Digital Humanities and the Lure of Parchment (An After-Action Report of Fordham Medieval Studies’ Oxford Outremer Map Colloquium)

A post by HASTAC Scholar Tobias Hrynick

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On April ninth, I had the opportunity to present during in the Oxford Outremer Map Colloquium (see the previous blog entry for the lovely poster!). The Colloquium was organized around a project by Fordham’s Medieval Studies program to digitize a map drawn in the mid-thirteenth century by the English chronicler, artist, and cartographer, Matthew Paris, depicting the eastern Mediterranean, stretching from Armenia to Egypt. The map demonstrated a number of interesting features which were not typical of maps of this period (north-orientation, relatively close adherence to the physical shape of the region depicted, and the absence of an obvious symbolic program). Several features – such the close integration of pictorial and verbal elements (hard to depict in traditional print editions), the roughness of the writing, and the bleed-through of ink from the opposite side of the sheet – have long served to discourage study of the map, but could be ameliorated with digital photo-editing and annotation, and made the map a good candidate for a digital edition. The project containing this edition can be viewed on the Medieval Studies website.

The colloquium focused around this project was divided into four sections. During the first two, three prominent scholars of medieval mapping – Evelyn Edson, P. D. A. Harvey, and Asa Mittman – discussed the place of the Oxford Map in the scholarship, and numerous issues surrounding its creation: its purpose, its time of composition, its sources, its place in the manuscript tradition, and the best way of understanding the map in the context of the bible with which it came to be bound. In the third section, Asa Mittman delivered a paper discussing the ways in which manuscripts are affected by being placed in digital contexts, with myself and Abigail Sergeant (who both worked on the Oxford Outremer project as Masters students) responding. In the final section, David Pedersen, a Ph. D. candidate in Fordham’s English Department, introduced a discussion of the Oxford Outremer map and website as pedagogical tools.

I regret that I cannot justify a more detailed discussion of the first, second and forth sessions here – all were productive and engaging. Here, however, given the purpose of this blog, I would like to zero in on several topics which arose in the second section, pertaining particularly to manuscripts in digital contexts, which resonated with other remarks I have heard expressed recently about the possibilities and limitations of digital tools in manuscript studies.

Dr. Mittman, during his talk, emphasized the losses implicit in presenting manuscripts digitally when compared to experiencing them as physical objects. Manuscript digitization, in his view, though useful if the manuscript was unavailable, or in parallel with the manuscript itself, risked disrupting the immediate, visceral connection to the past which real manuscripts offered. This central problem – balancing the benefits of easier access against those of physical contact – was a recurring theme in the subsequent discussion.

This question, in one form or another, is common throughout the digital humanities, and indeed, society’s engagement with text even outside academic contexts: consider the vigor with which some people oppose the very concept of e-book readers. However, such concerns are felt more acutely in certain DH sub-disciplines than in others – though digital humanists pride themselves on their methodology’s ability to foster interdisciplinary approaches, the old disciplinary divisions do still have some force. History has yet to develop a theoretical framework which clearly articulates the role of digital scholarship as against more conventional approaches, as structures like Franco Morretti’s conception of “distant reading,” have done for literary analysis. Though medievalists have, by and large, been relatively welcoming of digital approaches to analysis, attempts to digitize manuscript source materials have been treated much more ambivalently.

Dr. Mittman’s talk was the second talk I have attended in the last two months which focused on the potential losses of approaching manuscripts through digital imagery. During Fordham Medieval Studies’ Manuscript as Medium conference, Dr. Martha Easton delivered the provocatively titled talk “‘If Everyone is Special Then No One Is:’ Manuscripts for the Masses.” Easton, like Mittman, emphasized the experiential and physical aspects of medieval manuscripts, but Easton went still further, including the very action of travelling to archives as an integral part of the experience of text, rendering scholarship into a special kind of pilgrimage (though she too admitted that digitization projects were often useful, when the real thing was unavailable).

Certainly, the experience of the manuscript – the thrill of holding something with a message from a thousand years ago – cannot be entirely replaced by manuscript digitization. This comparison between digital versions and manuscripts, however, is somewhat misleading, and can cause us to be unduly pessimistic about the possibilities. What digitization projects have the potential to replace are not the manuscripts themselves, but print editions and micro-films – it is these tools which represent the traditional recourse of scholars who cannot practically consult all the necessary sources in manuscript. People able to visit manuscripts will continue to do so, but those who cannot will be given much stronger alternatives. The very fact that digital versions are being widely compared to manuscripts, however negative that comparison, is a mark of how strikingly true to life they can be.

Returning to a more optimistic view of manuscript digitization is important not only as a morale boost for those, like myself, who have been involved in this kind of project. It also has important implications for the kinds of digitization projects which take place. Pessimism could too easily lead to extremely conservative digital editions, which do in fact simply try to accomplish the impossible, in replicating the experience of the manuscript, and end up producing merely photographs. As Dr. Mittman pointed out at the colloquium, however, the best digitization projects do not merely post manuscript images (though even this can be extraordinarily valuable) – rather they offer some scholarly intervention, serving either to contextualize a manuscript, or to make it more easily usable to the chosen audience. It is vitally important that we accept manuscript digitization as a way of talking about manuscripts, rather than replacing them, so that we can fully exploit our new tools.