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Digital Humanities Manuscripts

Real Live Books!

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 17.55.10I was recently invited to give a short presentation as part of a panel on how research relates to the theme of “liveness” for an interdisciplinary symposium “Rethinking Liveness: Music, Performance and Media Technology” hosted by the Department of Music at University College Cork. I had not previously attempted to articulate explicitly how liveness relates to my own work and to medieval studies in general, but it turned out to be a useful frame. My remarks follow below.

My first monograph, which I am currently researching and writing, is concerned with the concept of novelty, and how newness is characterized, defined, and considered as an aesthetic within the music of the later Middle Ages. Also, through my research on music theory of the Middle ages I attempt to connect theoretical treatises to particular individuals: the authors, the scribes who transmitted or communicated these texts, but also the textual communities who used these texts (see Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, on “textual communities”), recognising all of their presences in the material object that survives in our time. I also consider the impact of the particular technology of the ‘critical printed edition’ – i.e., our modern presentations of a medieval texts – on our understandings of the “works” these texts contain, and how we might use new digital technologies to in some way “reanimate” the persons who interacted with these texts, or “recreate” for ourselves new ways that we can interact and live with these texts.

We primarily use digital technologies are used in medieval studies in two ways: 1) access and dissemination through the large-scale digitization of medieval manuscripts (Gallica, BVMM (Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux, Vatican Library, etc.); and 2) analysis of the digitized object(s), that may draw attention to aspects of form, structure, style, or comparisons, that were previously unnoticed because of the particular technology in which they were previously stored (whether manuscript, or printed edition). The metaphor of “bringing texts to life” may be apt, if cliché (“this book/TV programme/film/website will bring history to life”!). Turn the phrase around, and it is a key term in medieval textual studies, describing a key characteristic of medieval texts that is embodied in their variance, mutability, and non-fixity, that is most often described with a french phrase “textes vivants” or living texts.

When we make a critical edition we create an idealized version of a text that never existed (lived) in reality. Direct access to the manuscript tells of the other lives of these texts and each manuscript version represents a particular instantiation resulting from the experiences of the scribe, illuminator, author, reader or performer. This is a dynamic, rather than a static process and renders a text that scholars have described as moving or mobile – Paul Zumthor famously termed this phenomenon the mouvance of medieval texts.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing recently is with a music theory treatise that we called the Ars nova – a text that has been privileged in our music histories as announcing and articulating the concepts of new musical style evident in the music of the early fourteenth century, and until recently considered to have been written by the important medieval composer Philippe de Vitry c1320 (Fuller 1985). This historical narrative resulted partly due to the processes required for presenting this text in a printed book format. The source situation tells a different story, for there is in fact no one definitive text of the Ars nova, but many different versions, transmitted in many different manuscripts. Being able to access these manuscripts directly and individually, and reading them as particular instantiations of this work of theory brings us into more direct contact with the performative life of particular manuscripts.

The media or technology through which texts can be presented, whether manuscript, printed book, or webpage provides different – pardon the modern term – user experiences. The manuscript book – written on the skin of a dead animal, whose hair and flesh side we can still feel when we interact with these books – was a technology often used in quite different ways to the ways in which a printed book came to be used: for example, communal reading was common, particularly when performing music. The narrative of many medieval works, as accessed through both text and image, is often less linear than that which is presented in later printed works – for example, as found in the Roman de Fauvel (as pointed out by many modern scholars, including Nancy Freeman Regalado) and the Roman de la rose.

Once digitized, we can use digital technologies to manipulate and analyse the digitized data.  Bruce Holsinger flags for us the digital archive project of Joanna Swafford at UVa, which allows the the viewer/listener to hear and see this archive of Victorian songs simultaneously while reading the scores online, integrating audio files with high-resolution images of first edition scores. We talk about websites going “live” –this website is almost alive – the experience watching it is like watching a player piano.

The Josquin Research Project, led by Jesse Rodin at Stanford University works, offers digital tools for accessing and analyzing music from c.1420-c1520, including Josquin’s music. This video describes how this digitized data was used to present visualizations of the musical analysis of motets as they were performed live at a concert in the Spring of 2013. Professor Ge Wang, a composer and collaborator for this event, comments on the video that the essence of the visualizations “preserve the life, the soul of the music, while also carefully, perhaps experimentally, provide a different place through which to experience this music.’

In his blog, Burnable Books, Bruce Holsinger invited Machaut scholar Deborah McGrady to write a guest blog to discuss her experiences of working with digital texts. McGrady taught a course in Spring 2012 at UVa titled “Textual Bodies: The Making of Books, Authors and Readers in the Middle Ages,” which used as its primary source material the huge collection of digitized versions of Machaut’s manuscripts (in libraries all over the world, many at bibliotheque nationale). Some of the questions she asked of her students were:

Do weight, texture, and shape of books embody meaning?

Can we restrict reading to an intellectual activity removed from sensual encounters with the objects we hold in our hands, scroll over on our screens, violate or embellish with our marginal comments?

Once the course was finished, McGrady remarks:

I ended it with an unprecedented personal need that far surpassed intellectual justification and that was only satiated when I arrived at the BN and had a codex in hand. When big data creates a need to touch, feel, and smell the codex to satisfy a research agenda, it introduces just the kind of radical change (still) needed in Medieval Studies.

Many us became medievalists because of the particular objects that we get to work with, i.e., medieval manuscripts that are fascinating and often gorgeous physical objects. The way in which we used to research involved traveling to wonderful libraries and archives and physically touching these books, which were once touched by the scribes of the manuscripts, who knew much more about their contents than us, but with whom we attempt to closer to through the physical study of these manuscripts, and the tactile experience of their work. We’re left an intriguing dilemma: these digital technologies which provide access and offer new and dynamic ways of interacting with medieval texts at the same time radically subvert the intimate and resonant experience of interacting with a ‘Real Live Book’.

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