The digital medieval manuscript

Sunday 10 October 2021

This expert meeting took place 8 October 2021. It was hosted by Prof. Kathryn Rudy and Suzette van Haaren. The four hours of panel discussions centred on pre-recorded videos, which will remain online; they are linked below. The lively and provocative chat, recorded here, had a life of its own. 

Issues discussed

In a single click, a tap or swipe, the medieval manuscript appears on our screens: thousands of pixels light up and the ancient book lies open before us, in our office rather than in the reading room. The digital images emulate the book-like object in a two page-spread, or even animate it with graphics that turn its pages. We move through a digital facsimile that is reminiscent of its physical counterpart, and simultaneously is strange and new. What we see is familiar: age-stained parchment, neat script, colourful miniatures and gilded details. But we do not feel the subtle flexibility and soft skin of the parchment between our fingers as we turn the page — instead we feel the hard plastic of our mouse or trackpad, or the glass of our screens. The digital manuscript facsimile is not a medieval manuscript. Yet, the digital is fundamentally connected to parchment pages inscribed, decorated and bound in the Middle Ages.

The digital medieval manuscript has become exceedingly important for how medieval parchment codices are handled, studied and preserved. Libraries, museums and rare book collections are increasingly digitising their material, making objects more accessible to a larger public. Medieval manuscripts are being handled much more in digital environments than they are in reading rooms. Critically examining the effects of digitisation is fundamental to understand how medieval manuscripts move through the world today. The digital environment poses new affordances and constraints, bringing up many practical and ontological questions and ideas surrounding the medieval manuscript and its digital counterpart.


Welcome – 15:00

Session 1 – 15:05-15:45 – The nuts and bolts of digitization in practice

Moderator: Ann-Sophie Lehmann

Astrid Smith – Digitization ellipses

A digital manuscript appears on our screens fully-formed, in a dazzling array of pixels, like a cake coming out of the oven on a cooking show—we are not present for the steps between physical and digital, and as viewers we may or may not mentally insert the unrecorded digitization “baking time” that has been concealed. Other questions might arise: why was this particular manuscript selected for digitization? When was it imaged, and who contributed to the work? What physical phenomenological qualities didn’t translate visually, and was anything omitted? Attempting to fill digitization ellipses such as these, whether unintentional or not, can contribute to richer understanding and deeper research potential, and a conversation about the various gaps and how to look out for them would provide an excellent starting point. In this talk, I will draw from my experience as a digitization specialist and artist to offer pragmatic steps that researchers and teachers could follow when engaging with digital objects, and conversely an invitation to think more rigorously about the assumptions that structure our thoughts about hardcopy manuscripts.

Maciej Pawlikowski – Evolution of the digitisation labs 

The landscape of digitisation has changed significantly in the past 15 years. The technology has improved, the image quality is greater. The standardised processes were developed to improve workflows and automate labour. Digitisation became a vessel for research in humanities. At the same time the new generation of heritage professionals are taking the digitisation to another level exploring uncharted waters of specialist imaging and non-invasive investigation methods. Where does it lead next? What have we left behind? Are we remembering the lessons learned?

Suzette van Haaren – The Bury Bible in a different light

In this short video I discuss a photography experiment held in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College Cambridge. Scott Maloney, photographer at the Cambridge University Library, and I photographed the Bury Bible in different lighting circumstances. Changing the position of the lights and using a white paper sheet as a prop fundamentally changes how we see the manuscript page: raking light shows the buckling of the parchment, and using a reflective white surface creates changing glimmer of the golden details. This allows us to ask questions about mediation and presentation, about environmental factors, about the subjectivity and creativity of the digital object, and about invisible labour.

Bridget Whearty – Where credit is due: memory, privacy, and disciplinary difference in digital manuscript production

One of the enduring warnings about digital manuscripts is that they are not the same as their hardcopy exemplars, and woe betide the end-user who seeks to treat them as one and the same! In much of my work, I argue that we can counter the blurring together of digital copy and physical exemplar by paying more attention to the labor and laborers involved in the production of digital medieval books—in much the same way that codicologists attend to the workers and workflows involved in the production of hardcopy medieval books. But disciplinary practices around naming and credit can be very different in the museum and library settings that produce and maintain digital manuscripts and in the university settings of academic end-users. This talk seeks to explore this interdisciplinary challenge: why I as a medievalist and book historian tend to assume that naming a book’s creators is a public good; while some digital imaging specialists and labs might find this a peculiar, even invasive desire on my part; while still others might follow a best practice of publicly naming some but not all members of a digitization team.

I want to be clear that I come to raise questions and map the terrain—not to announce some solution that I, as a lone faculty end-user, have invented and now seek to export wholesale to all digital programs and projects. Ultimately, I want this talk to be a catalyst for further discussion, an invitation for us to collectively think through how crediting and rendering visible expert digitization labor can be balanced with creators’ rights to privacy, and how medieval understandings of memory, debt, and gratitude might be adapted to fit the needs and desires of digital imaging teams today. 

Session 2 – 15:50-16:30 – The form of the (digital) manuscript

Moderator: Rachel Hart

Margaret Connolly – Digital plenty and the poverty of the page: do printed facsimiles still have value?

In an age rich with digital resources, what place is there for the printed facsimile? Will open online access to significant manuscript collections and increasing digitization eventually render print facsimiles utterly redundant? What can hard-copy facsimiles hope to reveal that cannot now be seen better via a digital surrogate? This paper will offer some reflections on this theme, partly based on my own attempts to carry on teaching and researching with medieval manuscripts during the pandemic.

Kathryn Rudy –  Video killed the photo star: Digital photography and the challenges of folded and rolled manuscripts

Digital photography often cannot adequately represent folded and rolled manuscripts, which depart from the norm of the codex, largely for two reasons: such manuscripts do not fit on a computer screen without spilling over; and manipulating them is often integral to their meaning-making. This video explores some approaches to making different kinds of digital objects in order to overcome these limitations. It showcases two fifteenth-century calendars made in the same workshop: a roll now in The Hague, and a booklet comprising quadripartite folding sheets now in Ljubljana. Video can show the manipulability, scale, sound, and function of these objects. These features can in turn illuminate the makers’ decision to use quite different kinds of parchment for the two projects.

Huw Jones & Yasmin Faghihi – Data provenance and digital manuscript description

Digital manuscript descriptions, in TEI and in other formats, tend to accrue information over time – indeed, collaborative work on manuscript description is seen to be one of the strengths of the digital record. They are often based on legacy data from printed catalogues, can include contributions from multiple researchers, and are increasingly also home to data generated by computational methods in the digital humanities. We will look at issues arising from the provenance of data in manuscript descriptions, and how they can affect our ability to reliably use descriptions (or parts of descriptions) to generate new information about manuscripts, particularly at scale. We will also look at how formats like TEI might help us to record the provenance of data within manuscript descriptions in such a way as to allow the data provenance to become a useful part of the analysis.

Andrew Prescott – Transcending the codex

We frequently assume that the most common form of text in medieval Europe was the manuscript codex. Digital representations of manuscripts seek to emulate the manuscript codex. Anything not in codex form is regarded as an oddity and a challenge. Yet in Britain and other European countries the codex only formed a very small proportion of scribal output – it is the codex which is the curiosity. The comparatively small number of surviving medieval codices are dwarfed by the millions of rolls, charters, indentures, files and other documents found in administrative archives. The inventiveness and creativity of medieval scribes is most strongly expressed in their development of new documentary forms such as the tripartite indenture. Yet our digital forms of presentation consistently privilege manuscripts in codex form. This paper will discuss ways in which the digital privileging of the codex distorts our understanding of medieval scribal culture and consider whether it is possible to use digital methods to convey the different shapes and structures of medieval textual artefacts more effectively than at present.

Session 3–16:35-17:15 – Handling the digital material

Moderator: Daryl Green

Joanna Green – Touching the past at a distance: issues of material access to medieval manuscripts during the Covid-19 pandemic
Video not available; please read the abstract.

Access to medieval manuscript collections was considerably hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Working remotely, initially without any physical access to collections, practitioners and users relied on digital manifestations of manuscript items as their sole material witnesses. With physical handling prohibited in early lockdown, these “digital skins” acted as some of the only possible sites of material access, encounter and touch. While more recent work has sought to demonstrate the myriad ways digital manuscripts exist as sensory objects in their own right, digitally communicating the materiality of medieval manuscripts has long been a subject of debate, with older arguments regularly found to bemoan the lack of sensory engagement offered by the digital. As with our manuscript catalogues, mainstream manuscript digitisation has traditionally prioritised page and text over object, leaving those of us who research the material codex often without adequate material access. The reliance on digital access during lockdown renewed frustrations as to the limitations of our 2D digitisation efforts to adequately communicate the material codex, with many collections choosing to invest in new technologies to offer virtual classrooms and reading rooms to help mitigate this material distance. Using a case study from the University of Glasgow as an example, this paper reflects on the use of new technologies for communicating the “whole book”; considers where else evidence of the material codex might be found digitally, examining why we should reconsider social media as valuable access points to research material; and suggests how collections might consider gathering and providing access to such data in the future.

Bill Endres – Welcome to the golden Age of digitization: an ode to a new entry, virtual reality

The complexities of materiality require a complexity of digital imaging methods—whether it is identifying pigments through Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence or recovering damaged content through hyper- and multi-spectral imaging. Each method leverages an aspect of the physics of light. However, human sensory experience is likewise complex, and yet we engage the data gathered through digital means mainly through one sense, sight. In my talk, I will discuss possibilities presented by virtual reality (VR) for bringing richer sensory experience into the studying of manuscripts, from touch to proprioception to generating a 360° experience. Also, I will discuss new possibilities offered by volumetric models. To say it simply, digital methods have outpaced our interface of the screen.

Cornelis van Lit – Why and when to do automated analysis of large manuscript corpora

We are familiar with digitized manuscripts as manuscripts. But utilizing their nature as digital can unlock entirely new scopes of research. Let us think big: what if we have a huge corpus of digitized manuscripts? With computer vision we can start to sort and arrange this data on the page, codex and corpus level. Utilizing material aspects only (ink usage, mise-en-page, marginalia, ownership stamps) we will find patterns and links that merit our attention. If catalog details are available we are in luck, but human intervention at key intersections in our dataset may be enough to catalyze a hermeneutic circle that allows us to climb up from the rawest and simplest data we have (ink patterns on paper) to ever-larger structures. This is cultural analytics at peak performance: a true method to test and challenge literary canons and gain insights in material culture at societal level. But now we have to think small again: it seems absolutely required that this functions at the micro-level before we can attempt that macro-level. What are good places to start automated analysis? Can it be done by an individual scholar? Let’s discuss.

Nancy Turner – Details close up: reconstituting and possessing manuscripts in the zoomify revolution 

While the idea of “Zoom” has recently taken on the new meaning of live virtual meetings in cyberspace, my presentation will center upon is the notion of “zooming in” — as a process of scaling, as used in cinematography— to bring out detail and to focus upon an area of interest by moving the eye “close up.” The Zoomify revolution has transformed scholars’ ability to view digitized manuscripts in close-up detail, similar in resolution in some instances to 10x or 20x microscopic viewing. This contribution will explore the close-up detail as an endemic function of the magnify/zoomify functionality available on most digitized manuscript repositories. By referencing film theory and other commentators on the detail and close-up, I will explore what close-up details want and do. As Zoomify breaks down the initial resistance of the digital page view, close-up details elicit surprise and garner a sense of progressive discovery and revelation. Zoomify becomes performance, like the performances of digitizing manuscripts in the imaging studio and the creation of detail images under the microscope in the conservation lab, performances that comprise the hidden labor behind each and every digitized folio. Digitized manuscripts and Zoomify also inspire the reader/viewer to perform in their own way, by reconstituting and possessing the digitized manuscript.

Break 17:15-17:35

Session 4–17:35-18:15 – Access for a larger public

Moderator: Suzette van Haaren

Adrie van der Laan – Frisia, or, digitally mapping a collection of rare books

Special Collections in the University of Groningen Library has a project in progress called Frisia. We are digitizing all our manuscripts, printed books, and maps produced before 1614, the year in which our University was founded. In addition to making these books and maps available online in open access, we’ll document their provenance on the basis of any material evidence they provide. We’ll make an online map on which specific locations are linked to specific books from our collections. To each combination we’ll add knowledge and stories. Geographically, we’ll focus on Frisia, the medieval name for what is now the northern Netherlands and northwest Germany. In this pointillistic way, we want to paint a picture of educated Frisia as an area of “lieux de savoir” pre-1614 as well as create new ways of access to our books, and thus gain new users for them.

Rianne Koning, Robert Krom, Ilse Rombout and Kees Teszelszky – Medieval Memes Generator

How to bring medieval manuscripts from the cellars of the library to the bright daylight of online digital culture? KB-National Library has a great collection of digitized medieval miniatures from manuscripts, but this collection is hardly known outside of a small circle of academic experts and library curators. Three librarians of KB noticed that medieval miniatures were occasionally used in memes which were shared by Medievalists on social media. Creating so called ‘memes’ (an image with a funny text) is currently very popular in the online world, especially in the age group of 15 to 35 years. Memes are widely shared on various platforms on the internet. We therefore created the Medieval Memes Generator to let people create memes based on appealing images from our collection. We wanted to present medieval items from collection to a young public and give them the possibility to learn more about these items in an entertaining way. Within the Medieval Meme Generator, a user can search through 15 pre-selected medieval images and transform them into a meme by adding text through the meme generator. A short background story of the origin of the images is shown when an image is selected and the background is explained in a short video. The meme generator combines modern trends with heritage collections, thereby achieving the interests of a target audience that is usually not really interested in these collections. The Medieval Meme Generator became a great success all over the world, with thousands of memes created and shared.

Dot Porter – From Another Point of View: Exhibiting Manuscripts Online and in Person

In March of 2020, an exhibition of medieval manuscripts I curated was installed at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Because of the quick rise of Covid-19 the exhibition never opened, and was finally deinstalled in October. The FLP staff worked with me to do what we could to virtualize the experience, including building a small online exhibit and presenting a series of virtual lectures and workshops. But it wasn’t the same; something was lost. We talk a lot about what is lost and gained when manuscripts are digitized, but what about the larger experience of digital exhibits vs physical exhibits? In this presentation I will address this question: What is the substantive difference between a physical exhibit and a digital one? And what do these differences mean for both the general and the scholarly audience?

Tessa Webber – Teaching manuscript studies with digital manuscripts: adaptation or complete re-think?

I shall present reflections on my experience of shifting a Masters’ manuscript studies class, usually taught in situ with the manuscripts, to an online format, and how that experience would lead me now to design a very different online course to address the same objectives.

Session 5 — 18:20-19:00 – Our digital future

Moderator: Kathryn Rudy

Eyal Poleg – The end of digital humanities and the future of manuscript studies

The Messiah’s Ass is a common trope in contemporary Jewish Apocalyptic thinking, denoting an agent whose toils would serve to bring redemption, although he himself would become obsolete by that Coming.

This paper will question the place of Digital Humanities in the future of manuscript studies. The exponential growth of digital and scientific means of studying manuscript necessitates a complete overhaul in how we study and teach medieval manuscripts. The study of medieval manuscripts encompasses disciplines which are often seen as some of the most traditional (e.g. palaeography, codicology and philology). It now stands at the forefront of historical studies, or at least has the potential of doing so.

Irene van Renswoude & Mariken Teeuwen – Organizing and browsing in a virtual manuscript library: how to make it happen

In the Netherlands, few of the existing 90+ manuscript collections have been digitized, and this has led us to set up an initiative to build a virtual library of medieval manuscripts in Dutch collections: eCodicesNL. The model for this initiative is the Swiss e-codices, a project that was one of the first to develop such a supra-collections virtual library and one of the most successful, in our eyes, in terms of the quality of the digitized manuscripts, the descriptions and how these two are brought together in a clear infrastructure. Because of its well-designed structure, e-codices allows for excellent browsing and searching in the aggregated collection. When copying (and updating/perfecting) the model for our own project, however, we ran into unexpected problems. In this talk, we will reflect on how difficult and expensive it is to “re-invent the wheel,” even when that is precisely what we did not want to do from the very start.

Maia Sheridan & Eddie Martin & Erica Kotze – A conversation about digitising medieval manuscripts

The different perspectives of archivist, digital technician and photographer and conservator are brought together in this conversation about the challenges and potential of providing surrogate access in IIIF to medieval manuscripts.

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