Nov 19, 2014

Information retrieval strategies

London, British Library MS Royal, fol. 1v. Image: British Library.
The image here is a table of signa, indexing symbols invented by Ralph of Diceto in the 1100s for his historical works, the Abbreviationes chronicorum and Imagines historiarum. They enable the reader to search for points in the text that deal with various topics or historical persons, such as kings of England and dukes of Normandy (a crown next to a sword), or conflicts within the royal family (two hands pulling a crown in different directions).

Information retrieval is one of the major industries of our digital world. It is both an academic field of study and a set of technologies and techniques. We often think of it, therefore, as something that we do with machines, or that machines do for us. If I want to find, say, a definition of ‘information retrieval’, I type the term into everyone’s favourite search engine and discover that the first hit is (no surprise) a Wikipedia article, followed by a couple of online textbooks and a link to an academic journal devoted to the subject. Here’s how one of the textbooks (Manning, Raghavan, and Sch├╝tze 2008) defines information retrieval:

    Information retrieval (IR) is finding material (usually documents) of an unstructured nature (usually text) that satisfies an information need from within large collections (usually stored on computers).

three main strategies for finding a particular item of textual information
I like the repetition of ‘usually’ in that definition because it reminds us that although we usually think of information retrieval as a computing activity, searching for stuff on Google is only one form – and generally not the most effective – of information retrieval.

How did information retrieval work in the Middle Ages? We can posit three main strategies for finding a particular item of textual information.

Nov 7, 2014

Who Glossed the Canterbury Tales?

Portrait of the Wife of Bath from the Ellesmere MS
In the last post, we discussed how the Latin annotations present in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in various manuscripts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales allowed readers the potential for multiple different readings. Many scholars have suggested that Chaucer himself may have been responsible for adding the glosses, and thus also providing these layers of meaning. If this is true, the depiction of the Wife of Bath that most undergraduate students encounter may be very different from the one Chaucer had intended. Chaucer may have viewed the Wife of Bath as more than a bold and independent woman who, perhaps rightfully, refuses to be subservient to her husband. He may instead have intended to create a less flattering picture of the Wife of Bath. Thus, for those seeking authorial intention in the Canterbury Tales, the question of “who wrote the Latin glosses” can become quite important.