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DH in Medieval Studies: A Critical Survey

When considering the state of the Digital Humanities in the field of Anglo-Saxon Literature, or even Medieval Studies in general, one cannot avoid looking at the Editor's Preface from A Concordance to Beowulf, edited by J. B. Bessinger Jr., programmed by Philip H. Smith Jr., and published in 1969 (in perspective, this was also the same year man first walked on the moon):

For what the news may be worth, our full concordance is farther along than was Cook's in 1911. Keypunching, magnetic taping, and automatic concording in a trial printed format have been completed for all six volumes of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, edited by George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (New York, 1931-1953). The makers of this raw concordance (which exists now in four elephantine folios totaling 3,500 pages) are the better prepared to undertake its final processing, and to avoid meanwhile the repetition of certain memorable dangers, follies, and expenses, because the General Editor and Supervisory Committee of the Cornell Concordances kindly agreed to the interim production of a fragment of the whole, a trial concordance to Beowulf alone. It seemed technologically prudent and philologically useful to publish this data separately, even though it will be subsumed, with changes, in the larger concordance to come. New machines and techniques were being tested and modified as we worked; thanks to the unnerving productivity of electronic data-processing machines, we frequently had to contemplate larger masses of data than we could control; and at one important juncture, we needed to decide in advance of final publication the value of a totally new kind of Old English poetic index. (This new material is discussed further below, and a selected portion or version of it forms Appendix I of the present volume.) Like our predecessors in this field, we needed, in fact, to make a concordance in order to discover what a much larger concordance of the same type could and should be; but the process of discovery is open-ended, and we shall not feel justified in the shape of this Beowulf concordance until our colleagues have used and criticized it, both for itself and as a preamble. 1

As I write this, The Concordance to Beowulf itself is 45 years old, and just as predicted it has been largely replaced by the much thicker (and much finer print) Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 2, but much of what Bessinger and Smith experienced in their project is still characteristic of the digital approaches we take to problems in this field. Like them, we often find that we are overwhelmed by our own capacity to generate data, and that technology's ceaseless march forward has often made it easier to release information and analysis in smaller chunks. Most telling, however, is the fact that the massive amounts of data available forces a perspective that invites a different solution entirely, one that would not have been conceivable, let alone achievable, without the aid of technology. This short survey of a few of the Digital Humanities (DH) projects, past and present, that impact Medieval Studies is by no means meant to be exhaustive, or indeed even to scratch the surface; I would need far more time to assemble such a list than a single semester. Nonetheless, here one will find at least some discussion on several interesting projects of various types, displaying in at least some small measure the vibrant community that has grown up around the intersection of the digital world of today and the medieval world of Anglo-Saxon England.

Having already seen one of the most impressive and early examples of Anglo-Saxoninsts using computers in Bessinger's Concordances, I will turn to another, far more recent project that uses computers for more intensive textual analysis. Specifically, the Lexomics project at Wheaton College, headed by Michael Drout, Mark D. LeBlanc, and Michael Kahn is an example of current, cutting edge analysis that has applications not only in the field of literary criticism, but in textual history, as well. As the group explains on the Frequently Asked Questions section of their website,

When applied to literature as we do here, lexomics is the analysis of the frequency, distribution, and arrangement of words in large-scale patterns. More specifically as relating to our current suite of tools we have built and use, we segment text(s), count the number of times each word appears in each segment (or chunk), and then apply cluster analysis to build dendrograms (branching diagrams or trees) that show relationships between the chunks. 3

These "dendrograms" are visual representations of the frequency with which words occur in relation to other words, similar to the kind of analysis performed by the MALLET program of which I have written elsewhere. Although this may sound simplistic, the application of these tools is powerful enough to provide additional weight to arguments about the authorship of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a rather difficult subject even for the greatest scholars in the field.

More importantly, the team has developed software to assist in the cleaning, "chunking," and analysis of texts and has opened that tool to the public as an open source project that anyone can download and edit to suit their own needs. Although the current iteration of the software uses a web interface, the project began as a series of perl scripts, and the project's legacy software is also available via the group's website.4

The significance of this project is not in its application, its results, nor even in its remarkable partnership between Drout, a world-renowned professor of Anglo-Saxon and Tolkein studies; LeBlanc, a professor of Computer Science; and Kahn, a professor of Mathematics and Statistics. Again, we need look no further than Bessenger's 1969 Concordance to see that these kinds of interdisciplinary working relationships have been successfully generating positive results for decades. What is remarkable about the Lexomics program is how each of the professors leading the project have integrated it into their teaching, not only of graduate students, but of undergraduates in their respective programs. Weaton, it should be pointed out, has no graduate students; as a strictly four-year undergraduate institution, Drout, LeBlanc, and Kahn have filled the About Us page of the project website with pictures of the students who have used and helped refine the tool and technique. This is a remarkable moment in the Digital Humanities in many ways; the lines that were once only blurrable to those on the upper levels of academia are now beginning to fade even among the novices of our respective fields. This, in many ways, makes the term "interdisciplinary" obsolete; with undergraduates in literature developing advanced textual analysis software and using it to conduct their own research, the basic disciplinary lines clearly no longer apply.

This integration of the humanities and computer sciences comes at a truly exciting time, as well, as we continue to see an acceleration of museums and libraries offering up high-quality, high-resolution scanned images of their manuscript holdings, effectively making restricted documents and information free and available to all. This movement has been made possible by a number of technologies and the breadth of their adoption, not least of which being the high-speed broadband connections that as of December of 2013 numbered over 293 million in the United States alone, an increase of approximately 12% over the previous year.5 Add to this the expansion of the mobile broadband market via devices such as tablets with high-resolution displays, and the delivery of large image files is not only feasible, it is practically required.

Other technologies that allowed for the transmission of the same material, such as the CD-ROM editions of the Exeter Book6 and Beowulf7, were also useful, but far more limited in their penetration as they were necessarily associated with cost; it is one thing to place information on a web server at a well-funded University or Museum that is set up to handle large amounts of traffic, but it is another to publish a physical item and attempt to recoup the costs by offering that item for sale. Also significant has been the difficulty such "hard" copies have had in keeping their materials accessible; despite the fact that these publications are less than a decade old, they are often practically unusable due to the advancement of web browsing technologies and the expectations these browsers have for the websites they access. In the case of Muir's Exeter DVD, the required browser is listed as Microsoft Internet Explorer version 5.5 for PC users and 5.2 for Mac users. These browsers are so old that the code designed for them no longer works; one is forced to browse through the various files without guidance in order to find the appropriate scanned image. Even Kiernan's more recent Electronic Beowulf fell victim to this issue when the Java code it relied upon no longer supported CD-ROM access.8

If I have avoided citing any particular holdings, it is merely because the number of fully accessible digital scans of manuscripts has become so large as to become common. I have spoken with a number of individuals this past year who, in their conversations with me, have indicated that they now simply expect that the manuscript they need to examine for their research has been photographed and those photos have been made available to the public. Indeed, even the Beowulf Manuscript itself, British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv has been made available for free via the web.9 If one is looking for a complete accounting of what is available, one can certainly do worse than to turn to Twitter, where the most recent releases of manuscript images is always celebrated widely.

The third and final project I wish to consider here continues to be one of the most important I have seen in any discipline, not because of its immediate goal, but because of the way I hope it will transform even our current ways of thinking about projects digitally. The Visionary Cross Project10 is a cooperative effort between Catherine E. Karkov of the University of Leeds, Daniel Paul O'Donnell and Wendy Osborn of the University of Lethbridge, Roberto Rosselli del Turco of the Universita' degli studi di Torino, and Dot Porter of the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries, which focuses on the literature and art centered around the cross in medieval Europe. Although the project has spent a great deal of time studying the Vercelli Book and its pertinent content, "The Dream of the Rood," it is the other context in which the poem appears that most interests me: carved in the side of a standing stone cross known as the Ruthwell Cross.

Standing over 17 feet in height, the Ruthwell Cross is an imposing sight, or at least it would be if visitors to the small church in which it is housed were able to see it in its original placement. Instead, those who come to see it find that the artefact has been placed in a hole in the floor of the church in order to ensure that it fit within the confines of the building in which it is housed. This causes problems for those who would study the cross not only because they see the cross from a greatly altered perspective, but also because much of the carving on the stone now lies below floor level, practically inaccessible due not to security, but to simple physical constraints. This is but one of the access problems that the Visionary Cross Project has solved through its application of high-resolution laser 3D scanning technology; now, an incredibly accurate and fully manipulatable 3D model of the cross has been created, allowing for virtual placement of the cross in the outdoor environment where it was originally set. This also means that scholars from across the globe can access the cross in a more meaningful way without ever leaving their desks. In much the same way as the photograph revolutionized the study of two-dimensional materials like manuscript pages, this 3D model will help allow scholars to understand the monument as never before.

The final, and perhaps most exciting implication of the Visionary Cross project requires another, currently undeveloped technology that has been gaining ground for several years and is currently on the cusp of mainstream adoption: 3D printing. The resolution of the scan and the resulting detail of the model certainly gives scholars the opportunity to interact with the Ruthwell Cross in amazing new ways in a virtual space, but the 3D printer creates the opportunity for scholars to render the cross in a smaller scale, making tangible replicas that can be used for teaching and modeling purposes, experiments, and detailed analyses. Although current technology certainly limits the likelyhood of creating a 1:1 scale model, that, too, may eventually become possible, just as it is likely that other objects, such as the Franks Casket, might eventually be scanned and the information released as a printable file, as well.

Anne Gilmour-Bryson opens her introduction to the 1984 collection Computer Applications to Medieval Studies by boldly claiming that "No survey of the use of the computer in medieval studies can be definitive or complete."11 The fact that, even 30 years ago, it was clear that computer applications were becoming widespread and important within the field of Medieval Studies is perhaps the clearest indication of how close a relationship the fields of computer science and Anglo-Saxon studies have. This, in turn, is a testament to the productive nature of the relationship, and at least to my mind one of the best arguments one could hope for to encourage others to consider including these approaches in their own studies.

1 J.B. Bessinger, Jr. and Philip H. Smith, Jr., A Concordance to Beowulf (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), ix-x.

2 J.B. Bessinger, Jr. and Philip H. Smith, Jr., A Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).

3 Michael Drout, Mark D. LeBlanc, and Michael Kahn, "FAQ - Lexomics," Wheaton College, accessed December 9, 2014, http://wheatoncollege.edu/lexomics/faq/

4 Michael Drout, Mark D. LeBlanc, and Michael Kahn, "Tools - Lexomics," Wheaton College, accessed December 9, 2014, http://wheatoncollege.edu/lexomics/tools/

5 Federal Communication Commission, "Internet Access Services: Status as of December 31, 2013," accessed December 9, 2014, 1, http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2014/db1016/DOC-329973A1.pdf. In this case, high speed connections are those operating at 200 kbps or greater.

6 Bernard J. Muir, ed., The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry (Exeter, Exeter University Press, 2006), CD-ROM.

7 Kevin Kiernan, ed., The Electronic Beowulf, 3rd ed. (London: British Library, 2011), CD-ROM.

8 Kevin Kiernan, "Desktop Installation," Electronic Beowulf Index & Guide University of Kentucky, last updated January 16, 2014, accessed December 10, 2014, http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/gettingstarted/overview

9 British Library, "Digitised Manuscripts - Cotton Vitellius A.xv," British Library, accessed December 9, 2014, http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Cotton_MS_vitellius_a_xv

10 Catherine E. Karkov, et al., "About the Project," The Visionary Cross Project, last updated February 19, 2014, accessed December 6, 2014, University of Kentucky, last updated January 16, 2014, accessed December 10, 2014, http://ebeowulf.uky.edu/gettingstarted/overview

11 Anne Gilmour-Bryson, ed., Computer Applications to Medieval Studies, Studies in Medieval Culture XVII (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1984), 1.