A dummie at the court of King Access


Dummies cover

I have blogged before on the joy of ninth century library catalogues, and in particular on the joy of reading ninth century librarians’ comments. Now for the hard stuff. In between chasing missing books, these guys did a fantastic job of listing what they had. For St Gall, there is a lot of fun to be had in matching the lists to the extant stock, but for Reichenau, just a boat ride away, not only do we not have the manuscript versions of the catalogues, we also don’t have any Reichenau manuscripts at Reichenau. Happily, and thanks to a diligent German scholar in 1918, called Paul Lehmann, we do have a printed copy of several ninth century catalogues, based on copies made of contemporary manuscripts in the eighteenth century. And Lehmann did track quite a few of the manuscripts mentioned in it amongst the stock transferred to Karlsruhe after the dissolution of the abbey so they can’t all be imaginary. But for the time being, it’s the catalogues that are exercising my mind. And what to do with them that might contribute to an understanding of the textual culture that the monks were living and working in.

My mind drifted to the idea of visualisations, thence to digitisation and – and this is a long leap – to the idea of a database of texts. I used to use databases for my work, but they came ready-made. Not only had someone else done the key to disc bit, but someone else had dreamt up the structure required. And the database programs available to me now are not the ones we created in 1999.

And so I became a dummie. And bought a book that showed me how.  In its own way.


And I have to admit I’m still a dummie, but I am a wiser dummie because I have a better idea of why it’s hard.

I thought it was hard because of the technology, but it wasn’t. I thought it was hard because of the circularity of the process of deciding which fields to include before you have entered all 700 records because it is only after you have entered those 700 records that you know which fields are needed and by then changing the fields is problematic. But it wasn’t really that either.

I did the right things. I started with apparently uncontroversial stuff like ‘Author’, ‘Title’, ‘approximate date’ and ‘Title of catalogue’. I spent rather more time and experimentation on the fields which were to categorise the type and content of the text concerned: ‘Letters’, ‘Sermons’, ‘Biography’ for example, as well as ‘Patristic’, ‘Grammar’ and ‘Astronomy’. I did quite a bit of sampling and refining. I came up with some sort of system to ensure consistency and found the kind of fixes that are required when ninth century monastic librarians meet 21st century technology. I learned quite quickly, for example, that ‘Author?’ is not a simple question if the title is ‘the Book of Genesis’ – I presume people have spent whole PhDs on less. Given that that is not an option, the choice is between leaving the field blank or simply entering ‘BIBLE’. For a couple more days I wrestled with this kind of thing, finding out along the way how to add new fields and build in a checking system at the end so that entries were consistent. And then I took a day or so off. And then I tried to enter 700 records.


And when it came to using the fields, I realised that I had the thing upside down. Being a dummie at setting up a database is easily cured by buying a yellow book. Being a dummie at describing ninth century texts will take a lot longer to fix. It took the plan of setting up a database to bring it home to me that I need to know much more about these texts and about the authors before I analyse them. I need to decide for example, which authors are ‘patristic’ because the database requires me to say something more definite than ‘This catalogue includes several patristic authors’. I need to find field labels that fit the historical context. Trying to split ‘Theology’ from ‘Philosophy’ is not going to work so I will put them together but can I lump Augustine’s biographical texts in with hagiography? Is Rhetoric part of Grammar? What is the difference between a commentary and an exposition if you only have the catalogue title? Is it possible to make sensible use of a record that just says ‘Alexandri libri’? If you have a title such as ‘de libero arbitrio’ does that mean it’s the one by Augustine that you already have or might someone else have used the same title?

I once heard someone who works a lot on digitising historical records say that the people creating the digital resource ended up learning more than the users of the resource ever could. That seems to be true here.  I’m learning a lot about what these monks read. But I still hope to have some visualisations by September.

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History sans frontieres


Why do borders matter so much?

At one level, I can see that good fences make good neighbours. It helps to know where you stand and sets limits around acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. But we can manage without fences. I live in a suburb with open lawns. Cats and toddlers run free but neighbours know exactly where to mow and where to stop. In my last house there was a right of way running under my kitchen window. No-one ever used it and I saw no reason to worry about it.

But beyond that, recent experience has shown that a lot of borders do no really matter.

Consider this part of the world:

medsea (2)

We recently travelled from Athens to Venice by ship, calling in at places in the Balkans where in recent times new countries have formed and new borders have been drawn up. Travelling by sea is an ancient way of travel – you can’t draw a line in the sea and as a passenger you are unencumbered by port protocol and are free to perceive an almost seamless transition from one landscape to another until eventually the mountains and rocky outcrops of Athens have been completely replaced by the flat landscape of Venice. Athens, Venice, two very different cities. Different landscape, different alphabet, different language. But where exactly is the border between the two?

Well somewhere in what was once Yugoslavia I suppose. But the first border, after we left Corfu, now Greek, and before we docked at Sarande in Albania, passed without our noticing it. The excursion in Albania was to the archaeological site at Butrint, remarkable for its many layers of finds which reflect the history of the settlement as Greek colony became Roman pagan city became Roman Christian town became Byzantine, until finally the Ottomans presided over its gradual demise and the marshlands took over. Can such a monument belong to one country? Its borders are historical not geopolitical. Overnight we must have passed from Albania to Montenegro, for next day we cruised Kotor Bay, but again, what border? What difference? The landscape was rocky and mountainous but little settlements had developed at the edge of the sea, just as they have in the Austrian and Swiss Alps, or alongside the big rivers of Europe. At first, it looked like Switzerland with sea or a Rhineland vista without the Rhine. Three stops in Croatia – Dubrovnik, Split and Zadar – were the highlight of the tour but with a lingua franca of English, we had no way of telling whether we had crossed a national border or simply moved on within the same country. Ravenna, on the opposite shore of the Adriatic, should have felt different but when we went to see the Byzantine mosaics, there was immediately a stronger link to the icons and mosaics we had seen in Athens and in Corfu than to Italy. All these places have more in common than that which divides them, as we now say proudly.

All these places are now learning to get along with each other, and for the benefit of tourists, probably, they now don’t put on display too many of the cracks, although you can visit the site in Dubrovnik from where the city was shelled not so long ago. But what is it that they have in common? They have conquerors in common, it is true. Between them they have been conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Turks, Brits and probably a few others we’ve not heard about. The foreign armies and navies, even the British one, which marked its departure from Corfu by blowing up the ancient harbour defences so that no other power might have the use of them, are long since gone. What remains are the cultural transfers that those conquerors brought. Styles of art, foodstuffs and recipes, dance and music, mostly transferred by a kind of accident when a traveller from one city found he could make a fortune by selling something which was totally new in another. It all crossed borders.

Remarkably, in our time, these porous borders which allow shared culture, shared life, the whole fertile mix of liminality, have been multiplying. Remarkably, a new one was set up today.

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The tale of the frustrated librarian



I think I have always had a thing about library catalogues. It is true that library catalogues are not what they were. The electronic ones of today are much more efficient than the card indexes in the Bradford City Library in Darley Street were, but they do lack a certain serendipity. Time was when one might search for something on Russia and get easily distracted on to Bertrand Russell, but that as they say is another story. But suddenly, serendipity is back and it’s a lot of fun.

I have been spending a lot of time in the company of half a dozen library catalogues dating from the ninth century. The monastery of St Gall in Switzerland is world renowned for having had the good fortune to retain a large proportion of its medieval stock amongst these manuscripts can be found some of the earliest library catalogues in Europe. And they make you think.

At this stage, they are making me think about librarians. The oldest and most comprehensive list has been heavily annotated. In some cases, this just means that space was left for additions to be made in the appropriate category, which was usually, but not always, defined by author. But mostly the annotations are the laconic remarks of a long suffering librarian who, like long suffering librarians all over the world, was either trying to keep track of his books despite the attempts of library users to secrete them away or simply needed to disassociate himself from the purchasing decisions of his predecessor. The set of comments gives a very modern impression of a bloke trying desperately to bring order to something that has been allowed to get away and do its own thing.

Thus we find that several books were dismissed as ‘inutile’ – (useless), ‘pusillum’ (very little or paltry) or ‘antiquissimo’ (very ancient) and in one case, Isidore’s book on differences, that the volume in question was ‘totum mendacium et inutile’ (a complete lie and useless). Sometimes the previous librarian had not catalogued the book in question by the standards expected by the annotator.   A book catalogued under Pope Gregory is annotated: ‘et in uno ex eis vita pauli et antonii’ (and in one of them there is a life of Paul and Anthony) and another is found to be concealing some of Jerome’s letters. In other cases, books had outlived their usefulness. Isidore’s synonyms are annotated ‘hoc legi non potest’ (this cannot be read) – clearly a plea for more funding. Some books were clearly simply not present at the time the catalogue was updated. A volume on the books of Tobias, Judith and Esther had been sent to the school, as had a volume of letters from the popes of Rome. One on Ezekiel was lent to the lady Rickart : ‘habet domna rickart’. Of two volumes of the lives of the Holy Fathers, ‘unum habet liutart’ (Luitart has one of them).  One of my favourites is ‘hoc auditum est non visum’ (this is heard but not seen). It was clearly important that the writer had sight of the book, or at least of the chap who had it: ‘Ruodinum vidi habere qui dixit suum esse hoc non vidi’ (I saw Ruodinus who said it was his. I have not seen it) And it was important to count. Of four volumes of the gospels listed ‘ex his duo non inveni’ (of these I cannot find two).

This opens up a whole world. Can we track down these individuals? Was St Gallen running a kind of lending library? How did the books marked ‘ad scolam’ fit into the educational programme? Several scholars have tried to cross reference these catalogues with the extant collection but it is extremely precarious research. For me, there are two important things to establish. What did scholars of St Gall had access to at home when they compiled their multi text manuscripts and what must have been borrowed? And did any of the multi text manuscripts in these catalogues act as a model for the ones I am working on?


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“Obo-san bin—or “Mr. Monk Delivery”—

Rentamonk a la japonaise

Rentamonk a la japonaise

The Japanese, it seems, are heavily exercised by the latest Amazon product line. No, they’re not yet into delivering sushi, nor have they cornered the market in tea ceremonies. In Japan, and only in Japan, they can rent you a monk. Monks are necessary for certain family events, such as funerals, but as society becomes less devout, fewer households have easy access to a monastery and the job of finding a suitable celebrant has become harder. So now they can go online and hire one from Amazon, for a small fee. In fact, a smaller fee than a monastery would charge.

Conservative Japanese are outraged and there are calls for Amazon to end this service. But is paying for a monk’s services and ensuring you got your money’s worth really that new?

Well I think not, if we allow for a little social change between the early middle ages and now. In theory, under the Rule of Benedict, having private possessions was a ‘wicked practice’, so it would have been against the rules for Amazon to pay the monk directly.[1] Not that this would have held Amazon up for long. And even in the early middle ages, if you were rich enough you could get round this by donating to the monastery as a whole, which could hold possessions, in cash or in kind.

It was not unusual for kings or lesser nobles to borrow a monk. Wahlafrid Strabo of Reichenau was borrowed to be tutor to the son of Louis the Pious and even after the task was done and he became an abbot in his own right, he could still be borrowed back for affairs of state. Which is how he came to drown in the Loire but that’s another story. Nor was it unusual for kings to require a monk’s time in writing a required text, as many dedications show. A letter from Hrabanus Maurus of Fulda reports on a conversation with Louis the German, who had asked him to write a commentary on the psalms. Hrabanus apparently turned him down, on the sensible grounds that he had already written one and dedicated it to someone else, but later seem to have relented somewhat and agreed to write a different work and dedicate that to Louis. Borrowing a monk was therefore perhaps not always easy. The monk had to agree to be borrowed. Or at least, a monk of the stature of Hrabanus did.

But this is borrowing not renting. In fact, of course, the rent was being paid separately, in that the monasteries themselves were given gifts of land. The rich gave a great deal of land, which eventually caused problems as the monasteries grew into important landowners in their own right. But the not so rich also became local patrons and there are records extant in some areas as to what these gifts were.[2] What is more, many monasteries were small foundations, what Innes calls ‘house monasteries’. Apart from providing surplus daughters with something useful to do, the main point of these monasteries, and indeed of the larger ones, was to pray for the souls of the family before and after their deaths.

The rich could therefore in a sense employ a monastery. And they wanted to get the full value form their money. So the ‘staff’ would be expected to indulge them by acceding to other minor requests like accommodating a disgraced wife or writing a theological work, dedicated to the sponsor so as to emphasise his or her piety.

Doesn’t Amazon’s new service therefore just represent a twenty-first century approach to the same thing? Cash rich, time poor people who retain just enough belief in the afterworld or simply want to be seen to be doing the right thing have always delegated the task of prayer to specialist services. And they have always ensured that they got value for money. Only now they can do it on the internet. And cheaply.

[1] Rule of Benedict Chapter 33

[2] Matthew Innes, State and Society in the Middle Ages

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Thinking outside the digital box

This is one of an occasional series linked to a course I am doing as part of my PhD at Sheffield.

This week’s seminar was about user involvement and I want to share some thoughts about the ways in which one of our sample sites has tried to get people involved.

The site I’m thinking about is Olanordmann.co.uk.

I want also to refer to an article by Trevor Owens: Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down.

Ola Nordmann is a site using virtual reality to recreate the experience of Norwegian immigrants who travelled to the USA. It was hoped that this would encourage younger generations to identify with those early immigrants and that this would inspire people to share their own stories. Collecting these on the site would create a rich resource for family historians and indeed any sort of historians. But it too did not generate the kind of interaction that the authors were hoping for.

Contrast this with the article by Trevor Owens and we begin to see how easy it is to get things upside down. Owens writes of his team’s surprise at the willingness of contributors working for free. So what went wrong?

One issue is clearly that of cultivating a sense of belonging, even a sense of achievement. Leader boards, ‘badges’ and the like may seem cheesy but they work. For an example we need look no further than TripAdvisor.

But another issue seems to me to relate to the digital divide between audiences for whom internet involvement is second if not first nature and those born before, say, 1980 who are converts.

If we look at Norwegian immigrants, it is interesting to check with the website of Norwegian Embassy to the US. The prime period for Norwegian immigration is, according to them, broadly speaking 1825 to 1925. The youngest immigrants would therefore now be in their nineties and their children in their sixties. Neither generation grew up with virtual reality, indeed with the internet. They may well be very familiar with the stories granny told and they may well be very proud of their heritage but they may not be savvy internet users and they may not feel happy about posting their stories to a website. The third generation are likely to be busy and less involved.

But the idea was a good one and the stories should be collected.

So, when designing a site such as this, someone needs to consider the demographics. The target audience is not university students and staff with high level IT skills, but they are still useful informants. Liaison therefore with an intermediary might help. In the UK, for example, the University of the Third Age caters for huge numbers of over fifties in search of intellectual challenge in retirement, which probably overlaps with the kind of people Trevor Owens is writing about. Museums use volunteers, again mature citizens with a wish to be intellectually active, and a recent event in York showed that this existing link can act as a conduit for crowdsourcing.

Sometime the solution to a digital problem lies outside the digital world.

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Digital Humanities#

As part of my PhD, I have started following a short course on Digital Humanities.  Students on the course create a weekly blog and so I am posting my blog here.  It may or may not make sense.

For the first session, we were invited to consider three issues. Firstly, the distinctive characteristics of digital methodologies, secondly, the new research questions which they make possible and finally, any possible limitations.

Last week, this seemed straightforward, however as I sit here and look at the task, it seems anything but. The reason for this is, I think, that digital humanities is an emerging technology and this, after all, is what attracts me. Those working in the field currently are, in a sense, still pioneers. This has many pluses. Pioneers do amazing things with very little. They take risks and keep trying when a jobsworth would have long since given up. This is vital. Debates around the meaning of open access, the appropriate technology, participation in development and so on are what will lead to success.

Bu they don’t make it easy to get a handle on it. We seem to have a common umbrella term – Digital Humanities. But common characteristics are problematic. The list could in fact be boiled down to two: openly available on line and to some extent put together by university teams with research funding. But that’s not the point. The point is the diversity. Emerging technology does not benefit from the straitjacket of a definition.

Research questions, or rather possibilities, on the other hand are more interesting. In ‘England’s Immigrants’, for example, it was obvious that the amount of data would have daunted most pen and paper researchers and so while the same research question might have occurred, it might well have been rejected as unfeasible. In ‘Film Hub North’ another truth came home: when you look at texts, you may be seeing trees not the wood. Transforming that text into data and making it visual points up connections and leads to conclusions which might well have been obscured in an analogue source. But to me, the most vital resource is connectivity. Not all the sites we looked at had this, but where they did, this opened up huge potential. Bringing together text, audio and visuals is already a powerful thing; enabling research that draws on more than one database to make comparisons and connections is breaking new ground.

The limitations? Today’s limitations are tomorrow’s developments. Even the limitations of our own vision will change as the technology opens up new possibilities. But at some point the ‘emerging technology’ has to settle into established techniques on the one hand and research and development on the other. At some point this needs to become the established way of transmitting knowledge and culture. Slowly, this is happening: Elsevier already publishes scientific articles online with links to live research data; scholarly editions of outstanding texts, for example the Lorsch Codex in Germany are now online with a mass of supporting data and analytical tools.[1] But this is still cherry picking. A publishing house does it because it is a sure market. A university does it for prestige. But when will this become normal? And more importantly, who will pay? Therein lies the limitation.


[1] https://t.co/kRPvs9jbpQ


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Construction and re-construction

untitled (2)‘This small town [Rothenburg] is probably your only chance to see a nearly intact medieval walled city in Bayern that doesn’t contain a single modern building. That’s right—not a single building in the entire town was built after the Middle Ages. However, in WWII, Rothenburg was devastated when 40% of the town was reduced to rubble by bombs.’[1]

Sometimes it takes contact with another discipline to make you see historical themes in perspective. Such a contact recently, via Twitter, was Joshua Hagen’s article on the issues which arose from the decision to reconstruct Rothenburg.[2] I recommend the article, not least because it demonstrates that what we now see as a fait accompli was the product of many difficult decisions as to what should be restored and how. This reminded me of the decisions that have to be made when working on a piece of academic prose, which, once published, seldom betrays the existence of so many ‘roads not taken’. I wanted to pursue the analogy.

Rothenburg is only one of the German cities that were rebuilt after World War Two. I stood with my husband looking down on ‘medieval’ Nuremburg recently while he recalled his last visit in 1946 when ‘there was nothing there’. The children’s adventure playground just outside Frankfurt was always, for my German landlady, the Truemmerhaufen, the place where they dumped the rubble from the bombed out city in order to begin rebuilding. But for most of us, what we now see is ‘real’. The generation that remembers seeing the new emerging from the rubble in Germany is disappearing before our eyes. Anyone born after 1950 takes the restored buildings on trust, oblivious of the decisions taken or the unconscious assumptions made. Does this matter?

I think it does. There is a sense in which reconstructing a German town, or, indeed, a Middle Eastern historical site, is like writing history. No book, no building can ever restore the past as it was and the book or the building will always say as much about the society that existed when it was created as it does about the period it is recalling. For starters, there will always be a purpose in writing or rebuilding and there will always be some kind of deadline. Hagen makes it clear that Rothenburg was restored not because of its size or economic importance but because of what we would now call heritage. It was rebuilt, says Hagen, not to function in the post war world but to show that Germany’s cultural heritage could survive, that there was something left to be proud of, in a very dark time. It was also urgent – decisions had to be made which were always going to be disputed but it mattered more that they should be made, than that they should be perfect. And now, 70 years on, with new generations gazing reverently at the half-timbered buildings, it is, like a 1945 article, itself history, a product of its time, telling us more, possibly, about 1945 than it does about the fifteenth century. It is not true, but it is realistic.

So I do feel that written history and reconstruction are not that far apart. But bridging the gap between a scholarly article and something a non-academic can see, feel and touch is a tough call. I am starting a PhD this term and it will not involve a design for a reconstructed Carolingian scriptorium where children can wield quills and write on parchment in candle light whilst chanting psalms in Latin. But I would like to think that whilst the end product will (ahem!) be scholarly, the research I do will be something that can make the ninth century seem real to my contemporaries.

Watch this space.

[1] Let’s Go Germany, 1999, quoted in Hagen’s article

[2] ‘Rebuilding the Middle Ages: the cultural politics of reconstruction in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany’ in Journal of Historical Geography, Vol.31, (2005) Accessed via medievalists.net

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