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

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