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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

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St Paul’s Cathedral: preachers and protesters

If you walk by St Paul’s Cathedral tomorrow morning, you’ll see the Occupy camp hanging up duvets and blankets, letting the morning dew dry in time for another night under canvas. Theirs may be more an expression against a situation than a coherent argument for a specific unified revolution, but for now at least their presence will continue to make a statement, even if it’s not always clear what that is.

The space they have chosen holds the footprints of past centuries of politics and preaching, of persuasive rhetoric and impassioned expression. The area is steeped in political argument; this building, this massive symbol of power and authority, is a highly charged location for any political statement, whether in the pulpit or the courtyard, whether made by words or by bodies.

The church have made a U-turn in recent days by dropping the legal bid to have the protesters forcibly evicted, in what would have been a irresistibly ironic reversal of Jesus expelling the money lenders. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, has spoken out in favour of a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, adding the long-awaited legitimizing voice of the religious establishment to Occupy London’s emphatic but ‘vague’ expression of anger against the current system.

If the protesters were not camped on its steps, I would at this moment be sequestered within the book-lined walls of the small library that is found tucked behind the south-west tower of this beautiful building. The triforium chamber, designed by architect Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of the cathedral following the Great Fire of London, holds a quarto manuscript containing four sermons by John Donne, which I will be helping to put online as part of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

Better known in the modern public consciousness as a poet, Donne was, by royal wrangling, the Dean of St Paul’s in the ten years until his death in 1631. His poetry represents only a small proportion of his writing, but has commanded a far larger proportion of academic and lay attention.The Oxford project aims to provide a new and definitive edition of his 160 sermons, replacing the bare bones edition of George R. Potter and Evelyn Simpson (1953-1962). It will run to 16 volumes, with full scholarly apparatus making the sermons accessible to experts and students alike.

Though the voice and power of this role was bound to the royal establishment, obliged to defend for example James I’s unpopular Directions for Preachers and persuade his flock to trust in the king, there may be interesting parallels to be drawn between then and what is happening now on the doorstep of St Paul’s.

Old St Paul’s (sermon at St Paul's Cross), 1616, John Gipkyn

Donne’s was a political position and his sermons inherently so; at times they were direct responses to particular controversies and social or economic change. That he was deeply engaged in public life and public debate can be seen by the fact that, a Londoner himself, he did not preach solely in the pulpit. As well as the royal court and the inns of court, Donne, unusually for the Dean, gave frequent sermons in the open air pulpit at St Paul’s Cross. This represents real engagement with the life of the city, and with the Corporation of the City of London.

The City has always been a place of business, and as spokesperson for the Church of England, Donne’s sermons recognised this fact. Six of Donne’s sermons were published in his lifetime, including one written for a group about to set sail for tobacco plantations in the new world, entitled in manuscript: ‘Preached before the Honourable Company of the Virginian Plantation, November 13, 1622. [Acts 1.8]’.

The Virginia Company of London sought to convert and colonize, and in recent years violent conflict with the native Powhatan Indians had led to many deaths on both sides. Without stretching a metaphor of the destructive power of rampant capitalism past the point of cynicism and into the realm of the ridiculous, this would seem to have little to do with current politics. However, I wonder if some aspects of Donne’s sermons to the entrepreneurial adventurers might be a fitting note to end on.

Donne counseled against greed and against arrogance, and challenged the Company to ‘act as an example of fairness and justice to the other mercantile companies’.[1] Perhaps it is time to revisit these texts, and perhaps it is time to listen again to the voices at the site of St Paul’s Cross.


‘Studied for Action’: How do we do digital?

Last Thursday saw our first day back at school, and there was real excitement at discussing CELL’s plans and projects for the year ahead. One project in particular elicited a murmur of curiosity and approval: in collaboration with Princeton University, CELL will create an online edition of sixteenth century polymath and prolific annotator Gabriel Harvey’s copy of Livy’s history of Rome.[1]

Harvey's marginalia in Livy

The volume is heavily inscribed with Harvey’s extensive marginalia, and yet has not received the critical attention it calls out for in large part because this very same annotation means that a standard print edition just cannot do it justice.[2] The scholarly article can only describe so much to the reader; the book itself is always at one remove.

But! The recent explosion in interactivity online, and the opportunities it holds for making a truly ‘dynamic edition’ possible, might just change all that. Anthony Grafton, Arnoud Visser, Lisa Jardine and Matt Symonds will be working out how best to do this, and in this process – and this is what gets me – be echoing a corresponding intellectual navigation traversed centuries before by Harvey and his contemporaries. Digital is the new print.

The printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, with the sixteenth seeing up to a tenfold increase in the number of books churned from their bulky frames. Thus the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries saw an emergent book culture, as societies transformed around the accessibility of the written word. What we are living through is an emergent digital culture: similar negotiations to that of the Renaissance reader with their book are being made now on how we interact with and use this new media.

Take that delicious clue-holder of the early modern reading experience, marginalia, as an example. This is at root inscription by the reader in the margins of the printed text in a book. It might be to trial a pen or a new script, just to doodle, to note down a reminder or something much weightier, or to interact with, interpret or guide one through the contents of a text. All of these I saw recently on Wynken de Worde’s excellent blog on the marginalia in Caxton’s printing of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, amazingly including a deed of the transfer of land written into the blank space beneath the text.

This goes to show that early modern interaction with a text could be unlike what we might expect or do ourselves. We jot down notes on spare scraps of paper precisely because of their throwaway nature, rather than in the sacred leaves of a published book, whereas someone then might be more inclined to write in the nice white expanse in a large printed volume, because it ensures its permanence. Additionally, when paper is expensive and writing involves fetching ones materials (including your homemade ink), sharpening your quill, dipping, writing and sealing, the whole process is much lengthier and more involved than grabbing your nearest biro (even when it has inevitably run dry from being abandoned sans lid).

Manicule or hand-shaped pointer in the margin of a letter

This sees early modern readers navigating, trialling and creating different ways of using and interacting with the printed book, just as we are now navigating and creating a digital culture as it grows around us.

The speed with which technological advances become a ubiquitous part of our lives gives an air of normalcy to what is actually still very culturally new. It has become so easy, so user-friendly, to live much of our lives online, that discourse and philosophical questioning of the subject is lagging behind, occasionally sprinting to make up the distance with the odd breathless panic about privacy on facebook.

Social networking is the beast that is most exciting, fearsome and, despite this, omnipresent. Children and teenagers are increasingly ‘plugged-in’; growing up like this is radically new, and we wonder how it feels. Google+ has just been released to the public, a new strain of this online species of socialising site, and one with wide-reaching ambition. Perhaps it is the very thing that makes it exciting that makes for a sense of fear; the ambition feels global, the drive to connect and share everybody and everything takes no prisoners. This is ideology: the removal of privacy and so the risking of the individual for the sake of the collective.

We haven’t quite decided whether we should limit or love this connectedness. Is the fear that comes with such a muscular newcomer founded, or is it just that: fear of the new? It’s hard to imagine a world without the printing press, and even harder to imagine resistance, or even righteous hatred or real fear, at its stupendous promise.

There is risk here, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities for use not yet thought up. I mean this both in society at large, and in terms of academic work, and in the latter case (excitingly) for more than just accessibility; for active exploration of texts. There is much work to be done…

[1] T. Livius Patavini, Romane historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia (Basle, 1555).

[2] For an important exception, see: Lisa Jardine, A. T. Grafton, “Studied for action’: How Gabriel Harvey read his Livy’ , in Past and Present, Volume 129, p.3-51 (1990)