“A friend of mine once said it just sounded like we are plundering castles with a laptop.”
About this Episode
Recorded 30 November 2020. Edited by Tessa Gengnagel.
Participants: Hannah Busch, Nathan Daniels, Tessa Gengnagel, James Harr III, Aylin Malcolm, Caitlin Postal, Daniela Schulz.
Content: In this special episode, we introduce the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee and discuss the framework of the podcast: digital medieval studies. Topics include: public misconceptions about medieval studies, academic perception of digital humanists, conditions of research, reasons for the interest in digital manuscript studies.
Resources and Further Reading
Benjamin Albritton, Georgia Henley and Elaine Treharne (Eds.), Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age, London: Routledge, 2020 (Google Books Preview).
Stephen P. McCormick, “A Guide to Digital Medieval Studies in North America,” in: Perspectives médiévales 37 (2016), <https://doi.org/10.4000/peme.9655>.
automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Hannah Busch and Nathan Daniels
Aylin Malcolm 0:00
The idea that the Middle Ages were bad is also quite dangerous, I think, because it makes us complacent in terms of how we think about our own period in relation to that more negative past. It enables us to say, “we’re so much better than what came before, society is great now,” and I think prevents us from seeing the problems that persist right now and the ways that some things have actually gotten worse.
Tessa Gengnagel 0:40
Hello, and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. This is a special episode, episode zero essentially, since we are going to introduce ourselves and the topic of the podcast, which is medieval studies, digital humanities, and the ways in which these fields intersect in what we can call Digital Medieval Studies. Now, if you’re completely new to this, please feel free to visit our website at podcast.digitalmedievalist.org where we’ve put some information and an FAQ. And we’re also going to put the episodes there with transcripts, with links to further reading, and all that good stuff. You can also find us on Twitter under the handle @digitalmedieval, so follow us there if you want to stay updated on the upcoming episodes of the podcast. In upcoming episodes, in the regular episodes, so to speak, we are going to feature guests, researchers, students, archivists, developers and others. And we are going to talk to them about studying the Middle Ages in the Digital Age, which can mean a lot of things. It can mean digitizing the source materials that we work with as medievalists, it can mean studying these digitized source materials with computational methods. But it can also mean using digital media, social media, to engage with people about medieval studies to disseminate knowledge to promote our work. So again, there’s a lot to talk about. And we are going to start the conversation about these topics today, in a discussion with each other. The snippet that you heard in the teaser at the beginning, was from that discussion part, and that was Aylin Malcolm speaking. But first, let’s introduce ourselves, everyone’s going to say a few words. We are seven people, seven early-stage, or so-called early-stage/early-career researchers. Basically we are not professors so that’s where the early career part comes in. And we will do that alphabetically. So let’s start with Hannah Busch.
Hannah Busch 2:54
Hi, my name is Hannah Busch. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands in Amsterdam. In my thesis, I research the possibilities of applying artificial intelligence and deep machine learning for the study of medieval Latin paleography. I’m widely interested in large-scale manuscript digitization, metadata encoding and experimenting with the application of various computational methods that can support and enhance the work of manuscripts scholars. Before embarking on the adventure of pursuing a PhD in digital medieval studies, I studied German and Italian philology at the Universities of Bonn and Florence. My first encounter with medieval manuscripts and Latin paleography happened only during my master in textual scholarship in Berlin where also heard about the digital humanities for the first time. The combination of both, a basic knowledge in manuscript studies and XML encoding brought me to my first job at the University of Trier, where I could deepen my knowledge in the field of manuscript studies in the digital age.
Nathan Daniels 3:54
Hi, I’m Nathan Daniels. I’m a graduate student in the history department at Johns Hopkins University. My research focuses on the social and urban history of Paris at the turn of the 14th century. I’m especially interested in the ways that people interact with the urban topography around them. I’m currently working on a digital edition of the tax records produced by the Parisian bureaucracy under Philip the Fair as a way of getting details about all of the people that lived in the city at that time.
Tessa Gengnagel 4:21
Hi, you’ve already heard me during the introduction of this introductory episode, my name is Tessa Gengnagel and I studied history and Latin philology of the Middle Ages as well as European Multimedia Arts and Cultural Heritage Studies. And I’m currently at the University of Cologne finishing my PhD. My thesis is called Digital Scholarly Editions Beyond Text: Modeling Medieval Picture Programs and Modern Motion Pictures. And as the title indicates, it’s a thesis with a methodological focus and medieval picture programs feature in so far as some of them have survived in several manuscripts. And there’s a transmission variance and the question is how can we account for that in editorial theory?
James Harr 5:06
Hello, my name is James Harr, and I am a PhD candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media Program at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. My research centers on the interplay of actors established by petitionary documents in the Middle Ages and how those actors are fully realized through the manuscript’s digital form. It considers the distribution of agency among networks both in their physical and digital iterations. And it investigates ways that the digital instantiations of the petitions are informed by the social and the material, arguing that they ultimately converge to create relationships that exist in perpetuity. To convey these relationships and to provide deliverables to supplement my research, I’m currently working on several XML data frames to illustrate where the historical material can inform the digital more effectively, as I look at the 13th-century petitions to Edward I that are found in the National Archives in the UK.
Aylin Malcolm 6:07
Hi, my name is Aylin Malcolm. I’m a PhD candidate in English at the University of Pennsylvania, where I’m writing about the literatures of medieval England, and the history of ecological science. I’m interested in thinking about the longer histories of human relationships with our environments, and about the complex origins of the ecological challenges that we’re facing now. I’m also interested in astronomical diagrams in medieval manuscripts. So for the past few years, I’ve been building interactive digital editions and exhibits of astronomical manuscripts, which I’m making available for free online.
Caitlin Postal 6:44
I’m Caitlin Postal. I’m a PhD candidate in English at the University of Washington in Seattle. I work at the intersection of medieval material culture and contemporary digitality. So my current project explores scholarly editing and digital edition making, particularly in how we think about textuality and literacy as constructed by the objects that we’re reading.
Daniela Schulz 7:08
Hi, my name is Daniela Schulz. I’m a researcher at the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, working on digitization projects and research data infrastructures. My research interests are early medieval legal history, manuscript studies, historical auxiliary sciences, and digital scholarly editing.
Tessa Gengnagel 7:38
Now that the introductions are over, let’s move on to the discussion. And we will start that by talking about medieval studies in general. So the starting question is, what is a common misconception about the Middle Ages that annoys you?
Aylin Malcolm 7:53
I think broadly stated, any time that the complexity of this period is overlooked. So, a lot of people seem to think of the Middle Ages as this universally bad time, a dark age intellectually, a time where everyone died before they were 30, which simply isn’t true, and also is quite Eurocentric, I mean, we’re talking about the Islamic Golden Age. And then on the other hand, you also have people who seem to want to return to the Middle Ages as a kind of idealized white Europe, when men were real men, and you know, everyone knew their place in society. And that also isn’t true. Europe was multi-ethnic, multi-racial, gender roles were different from how they are now. They certainly existed, but there was also flexibility and complexity. And the idea that the Middle Ages were bad is also quite dangerous, I think, because it makes us complacent. In terms of how we think about our own period, in relation to that more negative past, it enables us to say, we’re so much better than what came before, society is great now, and I think prevents us from seeing the problems that persist right now, and the ways that some things have actually gotten worse, such as our relationship with the nonhuman world.
Tessa Gengnagel 9:22
I think that’s a very good point. And also we see a lot of the current TV shows and games and popular culture play into that, though, when you have something like Game of Thrones, which people say, “Oh, it’s medieval, and that justifies certain depictions of, let’s say, sexualized violence.” It serves as an excuse, never mind that you have dragons and so on. But the whole cringingness, the whole patronized, sort of, almost a filter that you put over it, not the same as but similar to the romantic photo that you put over everything in the 19th century.
Caitlin Postal 9:55
I think Tessa that we can maybe blame J. R. R. Tolkien for this exact thing, because when we think about a purchase to fantasy literature, a lot of what Tolkien did gets picked up by other fantasy writers, and Tolkien does so much that’s rooted in linguistics or in medieval history that sort of works there because he’s knowledgeable. But then when it’s picked up and acted upon by other fantasy writers just continues a distortion of like, what is thought to be “medieval”—I’m putting huge scare quotes around that—but isn’t necessarily. I would agree that the way that popular culture depicts a fantasy of medievalism, which then people sort of adopt as like, well, this, this just is medieval. Let me tell you about the history of x thing that never happened. It’s really interesting to think about the lines between, like fantastical narrative and genuine history, or like “history”, I’m putting scare quotes around that as well, because we still only have certain records that say certain things that tell us like, excerpted components.
Tessa Gengnagel 11:11
On the other hand, and switching completely pivoting to a different topic. I mean, there’s the Middle Ages. So that’s one part of the work that we do, but there’s also digital, the digital aspect, digital humanities. This is a different topic, but I wonder if there’s any kind of misconception about digital humanities work that annoys you? Maybe this is more of an academic thing than a public perception thing?
Hannah Busch 11:36
Yeah, I think one of the thing about digital humanities is that there is no definition yet what digital humanities are and what they do. And if it’s really a scientific discipline, or if it’s just playing around with the computer, and yeah, I hope that also with with the podcast, and with the projects and the interviews we are doing, we can help a bit to lighten up that that area to show and showcase digital medieval research.
Daniela Schulz 12:06
A friend of mine once said, when I tried to tell him that I’m like doing digital medievalist stuff, he said, it just sounded like we are plundering castles with a laptop. I actually liked this image, because it shows some of the misconceptions or problems, the whole thing seems so far away for, like the “real researchers” just doing medieval stuff. And on the other hand, it sometimes feels like me as a project manager, that I’m actually not doing real research. That’s what people tell me like, I’m not a real researcher, because I’m just doing the the digital side. You sometimes feel inferior to, in comparison to the other parts that do the content-wise work.
Tessa Gengnagel 12:54
Yeah. So you’re treated like a service provider?
James Harr 12:57
Sorry, Tessa, if I could, if I could just jump in. I would just say that, I’m just thinking back to some of the questions. I think a misconception that we’re addressing here that I see a lot of is that digital humanities, we’re often focused on the end product. And I don’t think that people look at the under the hood stuff as scholarship, I don’t think they look at the data cleaning, I don’t think they look at the data mining, all the stuff that goes into creating these projects, as actual scholarship. And I think that’s problematic. But it also leads to this other conversation that we’re having about the neoliberal side of digital humanities, is that I often get, even from my own cohort in the program at NC State, that, you know what, if this medieval stuff doesn’t work out, I’ve got all these all these skills that I can work for Google or for SAS, or for all these corporations, because isn’t that really the fallback that we have with digital humanities, is that it’s transferable skills. And I think that, yeah, it’s great that we’re learning practical skills, but that’s not, that’s not the goal of digital humanities.
Caitlin Postal 14:04
To pick up on something that you just said, Jamie, I think it’s really important with what we’re going to showcase on this podcast to demonstrate how digital and technological work is still knowledge work. You know, like when we think about the digital humanities, right? There is a long history but so much of the sort of bubbling cauldron that is now overflowing, right, has been more recent, as certain technologies have become available or certain approaches become more standardized. And I think what you said Jamie is spot on that so much of the sort of background—and Daniela—so much of the background in digital work is treated as background digital work or as grunt work to be performed by some, like undergraduate or graduate minion who maybe is or is not paid, but to find value and meaning in those approaches, and to think about what that kind of work means, for the content-based scholarship that comes out of it, even if the end result is the same, like the same, quote, unquote, even if we’re making the same kinds of arguments, getting to them a different way is interesting and fun.
Hannah Busch 15:18
And I also think about digital humanities, that it’s really taking us out of our bubbles in some ways. So we are skilled in interdisciplinarity, much more than, than a lot of other scholars because we communicate with a lot of different peoples and we communicate between computer science and with traditional scholars. And that’s also very valuable work, and also some kind of research. And yeah, it’s not just being a service person, but it’s understanding two completely or more than two completely different fields and exchange a lot of skills and opinions with other people.
James Harr 15:56
And I think it’s also very important to keep in mind that digital humanities started with a medievalist, with Roberto Busa, doing the works of Aquinas. I mean, our two fields are not disparate, where all of a sudden, we’re trying to come in and kind of hammer a square peg into a round hole. We were together from the beginning. So it’s important to keep that in our own minds, but also to remind the public that medievalists have a very, very important role in the development of digital humanities and all the work that we’re doing it started within our field.
Aylin Malcolm 16:31
If I could just jump right in here. And if you’re interested in hearing more about that nexus of DH in medieval studies, right at the beginning, and about Busa, you should definitely listen to Dorothy Kim’s episode.
Nathan Daniels 16:44
I was just going to add to something that that Hannah had said earlier in terms of thinking about, and to Jamie’s point as well, about thinking about what we’re doing as research, or the digital side as research. In that while there can be ways in which sometimes the the digital angle of things is, you know, sort of that grunt work where, you know, if it’s just setting up a website, or some, you know, kind of basic computer, technological work like that, that’s one thing, but there is, there is lots of research that, that people in, you know, computer science departments are very interested in that tags along with what we’re doing. Obviously, all of this stuff in machine learning and NLP for, you know, for automatic annotation and some of these other new trends is really important. And there are people that in those departments that are very interested in the research angle of that as well. So it opens up opportunities for lots of kinds of collaborations as well. So it’s not, it’s not just grunt work, but there’s research happening and all of those angles as well.
Aylin Malcolm 17:44
Yeah, thanks, Nathan. And I think this gets at another aspect of DH that we’ve talked about a lot together, which is the public engagement aspect, because we’re not just building bridges between disciplines, but also trying, sometimes successfully to build bridges between academia and the wider world, which I know is a very important part of how I think about DH and I think all of us have considered this in some way.
Hannah Busch 18:11
I think maybe it also comes from the large amount of teamwork in digital humanities, that there is more opening and more presentation to the outside, the nature of the digital, that there’s some more communication on social media, on websites, on creating videos, making the research more accessible. I think it’s also that in a lot of projects that are less team based, research still happens in the small room of the scholar, and in the end, there is a book or an article. And digital humanities, there is happening a lot publicly, during the research, a lot of feedback, a lot of discussion, a lot of presentations.
Caitlin Postal 18:50
I always think about what makes something valuable, what are we defining as value. And if the value is a critical output, then we have different metrics. If the value is something that like the university can claim as greater access or as some novel technique, and then they get a bunch of grants, and then they can fund a center, there’s a question about how we’re defining value, what we what we think makes something valuable. And I think that looking at all of those angles is is really important. Do DH projects offer a different way of thinking? And that’s valuable to me is flexing different intellectual muscles.
James Harr 19:32
To jump on all that, Caitlin, is I think also we need to look at how digital scholarship is evaluated in terms of dissertations, in terms of tenure. You know, right now, in terms of publications, we have this different hierarchy, you know, book reviews, book chapter, peer-reviewed journal article. Where does a digital humanities project fall into that, and how can we use digital projects, to kind of rethink the way that we evaluate scholarship, either as a graduate student or as a tenure track faculty member?
Tessa Gengnagel 20:06
That’s definitely good point, especially since a lot of digital projects do not seem to have the same currency in terms of academic citation, for example. I mean, that’s an issue of digital projects, but they need maintenance, they need continuing support, unless you archive them in some way. Whereas with a book it’s published, its art, you can put it on a shelf, and it’s going to stay there for the next 100 years, essentially.
Aylin Malcolm 20:32
Why do all of you think that digital and medieval seem to go together, organically? Even beyond the academy? I’m thinking of things like Chaucer Doth Tweet, I’m thinking of medieval Bayeux Tapestry memes. Why are medieval media forms so popular on the internet? Is there something sort of inherently compatible about these digital technologies and medieval topics? I just want to know why there are so many dead people on Twitter, you know?
Tessa Gengnagel 21:02
I think part of it is the novelty factor, because people know so little about the actual Middle Ages, there’s, and they imagined it as kind of backwards and old timey speak. I think there’s just something funny about it. Also, with the with the illustrations, I illuminations from medieval manuscripts that are often shared, usually funny bunnies, or, you know—
Aylin Malcolm 21:22
Tessa Gengnagel 21:24
Yeah, murder, murder, rabbits, knights, you know, the rabbits with the sword and the shield, and so on. So I think there’s maybe nothing deeper to it than that. I think another interesting question would be if there’s anything in medieval textual culture, for example, that’s very compatible with hypertextual digital environments? And maybe that’s also a reason why medievalists took to digital and computational methods fairly early on.
Aylin Malcolm 21:54
I think even the humors, there is something deeper going on there. There’s a kind of recognition that happens where you see, you begin to see historical societies as more similar to our own than you expected to. There’s a moment of like, oh, they’re not just like us but there are similarities, and that I think, can help to break down what I was talking about earlier with these divisions among historical periods.
Hannah Busch 22:21
I mean, as we were speaking of the funny bunnies, there’s a lot of pattern recognition in medieval manuscript material. And I think that’s also very, very interesting and very accessible for computational methods. So we have, we have very interesting patterns and they are not as uniform as in later printed books, where we have the exact repetition of one image, but we have some themes and topics and text that reappear. So it’s a lot of material to research on with computational methods that hasn’t been possible before, before digitization.
Caitlin Postal 22:57
I wanted to say something about digitization. When we were talking about digital projects that become outdated or that are no longer referenced, I think it’s important to remember that the digitization of medieval manuscripts can be considered part of a DH project. And that is something that doesn’t really fall out of style, particularly now when we are all enclosed in our homes, and not able to visit reading rooms, not able to go to a library, we’ve become more reliant on digital images as our manuscripts and when we’re referencing those, we reference the archival manuscript, but maybe not the images. And this is something that we get into in our episode with Johanna Green. So keep your ears peeled for that one.
Hannah Busch 23:48
Also, in addition to that, it’s not just that we need the access to the images, but we need also some kind of, yeah, help to navigate into to work with those images and with the with the material that is now online. So it’s not just that we photograph medieval manuscripts and put them online, but there’s more like there needs to be a good search function and there needs to be good metadata. And it’s a lot of work that digital humanists are doing that is now very valuable and will be in the future and not just vanish after an end of the project.
Caitlin Postal 24:22
Well, and I think that metadata maintenance is very similar to project management. So like where Daniela was talking about how project management maybe is not seen as, as valuable. But then metadata maintenance, digital archival maintenance, really, really is. That’s where, you know, the siloing of academic disciplines away from like Library Science becomes a problem because we’re all still really active with each other and relying on each other in some compelling ways.
Hannah Busch 24:53
Yeah, so that’s one way, or you have done research yourself with the material, or you have talked a lot to the people that are going to use the material. So, yeah, so in both senses, it’s very important.
Tessa Gengnagel 25:25
And with that we are at the end of this special introductory episode. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed listening to this. And of course, we hope that you will enjoy listening to the upcoming episodes just as much, if not much more. Again, you can find us under podcast.digitalmedievalist.org. You can find us on Twitter under the handle @digitalmedieval, you can also write to us under firstname.lastname@example.org. And I think that’s it. There’s nothing more to say except: stay tuned and stay healthy. Have a nice day.
- Intro: TeknoAXE, “Chiptune Nobility” (CC BY 4.0).
- Interlude: Random Mind, “King’s Feast” (CC0).
- Outro: Random Mind, “The Bard’s Tale” (CC0).
- Featured Image: Members of the DMPS, ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.