Computing through the Ages

It may seem unlikely now, but I was once a pioneer. Thirty years ago (gulp) I was part of a team creating and operating a unique computer program which would register around 600 first year A level students together with their subject choices, allocate the students efficiently to the timetabled classes and print out an individual timetable for each new student. We had two days to input the data, a day to perform the allocations and a weekend to print them out before the students turned up to start their courses. Privately, the weekend was there to allow us to do the job manually if it all failed.

The program worked on a BBC-B which looked like this:


Figure 1 BBC Computer 1980’s


It worked. And a process that had been done manually with lots of bits of paper with crossings out and erasures changed for ever and the college began to realise that there was a role for computers in educational administration. Job done.

2018 is a different world but I’m still keen on using digital methodologies to save work. And I’m still in awe of what these things can do.

So, when I started the PhD, an early decision was to see if I could use a database as part of my research methodology. Earlier this year I pulled this off and became the proud creator of a database of texts that were in the ninth century library catalogues in the medieval monasteries of St Gall, Reichenau and Murbach.

The originals did not look all that promising:


Figure 2 Page from St. Gall catalogue Cod Sang 271


But these are precious resources. Only five institutions still retain their ninth century library lists, the other two being Lorsch and the cathedral of Cologne and and I think my three are the only ones to be digitised so far. My plan was to present quantitative data on the types and origins of the texts that existed in the centres and use this to get a picture of the reading available to the monks.

At the beginning I was interested in the technology: whether to use Excel or Access, how to streamline input and how to create visuals from the data. But, unlike the 1988 project, it was not the technology that provided the challenge, it was the data itself. We did have some data related problems back then – I recall a fuss about a student with a long double-barrelled name which would not fit into the space allowed for it and had to be abbreviated – but in essence we were taking a functioning manual system and speeding it up. It was the computing itself that challenged us.

Nowadays, the tables have turned. The computing side is well established. There is an app, one that other people use and for which there are training courses. The work lay in structuring the information I had. What kind of text was an ‘Enchiridion’? Is a ‘commentary’ different from an ‘exegesis’? And so on. I resolved the dilemma as best I could by recording decisions and establishing my own definitions as I went.

I did OK and at the PhD Continuation Review earlier this year, the panel was pleased at the use of quantitative data and suggested this might be exploited further as the work progressed. At this point I decided that I needed to look into the whole issue more carefully and that was when I discovered Mark Merry’s handbook ‘Designing Databases for Historical Research’, which istoryhiis generously available online for free. You can find it here:

Because it is tailored to the needs of historians, it is remarkably useful in addressing the kind of problems we did not have with the 1988 project, but which do crop up a lot in my current research, for example, accounting for changes in the names of geographical entities or designing a database before you know what exactly your research is going to turn up.

What struck me though is that as well as tailoring advice to the needs of historians, there might be sense in tailoring a version for medievalists. The difference is not merely that a medieval information needs more of what Merry calls ‘standardisation’ – enabling the system to know that two ways of spelling a name actually refer to the same chap, for instance. Nor is it to do with all that Latin and the wobbly writing. It is that medievalists are dealing with a very different mindset and, inevitably, using sources which may be patchy and/or unreliable. And crucially, that we are trying to adapt what was often a very organic and unsystematic storage system to suit a totally alien technology.




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The tale of three panthers and their teeth

st gall pantherFor long and weary I have kept a postcard on my wall which I acquired on a visit to St Gall several years ago. It comes from a ninth century manuscript of a well-known sixth century educational work by Cassiodorus called ‘The Institutiones’, which set out the plan he had for the education of the monks at the monastery he founded at Vivarium and it is only one of several diagrams in the work.[1] I love it and I have always called it ‘the panther’ although the official description is ‘a panther-like animal’. His function is to show the four divisions of the subject of Mathematics in the traditional ‘Seven Liberal Arts’, a kind of medieval syllabus for monks. It is part of the Quadrivium, the higher level of learning to be undertaken once the basics of Grammar had been mastered. The four divisions are here represented by the four feet of the panther, each labelled appropriately.

But it’s much more than that. Time and effort have been put into the drawing. The panther has a collar and lead and what seems to be a coat and if you are so inclined, it would be very easy to imagine that he is smiling at us. It would fit very happily into a school textbook, even a story book for young children. Did they do picture books in the ninth century?   And what do we know about the presence of panthers in the Carolingian Empire? Not a lot it seems. So I bought the postcard and kept it.

Some years later I started my PhD, which uses a group of ninth century manuscripts from the Abbey of St Gall and its close neighbour, the abbey of Reichenau. Cassiodorus cropped up again and, to my surprise, so did the panther.[2]

panther aug perg 241

A slightly posher version, with red detailing and the various titles of the four divisions in boxes hanging from cords attached to his feet, but still with a collar (albeit plain not spotted) and lead and a differently patterned back. His tail is also different: at Reichenau it forms a jaunty ‘S’ shape, at St Gall it is a passive downward slope, and he has two ears, one pointed and one rounded like the St Gall one. What is really striking however, is that this one is showing his teeth. If you look closely, both beasts have three teeth, but the way they are arranged is different – cheery grin for St Gall, threatening growl for Reichenau.  So I went looking for enlightenment and found Michael Gorman.

Michael Gorman does not apparently share my love of the panther but he does know about diagrams in Cassiodorus manuscripts. 3] Sadly, he hasn’t managed  to track back to the original but he has tracked the diagrams back to the eighth century, to what he think is the archetypal manuscript, namely Bamberg Patr.61, the text of which was used for Mynors’ printed edition in 1937.[4] The gap between the printed versions and the manuscripts becomes clear at this point. The manuscript has a total of 37 diagrams but Mynors only reproduced eight of them in his book. The text thus quickly became disassociated from the diagrams. Gorman points out quite rightly that this omission is actually quite a serious one: my panther is not an optional extra, he carries the names of the four sub-divisions and if he is removed, they are too.  But it is only now, when we can all look at lots of original manuscripts without leaving our desks, that we are rediscovering the diagrams. [5]


And I rediscovered another panther in Harley 2637, another ninth century manuscript of the Institutiones, which is readily available online from the British Library. It originates from either Western Germany or Eastern France and was first recorded at Cues on the Moselle. Whilst it cannot be traced back to a Carolingian centre, its panther clearly relates to the two examples from Lake Constance.

harley 2637 panther

The main difference between this panther and the other two is the increased use of colour, which seems to take the beast into the realms of fantasy and magic. The collar and lead here are important enough to split the heading into ‘Divisioma’ and ‘thematicae’, whereas in the other two diagrams the heading stands aloof, with a conventional gap between ‘divisio’ and ‘mathematicae’. The tail has the Reichenau curve, but with a tuft at the end which is missing both at Reichenau and St Gall, as if the model for both the Carolingian versions was somehow cut off at the end. But other features are the same. The three teeth are Reichenau style, but somehow look even meaner because the mouth is smaller, the boxes around the four headings are also Reichenau style. It has one ear, like St Gall, but it is pointed like Reichenau. The coat, if such it is, is divided from the lower body by a straight horizontal line, as is the case at Reichenau, whereas at St Gall, it curves down between the back legs. The Harley tail is plain, the Reichenau tail is coloured red and the St Gall tail has a zigzag pattern. There is clearly a relationship between them all and each has at least one unique element, but the St Gall exemplar is clearly distinctive.

These diagrams matter because they imply a different kind of reading from what we expect of ninth century abbeys.  You cannot read a panther aloud,  although you could perhaps read the manuscript alongside a student.  But this is not for use with a group.  These texts were intended for private reading.

That conclusion alone is worth bothering with.  But there is more.  The latest bit of the jigsaw comes from Sven Meeder’s contribution to the recent book of studies in honour of Rosamund Mckitterick.[6] Meeder points out that Bamberg Patr.61 is a ‘sister manuscript’ to St Gall 855, the original object of my interest, and uses this connection to support the view that the two manuscripts had a common ancestor, probably from either Monte Cassino or somewhere in northern Italy. Further, he demonstrates that a relationship exists between the St Gall manuscripts containing Mallius Theodorus’ ‘De metris’ and other multi-text manuscripts containing the same text which have their origin in centres south and north of the Alps. Checking out these manuscripts for evidence of panthers may well be worthwhile.

For now, the lesson for me is that although much energy and ink has been devoted to the investigation of textual links between manuscripts and this is right and proper, we might still, from time to time, spare a thought for the guys who drew the panthers.

[1] Cod Sang 855, p.276

[2] Aug Perg 241 p53

[3] M. Gorman ‘The Diagrams in the Oldest Manuscripts of Cassiodorus’ Insitutione’ in Revue Benedictine vol 110 Issue 1-2 January 2000 pp27 – 41

[4] Ibid. p28

[5] Ibid. p29 Sadly we don’t always manage to find the right places to read them. Mynors apparently pointed out that the diagrams existed in a total of six manuscripts, the ones under discussion here and  Bamberg Patr. 61, Paris Mazarine 660 and Berlin Phillips 1737. These are the ones I have not yet got access to.

[6] ‘Monte Cassino’s Network of Knowledge: The Earliest Manuscript Evidence’ in ‘Writing the Medieval West’ ed. Elina Screen, Charles West. Cambridge 2018 pp 141 – 142



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Identity on the seashore

A long time ago, I had to study an essay called ‘Eupalinos ou l’architecte’ by Paul Valery. At the time, it made very little sense to an eighteen-year old from Bradford, but somehow part of it has stuck. There was in it, I think, quite a bit about the scope for creativity generated where sea meets shore, and unexpected things get thrown up completely at random. The idea that new ideas are most easily found in situations I now know to call ‘liminal’ seems to work quite well for all kinds of things and I can now link it with colour theory – green can be made to look very different if you put it against red or against yellow – as well as with literature and history.

I think now that there is a kind of seashore moment between history, particularly cultural history, and anthropology. Historians tend to think in terms of time and events, anthropologists in terms of geography and the everyday, so if you introduce an anthropological element to a historical situation, or vice versa you get to see a culture taken out of its historical or geographical context and that could spark something new. Naturally, there are risks. These are helpfully analysed by Conrad Leyser, who sees the greatest risk as being that of circular reasoning: anthropologists tend to see primitive societies through the prism of the history they learned at school, historians then recognise the picture drawn by anthropologists as relating to a historical period and round and round you go.[1] But it’s worth a shot.

In the short term, I’m wrestling with a modern article on identity in its anthropological sense, which seems to relate directly to us now. It is written by a Serb, Zagora Golubovic, and starts off with a survey of various academic studies of identity, looking particularly at the possibility of having more than one kind of identity.[2] Everyone starts off with a sense of belonging to a primary group, usually the family, which he calls a ‘personal identity’. Later, the individual acquires a ‘collective identity’: an individual retains her personal identity, but then adds a secondary socialization group – a school, factory etc. which brings with it the need to conform, to learn how to behave as a member of the group. For some individuals, at this point, ‘free determination’ becomes possible and an individual may separate from the group and see herself as unique. Golubovic believes that this third type of identity is only open to a few as it involves severing the ‘umbilical cord’ that connects to the group.

Golubovic moves quite swiftly to a modern example and looks back at the former Yugoslavia as an example of a state which, although it encompassed many different ethnic identities which were presumably related to the primary group and thus seen as ‘personal’, did, in his view, have a acquired ‘collective’ identity which was fostered by a proactive state.

Now it h3_%20yugoslavia_map_2008_sml_en_editedas broken up into several different states, based on ethnicity, and that collective identity has been lost. Gulabovic’s proposal is that the role of the EU should be to consciously establish a corporate identity, a cultural paradigm which might embrace the entire European community, particularly those areas that feel excluded from the current EU because of its overuse of English.

I hold no brief for defending this thesis. It is way outside my field and the article turned up in a Google search for anthropological discussions of identity and really drew my attention because of the current EU debate. But you could take this taxonomy and apply it to my dead monks.

So, in the medium term, I want to get my head round how this might apply to ninth century monks who probably never gave identity a thought. However, they did have a sense of belonging to something and a sense of mission. Collectively, they were tasked with ensuring the ‘correctness’ Charlemagne wanted to achieve in religious observance and it has been often argued that unity of religion was one of the ways through which Charlemagne sought to hold his large and disparate kingdom together.   Some individuals were tasked with elucidating the faith and dealing with heresy in its various forms. All this was part of creating, refining and enforcing a thread that gave a common identity to Charlemagne’s people. But they were also men of God, answering to a higher authority and tasked with holding even rulers to account. And they were sons of a monastery, responsible for teaching and learning and worshipping in a fixed place which had some sense of identity, often via foundation myths. So how should we analyse their identity?

I think this is worth pursuing. Watch this space. It may be a place where the sea meets the shore.


[1] ‘Making Early Medieval Societies: Conflict and Belonging in the Latin West 300-1200’ ed. K Cooper and C Leyser CUP 2016

[2] ‘An anthropological conceptualization of Identity’ Zagorka Golubovic in Synthesis Philosophia 51 (1/2011) pp 24 – 43

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January 15, 2017 · 2:21 pm

Coping with disruption


From time to time, it does you good to read something that is not medieval. For me, that always tends to be modern German history, mainly because some of it I have lived through and some of it I have heard from good and caring people from Germany and the UK who are sadly no longer with us. So I recently bought Thomas Harding’s book ‘The Lake House’ as ‘light reading’. The plan didn’t go all that well as I became ill shortly after buying it and for a while I thought I would never finish it. But now, several months on, I have.

And, as Quakers say, it speaks to my condition in this post Brexit vote and pre Trump presidency world. Briefly, Harding’s writing the story of a house near Berlin which his family owned in the early twentieth century. Because of its location – Gross Glienicke, which ended up in the GDR – the story of the house is a proxy for the story of Berlin, in much the same way as ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ uses a set of Japanese netsuke to tell the history of a Jewish family from Vienna. At the beginning, a wealthy family chooses to build a holiday home in an idyllic lakeside setting; at the end, a descendant of that family rediscovers the house and negotiates the post war minefield of tracing the ownership of properties once owned by Jews well enough to gain local and national support to restore the house as a memorial to Jewish history.

But the real interest for me is not the building, but the way the dramatis personae cope with change. The inhabitants of the house in November 1989 had mixed feelings. Whilst feeling brave enough to bash a hole in their bit of the Berlin wall so as to show your son the lake beyond was fun, choosing to actually go and live on the other side of it was a different matter altogether. Whilst noticing that the border guards had gone was liberating, the fear that fact engendered as to what might replace them was real and palpable. The book’s earlier chapters form (one of the many) contemporary accounts of how the rise of the Nazis represented a very different kind of change – not one you could sit and watch on your television. Because of the time span of the book, and because of its geographical location you can almost turn it into a graph showing spikes of upheaval and periods of apparent calm.

And in the end, the ordinary people do much the same things in both. They adapt, they love, they disagree, they suffer personal losses, they enjoy personal triumphs. Disruption happens and the generations born in the West after 1950 will just have to get used to it.

PS Both books come highly recommended.










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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

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.




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