Dec 17, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013

British Library MS Additional 42130 (the Luttrell Psalter), detail from fol. 87v.

This is from the Luttrell Psalter: a picture in the bottom margin of fol. 87v, one of a series of scenes from the life of Christ. On the left are the Magi, represented as three kings, and on the right a shepherd with bicoloured mittens points the travellers toward the star of Bethlehem. Merry Christmas from 14th-century England.

Yin Liu

Dec 5, 2013

Interactive medieval media

Interactive is a positive buzzword in the digital world today; the Oxford English Dictionary records it as being applied from the 1960s onward to computing devices that respond to user input. When used of digital media or devices, interactive carries positive connotations because it stands against passive: instead of presupposing a one-way flow of information from a smart device to a stupid user (a model that supports the familiar technology-makes-you-stupid topos), interactivity is engaging, stimulating, perhaps even enhances intellectual ability. Leaving aside, for now, the question of whether interactivity is desirable, we might recognise three ways in which medieval textual interfaces can be said to be interactive.

Brendan Missal, University of Saskatchewan Special Collections

Nov 22, 2013

Antisocial media

We’ve heard it all, repeatedly: social media, ironically, is (are?) making us more antisocial. Technology (especially, again ironically, communications technology) is separating us rather than bringing us together. We have ‘relationships’ conducted entirely online. We stare at our mobile phones rather than make eye contact with the people in front of us. We text each other rather than engage in face-to-face conversations. Try doing a Web search of the word antisocial and any combination of media, technology, and phone, and you will find numerous opinions on the debate. And every time I come across yet another rant on any side of the issue, I am reminded of this classic passage from Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame (lines 644-660). The Eagle is lecturing the hapless Geoffrey:

British Library MS Lansdowne 851, fol. 2r (detail).
. . . thou hast no tydynges
Of Loves folk yf they be glade,
Ne of noght elles that God made;
And noght oonly fro fer contree
That ther no tydynge cometh to thee,
But of thy verray neyghebores,
That duellen almost at thy dores,
Thou herist neyther that ne this;
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look;
And lyvest thus as an heremyte,
Although thyn abstynence ys lyte.

Nov 6, 2013

Models for Text

The paper I gave in New York recently, at an INKE conference, tentatively explored the idea that multiple models for text are desirable because humans use text in various ways. The four models for text I proposed, by way of example, are summarised in this table:

Oct 28, 2013

Punctuating Manuscripts

Have you ever considered what a text would look like without punctuation? In what way would an author ensure that they successfully conveyed the appropriate meaning to their audience and how would the audience identify meaningful units, or senses, within a text? Punctuation is, and always has been, a useful way of dividing text into smaller units of meaning, dispelling ambiguity and developing a specific meaning. In approaching text as a model of information it is important to consider not only how information was encoded but also how it was decoded – a process in which punctuation has been, and continues to be, a powerful tool.

Oct 21, 2013

Word by Word

Franks Casket, front panel. Image: British Museum.

Corpus Glossary, CCCC MS 144, fol. 58v (detail)

Vespasian Psalter, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.1, fol. 24r (detail). Image: British Library.

Cambridge University Library MS Kk. 5.16, fol. 128v (detail)

These four documents all include English text in some form, and all date from the eighth century. The first, the front panel of the Franks Casket, features an Old English riddle in runes. The second, the Corpus Glossary, provides meanings of Latin terms in Latin and sometimes in Old English. The third, the Vespasian Psalter, gives an interlinear Old English gloss on the Latin text of the Psalms. And the fourth, a copy of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, includes the Old English text of Cædmon’s Hymn as an annotation to the Latin text. All these documents provide graphic evidence of the way early English writers thought of their language as being divisible into word units.

Oct 4, 2013

Lost in Information

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    - T. S. Eliot, Chorus I from The Rock

. . . literacy is still the only bulwark against the dissolution of language into ‘information systems.’
    - Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, Preface to ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind

The technology that emerged to meet those needs – writing – filled a prosaic but essential purpose: accounting. The impetus behind its invention was not a desire to faithfully record language, but to record trade transactions, crop yields, and taxes – to record and preserve information, not language.
    - Amalia E. Gnanadesikan, The Writing Revolution: Cuneiform to the Internet

Sep 18, 2013

Starting in the margins

Monument to Cædmon, Whitby. Image (cc) Rick Harrison
This impressive modern stone cross in Whitby, England, commemorates the creation of the earliest recorded poem in English, now usually called ‘Cædmon’s Hymn’. I won’t go into the story in detail here (although it’s fascinating in itself), but I do want to emphasise that Cædmon was not, as is sometimes claimed, the first English poet, nor was his ‘Hymn’ the first English poem. The very story of Cædmon, as told by Bede in the 8th century (at least half a century after the event), indicates that poetic composition in English was well established, but also that it was wholly oral; and that Cædmon himself, a layman employed by the monastery at Whitby to take care of the cows, was illiterate and had to have Bible stories read or paraphrased to him before he could turn them into English poetry. Cædmon’s Hymn, a fragment of what was presumably a more extensive poetic corpus, was preserved not because it was the beginning of English poetry, but as a marginal note to the Latin text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum.

Sep 7, 2013


The Journey, by Fenwick Lawson. Image (cc) Kaihsu Tai.
More on St Cuthbert: in recent news, it has been reported that a sculpture (called The Journey, by Fenwick Lawson) of monks carrying the coffin of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne may be relocated from Millennium Place in Durham to a spot outside Durham Cathedral. A BBC news article quotes the trustees of the sculpture as saying that not enough people see the piece of art in its current location, but the Sunderland Echo provides a less dignified reason, the fear that the statue might become a target for drunks. In any case, the move is oddly appropriate, since the statue commemorates the move of the actual body of Cuthbert from Lindisfarne, where he died and was buried, to Durham. The monastic community at Lindisfarne, where Cuthbert was bishop until his death in 687, repeatedly raided and threatened by Vikings from 793 onwards, relocated inland: first to Chester-le-Street (near Durham), then to Ripon, then finally to Durham in 995. The monks took with them the coffin in which Cuthbert’s body and his relics were preserved.
"In the multilingual world of medieval England, translation was a ubiquitous and important form of information transfer."

One common meaning of Middle English translate (and medieval Latin translatare) was ‘to move something (for example, the body of a saint) from one place to another’. But already, by the 1300s, the word was being used metaphorically to refer to the transfer of information from one language to another: the Northern Middle English poem Cursor Mundi (c 1300) explains (lines 232-236) that

    þis ilk bok [is] translate
    In to Inglis tong to rede
    For the loue of Inglis lede,
    Inglis lede of Ingland,
    For the commun at understand.

‘This very book is translated into the English language for reading, for the love of English people, English people from England, for the common people to understand.’

In the multilingual world of medieval England, translation was a ubiquitous and important form of information transfer. But the meaning of ‘translation’ was broader in the Middle Ages than it is now; linguistic translation, like the translation of a saint, was a transfer of what was meaningful or valuable, not necessarily a correspondence of the textual elements in one language with the textual elements in another. An extraordinarily high number of medieval English texts are acts of translation. At one end of our time period, the earliest surviving extensive English texts are Latin-English glosses; at the other end, in the fifteenth century, many of the earliest books printed in England were William Caxton’s translations of French texts – a cloth merchant’s importation of fashionable literary goods from the Continent.

Yin Liu


On the broader meaning of medieval translation, see

J. D. Burnley, ‘Late Medieval Translation: Types and Reflections,’ The Medieval Translator: The Theory and Practice of Translation in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989) 37-53.

Bruce R. O’Brien, Reversing Babel: Translation among the English during an Age of Conquests, c. 800 to c. 1200 (Newark: U of Delaware P, 2011), especially 45-51.

Thanks to Lisa Vargo for the tip about the proposed translation of The Journey.

Aug 23, 2013

Not reading the St Cuthbert Gospel

In 2012, after a huge fundraising campaign, the British Library acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel, formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, the oldest complete European book to survive intact in its original binding.
British Library MS Additional 89000, fol. 1r.
The St Cuthbert Gospel. Image: British Library.

Aug 19, 2013

The 1560 Geneva Bible

This image shows the beginning of “The Revelation of John the Diuine,” from the 1560 Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was the most widely read text in early modern England, being reproduced in pocket editions accessible for laypeople. The linking strategies in the Geneva Bible are fascinating. Asterisks were originally used in biblical translations to draw attention to a word that appears in one language, but not in another, for example, in the Septuagint but not Hebrew (Grafton and Williams 116). Interestingly, the asterisk’s usage is different in this case; the asterisks here indicate cross references, and correspond to the italicized verses in the margin. Occasionally a cross reference or alternate interpretation is provided with a double bar or pipe (||). The lettered footnotes are explanatory and exegetical, which is in keeping with other biblical footnotes (Sherman 77).   

Footnotes and marginal content were used extensively in the early stages of printing.  The development of different types of systems that organize and signify different types of content is important. When only one type of footnote is used, the note itself has no semantic value. Here, the asterisk already implies a cross reference, at which point the reader can decide whether or not to look at it.  

The Geneva Bible was criticized for its commentary, which interprets the text with a particularly Protestant lens that can be overt. This interpretive aspect of the Geneva Bible makes it a rich resource of Protestant ideology at the time of the Geneva Bible’s printing. The same conventions are continued in the 1611 Authorized Version, which also uses asterisks and lettered footnotes, but there the marginal commentary is much more restrained.

Ben Neudorf

The Geneva Bible: a Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Ed. Loyd E. Berry and William Wittingham. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. Print.

Grafton, Anthony, and Megan Williams. Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.

Sherman, William H. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Print.

Aug 10, 2013

Scrolling through the Middle Ages

Armburgh Roll, Manchester, John Rylands Library Chetham's MS Mun.E.6.10(4) 
We like the concept of technological revolution: it replaces the cluttered complexities of history with illusions of dramatic simplicity. We’re supposed to be living in a digital revolution right now, and it’s been compared to previous significant developments in the history of information and communication technologies: the invention of printing or of writing, for example. It is possible to argue, however, that the closest historical precedent for a shift from books to screens is the adoption of the codex in the first few centuries of the Christian era (see Chartier, quoted in Frost 1998). The reasons for the shift from scroll to codex are still a matter of discussion, but it is a common claim that the codex replaced the scroll, implying that people in late antiquity stopped producing and reading scrolls, and started producing and reading codices. There you have a revolution, apparently: a new technology (for reasons of efficiency, politics, culture, usability, whatever) renders an old technology obsolete.

But it wasn’t that simple. To be sure, the Middle Ages represent centuries of experimenting with, developing, discovering the potential of the codex. But medieval people used scrolls and rolls, too. (By the way, although the two terms can be interchangeable, it is useful to distinguish between a scroll, which is opened horizontally, and a roll, which is opened vertically.) In England, in particular, rolls were used for legal, financial, and government records from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Other types of text, particularly genealogies, were also written on scrolls or rolls. Richard Rouse argued in 1982 that rolls may have been a common format for lyrics or similar texts intended for performance, although hardly any examples survive. The only surviving roll containing a medieval literary text in English is British Library MS Additional 23986, which has the short English play Interludium de clerico et puella on one side and an Anglo-French political poem on the other. I use the present tense hopefully; the manuscript seems to have disappeared from the British Museum in 1971.

Why did people use scrolls and especially rolls in medieval England? What kinds of texts were they associated with? How did the physical form of scrolls and rolls affect the ways in which they were read? Why did the use of scrolls and rolls persist so stubbornly for certain kinds of texts?

In digital reading environments, it is common not to flip pages (nostalgic turning-the-pages animations notwithstanding) but to ‘scroll’ up and down; you probably did that to get to what you're reading now. Why do designers of these interfaces choose scrolling (or rolling) rather than other ways of moving the reader through text? How does scrolling on a screen differ from the experience of unrolling a medieval manuscript?

One possibility raised by these questions is that scrolls and rolls present textual information in a linear, ‘flattened’, and (at most) two-dimensional format. This may be one reason why they seem to have been associated with public and/or spoken (or sung) texts. A scroll lays it all out if you choose to unroll it completely; the codex hides everything except the opening you are looking at. We’ll have to think a little harder about how scrolling up and down on a screen provides a reading experience that’s different from either of these.

Yin Liu

Lots of references:

Cavallo, Guglielmo. ‘Between Volumen and Codex: Reading in the Roman World.’ In A History of Reading in the West. Ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Trans Lydia G. Cochrane. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. 64-89.

Clanchy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record. 3rd ed. Wiley, 2012.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007.

Frost, Gary. ‘Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode.’ Book and Paper Annual 17 (1998).

Mak, Bonnie. How the Page Matters. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011.

Paden, William D. ‘Lyrics on Rolls.’ In ‘Li Premerains Vers.’ Ed. Catherine M. Jones and Logan E. Whalen. Rodopi, 2011. 325-340.

Roberts, Colin H., and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford UP, 1983.

Rouse, Richard H. ‘Roll and Codex: The Transmission of the Works of Reinmar von Zweter.’ Münchener Beiträge zur Mediävistik und Renaissance-Forschung 32 (1982): 107-123. Rpt. in Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1991. 13-29.

Steiner, Emily. Documentary Culture and the Making of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Taylor, Andrew. ‘The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript.’ Speculum 66.1 (1991): 43-73.

Aug 3, 2013

Medieval Linking Strategies

A term like “Medieval Hypertext” is both anachronistic and unhelpful in understanding medieval text. Looking at medieval text for techniques that act as precursors to modern hypertext risks reading modern practices into medieval practices. Still, it is worth observing that medieval thought and writing also included and necessitated linking mechanisms.  Abstract and nonlinear thought is not a modern evolution, so it is not surprising that medieval writing includes mechanisms that make it possible to think nonlinearly and navigate the page in nonlinear ways.  

University of Saskatchewan Special Collections, MS Ege 19

One of the most simple and common linking mechanisms that breaks up a linear reading of medieval text is the Signe-de-renvoi or Tie Mark. In the example here, from the Ege Scattered Leaves collection at the University of Saskatchewan, a line with a dot above it connects the main text to a marginal addition to the text. This type of linking recalls marginal or footnotes in print, except that the sign here is a symbol instead of a number.  What this type of linking does is facilitate a quick exit from and return to the main text that requires only visual navigation.  When there are many notes, sometimes an extra mark is placed in the margin, so that three identical marks create a visual pathway to the annotation, as in this example from Harley MS 1280, f. 313v at the British Library.

In From Memory to Written Record, Michael Clanchy describes the way medieval texts use iconography and visual indexing to organize texts and aid in memorization. Historiated initials, decorated margins, and other illumination have an important cognitive function for medieval reading.  A distinctive image on the page aids memorization.  A page can be found again by looking for a particular and unique historiated initial, or text can be marked with the same symbols used to mentally index material, for example (172-184).  

This page from James le Palmer’s encyclopedia, “All Good Things,” dated 1370, has a chain at the top of the page indicating the sections on that page.  The section titles are then repeated in the margins, as well as indicated by a capitulum mark in the text.  The historiated initials make the page memorable, and manicules point to important passages.

What these linking strategies have in common is a highly visual and spacial strategy for linking parts of text on the manuscript page, whereas hypertext is not navigated visually.  From the user's perspective, when a link is clicked, the navigation is behind the scenes and the linked location is displayed instantly.  For anchor links on a given page, unless a popup window is displayed, like some wikipedia references, the link must be followed and the text returned to with the "back" command in the browser.  There are visual elements to hypertext, but these are primarily to identify links (often as blue and underlined) or to identify whether a link will open in a new window or the current window. Visual feedback is also given as a manicule or finger when a link is hovered over with the cursor.

Medieval linking strategies are not hypertext. They can, however, inform our understanding of our own linking strategies. Navigation of digital environments does not use some of the useful memory devices manuscripts used, and digital navigation is much more mediated than the directly visual navigation of manuscript annotation.

Ben Neudorf

Clanchy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307. Oxford, U. K. , 1993. Print.

Jul 25, 2013

Reading in two languages

Yin Liu 

The oldest surviving English translation of any part of the Bible can be found in this manuscript:

The translation consists of the smaller words written above the larger main text. It is not a Bible translation in the sense that we customarily think of – that is, a text that can be read in its own right. Rather, this translation takes the form of an interlinear gloss, intended to help an English speaker read the Latin text.

The image is from a page of the Vespasian Psalter, British Library MS Cotton Vespasian A.1, a copy of the Psalms in Latin. The manuscript was made in the second quarter of the 8th century, probably in Canterbury. The gloss was added just over a century later, in the middle of the 9th century. The image shows the start of the psalm Caeli enarrant, Psalm 18 (Psalm 19 in most modern translations). The script of the main text, in Latin, is in English uncials; the gloss is in an insular pointed minuscule, in a Mercian dialect of Old English. The English gloss provides a word-for-word translation of the Latin: thus in omnem terram is glossed in alle eorðan (‘into all the earth’). This way of presenting a text in two languages probably seems straightforward and self-evident to us now. Think how often students annotate their textbooks in just the same way when learning a new language or reading a text in a language in which they are not fluent; and in modern linguistics, interlinear glosses, laid out in much the same way, are a regular feature to assist readers in understanding examples of speech or text in many different languages.
This bit of parchment shows an example of medieval text being encoded, structured, and presented as data

Nevertheless, that bilingual interlinear glosses are among our earliest surviving examples of English text (and continue to be used through the Middle Ages and into the modern period) should give us pause. Before a gloss is added, the text on the manuscript page can be read as a relatively simple linear transcription of speech. But once the interlinear gloss appears, the reader is challenged to regard the text on the page as a much more complex structure, existing in two dimensions rather than one. No longer is there a single sequence of linguistic units to follow, but two parallel sequences, linked by a one-to-one correspondence between individual elements. Furthermore, the two sequences are not equal in value; the Latin sequence is privileged not only visually (it is written in a larger and more prominent script) but also by dictating the order of elements on which the English gloss depends, even when normal Old English word order would be much different from Latin.

We may notice also that word-division in the two sequences does not always correspond. For example, the Latin text frequently joins the conjunction et (‘and’) to what we would consider the next word, with no space between: etopera, etnox, etipse. The English gloss separates out the conjunction and or ond (abbreviated with a symbol that looks like ‘7’) so that it is recognised as an individual linguistic unit: 7 werc, 7 neht, 7 he. This may seem trivial, except that word-separation by use of white space had only just been developed as an encoding convention by scribes such as these in the British Isles, and it had deep and far-ranging repercussions for reading practices throughout Europe and into the present day (Saenger 1997). Among its effects was a shift in the meaning of the word ‘word’. In this text, Latin verbum and English word mean ‘utterance, something said’. But separated script visually fragmented the stream of language into discrete units, which could then be processed and presented in new, non-linear ways.

This bit of parchment shows an example of medieval text being encoded, structured, and presented as data: tokenised and then arranged so that relationships between the tokens are visually apparent. Medieval English readers, grappling with a text in a foreign language, implemented reading aids such as interlinear glosses that allowed people to receive not only auditory but also visual linguistic information, and so created ways of understanding that depended ever more heavily on technologies of writing and of the book.


Some useful qualifications to these remarks, and a much better linguistic analysis, can be found in Alderik H. Blom, Glossing the Psalms: The Emergence of the Written Vernaculars in Western Europe from the Seventh to the Twelfth Centuries (De Gruyter, 2017), 161-173.

Jul 19, 2013

A note on religious engagement with texts

At the Social, Digital, Scholarly Editing conference at the University of Saskatchewan, Paul Eggert began by saying an edition is a transaction between the editor and the reader.  Wendy Phillips-Rodriguez's talk entitled “Social, Digital, Codicological Editing?” discussed how sometimes that transaction can involve the highly specific needs of a group of readers.  The Digital Shikshapatri is an edition of an Indian religious text, and is accessed at the Bodleian Library most often by people who use the text to aid in worship. To accommodate this type of reader, the digital edition has some unique features: readings of the text by Yogi Charan Das, and audio files to accompany each page.  It was also mentioned that this method of display acknowledges the belief that the spoken word realizes the true power of language in a way that text does not.

This type of engagement with text is a common context for medieval manuscripts, and some designs show a great amount of care for the reader experience.  Daniel Connolly discusses the itinerary to Jerusalem in Matthew Paris’ Chronica Majora, which is a large mapped sequence, as an "Imagined Pilgrimage" for clerical readers who were unable to leave their monastery due to religious vows they had taken.  The Chronica Majora uses sophisticated indexing techniques to take the reader quickly from the written text to illustrations of various cities and scenes in the margins, which often take up most of the page.  The sign “φ” is used, and when the connected text or image is oriented sideways, the sign is also rotated to give a visual cue for the reader, suggesting the proper orientation.  Other times, the paraph mark is repeated beside an image, suggesting that an image corresponds to each section of text.  These indexing structures support a quick transition between text and visual content that helps maintain an immersive imagined experience.

 When I first came across the Chronica Majora, I couldn’t help thinking about another imagined pilgrimage I had recently come across, the video game Journey by thatgamecompany. It’s one of the most beautiful games I’ve played, with an amazing soundtrack and not a word of written or spoken text.  In this virtual Hajj, a succession of trials brings the character closer to the mountain’s peak.  Though the game is likely not intended primarily for a religious audience, the experience is highly meditative and serene.  I won’t force this comparison, but I would like to suggest that this type of religious engagement and imagined or virtual experience can be an important part of the creation of text designed to facilitate meaningful interactions with the reader.

Ben Neudorf

Connolly, Daniel K. “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris.” The Art Bulletin 81.4 (1999): 598–622.

Matthew Paris, Chronica majora, ca. 1250, vol. 1, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 26.

Phillips-Rodriguez, Wendy. "Social, Digital, Codicological Editing?" SDSE Conference. U of Saskatchewan. 11 July 2013. Address.

Jul 6, 2013

Latin and Lock-in

There’s a phenomenon that economists call ‘path dependence’, in which historical conditions and practices constrain future decisions about what technologies to adopt, so that a situation called ‘lock-in’ occurs: institutions and individuals have so much invested — education, funds, credibility — in one technology that competing technologies don’t have a chance. The classic (although controversial) examples cited in the economic literature are the adoption of the QWERTY keyboard rather than the Dvorak keyboard, the victory of the VHS format over Beta for videotapes, and the dominance of Microsoft operating systems for personal computers. With deep apologies to any economists out there, because I am a non-economist oversimplifying and probably misrepresenting a complex idea, let us consider, as a pre-modern case, the adoption of the Roman alphabet as a writing technology for encoding English.

When early medieval English speakers wanted to write, two encoding systems were available to them. The older system, at least as far as English was concerned, was the runic alphabet, the futhorc (as the English version is called; the standard account is Page 1999). Runes were used throughout the early Germanic world and survive mostly in inscriptions on stone, metal, and bone objects. 

Franks Casket, back panel. © Trustees of the British Museum
In some ways, the futhorc was a more ‘natural’ choice for English. It was designed for a Germanic language like English, so that it included, for example, a symbol for the interdental fricative (now usually represented by ‘th’ in standard English spelling), and a slightly wider range of vowel sounds than the five that the Roman alphabet encoded. It also had the advantage of familiarity, since people in England had been using it since the 5th century — that is, it is very likely to have been brought to England when the Anglo-Saxons first settled there. Why, then, did the Roman alphabet win out?

It might at first be thought that the reason was technological or media-related: runes were designed to be carved in hard materials, whereas the Roman alphabet was, by the early Middle Ages, adapted to writing on parchment. But this cannot be the only or even the main reason. Both the Roman and the runic alphabets were used for carved inscriptions, and on coins and other such objects. Runes appear in manuscripts, most notably in some of the Exeter Book poems, and there is no compelling reason why the futhorc could not have been adapted to pen and parchment, as the Roman alphabet was. Neither alphabet was intrinsically superior and it could be argued that the futhorc was better suited to writing English.

The most important reason the Roman alphabet was used to write English was cultural, for the socially dominant model for literacy throughout western Europe in the Middle Ages was Latin literacy. Until King Alfred’s educational reforms in the 9th century (and to some extent even afterwards), English speakers learned to read and write first by learning Latin, which of course was encoded in the Roman alphabet. In the early Middle Ages, the primary institution that offered a training in the technical skills of literacy was the Church, and the Church in western Europe conducted its business in Latin. And Latin literacy connected medieval English people with textual communities all over western Europe, who were similarly invested in the system (economists might call this a ‘network effect’). So the encoding of English with the Roman alphabet seems to be a good example of path dependence.

But a number of issues are worth further investigation. One is the persistence of runes throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, right up to the early 11th century, and usually embedded in (or juxtaposed with) texts otherwise written with the Roman alphabet. The functions of runes in these cases still need further study; Page’s chapter in An Introduction to English Runes on ‘Runic and Roman’ is full of questions that have not yet all been answered satisfactorily.

Early medieval English scribes were not presented with a simple either/or choice. Since Latin, and its encoding system, did not have sounds or symbols for the interdental fricative or the labiovelar (the ‘w’ sound), Anglo-Saxon scribes adapted two runes to fill the gaps in the Roman alphabet: ‘thorn’ and 'wynn'. The latter disappeared after the Norman Conquest (it was replaced by our modern letter ‘w’), but thorn persisted in England right through the Middle Ages. Thus, although the Roman alphabet was originally designed to write a different language, medieval English people found ways to adjust it so that it was a better fit, although still not an ideal one, for their own language. People get by with workarounds.
"although the Roman alphabet was originally designed to write a different language, medieval English people found ways to adjust it"

The relationship of Latin and English throughout the Middle Ages is worth exploring further not only for cultural and linguistic reasons but also for technological ones. When medieval people looked at a text in a manuscript and saw that it was written in English, they most likely formed a different set of expectations, and read it in different ways, than they would have in approaching a Latin text (see O’Keeffe 1990). Much work has been done on the encoding of Latin in medieval manuscripts, and the ways in which scribes writing Latin texts presented, organised, and searched for information. Much less has been done on the adjustments that medieval scribes made for encoding English. Throughout this project, which focusses on English texts, the Latin background of medieval literacy will be crucial.

Did the power and prestige of Latin lock written English into the Roman alphabet? Yes, it did, and that commitment is now so deep that today it is hardly questioned or even noticed. But not all path dependence is negative or even inefficient, as some have argued. The history of English writing hints at the social factors that influence technological decisions, but also at the flexibility, adaptability, and ingenuity of humans who use technology.

Yin Liu

Jun 28, 2013

An Encounter with Bede

While looking for early English examples of omission signs and symbols called signes-de-renvoi, I came across the "St. Petersburg Bede", or "Leningrad Bede," one of the oldest manuscripts of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum.  In the facsimile copy at the University of Saskatchewan, there are only five visible annotations in the whole manuscript  (f.11v, 21v, 68r, 89r, 90v), despite many more inline marks that would suggest a corresponding marginal note or correction.  After checking bibliographic records, it appears the manuscript was trimmed at some point in its life!  

For most people studying Bede, I’m sure these annotations are not missed much in such a clean and exemplary text for its age, which contains the oldest known example of a historiated initial. But for someone looking for annotations, it is an unfortunate loss.  The decision to trim the pages was likely for usability, as well as an aesthetic choice.  Turning the pages is harder when they are not even, and the book’s opening is cleaner when it is uniform.  

Since I am working an article on the symbols used to guide the reader to annotations in the margin and swiftly back again, I will not overdramatize the fact that some of these are missing from one of the oldest examples of Old English text we have. But I cannot help thinking about the practice of trimming manuscripts within our own context in the world of digital humanities, and this serves as an example of the type of information the Medieval Codes project endeavors to find in early English manuscript and print.  The goal of digital texts is to transpose text from one medium (manuscript) to another (digital text and code).  In this process, we have many  usability and aesthetic choices to make.  It’s true, we don’t trim pages, and we even ensure that they are photographed in their entirety, but we make concessions in other ways.  Due to space constraints and load times, archival images are usually restricted to somewhere between 300 and 1000 dpi, depending on the size of the document.  This is fine for one type of reading of the text, for accessing some forms of information, recognizing the words.  On the other hand, looking at particular words, marks, and symbols or decoration, is not always easy.  This is not to disparage archival practice, and it is not a plea for the necessity and primacy of the manuscript page, but a comment on the difficulty of reconciling usability, aesthetic choices, and financial considerations, with the importance of conserving archival material.  

Many important aspects of a text are outside of the “linguistic dimension,” to use Jerome McGann’s terminology from The Textual Condition.  Some of the “bibliographic codes” are encoded in the text’s organization and get lost when marginal content is disregarded or physically removed.  There are tactile and extra-visual features of manuscript, social functions and psychological processes which are important to understanding manuscripts and printed books as well. While archival images and digital text encoded and displayed on a computer may not be able to capture all of the information in manuscripts, it is important that we study these extra-textual features. 
"we are mining a technology with a long history of human interaction for tools that our ancestors found effective for accessing information"
This may bring up questions of how to digitally encode signes-de-renvoi, which are both idiosyncratic and based on convention, or whether a page turned or made into a tab for easy access can adequately translate to a link or bookmark in a digital text.  More importantly, by paying attention to how medieval texts are organized, we are mining a technology with a long history of human interaction for tools that our ancestors found effective for accessing information, keeping in mind that speed and effectiveness are not necessarily related. Computers were built with calculation in mind, but books were created to facilitate human navigation of text. We have a lot to learn from books that can only enrich our digital experience with text. Part of the process is looking outside of the purely textual, and into the social, psychological, and bibliographical aspects of our navigation of books. 

Ben Neudorf

Jun 18, 2013

Defining the terms

In this inaugural post for the Medieval Codes project, it seems appropriate to lay out what I think we are trying to do and what we're not trying to do.

When I google 'medieval codes', the first results are gaming sites. So I'll start with this: we are not offering cheat codes for 'medieval' games. Sorry.

  • We are investigating ways in which medieval people, writing English texts, organised, stored, transmitted, and searched for information. Some of that information might conceivably be about combat games that actual medieval people played, but you may have to read a manuscript to get there.
The word 'codes' also suggests cryptography or secret writing, but that's not our primary concern either.
  • We are interested in medieval text forms as communication technologies. In societies where literacy was less common and had different social implications than it does in today's industrialised nations, how did medieval people learn, negotiate, experiment with, and develop the technologies of writing?
Although we have chosen the word codes deliberately to recall the most common context of that word today, digital environments, the project is not primarily about encoding medieval texts in digital forms.
  • We start with the observation that medieval texts are already encoded, by virtue of being written down. A better understanding of, and sensitivity to, the ways in which they were first encoded is important when we recode or remediate these texts into other forms -- print or digital.
When we suggest that medieval English texts were a form of code, we are creating a mental tool for analysis, a model. Since the early 1600s, model in English has meant ‘A three-dimensional representation, esp. on a small scale, of a person or thing or of a projected or existing structure; esp. one showing the component parts in accurate proportion and relative disposition’ (OED s.v. model, sense 4a).
"We are interested in medieval text forms as communication technologies."
In various disciplines that involve design, such as architecture or sculpture, such models are common tools. In the sciences, model came to mean something more abstract: ‘A simplified or idealized description or conception of a particular system, situation, or process, often in mathematical terms, that is put forward as a basis for theoretical or empirical understanding, or for calculations, predictions, etc.; a conceptual or mental representation of something’ (OED s.v. model, sense 8a). More succinctly, ‘to model is to create a useful fiction’ (McCarty 2008, p 259). Modelling is thus a central intellectual tool of the sciences, including computer science, and theories frequently involve or are expressed as models. For example, our understanding of atomic structure throughout the history of 20th-century physics proceeded as a series of models.

Digital humanities has often been described as modelling (Unsworth 2002, McCarty 2004), insofar as this activity involves creating digital representations of the subject matter of humanities research – texts, for example. This project is a modelling exercise. Analogies between medieval texts and modern (especially digitally mediated) texts will inevitably arise. The purpose of the model, however, is not to make facile comparisons, but to engage in a historically sensitive investigation of the ways in which the encoding of information has developed in English texts, from the Middle Ages to the present. In particular, we are looking for:
  • Aspects of medieval code that have been remarkably persistent in many different contexts. One example is the Roman alphabet, originally designed to encode Latin, adapted to English, and so basic to our experience of written English today that we think of it as natural, although it isn't.
  • Aspects of medieval code that tended to be lost in modern media, especially in print environments. One example is devices for qualitative visual indexing, such as visual art (decorated capitals and the like) that had a search function as well as an ornamental one.
  • Ways in which the analogy between medieval text and modern (digital) codes breaks down. The most obvious difference is that medieval text was intended to be read by humans, whereas modern computer code is meant to be read by machines. This is not a trivial difference, especially at a time when many humans are reading text that is mediated by machines. Ultimately, this project is an exploration of some of the very complex and far-reaching implications of technology.
At this stage of the project, besides messing around with this beautiful website (comments and suggestions welcome), we are pursuing two kinds of research simultaneously. I'm working on clarifying terminology such as model, text, information, and code for the purposes of the project. Ben is developing a case study that will apply the model to a specific feature of medieval textuality. We'll try to post here regularly, every week or so. Come back for more.

Yin Liu