Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Blogging the Middle Ages I: Early Days on the Electronic Frontier

by J J Cohen

Exciting news: fingers crossed, it seems the Chaucer Blog will appear in print, via Bonnie Wheeler's always innovative New Middle Ages series. Fans of the blog know that beneath some excellent humor lurks serious material for scholarly thought. A cross-over success, the blog has well illustrated the powers of medievalism that scholars like Stephanie Trigg, Tom Prendergast, and David Matthews have been detailing -- as well as the inseparability of medieval studies from medievalism, a core tenet of the first two writers' recent work.

I have been asked to compose an essay for the book, a piece focusing on blogging and medieval studies. At first I thought I'd just sit down and write the thing. Then the inappropriateness of a solitary author essay to such a convivial, communal phenomena hit me. So I'd like to compose "Blogging the Middle Ages" through, well, blogging. I'm inspired by the fact that ITM enabled the migration of a discussion of queer green bunnies into print as the afterword to Queering the Non/Human. I'll be working on the essay in parts over the next month or so. I'll post draft fragments here, hoping to instigate discussion. Any contributions made to the comments that are incorporated into the body of the published essay will be properly attributed. This is not an egalitarian wiki, of course, but I am thinking that this blogged form of composition offers a more collective way of creating an essay than typical academic practice.

Such collective endeavor is not unprecedented, though, as the account below should make clear. Read on, comment, see your name in print.

I start with academic blogging's prelude: electronic medieval studies to about 1996. What am I missing, or am I the only one old enough to have been e-active at the time?

Medievalist ardor for technology is paradoxical only at first glance. Those who study texts inked onto animal skins employ electronic data bases, html and other kinds of coding, digital facsimiles, ultraviolet light, and a plethora of sophisticated machines of varying sizes (scanners and pens and notebooks and cameras). This conjoining of the ancient and the electronic is most publicly evident in the e-texts, email discussion lists, blogs, Twitter streams and websites that have become part of the contemporary practice of medieval studies. On the one hand, such tool use is nothing new. The Middle Ages were not devoid of machinery and equipment: quills and vellum are technology, after all, not markers of its absence. The 1000 years of Latin crammed into Migne's Patrologia Latina could not have been bequeathed to us without ample 19th century technology; printed on cheap paper, the endeavor would not be so useful to us now were it not for electronic storage, search, and retrieval. Yet even if the discipline of medieval studies was built through and looks back to such tools, we can still ask: Why do scholars who research a past so distant that its inhabitants could not imagine a virtual space like a blog embrace such apparatuses themselves?

Medievalists are, among many other things, philologists: philos, "loving" + logos "word." As word-lovers we happily learn Latin, Old English, Old Norse, Middle High German, Provencal, alien tongues plundered from history's solitude and revivified for communication. Computers likewise speak in arcane languages that demand translation. Is it any wonder that medievalist logophiles were early participants in conversations about technology? J. R. R. Tolkien studied (albeit briefly) to crack enemy codes during World War II. More recently, Martin Irvine, trained as an Anglo-Saxonist, completed one of the first humanities dissertations composed entirely on a computer in 1982. These were in the days far before Microsoft Word; the Apple computer would not be released until the following year. Irvine and Deb Everhart are the founders of the no longer maintained but, in 1994, absolutely innovative website The Labyrinth, which also holds the honor of being the first website hosted at Georgetown University. With a minimal amount of institutional support the Labyrinth became a clearing house for the vast amounts of medieval-related material proliferating on the world-wide web.

When I signed up for my first email address in 1992, not all that many people possessed one of their own to contact ... with the exception of medievalists, who had already established a number of electronic mailing lists on increasingly specialized subjects. The discussions that unfolded on this email discussion groups were often impassioned, especially when the subject was the place of those new approaches to the interpretation of literature and culture grouped under the rubric "theory." Sometimes the heatedness of the discussion became a deterrent to having any conversation at all. Hence the birth of Interscripta, a series of moderated electronic discussions of limited duration focused upon a single topic. I was an eager but at times obnoxious participant in the inaugural foray, Jim Earl's conversation on medieval subjectivity. Later topics included "Augustine and His Influence on the Middle Ages" and "The Everyday." I moderated the concluding colloquium myself, on medieval masculinities. I later collated the email interchanges into a hypertext article -- and, because electronic publication was still very much a novelty at the time -- arranged for the essay to find its way into conventional print ("The Armour of an Alienating Identity" Arthuriana 6.4 [1996] 1-24).

Meanwhile, several of us in DC put together a big conference on the future of medieval studies called Cultural Frictions: Medieval Cultural Studies in Post-Modern Contexts. One of the first humanities conferences with a web portion integrated into its staging, the event seemed to arrive before its time, before an eager electronic audience had been formed. Very few questions were submitted for discussion, and the conference mainly proceeded as an ordinary conference would ... except that the web had allowed us to advertise the event well, and then to archive it. The conference has had an excellent afterlife, especially because we published most of the presentations via the Labyrinth immediately upon its conclusion.

It is interesting to consider how different Cultural Frictions would be if it unfolded today, when blogs and twitter are an accepted part of our medievalist praxis.

[So what came next? I am having a hard time moving from these spaces c. 1995 to blogs ten years later. Were there intermediary spaces, or just electronic discussion lists? Have I left anything out of this brief account?]


Jeffrey Cohen said...

It occurs to me that one thing I've neglected are various social media that never captured my own attention: LiveJournal, Friendster, MySpace. I know LiveJournal had medieval content, mainly via graduate students studying in the field. Some blogs even started there. But I don't know enough about this area to write about it with any confidence.

Unknown said...

Well, we started The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe in 1998. ( It was one of the first online medieval journals. We were the first without a print edition? I can only think of archaeology journals before the Heroic Age.

Back then discussion lists - Arthurnet and ANSAX - were all the rage. Some of us had fairly extensive personal websites. Oh yeah... the Medieval Sourcebook and Online Resource Book (ORB) for Medieval Studies, Netserf, and we can't forget the Monastic Matrix ( project that according to its history page went online in about 1993.

Rick Godden said...

This may not be the kinds of electronic media you're after, but what about the fascination with Hypertext during the late 90's, early 00's (if I remember right)? That's not quite in the spirit of Web 2.0 activities like blogging and social media, but the reader's role was being re-thought by some people working on the issue of Hypertext. I'm thinking of George Landow's book by that name.

Anonymous said...

The Humanist Discussion Group started in the late 80s using the revolutionary new technology of email. When the emails got too numerous I quit (this was before list servers etc). I was glad to find that it still exists (in slightly different, more focussed form) and everything is archived - oops!

Anonymous said...

I think it's really important to highlight the IMSB and the other medieval resources like OMACL and Carrie that now no-one really uses. Who hasn't taught using some of that stuff? Also perhaps less successful e-journals like Chronicon (first issue 1997, sorry Michelle!). There's an argument to be made here that blogs get round all the obstacles that e-journals and so on face, because no-one is requiring them to reach a certain standard, but the readers are very often people who can read it as peers anyway. Chronicon was-is here, one of those efforts stalled by the disappearance of the prime mover from the field; and I had a go at gathering the things like OMACL and Phoenix in this post of mine which you may find useful.

This old world is a new world said...

More of a reminiscence than an addition to your list. I discovered Cultural Frictions when it was too late to contribute to discussions, but probably wouldn't have, anyway. I was blown away by the sense of discovering a completely new community of medieval scholars who spoke the same language as lots of the non-medieval folk in my department. It may even have been the moment when I re-oriented my intellectual aspirations more to the US than the UK.

You will laugh at this, Jeffrey, but I remember clicking on a linked term in one of the CF contributions — fetish — and suddenly realising, too, that the internet could very quickly put me in touch with a different kind of community altogether: that everything I'd heard about the internet turned out to be true. I found myself blushing and switching off the computer entirely.

Conversely, the other thing I've found, though this is probably post-1996, is that the internet has subtly changed the way my students and I share knowledge. I've been introduced to lots of sites, perhaps even the Chaucer blog, by students who casually flick me an email with a link. It's a social form of knowledge exchange that would have been unthinkable when I was an undergraduate. If I found a book or an article (unless it was very, very new), I would have simply assumed my teachers would know about it already.

RR said...

Picking up on Stephanie's post, I'd like to go further, and question how the internet has impacted on not only how we _do_ medieval studies, but how we _think_ it. And by this I don't mean conceptually, but rather in terms of thought processes. What I'm gesturing towards here (if you haven't made the connection yet), is the way in which the net impacts thinking in the way in which Nicholas Carr argues in "Is Google Making us stupid?" ( (I don't necessarily completely agree with Carr, but his argument about change is worthy of consideration). How is this change affecting the way in which we research? How - more importantly - is it changing the nature of the research we produce? (or is it?) Do we need to be alert to the "dangers" of these changes - and thus alert our students to them - or are they to be embraced regardless of their (posited) transformative effects on our scholarly praxis?

I'd be interested in a meditation on this...

Unknown said...

I first want to say how happy I am that the Chaucer blog will find its way into old-fashioned print via Palgrave's New Middle Ages series. I've felt for a long time that it's an important blog that should somehow be framed in its historical moment and also made more "permanent" in book form.

I can't speak so much to the first installment of Jeffrey's contribution: electronic medieval studies to 1996, partly because I started graduated school in 1993 and had dropped out at the end of 1995 [coming back in 1999], and my only real knowledge of medieval studies on the internet at that time was Labyrinth and also Martin Irvine's work on grammatica and textuality [and speaking of which: what is Martin Irvine up to now?]. I recall using a DOS program [Pine?] to send and receibe rudimentary emails, from 1993-1995, and having no real awareness of the internet again until 2000 or so. So the 1990s are a bit of a dead-zone for me, internet-wise, although while working on my dissertation, I do recall being really grateful for Simon Keynes's [historian in the dept. of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at Cambridge] online resources, which included the tracking and cataloguing of materials [private papers and MSS] having once belonged to John Mitchell Kemble [first English editor of "Beowulf"] and dispersed since the 1800s into a multitude of libraries and private & public institutions. That produced a certain "wow" factor for me at the time.

ANSAXNET [the online discussion list-serv] was probably my first introduction to medievalists using an electronic forum to exchange ideas [roundabout 2000]. I recall feeling at first that it was mainly pendantic but that at least it gave me a chance to communicate with scholars [and also to simply voyeuristically eavesdrop on scholars] with whom I might otherwise not have had any real or extended contact. Indeed, certain discussions on ANSAXNET roundabout 2000 [when Heaney's translation of "Beowulf" was published] regarding Terry Eagelton's mixed review of Heaney's "Beowulf" partly inspired "The Postmodern Beowulf" [I would say, actually, *largely* inspired it].

Anonymous said...

To RR's point - one of the ways I survive the internet (I think!) is *not* getting meditative on it - quite the opposite of many people here. But there is plenty of meditation elsewhere, and, having rediscovered it on the Humanist Discussion Group - that would be one place to start. They were discussing issues about the validity and worth of internet publication and discussion back in 1987 and have not stopped since (including more recent forays into posthumanism).

To link his (??) comment to Stephanie's there's a great mass of printed work on how the internet does or does not promote a more open intellectual economy and the relationship of that to pro and anti-Americanism. Maybe start with Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks and the critical responses it has provoked? There are good people working on this at Columbia.

my security word? widying - how apt!

Anonymous said...

In re Carr's Atlantic article, the UCL study that he references briefly between charting the decay of his neurones is worth looking at in its own right. I wrote about it early last year here. He's not misrepresenting it, but it was about answering a different question to the one he's using it for.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michelle, thanks so much for reminding me of what should have been obvious: online journals like heroic Age and source sites like ORB and Medieval Sourcebook were extremely important contributions to early electronic medievalism.

Rick, I remember the Landow hypertext mania well. I even gave a paper once called "Hyper-Multiplicity and the Forging of a Career" that was full of hyperbole about hypertext (how hyperfitting).

Sarah, thanks for the evidence of early email use among humanists. There weren't many early adopters but they were passionate.

Jonathan, thanks so much for that link to your very helpful discussion/contextualization.

It's funny Stephanie I remember that very picture -- and who put it at that link!

Eileen Joy said...

RR: thanks for the link to the Nicholas Carr article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" As to his tentative supposition that the Internet may be re-wiring our brains such that we have less and less ability to engage in sustained acts of reading and rumination [of whole articles, whole books, etc.] and instead mainly skim across quite a volume of sites and texts, pausing here and there just for brief periods to maybe pick up a useful citation or snippet-sized pieces of information and text, I guess I would want to ask if this truly *is* qualitatively different than past methods for gathering information, lets' say just for the academic researcher, since that's the question you really raise here.

First of all, there has *always* been information overload; one of my first published articles was about the efforts of 17th-century bibliographers [i.e. Humfrey Wanley, Thomas Smith, George Hickes, etc.] to catalogue all of the Saxon MSS extant in English and European libraries and even just to record the contents of Sir Robert Cotton's library [post Cotton's death and the removal of his library to various sites within London], and this required a certain methodology of notation and abbreviated description that required skimming, reading things only partially but never fully, etc. It was also quite the heroic set of labors, in which early modern bibliographers were always swimming against the tides of too little time and too many manuscripts in too many places, some just plain impossible to get to [in which case other catalogues were consulted and relied upon in the absence of "the real thing"--the MSS themselves]. And yet, similar to the founders of Google, bibliographers and librarians such as Humfrey Wanley understood that a centralized and comprehensive "database" [for Wanley, the "union" catalogue--at one point, he engaged in a wild proposal to secure financial support to survey *all* of the books and manuscripts in *all* of the libraries of Europe, for the purposes of compiling one comprehensive catalogue] could provide a powerful tool for helping to *speed* up, as it were, a researcher's ability to locate and work with the cultural "information" of a vast quantity of medieval texts spread out over vast geographical tracts.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


Think, also, of a student or scholar walking into a material library [such as the Houghton at Harvard or the British Library] and being confronted with the task to, say, gather everything that exists in there relative to the study of Shakespeare or "Beowulf" or T.S. Eliot [and to also think to herself or himself: now, what *else* is out there beyond this one particular library that the books and articles in here point me toward and that, somehow, I must get my hands on?]. Have scholars [and also writers of the texts we study] ever really been, as Carr seems to imply, the readers of whole articles and books, or have we always been the skimmers and speed readers par excellence of such texts? [It's just that, in the past, there was more physical labor involved in actually getting one's hands on a text, whereas online databases such as Project Muse and Google Books speed up that process]. Of course we also read "whole" texts [I demur with Carr on this point; as scholars, we are always reading, *sometimes* but not all the time, whole texts]--we have read "Hamlet" all the way through numerous times [whether we teach it regularly and/or also write scholarship on it] and there will always be certain books and articles and literary/historical works that we deem so important to our own peculiarly individual research projects that we *will* read them all the way through and even more than once. But I think we've always had to select carefully between what we read in its entirety and what we have to, by necessity, only skim through, landing upon extracts that we pull out for specific use, but always with the understanding that we can't take things out of context [for that would constitute bad/lazy reading]. We have reading aids for that as well--i.e., there is a lot of work out there that *describes* in quite a bit of intelligent detail for us articles and books that we may decide not to read in their entirety and that can help us narrow down what we will ultimately choose to read in its entirety [or not].

I guess what I am trying to say here is that while I can agree with Carr [and also the scientists conducting studies into how spending a great deal of time online might actually be rewiring not just *what* we know but *how* we know what we know and even *how* we will go about looking for knowledge, thereby predetermining--maybe?--what we will find out or not find out, and maybe even limiting our capacity to think deeply], there has always been, historically, a sort of information overload [too many books and articles, too many ideas, too many "facts," and not enough time to sort through all of them and start adjudicating better and worse sources of knowledge in order to be able to start *adding* to that storehouse of knowledge in meaningful ways], and scholars have always had to maintain a careful balancing act between ruminating information in abbreviated and partial and pre-digested form and diving in to the deep end of texts and what might be called knowledge traditions.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


If anything, the internet has mainly complicated our labors by making even *more* whole works available that we can't pretend we can't *get* to. Likewise, with every passing year, there is simply always *more* to read--there are always too many texts crowding the edges of our vision and demanding our audience. I've sometimes wondered if we don't need now some sort of stripping down of what it is we *feel* we should be paying attention to at any given moment. Computers, cell phones, and the like have contributed to a situation where time *alone* and in *private* with one's own thoughts and maybe the thoughts of a few other textual interlocutors seems increasingly threatened. This brings up the issue of textual and other "noise" and whether we can even hear ourselves think [and even *feel*] anymore. I worry about that a lot, actually. Although it may be that even this image of the [heroic] solitary thinker alone in her study, or library, is not only outmoded and non-productive, but a sort of lie that covers over the fact that we've only ever been part of networks and bodily, technological, and other sorts of assemblages, and no one has ever really just been "one mind."

theswain said...

Usenet is missing. Usenet predates mailing lists, and the soon to follow BBS (bulletin board systems). As I recall soc.history.medieval as a usenet group didn't begin until 1994, but there were general history groups before then, and plenty of BBS boards had medieval, or more likely, medievalism content of some kind or other. This is important not only as a precursor to email lists, but the group mod.ber which posted summaries of interesting discussions and posts from other usenet groups is clearly a blog precursor as well.

One might also mention the roots of the Electronic Beowulf. I'll have to check again, but the original images were taken in '93 or '94 and posted online at WMU. I remember working at a public library at the time where I a) did a presentation on electronic resources c. 1994 and b) did a television presentation that included images of the Beowulf project as it was then. Naturally things like the EB were among the first such projects both online and in CDRom form.

Tangentially, us old timey folk who look into the distant past (classicists, biblical scholars, medievalists) were among the first in the humanities at least to apply computer technology to various studies. Even the first edition of _Medieval Studies_ done in '76 if I recall correctly included an article on using computer applications in the study of medieval history--back in the days of punch cards.

Blogging as we know it developed from these sources through a few roots. First, the explosion of personal and professional web pages back in the day (not that long ago, but an epoch ago in Internet terms). Professional and corporate webpages soon found it useful and important to have a "news feed", a link that took viewers of the page to a "what's new" page that gave the latest greatest developments. Some people on their personal websites followed the same practice, rather than sending out email to a dozen people, they simply updated some portion of their personal webpage with their personal news and views. At about the same time, the explosion of internet gaming, and other gaming platforms looking to network etc, necessitated early blogs to communicate news about the games, developments, cheats, help, product evaluation etc, webpage posts that were and are consistently updated.

The first of what we can call weblogs really appeared in the mid 90s, the term was coined in '97, and certainly by '99 the term blog was around. Livejournal started in '99 and the Open Diary was done before that...and this is where the ability for readers to respond in comments was first done, btw. Blogger started also in '99. The popularity of blogger leaped exponentially when Google bought it in 2003, the year TheRuminate was launched if you don't mind the personal plug. I don't know who would get the credit for the first academic/humanities/medieval blogs. I don't remember knowing of any medieval blogs when I started TheRuminate, originally as a "medieval news" site, much of what I now use The Heroic Age blog for. But I started because many of my friends and colleagues in biblical studies were in 2002-3 experimenting with blogs.

Anyway, the jump you want to make it seems to me is from 95 to 97, rather than all the way to 01.

Bavardess said...

Eileen, I have a slightly different perspective on your comment that "If anything, the internet has mainly complicated our labors by making even *more* whole works available that we can't pretend we can't *get* to." For me, it's having that material available at all that makes medieval history a viable option for me as a graduate student at the other end of the world. In this way, I think the internet has played an important part in broadening the community of medieval scholars (at least in the discipline of history) beyond its traditional UK/European/American base.

The digitising of original sources means grad students (and even senior undergrads) who are not on the American or European continents can pursue research on material that could previously only be reached after spending thousands on international airfares. At my own university, a glance at the library's catalogue of history dissertations and graduate research exercises shows a clear increase in medieval (and early modern) topics, and I'm sure this is made possible in part by sites like the Medieval Sourcebook, EEBO and various national archives like Gallica.

It's interesting to consider how this globalisation of (UK/European) medieval studies can challenge and change received narratives and interpretations by bringing very different cultural perspectives to bear on the idea of 'medieval Europe'.

Eileen Joy said...

Bavardess: just a quick comment to say that I essentially agree with everything you say. The digitisation of medieval manuscripts has been an absolute *boon* to many of us and perhaps has even contributed to the democratization of the field beyond places like Oxford, Cambridge, and London. I myself have benefited greatly, for example, from "The Electronic Beowulf." I was just meaning to say, in my previous comments, that living in the age of information overload simply means sometimes feeling . . . overloaded and overwhelmed by all of the sources you simply don't have the time to read and fully consider. But yes, as you deftly point out, it also means being able to get our hands on texts we otherwise would have an extremely difficult time getting to.

Janice said...

In the mid-90s, I remember a lot of medievalist material going through listservs, USENET and occasionally in various bulletin boards.

FB is another venue that somehow might need to be worked in because a lot of people are pseudo-blogging there to their friends.

LJ? Well, LJ and a couple of other sites you will never really know unless you get inside. It appears to be a blog host, but the ability to filter posts to select other members means there's a lot going on underneath the surface that outsiders never see.

Alex Mueller said...

Here's an Atlantic follow-up to Carr's article, "Is Google Making us Stupid," which I find compelling:

Another Damned Medievalist said...

On my first research trip to Germany in 1991 (?) I was using Telnet to chat with friends at home. It helped keep me sane. But at that point, the things I was really using the internet for was accessing records via ERIC and through various university library catalogs. FWIW

Steve Muhlberger said...

My experience of ORB (began as late antique editor from 1995)makes me think you should spend some time discussing how the constant opening up of new venues, sometimes to the neglect of older ones, effects scholarly communication. Many projects of worth depend on the vision of a very few people who come up with good ideas and create something of a network to support those good ideas. But if their interests or energy level changes, the whole enterprise can falter. Older institutions like scholarly journals in print supported by universities and scholarly organizations and subscription and membership fees can survive this, but I think that electronic fora are more vulnerable because they are not as "solid" as journals. How important is this?

Lisa Spangenberg said...

I made my first scholarly hypertext in 1989, using HyperCard.

My first access to the Internet was in 1989, via Telnet and a mainframe account.

By 1992 I was working on ebooks at The Voyager Company, and multimedia CD Roms and scholarly resources at UCLA with the Humanities Computing Facility. I was using a business card with a job title of Digital Medievalist.

I first learned about Gopher in the fall of 1992, via the UCLA HCF.

In late 1994, I discovered Lynx on my Netcom shell account, and by 1997, I had my first medieval resources/Celtic resources Web site (on AOL, of all places).

At each stage, I was delighted to find geeks/software developers eager to work with humanists; that's still true.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the reminders, Steve and Lisa, of your very important contributions.