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  • Manos Teatrales:Cyber-Paleography and Early Modern Spanish Theater
  • Margaret R. Greer (bio) and Alejandro García-Reidy (bio)

Both before and after Gutenberg, the history of artistic, social, and political events has often been recorded in handwritten documents: historical chronicles, literary texts, musical scores, religious and philosophical treatises, ambassadorial and military reports, and the correspondence of authors, scientists, and political figures with the world around them. Literary scholars, historians, archaeologists, and others spend endless hours locating, deciphering, and evaluating these manuscripts. While access to these manuscripts was once difficult, digital technology is making increasing numbers of such documents available; but it has yet to make them easy to read and to evaluate for all but a tiny minority of specialists.

The Manos Teatrales project, directed by the authors of this note, employs cyber-paleography techniques to open up and analyze the surviving wealth of manuscripts from Spanish Golden Age theater and related archival records that link that theater to the surrounding society. The procedures we use and describe below could be extended to other manuscript collections. The results of our research are constructed as a live, layered virtual world on the Web, centered on a searchable database, and this information is accessible to librarians, scholars, students, and interested individuals anywhere at Our processes have been developed with support from a Duke University Provost's Common Fund grant, from National Endowment for the Humanities and American Council of Learned Societies digital initiative grants (2009-2010), and from further work on automatic writer identification with researchers at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid (2011-2013).

Theater in Golden Age Spain, as in Elizabethan England and classical Greece, flourished as a central cultural institution. From the late sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries, drama was the most popular form of entertainment throughout the Spanish empire. Fast-moving three-act dramas were performed in public theaters, on palace stages, and even aboard ships to America; and autos sacramentales—allegorical religious drama—was performed on carts in town and city streets. Great playwrights—Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Calderón de la Barca—and dozens of other writers penned thousands of dramas to meet the insatiable demand. In contrast to the case of England, [End Page 133] however, a treasure trove that awaits students of Golden Age Spanish plays is the existence of hundreds of autographed, partially autograph and unsigned manuscripts of the plays. Many of the manuscripts left by the great dramatists have served as copy-texts for good modern editions, but relatively little has been done with the hundreds of unsigned manuscripts that survived in collections in Spain, other European countries, and America. In the Biblioteca Nacional Española (BNE) and the Theater Institute of Barcelona alone, they number well over fifteen hundred. Identifying their copyists yields information valuable not only for the evaluation of the manuscripts in question but also for understanding the organization and operation of the theatrical working community. These manuscripts show that some copyists worked closely with dramatists, making clean copies of their drafts, while other manuscripts reflect the work of a theater company owner who modified the text to suit his company's capabilities and his sense of audience preferences. Others made copies for specific actors, or for sale, and a few, anticipating today's movie pirates who use hand-held cameras, made their copies from memory after seeing a performance.

Significant progress in the field of handwriting recognition has enabled practical applications in constrained modern domains, such as the recognition of postal codes. Although the challenges posed by writer identification in old manuscripts are greater than those that pertain to modern forensic uses, the goal is the same. Manos Teatrales originated in Margaret Greer's evaluation of a manuscript of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's court spectacle drama La estatua de Prometeo that she found in the Biblioteca Histórica Municipal of Madrid in 1980 and edited. On the basis of a combination of manuscripts in the BNE and documents in several Madrid archives, she identified the manuscript's two principal hands, a theater company owner and a prompter who worked with him. This allowed her to date the manuscript and...


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