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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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

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Joining the dots. By accident.

What is the connection between a Roman aristocrat, a ninth century abbot and a Shropshire Lad?

Researching the transfer of knowledge can sometimes blow your mind. This week I have been unpicking a convoluted chain of connections which includes all of the above.

A wealthy Christian Roman called Valentinus once commissioned a codex from a well-known calligrapher, Furius Dionysius Philocalus. It was delivered to him in 354 CE and consisted of a calendar with elaborate illustrations for each month together with supporting poetry, as well as other less immediately interesting documents. Philocalus was not the author: his job was to take pre-existing words and possibly pictures and turn them into a high end product fit for a rich home or, perhaps, a generous gift. However, his calligraphic work may well explain the survival of the content of the codex, in particular a distich, a set of 12 hexameters and 12 pentameters on the months of the year. The 354 codex itself is lost, but its artistic merits and intrinsic value helped it to survive long enough for copies to be made. A copy of the pictures and the consular calendar on the page facing the pictures was made in around 1500 and is now in the Austrian National Library (Cod. Vindob. 3146). However, my distich on the months, which was originally attached to the pictures, was not included. For that, we have to go to a ninth century codex which is now known as the Vademecum of Wahlafrid Strabo, once Abbot of Reichenau, (Cod. Sang. 878).

I am currently using Cod. Sang. 878 for Latin practice. The poem was a bit of a challenge and it was only when I went looking for other Latin versions that I discovered the back story. It was not difficult to turn up the pictures from the 1500 copy.06_april

This one is April. The relevant distich is:

Caesarae Veneris mensis, quo floribus arva

Prompta virent, avibus quo sonat omne nemus

Flowers, greenery, birds singing in the woods. Blah blah blah. But this is not what the picture shows.

Apparently, the hexameter was written at the foot of the picture page, the pentameter at the foot of the facing page, which is where the consular ‘fasci’ for the month were written out, in such a way that at least the hexameter would seem to be a caption. A prime site.

But it doesn’t fit the picture. For that, I had to go to the other piece of poetry in the original codex, the testatrich. For example:

Cereus et dextra flammas diffundit odoras

Cereus, flames, incense. A picture of Roman customs for the time of year. Fits perfectly.

But where was the testatrich? And if it wasn’t prominent on the page, is this the original April illustration or a 1500 invention? That, I’m still working on. Because on the way, I discovered A. E. Housman and began to understand a bit about the transfer of knowledge.

I’m ashamed to say I only knew Housman as a poet, although my polymath engineer husband already knew that Housman was a classics don. Housman wrote a paper on exactly my ‘Distich de mensibus’ and it was published in a collection of his works in 2004.[1] It includes a well-researched and well supported Latin transcription, and a one sided (pre Twitter) debate with Mommsen about the phrase ‘iuga celsa retorquet’. And I realised that I was experiencing transfer of knowledge.

How does it work? Philocalus and Valentinus transmitted high end artwork, but in doing so they created a favourable circumstance for the survival and thus transfer of Late Antique knowledge. Wahlafrid Strabo included the poem, shorn of its artistic context, in his personal collection and we do not know whether he deliberately selected just the poem or whether this is how it came to him. We know he was interested in, amongst other things, ideas of time and there is a lot about chronicles in the Vademecum, but he may have simply used the ‘disticha’ as a party piece for his pupils. There is no evidence that he meant the Vademecum to survive him. The ‘disticha’ has thus survived by chance, in a manuscript that Housman describes as ‘a collection of useful odds and ends put together at various times’. The final twist is that Wahlafrid has carried on transferring knowledge: I now know about A. E. Housman’s life as a classics professor. None of this was intentional. There was no syllabus, no reference to a list of canonical works, no plan. Any research project on the topic needs to allow for a lot of serendipity.

[1] The Classical Papers of A E Housman Vol.3 CUP 2004

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The man with the squint has questions to answer.

Composite manuscripts are good things in many ways. One way is that if you’re trying to improve your Latin  decoding skills for early medieval texts, choosing such a manuscript for practice gives you a wider range of source materials. Which is really the main reason I came to Cod. Sang. 878.

Cod. Sang. 878 has three sets of descriptions in the e-codices catalogue, of which the most imposing is that of Bernhard Bischoff. He it was who in 1950 connected this manuscripts with Wahlafrid Strabo, aka Wilfrid the squinter, one time abbot of Reichenau in the early ninth century. And he it was who gave it its subtitle: The Vademecum of Wahlafrid Strabo. What’s not to like if you’re just hunting a Latin lesson?

Well, nothing really. It is a collection of all things important to a ninth century scholar. Lots of grammar gurus – Donatus, Priscian, Alcuin – alongside lots of Famous Men, including Jerome, Isidore, Seneca, Hrabanus Maurus and Hippocrates. And, for good measure, lots of mini extracts from Orosius on pagan history, (chiefly confined to portents and disasters), the format for swearing an oath, recipes and a calendar which is apparently one of the conclusive bits of evidence that pin it to that area of Germany in that period but mean that it was not written by someone educated in St Gallen.

So. I know a lot more about Orosius than I did and am much better at reading Roman dates in text and at the vocabulary associated with earthquakes, plagues and catastrophic defeats. But I also have a lot more questions than I started with.

How certain are we that it is written by or at the behest of Wahlafrid? Far be it from me to question Professor Bischoff, but can we be sure? There are apparently some rebuttals which I have yet to read but without going into the palaeography, this collection is not all that dissimilar to Cod. Sang. 270 which is simply classed as an educational manuscript but is, unlike Cod. Sang. 878, all in the same hand and thus perhaps more likely to be linked to one scholar.

Why is 878 a Vademecum but 270 and others like it, not? As far as I can establish, the term Vademecum, which is a German term as much as an English one, did not come into use before the 16th century. So it is a modern appellation, not what Wahlafrid would have called it. That’s fine, but what did he think it was? And are there other similar manuscripts about that don’t attract attention because they don’t have such an eye-catching label?

And then there’s my current in-bonnet-residing-bee: Why so much Orosius? The extracts amount to 11 pages out of the manuscript’s 396. And why these extracts? The scribe has been extremely selective: there are several books of Orosius’ history and on average he has copied only a few lines per chapter.

Time to go digging.

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The importance of keeping (some of) one’s hair on….

There are few more enduring, recognizable ‘badges’ than the tonsure. If you want people to know the figure in the odd looking garment is a monk, make sure that you throw in a tonsure. And a tonsure is a small circle of baldness on the crown of the head, right? Not necessarily.

Not many people, I think, go into the subject more deeply, although Julia Barrow may be an exception.[1] I only came across it because I was using Hrabanus Maurus’ De Institutione Clericorum as a text for practising Latin. We are told that this work was required as a response to the many questions being put to Hrabanus by his brethren as to how to carry out correctly all the duties of a monk. It is no coincidence that it is dated to 819, just after some synodal decisions on good practice. It must, therefore, be significant that the chapter on the tonsure, (Bk I, Ch. 3) at 59 lines, is longer than Chapter 1 (on orders of dress and the sacraments) and Chapter 2 (on the three categories of church members) put together. Does this imply it was a particularly thorny issue?

The answer, it seems, is probably.

Hrabanus attempts to trace its history through the Bible. In the Old Testament he cites the Nazarites (Num 6.18) who marked the taking of a vow by shaving off their hair and burning it and Ezekiel (Ez. 5.1) who had to take a sharp sword, cut off his hair and beard, weigh the hair, sort it and burn it. In the New Testament (Acts 18.8) Paul is mentioned as shaving his head ‘because he had made a vow’[2]. But none of these references is actually to a tonsure – they all refer to removal of hair completely and two of them relate to a vow. But no circles, and no regular re-clipping.

Hrabanus pre-empts this objection and explains that the circle, combining the shape of the crown of the king and the head shaving of the priest, represents the conjunction of priesthood and kingship – mentioned in I Peter 2.9. He further explains that the New Testament usage of the tonsure is necessarily unlike that of the Old Testament because hair is a covering and the New Testament is all about uncovering, revealing things that were hidden to the prophets. For Peter, the first to wear the tonsure as we know it, Hrabanus says, there were three reasons for wearing the tonsure: to recall the crown of thorns, to distinguish New Testament priests from those of the Old Testament and to subject the disciples to the mockery of the Roman people, for whom shaved heads signified slaves. Hrabanus leaves it to the reader to decide if all this is true and moves on to less interesting but more secure topics.

There are other sources, not the least of which is, on which I shall make no comment. Bede however (Hist. Ecc. Book V, chapter 21) opens up the idea of more than one style of tonsure. When the Celtic church agreed to follow the Roman church on the dating of Easter, at the Synod of Whitby, they were apparently also expected to amend their style of tonsure to the Roman style. Bede quotes a letter from Ceolfrith to King Nechtan of the Picts in which he does go into some detail about the dating of Easter but then goes on to talk about tonsure. Whilst allowing that a difference in style may be tolerated, he comes down heavily in favour of unity and specifically unity with the style worn by Peter, as opposed to that worn by Simon Magus (Acts 8.20-21). Ceolfrith, like Hrabanus 100 years later, links Peter’s tonsure (also known as ‘coronal’) to the crown of thorns and shows it therefore to be an honourable symbol. Simon Magus’ tonsure (known as the ‘insular’ tonsure) on the other hand, has the appearance of a circle only from the front and thus, though it may delude people in this life, in the next it will incur eternal punishment. Ceolfrith also talks about Adamnan of Iona, who in all other respects is a worthy man, but who refuses to conform to the Roman/coronal tonsure, even in the interests of church unity. Ceolfrith notes that on his return to Iona, Adamnan succeeded in persuading his brothers to adopt the new dating of Easter but not the tonsure. King Nechtan, presumably having read this letter, got the message and his clergy did adopt the coronal tonsure. So by this date, probably 716, the tonsure was well established in the British Isles but at least two distinctive traditions existed.

For Julia Barrow, the tonsure as such is a relatively late development. [3] She apparently finds no evidence of an unbroken chain from Peter to the early clerics, since the first record of tonsure is in Toledo in 527, noting that oblates were tonsured immediately on their admission, probably as a mark of status. In Gaul also, this ‘mark of clerics’ was not accepted until the early sixth century. The debate at Whitby was thus only about 150 years after the acceptance of the tonsure – presumably the coronal, since Iona was clearly under pressure to conform to the Roman tradition – on the mainland. Hrabanus does not seem to know about the two traditions, or if he does they are not significant for him.

As is often the case, a moment on Google changes everything. has a thread on tonsure which is quite credible. One contributor does say it’s all to do with controlling lice – which is more likely than some of the things you might find on Google – but another more seriously proposes a three part taxonomy:

  • Roman – aka coronal, the ring of which Hrabanus speaks and thought to be first worn by Peter
  • Celtic – aka insular, although apparently some monks were accustomed to taking the long hair at the back and arranging it ‘to form a semi-circle from one ear to the other.’
  • Eastern – completely shaven

The Eastern style is attributed to St Paul, and tallies best with Hrabanus’ account, except that the implication here is that it was kept shaven, more like Buddhist monks rather than the apparently temporary shaving of the Nazarites. The contributor believes that the three styles were developed by various orders, which supports the pressure after Whitby to unite the two styles of British tonsure. As to the origin of the coronal tonsure, s/he refers us to ancient Egypt and ancient Greece, where the circle honoured not the crown of thorns but the pagan sun god. Apparently.

As Hrabanus concludes:

‘Sed de his quid suscipiat, lectoris iudicio derelinquimus’.

[1] The Clergy in the Medieval World, Cambridge 2015, pp. 29-30

[2] There is a belief that Paul was a Nazarite

[3] Op cit

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Epic Lives and the medieval classroom

Now that the dust has (literally) settled and the paint dried, I have turned my attention to a recent recommendation: A L Taylor’s ‘Epic Lives and Monasticism in the Middle Ages 800 – 1050’. The attraction was her work on Ermenrich, he who wrote the sycophantic job application to end all sycophantic job applications to his former teacher, Abbot Grimald of St Gallen. I was delighted to find that Ermenrich accounted for two whole chapters.

Taylor has performed a tour de force in textual analysis, painstakingly tracking references and allusions and thus enabling the modern reader to get at least a feel for the erudition that Ermenrich was putting on display. This illustrates very well her theory that the pseudo-classical ‘epic life’ was, in the early middle ages, a kind of passing out parade for the graduating student, a challenge an opportunity to demonstrate the student’s erudition and thus worthiness to teach, perhaps even at the highest levels. We are invited to read this strange text as if we were eavesdropping on the medieval classroom: what may at first glance seem a series of non sequiturs begins to make sense if we see it as the knowledge imparted by a teacher not as a coherent lecture but as a series of mini commentaries on a text they are studying. The only connection between the glosses is the text. If the text is absent, then the thread is lost but if the text is assumed, we can observe the teacher’s skill in introducing concepts in one context and recapitulating them in another to encourage repetition and progression. This approach marks the transition from learning to decipher a text, literally and later allegorically, and creating texts semi independently via the controlled writing exercises known as ‘progymnasmata’ or via ‘conversion’ – changing a text from prose to poetry and vice versa.

All this makes the text itself and Taylor’s analysis a gift for those of us who are trying to understand just how young monks for whom Latin was a foreign tongue learned to write in the style of Alcuin or Hilduin. The gap between reciting the psalms and learning to recognise them in written form to writing poetry or ‘lives’ in prose or poetry is huge and there is little available to help us understand how it was bridged.

But even whilst acknowledging this huge contribution, it seems important to share a few reservations. For one thing, Taylor sees this letter as perhaps the only ‘true’ insight into classroom practice, as opposed to the other surviving evidence we have of medieval classrooms. I cannot accept that Ermenrich is really telling it like it is. Why would he? And in any case he had apparently only taught younger pupils, rather than those who were at the stage of the progymnasmata, so the elaborate rhetoric he elucidates is not from his own teaching experience. It is either what he wants the reader to believe he will do, or perhaps even an echo of Grimald’s own teaching style as a kind of homage.

For another, the letter does not really expand our understanding of the epic life, which is what the book is about.   The whole point of the letter is that Ermenrich did not actually write such a thing. Whatever the circumstances and reasons, he seems to have been invited to do so but then rejected and so the extract included in the letter and an accompanying sense of grievance is all there is. One might argue that to see an epic life incomplete does have a value. as we can see the workings as it were, but this does not seem to be Taylor’s view.

And, finally, do these chapters bring us really any closer to understanding this letter?   If, as seems likely, the writing of an epic life was in this period the sine qua non of an application to teach, and Ermenrich has not completed one, can he seriously have meant it as a pitch for a teaching job?  And if he is not seeking Grimald’s support for a teaching post, what kind of patronage is he seeking?  In my view, it is worth going back to Monique  Goullet’s 2008 introduction to the text. She speaks of ‘amitie’ as a binding force across a network of scholars and sees epic lives as being part of the currency of this network and essentially, the basis for competition between members of this elite.  I tend to the view that Ermenrich is essentially displaying his own scholarship and how well he has learned his own lessons rather than making a bid for a teaching post for which he appears unqualified.  In the twenty first century he would have tweeted, perhaps not in the hope of a record number of retweets and favourites but certainly hoping for approval from a


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Charlemagne and me

The builders have gone, so have the decorators and the Christmas guests are not yet knocking at the door. Time for a swift blog entry.
In between making tea and making soothing noises, I have been reading Steffen Patzold’s ‘Ich und Karl der Grosse’, subtitled as ‘The Life of Einhard the Courtier.’ I acquired this after a visit to the Charlemagne exhibitions in Aachen earlier this year, having always been interested in the eminences behind the throne rather than the guy sitting on it. Einhard was Charlemagne’s biographer, educated yet not a cleric, accustomed to being at the seat of power, yet not from a noble family. He outlived Charlemagne, was one of the few courtiers to remain in post under his son, Louis the Pious, and even managed to tiptoe his way around all the political factions which bedevilled the latter’s reign, to die at the ripe old age of 60+ of natural causes and be interred next to his wife in the tomb he had prepared for them both and for which he had ensured a religious setting which would enable them both to be ready for the hereafter. A sort of Vicar of Bray for the early middle ages.
The book is an irresistible blend of scholarship – plenty of footnotes – and creativity. Patzold himself feels it necessary to justify this. His epilogue starts with a number of ‘Am I allowed to?’ questions. Is he allowed, basically, to use his 21st century brain to fill in the gaps left in the records and present Einhard as a real person? The Einhard he presents is, he admits, merely a creation of his own, for ‘Imagination is required if I want to set out the fragments that remain in relation to each other and fill in the gaps between them’. That said, he does very carefully distinguish between imagination and record, at the same time acknowledging that the records themselves may be just as much a work of imagination as his own 21st century contributions.
This adds an extra dimension to the narrative. It is much more than the time worn biographical tactic of filling in little known periods of the subject’s life with generalisations culled from records of her contemporaries. The extra dimension is a perfectly controlled sense of irony and a deliberate fusion of what we presume to be ‘us’ or ‘now’ and what we presume to be ‘them’ and ‘then’. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the account of the translation of the saints Marcellinus and Petrus. The major source for this is Einhard himself. Most will agree that this work is based on a true story but concede that a lot of the detail was in essence a political tactic, the power of which was obvious to ‘them’ but not to ‘us’. In Patzold’s account, it reads like something from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’: ideas shared over dinner lead to a trip to Rome with clandestine adventures in the catacombs of Rome and feats of clever diplomacy to ensure the support of the monks and the Emperor. The whole is rounded off by a mysterious visit from Louis the Pious to the shrine many years later. In other words, exactly the kind of fictional reality we are accustomed to accept, which thus connects ‘us’ to fictional reality which was usual ‘then’.
Scholars will differ as to whether this is legitimate history writing. But I think it does make a much neglected period of history come alive for those for whom the early medieval period is not their bread and butter. At least it will for German speaking readers. Anyone up for translating it for the rest?

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