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Digital Humanities, the Devonshire Manuscript and social knowledge

As frequent readers may have guessed, I have in recent months been getting more and more interested in that nebulous world often described as the ‘digital humanities’ (they might also have noticed the shameful lag between the last post and this – my excuse is that I’m a couple of short months off submitting my phd (hopefully!), so please forgive my laxity).

Now, I don’t have to tell you that the broad church of digital humanities involves more than online publishing, whacking texts on the web for all to see. It’s true that DH offers exciting possibilities for elegance and efficacy in digital publication, regarding content, browsing, searching and so on (look at CELL’s dateline view for the correspondence of Thomas Bodley project, for instance). But the digital humanities are also moving towards the kind of activity and interaction that is in concept, design and process web-based. That is, it is not just about making the non-digital digital, it is about opening up and thinking up whole new ways of working, researching, editing and writing.

Front matter in the courtly anthology the Devonshire Manuscript (note Mary Shelton's name). c.1530s-40s.

The Devonshire Manuscript project masterminded by the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab at the University of Victoria is a great example of this, and I urge anyone interested to get involved.

The manuscript is a verse miscellany dating from the 1530s and 40s, for which there is no authoritative published edition. That is about to change. However, instead of producing a single-instance, single-authored transcription of its content, the ETCL are developing a social edition of the manuscript, that is at present available online here.

The ‘social edition’ aspect of it means that anyone is free to adapt, update and add to information on the manuscript and its many features, creating a pooled wiki-type knowledge base from which the final version will benefit. It is important to note that this will avoid the dangers of a lack of authority or accuracy, concomitant with a free-for-all wiki approach, by reintroducing authorial checks and balances at the end of the process.

The editors are keeping track of all user updates, and will review the project in July when turning the online version back into an authorised publication, to be published by Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies.

The project demonstrates real awareness of the advantages and risks involved in social knowledge contribution in that there is a sense of culmination, an end point at which authorial control can be re-established, contributors can be credited for their input, and the role of the editor again becomes central in deciding how best to amalgamate and solidify the working text.

So, what is in the Devonshire Manuscript? It is well known in literary circles as a key source for the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, but its nature as co-authored miscellany means there is a richness to its material, scribal and paratextual features that is only now being fully explored. It contains multiple hands from key figures around the court of Henry VIII, and has been called ‘the richest surviving record of early Tudor poetry

Sir Thomas Wyatt, 1503-1542

and of the literary activities of 16th-century women’.[1] The online version at present offers transcriptions with scholarly apparatus, as well as an impressive amount of contextual, textual and bibliographic material, all of which is open to addition by whoever has knowledge to offer: just click ‘edit’.

This is a socially-mediated, socially-constructed text, and so to have its publication echo its origins so beautifully is a fantastic idea. The very fact of the manuscript being a co-authored court anthology and thus a point of intersection for so many different people, poems, themes and contexts means that it lends itself particularly well to social editing. Opening the text up to the scholarly community allows those with the relevant special interests to contribute as much or as little as they know and want to share.

I’m a firm believer that the process of building knowledge works best when based on sharing; not just in terms of wide and accessible transmission but in terms of collaboration in the building itself. The open source movement in computing is an incredible working example of this, but I think we can do more in the humanities (the regular non-digital kind) in terms of collaborative research.

The greatest insights come from collaboration, and there is nothing like discussing your ideas verbally to sharpen them. It is perhaps strange, as a friend remarked last night, that the PhD is a process involving 3-4 often somewhat solitary years spent writing your words in relative isolation, but nonetheless a process whose worth is eventually measured by a verbal defence – the dreaded viva. That may betray my own personal anxieties at this time, but I suggest that if you’re part of the humanities research community (and if you’re not, for that matter) consider how much you actually talk about your own work and ideas, and how much you do or could do collaboratively – save the polish for the final version and let’s open up the process a little bit, it’ll be the better for it.


[1] Colin Burrow, “How to Twist a Knife,” London Review of Books 31.8 (2009): 3, 5. Quoted in <http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/The_Devonshire_Manuscript/General_Introduction> [accessed 04.03.12]

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A Christmas Commonplace

Before iPads and blackberries, internet bookmarks and intelligent browsers, there was the commonplace book. I might be excising a few paper-based stages there, but the seventeenth century commonplace book was an early modern storehouse of scribblings, reflections and memoranda that I expect functioned not dissimilarly to the more modern technologies one might find in the stocking this month.

The early modern commonplace book was a personal collection of disparate writings: it was ‘usually the work of more than one hand, and in general followed a flexible pattern of aphorisms, financial accounts, medicinal aids, readings from the Almanack, recipes, and verses’.[1]

Mid-seventeenth century

Mid-seventeenth century commonplace book

This entry, like the commonplace book, will be a composite record of a few things I have to share: some reflections on current work, a well-wishing for Christmas, an advertisement.

Donne and the Dobell manuscript

At the moment, I’m working for the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne (alongside my poor ugly sister PhD). I’m helping to put the sermons online, though the project proper is directed towards an illustrious and extensive print edition. My work involves helping to encode the transcriptions into xml so they can be accessed and enjoyed by (broadband permitting) anyone, any time, any place. I am also transcribing some of the sermons from scratch, and this is where the commonplace link comes in.

Before the then Dean of St Paul’s died, he prepared his sermons for publication, which led to a three volume edition in the later seventeenth century. The manuscript volume I will be transcribing contains a hand-written sermon that did not make it into this early print, possibly because it seemed to support auricular confession and so it may have been judged unwise to print it during the commonwealth.[2] There are three sermons in this manuscript, named ‘Dobell’, one of which (Psalms 38.9) is this excluded sermon.

Though sadly I am unable to view the morocco-bound original in Harvard College Library, I can scroll a microfilm copy. It contains many of Donne’s poems, paradoxes and problems along with the three sermons, and is unique in its mixing of the divine and this significantly more earth-bound material.

It is also a fascinating item because of the insight it gives to reader reception. Though the original compiler of the Dobell volume is unknown, its later seventeenth century owner, William Balam, is revealed in its pages through his extensive marginalia.

William used the collection as his personal commonplace book. Ranging from personal musings, coffee house chit chat and quotation to poetry and legal discourse, there is much to suggest his own personality as well as the social and political climate of the time, all inscribed into the blank spaces around the Donne. It becomes a scrapbook of William’s interests.

The Oxford edition will not be including the marginalia; it does not fit with the remit of the project, and would be a grand task in itself. But I will be browsing it out of personal interest when transcribing the Donne: expect to see some of it in this blog over the next month or so. This side of the manuscript makes me think of one of CELL’s new projects, which may also make it to a more extensive blog post next term…

CELL and marginalia

Here’s a brief follow-up to the Gabriel Harvey post a few months back. Speaking to a colleague a week ago, I was again incredibly excited by the ambition and technological wizardry of the Harvey project. Plans are afoot to encode high resolution images alongside transcriptions to produce a multi-layered, interactive edition of Harvey’s own interaction with his copy of Livy’s history of Rome. Mouse-overs will provide transcriptions of text in context, which is the only way in which his marginalia can make sense – by keeping it attached to what it refers to.

The multi-layered approach of the coding will allow one to choose which layers of marginalia they want to consult: that in Latin, or from a specific time period, say.

And that’s not all: the plan is to widen the project to encompass other volumes that contain marginalia, not just that belonging to Harvey. Other people will be invited to use this tool to make marginalia in early modern volumes accessible for detailed scholarship, in a way not attempted before.

Job Advert

I heard about the following PhD scholarship at Queen Mary just the other day – if you’re interested or know someone who would be do contact the relevant parties or pass it on.

PhD Studentship in the area of early modern textual cultures of Western Europe, jointly with the School of English and Drama. The Application deadline is 31st January 2012.

‘The field of the studentship:

The successful candidate will be jointly supervised by Prof Adrian Armstrong (French) and Dr Warren Boutcher (English). S/he will undertake research in the area of western European textual cultures, in the period 1450-1600, engaging with cultural products in at least two vernacular languages (English, French, Dutch, Italian). Appropriate topics might include, for instance: polyglot emblem books; translations of particular literary genres; the transmission of particular authors or books across countries; or the multilingual output of a single publisher’

For details on how to apply and for an application form, visit http://www.sllf.qmul.ac.uk/postgraduate/#research

Christmas wishes

I wish you a very merry Christmas, and a happy new year. May it bring all you want it to.


[1] Mabel Potter, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Literary Critic of John Donne: The Dobell Manuscript Re-examined’,  in the Harvard Library Bulletin, (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Library), pp.63-89. p.71.

[2] Potter, p.66