- IntroductionThe Trials of the Digital Medievalist
Digital scholarship—the collection of digital data, such as facsimile images or statistics about digitized texts, as well as the processing, sharing, and use of such data—is an area of innovation in the humanities generally, and its growth is a pressing issue for very many humanities researchers, not least medievalists. Digital data and its use is especially a challenge for a medievalist choosing whether or not to work with manuscripts via their digital surrogates or to process data in disparate sources using digital tools or methods. The essays in this volume gather intellectual outcomes from recent projects that have trialed innovative digital technologies, several of them using interoperable tools to examine the creation, circulation, and consumption of medieval books and texts. Three of our writers participated in the Making Medieval English Manuscripts project, collaborating with scholars at the universities of Toronto, Oxford, Sheffield, Cambridge, Drew, and Stanford. A fourth contributor has developed an innovative method to map phrase clusters in Old English. All four write about their discoveries but equally about the limits of their digital methods and tools, ultimately suggesting a range of possibilities for the kinds of textual, paleographical, and codicological research made possible by digital methods. Central to our investigation are questions about how digitization of texts and manuscripts has facilitated research outcomes, and how medieval English scholars may best make use of these digitized materials.
It is no accident that three of our four authors were involved with medievalist projects that used digitized manuscripts: while digital humanities is a relatively new and expanding field, the study of manuscripts has long been central to medieval English studies. As Derek Pearsall puts it: “the study of manuscripts is the most active area of current research in medieval studies: manuscripts are the basic primary material [End Page 147] evidence for literary scholars, historians and art historians alike” (xi). The centrality of such material evidence in answering a broad spectrum of scholarly questions continues to encourage curators to increase the number of their digitally available manuscripts and archives. This increase in turn has allowed scholars to examine larger sets and wider ranges of books via virtual environments as well as in physical archives. In this issue, Alexandra Bolintineanu raises questions about why one might want to gather data digitally and shows how network graphing tools can facilitate us in synthesizing that data. The next three articles by Kathryn Lowe, Estelle Stubbs, and Alex Fleck, draw on shared online databases, using digital manuscript images as the basis of their investigation. Fleck and Lowe have in common with Bolintineanu that they analyzed large quantities of digitized textual and/or image data. Each of these authors used digital images as a starting point for their research, though it is true that perhaps they could have completed the same research (although less conveniently) by looking at the books in person. However, in using digital images rather than the books themselves, the authors raise a number of fundamental questions relating to the value of the digital humanities, questions that we sketch here, such as: how we define data and the digital humanities; whether the digital humanities is more than just the process of creating digital surrogates of manuscripts; what the digital humanist, especially the digital medievalist, can do with the increased data available; and how the digital humanist responds to the potential scepticism towards digital methods. The contributors’ methods also raise vital questions about digital tools specifically: can digital tools interoperate and in what ways can they be brought together to produce scholarly findings and outcomes (as the authors of this introduction found in the course of their own work on the Making Medieval English Manuscripts project). Interoperation allows two digital systems to work together, and as such allows researchers not only to access digital images of manuscripts, but also to do new things with those images, such as virtually cutting and pasting from manuscripts, and creating virtual notebooks of these cuttings (in, for example, Excel); and then sharing those virtual notes and cuttings with experts at a far remove, creating and fostering intellectual community.
For paleographers, the problem has been not...