, four copies of the Magna Charta, I literally could not get my breath and had to lean on a corner of the table for support! It is the only time in my long life that I have ever had that sort of physical response to an object.

Someone was always bringing a "find" to us at Wharram Percy -- an Iron Age Brooch, a Roman child cremation urn, Glass fragments from Holstein and a silver AS coin from about 800. But as wonderful as each of these objects were, none produced the response I had in the medieval kitchen at Durham Cathedral.

ken tompkins

PS: We connect again Jeffrey. I went to the U of R from 1956 - 1960. Sadly, all of the faculty I studied with have passed. Meliora!

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Wow! When I wrote this, in stolen moments while I was supposed to be transcribing my homework for Paleography, I never expected so rich a discussion to result. I want to synthesize more from what I've read -- but that will have to wait for another, less caffeinated time.

What I will say is that it's astonishing how these physical objects do evoke such intense reaction -- and the more scholarly meditations that can come of this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

What a small, small world! Thanks, everyone, for your memories. Jorie Woods wasn't at the UR for all that long (I think she departed for Rice right after I graduated). She was my Beowulf teacher, then my medieval Latin teacher, and then I did an independent study on manuscripts with her. She recently admitted to me that she has absolutely no memory of having ever worked with me back then, but that's OK, I wasn't very memorable at the time (as those of you who have seen my college photos on Facebook will attest).

I was lucky to be at the U of Rochester at a time when four medievalists were in the English Dept. Tom Hahn was my undergrad advisor, and the person who has left the largest imprint on my scholarly life.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Not to turn this comment string away from MKW's very generative post and toward one on Jorie Woods, but it does seem that this post is has been powerfully re-generative in asking us to remember how pleasurable we find the materiality of medieval studies to be. And a key aspects of that pleasurableness, I think, is the impact that teachers have had on our scholarly orientations.

It's so delightful to find out that so many of us have been so influenced by the likes of such a delightful scholar as Jorie Woods! Her book on "classroom commentaries" from the middle ages through the 17th century on Geoffrey of Vinsauf's "Poetria Nova" should be available from Ohio State University Press next Fall (and possible promo stuff at Kalamazoo this year). She's already writing a second book on rape, and is fresh off a year long fellowship at the American Academy at Rome.

For those who want to investigate her further, see her webpage

I'm in her seminar this term on premodern curriculum, and I could help but mention how she's come up on this comment string -- who knows, she may even be reading what we type!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all these kind words; they are balm to my soul and come at a particularly good time.
PS Jeff, I've tried to forget about a lot of those years at Rochester that had nothing to do with teaching, and unfortunately some of the good went away with the bad. I agree with you about Tom Hahn, one of the great human beings in the profession.

i said...

How appropriate that this thread should swerve from books to people! That's basically the driving force behind most of my work, to find some way of getting from, or through, Anglo-Saxon books to Anglo-Saxon people -- their memories, their relationships, their nostalgia, their desires.

I'm going to make a confession now. When I daydream about publishing my first book, I'm mostly thinking about how to phrase my acknowledgments. Seriously. I'm not sure if it's that I've had ridiculously good and supportive teachers as far back as I can remember, or that I'm inordinately fond of most of my teachers, or both. The problem is that I can barely come up with adequate words that would express what I owe to these people.

I suppose the fact that I'm doing a diss on teachers and students is not unconnected....

(And Jorie: hi!)