Episode 14: Book Structures and Fan Cultures

Years ago, I thought books of hours were fancy pants books for art historians. And then I started really looking at them. And now I can’t shut up about them, because I think they’re just the neatest thing.”

Available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

About This Episode

Recorded 21 November 2022. Edited by Aylin Malcolm.

Content: In this episode, Aylin and Caitlin speak with Dot Porter on book structures, manuscript studies, and transformative works in fandom. Dot Porter is Curator of Digital Research Services at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. Dot holds Master’s degrees in Medieval Studies and Library Science and started her career working on image-based digital editions of medieval manuscripts.

Resources and Further Reading

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Caitlin Postal. Click here to access a PDF version of the transcript.

[Music Fade In]

Aylin Malcolm  0:15  

Welcome to Coding Codices, now in our third season. We’re here with a veritable rockstar of the manuscripts and social media outreach world, Dot Porter, who is many things, among them a curator at the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And I’m here with Caitlin Postal; I’m Aylin Malcolm; and we are members of the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee.

Caitlin Postal  0:38  

Welcome to our podcast.

Dot Porter  0:40  

Thank you. I’m really pleased to be here. And I’m excited to talk to both of you. 

Caitlin Postal  0:45  

Well, we’re so glad to have you. I know that you have done so many things with your time as a scholar, and your work is just so compelling. But we’re gonna start, I think, with VisColl, which is one of your older projects. We’d love to know a little bit like, how did you come up with the idea for it? What are some ways that it can be applied for listeners who might want to use this great tool? Maybe you could explain the tool too, because I sure didn’t.

Dot Porter  1:12  

Yeah, so VisColl is a project that–I guess we probably started it in 2013, or 2014, because it was pretty soon after I came to Penn. So I came to Penn in 2013. But VisColl is a project that’s around modeling and visualizing the physical collation of manuscripts. And I’m talking specifically about manuscripts. Printed books also have collation, but it’s slightly different because with printed books you tend to have larger sheets of paper that are folded multiple times and then cut. Most manuscripts are what are called folio manuscripts, which is you have sheets, sheets of paper or parchment, that are sort of layered, and then folded once to make little booklets that are called quires. The quires are sewn together. And that’s how you make your book. So you might have a book where every quire was made by layering four sheets, and then you fold it, which gives you eight leaves, and then you sew them together. And so then you can count out, if there are 64 leaves, then there’s eight quires of eight, right, because eight times eight is 64. But what tends to happen in practice, is you’ll have quires: some quires, maybe were made with three sheets, and some are made of two, and some are made of six, and some are made of eight. Leaves get added and leaves get taken away, quires get taken apart, and then put back together again. And so before I came to Penn, I had been working in digital humanities doing what we used to call image based electronic editions, which are now just sort of digital editions. But with the image focus, so getting digital images of manuscripts and building projects around them.

And so it’s kind of funny, because I sort of started although I trained as a medievalist, so I have an MA in medieval studies. I also have an MS in library science, so I was always very interested in the book. I got my start doing text editions, like I did a lot of TEI and this kind of thing. But as I got sort of more into it, I got more interested in the book as an object. And even at that point, I was sort of interested in how what I was doing with this book on a computer was different from what the book was like in its physical life. And at that point, I didn’t have a lot of experience working with physical manuscripts. So I read books about them. And one book that turned out to be sort of really important for this was a book by Ben Withers about the illustrated Old English Hexateuch, which is Cotton Claudius B.iv at the British Library. And it is an Old English translation or version of the Pentateuch, or the Hexateuch, which is like the first eight books of the Bible. And it’s illustrated, so almost every page of this manuscript has an illustration on it, but not all of them are complete. And so he wrote this whole book about the creation of this manuscript, and how, by looking at which quires have more or less completed illustrations, you can sort of tell about how the book was made. And I was so fascinated by this, but I had a lot of trouble sort of visualizing it, because I didn’t have, obviously didn’t have the book in front of me, I’d never seen this book in my life in person. The book did come with a CD. So I could like take my CD ROM and I could see the images, but I had a real trouble sort of visualizing in my head how the structure worked. And I thought to myself at that time, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to visually realize this and to be able to connect all of this data? And he does, he really does a great job in this book, in terms of like, there are tables and things to sort of show it. But I wanted something all together.

So I came here and one of the first things that I did when I, you know, talking to Will Noel was the director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, which was the group that I sort of came to work with, was like, Oh, this is what I want to do. And he was so funny. I remember him saying to me, I don’t know why anybody would want to do that. And he was like, but I hired you. So because I thought you’d do good work. So I guess I’ll let you do it, then we’ll see what happens.

And then now here we are, like 10 years later, we’ve got you know, we’ve got this great software. I worked with Doug Emery here, who did a lot of the early development. We also had a couple of other developers who worked with him. Dennis Mullen, who has since retired, but he did, he worked with me really closely about like, how do we visualize the way that the output is going to look? You know, the version of the software that we have now, which is called VCEditor, actually was built on a tool called VisCodex, which was built at the University of Toronto. We were working hard here on the Biblioteca Philadelphiensis project. So we got this money from CLIR to digitize manuscripts in Philadelphia. And so we’re– there’s this period between 2016 and 2019, when we were very heavily trying to get all these manuscripts digitized. And so we weren’t really thinking about VisColl. And around that time, Alex Gillespie at the Old Books, New Science lab at the University of Toronto got funding from the Mellon Foundation. And her group actually developed this tool called Viscodex, which looks very, very similar to VCEditor. And they were using the VisColl data model to do this. And then when we were ready to sort of get back to it, they gave us the code and let us use the code. And so, and now we’ve got VCEditor. So now anybody who wants to, can go to the VCEditor website and you can input your data about how your manuscripts are put together. You can add the contents, you can add, you know, if there are miniatures or anything like that, you can sort of map them in there. And then you can create the visualization.

Caitlin Postal  7:26  

I think one thing that’s interesting to me is the way that you talked about how you moved into this type of work, right, I think that’s kind of familiar to a lot of us. We start working on textual editions, and then we get really interested in the book object, and then we want to work with those book objects. That’s not the question that I have, though, I just wanted to remark that like, that’s a really familiar path. I’m wondering if you know of, or have thought about any exciting implementations of the VCEditor tool that might not be traditional in the sense of thinking about the structure of a manuscript book object?

Dot Porter  8:08  

My initial response is like, well, no, like, because the whole thing is about the strip, like the whole thing of VCEditor and it is about the structure. But there are, I think, creative ways to use it. And I have some examples of that. It’s still about the manuscript structure. But for example, Lisa Fagin Davis, who is I think pretty well known, I think we know who she is. 

Aylin Malcolm  8:34  

She’s in episode two of Coding Codices!

Dot Porter  8:38  

She’s great. And she has a long term project that she’s been working on, I think, for many, many years of reconstructing the Beauvais Missal, which was a missal that was taken apart. It was just in the news recently, there was somebody from Maine, I think, who bought a leaf for like, $75, at a garage sale or something. And it turned out it was one of the leaves of the missal. And so as part of her reconstruction project, she is also reconstructing the collation of it. And she uses VCEditor as the way to sort of reconstruct the collation of this book that once existed, but never exists, you know, doesn’t exist anymore. But I’ve also, so I’ve been thinking about books of hours. You know, in the 15th century, when you wanted a book of hours, you would not go to the book of hours store and like buy one off the shelf like you’d go to a bookstore today, right? Like, you’d be like, I want a book of hours. And so you go to a scriptorium of some sort. And you would say I would like a book of hours, please. And they and they would say Okay, so it’s a modular, they probably won’t use that word. They say what would you like in your book of hours? And so you sort of pick, you have the hours of the Virgin because that’s what you’ve always have in a book of hours and you have a calendar. And then the other things you could sort of, you know–

Caitlin Postal  9:58  

Your bespoke book. 

Dot Porter  10:00  

Your bespoke book, and then you get to pick how much gold you want, and how much decoration and what script you use and all of this stuff. Years ago, I did, not like, I thought books of hours were like fancy pants books for art historians. And then I started really looking at them. And now I like can’t shut up about them. Because I think they’re just the neatest thing. 

Caitlin Postal  10:20  

There’s a ubiquity to them, right? Like, so many people in the Middle Ages would have access to or have their own in a way that other books of the time were just not as readily available. Makes them interesting.

Dot Porter  10:33  

Yeah, they are interesting and that they’re all different. And that they were personalized, like Kate Rudy has done, just incredible work, looking at how books of hours, how they were made, so the modular part of it. But also how they were personalized, both during that process, and also after, and how they were used. So she’s done dirt on books, so you could see which pages have been opened the most. And like kissing, like, if there’s like a picture of Jesus and his face is all messed up, because somebody was kissing it. Like these kinds of things, which are just an incredible sign of use. And I know later, we’re going to be talking about fandom stuff. But this is, this is already getting into that because this is that like, sort of–

Aylin Malcolm  11:19  

Jesus fandom.

Dot Porter  11:19  

–Jesus fandom, right, like the love and how it’s shown on this physical object, like books of hours are like, great for that. So there’s that. And then there’s also this tendency to, for people, both in the Middle Ages and after, you know, the way that they used books: taking them apart, and then putting them back together in various ways. You might have three books, and you take the pieces that you want, and put them together to make a new book. And maybe you throw out the other ones, or you cut the pages and you put them in, you know, put them in bindings or whatever. This all got in my head.

And I was like, Well, what if I made my own book of hours, using bits and pieces, from books of hours from these libraries in Philadelphia, where we digitize these manuscripts from? And because I’m all about the physical coalition: what if I did it as though I had the books in front of me and I was cutting the pieces out. So I like actually following the quire structure of these. So if there’s a set of prayers that I want from a book of hours, and it’s from the first three leaves in a quire, I have to account for all of the other leaves that I’m not taking, like I’m like, literally like cutting it out. So I did it in VCEditor and I basically picked these. I just went in and I was like, Oh, that looks pretty. And I’m like, Oh, that’s nice, you know. So then I had my little book of hours. It took me a couple of hours to do that. I got everything printed. Thank you Staples in Springfield, Pennsylvania, who got my order, and it just was great.

Aylin Malcolm  12:59  

I’m sure you’re listening.

Caitlin Postal  13:03  

We should send it to them: Staples.

Dot Porter  13:05  

You can @ them when you post it. So now I have I bought a–I’ve never made a book before. I am not an artist, I am not a bookbinder, I am nothing like this. But I got a book thing. And I watched YouTube tutorials. And I made my text blocks. So I have this. It’s really weird, right? Because it’s all of the quires are different sizes. But it’s there. And then I’m working with the folks over in our MakerSpace. We’re going to 3D print boards. And we’re going to have this 3d printed boards attached. And probably I think I want to do some kind of leather cover. So which again, is like just combination of like, digital/physical/medieval, but not really, you know,

Caitlin Postal  13:58  

I think this would make for a really interesting pedagogical application, right? So if you were teaching a class like a manuscript studies class, and you wanted to have students use VCEditor to kind of put together their own miscellany or their own book of hours and think about what are the pieces that you would want from existing ones that that like that, by itself would be like one cool assignment. And then you also get into the making portion if you’re doing any kind of hands on work or if you’re, if people are really interested in curatorial work, and they’re like, okay, and now now that I’ve put it together, now I want to do exactly what you’re describing, or maybe even like a like a Penn DREAM Lab version of that as a course would be so cool just for that. I don’t know the medieval-meets-modern, I’m just really into.

Dot Porter  14:48  

Yeah, but uh, maybe a shorter answer to your question is I do. I think that there is a lot of potential in VCEditor for this kind of exercise. Like I love the idea of a classroom exercise where it’s like, “Okay, pretend that you are a scholar in you know, 1490, and you have access to these books, and you want to compile your own miscellany with the things that you’re interested in. Taking the physical, you know, the physicality into account, how would you do that and use VCEditor to do that? I think there’s a lot of potential there. Although, recently, I’ve just been using it to make models of the manuscripts from Penn’s collection. Because another thing that I really want to do is make this sort of visualization ubiquitous. For records, it is, you know, best practice or common practice to include collation formulas in catalog records. And collation formulas, even if you know what they are and how they work, they’re not real easy to read. Unless you have the book in front of you, it doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot. And there’s just stuff that you cannot just you can’t put in a formula, they just don’t work like that. And so having a way to make a visualization available in a catalog, I think that would be amazing if that became a thing that, okay, we have a formula, but we also have this.

And I’m gonna go on a little tangent, because anybody who works in a library, like in a catalog department, is immediately going to be like, “Well, okay, so how do you show that in the catalog?” So the way that we’re doing that at Penn, I do a screen print of the diagram from VCEditor. So I open VCEditor, I do a screen print, and then I save that both as a PDF and as a PNG image, along with other data. I’m making records in our institutional repository, which at Penn is called Scholarly Commons. Then I’m working with the cataloguer, who puts a link in the record to Scholarly Commons. And I don’t know how many people are really going to want to see it. But I love knowing that it’s there if people want to.

Aylin Malcolm  17:08  

I think, I mean, every time I look at a book, I pull up the records to sort of see how it’s put together. So I can see that being really useful for scholars.

Dot Porter  17:16  

I hope so.

Caitlin Postal  17:17  

People won’t know that they want it until it’s an option. And then when they realize that they have it, they’ll be like, “why doesn’t everybody do this?”

[Music Interlude]

Aylin Malcolm  17:41  

We can definitely talk about all of your projects until end of day. And I hope we do get to come back to that toward the end of this interview. But I was wondering if we could zoom out for a minute and talk about your personal journey toward your current work. You mentioned before that you hadn’t worked with a lot of manuscripts in person earlier on. And we tend to ask these kinds of questions, because a lot of our listeners are grad students and sort of thinking about how they might place themselves within the field going forward.

Dot Porter  18:07  

Right? I hadn’t worked with manuscripts very much before I came to Penn. So I started out, I actually started out studying church music, which now seems really weird. Like why did I ever think I was going to be a church musician? But I changed, I changed my mind about halfway through my sophomore year, I was like, this is not this is not for me. And then I majored in medieval studies as an undergrad. And I still had no idea. My whole career has, my whole life has been just me not having an idea what I wanted to do. Until recently, like, now I know what I want.

Aylin Malcolm  18:41  

That’s good to hear. 

Dot Porter  18:42  


Caitlin Postal  18:43  

It’s books of hours now.

Dot Porter  18:44  

And then I went to Western Michigan University, and I did my Master’s in medieval studies. And that’s when I started getting into books. I worked in the Special Collections Library with Tom Amos. That was when Tim Graham was there. So I took paleography and codicology. And then I went to library school, and I really thought I was like, I’m going to be an archivist. I’m going to be a rare books librarian. I’m going to be, you know, a manuscripts curator maybe, if I’m really lucky. But even in–I was doing archives track when I came in. And even then, like, my first semester was like: you’re gonna learn HTML, and you’re gonna learn about metadata, and you’re gonna learn about… and I was just like, totally, “wow!” Like, I knew that there was digital stuff because there had been the Electronic Beowulf came out when I was, I think, right as I was graduating college, so it was there my first years, you know, in grad school. So there was Electronic Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales Project, there was Piers Plowman Archive. And I was just like: I can make that. Maybe you can tell like having the conversation that we’ve had so far, I have a lot of creative energy and, and that it really appealed to that creative energy part of me. And so when I finished my degree, when I graduated from library school, I applied to a whole bunch of different jobs. But I ended up going to work with Kevin Kiernan, at the University of Kentucky, working on one of these sort of dream projects. And I got to, I got to see actually the Beowulf manuscript which was pretty cool. When I was–

Aylin Malcolm  20:24  

Without glass?

Dot Porter  20:26  

 Without glass. Yeah, it was–

Caitlin Postal  20:27  


Dot Porter  20:28  

I was doing some more, doing some–we were in the in London at the same time, and he was doing some more–

Aylin Malcolm  20:34  

What does it smell like?

Dot Porter  20:36  

I didn’t get that close. It was in a–it was like under a camera.

Aylin Malcolm  20:40  


Caitlin Postal  20:42  

They didn’t let you lick it?

Dot Porter  20:44  

No, they didn’t let me lick it. Very sad. but I did get–I was in the room with it. I was like, Oh, look, there it is. So and I actually remember thinking “that’s small.” Like everything was me and like, these books is like how the camera lies about the size of it. So I worked with him and then he retired, and then I worked with Ross Scaife, who was a Classicist. But I always thought I always considered myself a medievalist, you know, and then, and then I went to Ireland, and I was in Ireland for a little over a year. And I did metadata on a lot of different projects, including a couple of medieval projects. And then I came back and I was at the Indiana University Bloomington. And that was when I sort of made a pivot from digital humanities to digital libraries. So I went from being in a DH situation, where I was working on projects that were about topics and themes, to being responsible for collections in a place. But when I got the chance to come to Penn, to work in the Special Collections Department, I absolutely was like, wow, that would be amazing because I still get to do all of that digital stuff that I love. Plus, I get access to the physical collection. 

Aylin Malcolm  22:07  

So yeah, how does that work on a sort of day to day basis? What’s your daily life at the Schoenberg Institute or at the Kislak Center been like?

Dot Porter  22:14  

So it’s changed over time. So I have been here 10 years, and it’s changed, especially with COVID changed a lot of stuff. But before, you know, it sort of goes in goes in sort of thing. So when I first came, it was very much, there’s a lot of work on the actually VisColl. I started the program to make video orientations, which you have actually made a couple of videos–

Aylin Malcolm  22:45  

–That’s correct: a couple of astronomy manuscripts.

Dot Porter  22:47  

A couple of astronomy manuscripts, because this is great. So these are like, you know, two or three minute videos short sort of just the camera and the hands and talking about the book. And there are, there are also like the actually the VCEditor models, the collations models, they are put in the Scholarly Commons repository and then attached to our records. And the reason that I wanted to do that it’s all this is all about, like my big plan to get the physical aspects of the manuscript as part of the record. During my first week on the job, I had been looking at in the collection, there is a pretty early 11th century I think, glossed Psalter. And I had been looking at it online, I thought this is the most interesting thing. So glossed Psalter, you’ve got the Psalter text in the middle of the page. And you have these glosses written all around it. And I was like, that looks really cool. I want that to be the first book that I see when I arrive. And I could like it was amazing, like I filled in this thing. And they’re like, brought it to my office. And I’m like putting in my office, you know. And, but the thing that I remember being the most, like, impressed with about the book was how small it was. It’s like tiny, it’s like the size of a postcard. Maybe not quite that small. But it’s very, very small. Right. And what it means is that the writing that looks small, when you look at the digital image is like, tiny. And I was like somebody wrote this, it was like one scribe, like, how did you do that? So it was all of these things. It was like how the camera lies, the humanity of the person who wrote it, and then all of the people who used it. And you get that sense much more from the sort of physical object. And I’m still making these videos. I stopped for a while for a few years, I think because of the BiblioPhilly project–that was the next thing is we got this big grant. And then it was like BiblioPhilly all the time. And then COVID hit. There were months where I was working from home and I couldn’t have access to the physical collection. And that was really hard. And I sort of did what I could. But I swear like–

Caitlin Postal  25:05  

You weren’t going to like slip a manuscript in the bag and surreptitiously scoot your way out.

Dot Porter  25:11  

I didn’t even think about it.

Caitlin Postal  25:14  

So all the listeners, I’m not recommending that you do this, nor would I suggest that you try it.

Dot Porter  25:20  

No, no, it would be very bad. But I missed it. But I missed–I missed the collection a lot. And so it was March of 2020, when they sent us home. And then in January of 2021, they said, you can come back once a week. So that was when I was like, well, if they’re gonna let me in once a week, I’m gonna make it worth my while and I’m gonna make it worth everybody’s while. Because at that point, everybody was like, “I miss being with the books.” And I’m like, Well, I’m going to show you a book once a week. So that’s when I started doing my 30 minute show and tell. And actually, that was really where, whereas before COVID, I did work with the collections, it wasn’t something that I did every day. I didn’t have my hands on books every day. But then coming back and doing that once a week, it was like, it was like I can I have something to look forward to. Like Mondays, I would be like, yeah, I get to go in and I get to touch a book. And it’s great. That again, like things shifted, and we had had student workers who were doing actually doing an amazing job with the social media. But then it was really it was made clear that you know, so this sort of post COVID coming back, we weren’t going to be able to hire students to do the social media. So I was like, I will do the social media, because it seems to fall under my remit as Curator of Digital Research Services. And I started making more of the video orientations. So today, I have a big book here next to me. I have two other little books and there were three books that I had in earlier that I made video orientations of that I’ll eventually put on social media.

[Music Interlude]

Aylin Malcolm  27:15  

The video orientation, stay tuned for those. And also you have recently started your own podcast.

Dot Porter  27:21  

I did. I did. I did start a podcast. It’s called Inside My Favorite Manuscript. And it’s me and my best friend whose name is Lindsey. And Lindsey is not a manuscripts “manuscripts” person. But she’s mostly the way I think of it is it’s like she’s the every, every person. And so she asks questions of the people that we interview that I would not think to ask. And it’s really a lot of fun. And if anyone listening would like to come and talk about your favorite manuscript, let me know. And either of you, be very welcome to come on and, and also talk about the manuscript you love. And it does not have to be a manuscript that you know very well.

Caitlin Postal  28:06  

What if you don’t have a current favorite manuscript? Can you be like inside my current manuscript hyperfixation?

Dot Porter  28:13  

Yes, absolutely. Hyper fixations are more than welcome. And even the first, Allie Alvis was our first episode and she talked about two manuscripts that sort of a contrasting. And Lisa Fagin Davis is our second episode, and she talked about three. So I’m trying to sort of limit that but you can, if you want to, honestly, like you can talk about whatever you want. You know, if it’s not real, it’s a book in a video game? Okay, we can talk about a book and video game.

Aylin Malcolm  28:42  

That leads into I think, some of the questions that Caitlin and I had about fan culture.

Caitlin Postal  28:47  

Yeah, so we’re thinking about, you know, you work with manuscripts, you work with a lot of traditional manuscript studies, but you make a lot of–there are so many ways to make connections between traditional manuscript studies and pop culture, or manuscripts presence in pop culture, or the ways that different forms of pop culture will represent things that are adjacent to manuscripts or manuscript studies. And I guess we’re just sort of interested in how you think about that, how you make those connections, and then, as well, how you’re about balancing, sort of yourself as a scholar, and then also yourself as a fan. And I’m thinking particularly of the Jedi manuscripts project that you did with Brandon Hawk as one of those “there’s connections here, and there’s a balance here… Of the force.”

Dot Porter  29:33  

Yes. and the balance of the Force. I’ve been involved in like Star Wars fandom for a number of years. So I was sort of doing these things in parallel. So I was I was interested in getting all the manuscript stuff and then I’m doing my Star Wars stuff. I’m, you know, fanfic and fanart and all this stuff. I actually started a Tumblr account for the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. pretty early on, like 2014 2015, I was already on Tumblr, because I had my MCU Tumblr. And so when it’s like, let’s get on social media, I’m like, I’ll do a Twitter, and I’ll do a Tumblr. Because Tumblr is really like a fandom kind of space. And I was already in this fandom space. I thought of it as like manuscripts fandom. Like, why are we here? Why are people following this account? Because they think manuscripts are cool. And then I got more heavily into fandom with Star Wars. And then it wasn’t until The Last Jedi came out. And, you know, I remember sitting in the theater and like thinking, like, “Oh, my God, there’s like these manuscripts like,” you probably have the same reaction.

Aylin Malcolm  30:47

There were astronomical diagrams! You know, what’s on them?

Dot Porter  30:51

Yeah. Like, exactly. It was like, wow, that’s great. And so I remember I started tweeting about it and then I saw that this guy, Brandon Hawk, who (I didn’t know Brandon Hawk), uh, was also tweeting about it. And then we’re like, oh no. And then we ended up.

Being at Kalamazoo, which is Kalamazoo is the big, the International Congress on Medieval Studies: ICMS.

Aylin Malcolm  31:09

Yes. 3000 person strong party in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Dot Porter  31:14

And I remember we met for lunch and we were both like, we wanna know what are these manuscripts? How do they relate to Star Wars? But also how do they relate to manuscripts that, that we know? And so I was like, why don’t you come to Penn for a day? And we will, we’ll make videos where we like compare what we see in Star Wars and then in the art book to the manuscripts in our collection. You know, we, we obviously, we like did a lot of work before. We figured out what we were gonna look at. And then we spent the day in a studio on the, I think it’s on the third floor, and we had a green screen behind it. And so we were able to put in, I think if you, if you go to YouTube, the videos are all there. Um, and we’ve got like Tattoine behind us. It was great and it was really fun to cross those streams, right? To be like, I love Star Wars and I love manuscripts. And, it turns out, I also love Brandon Hawk. Like he’s just fantastic. And I’m, I’m very fond and we still, we’ve actually done more work with this, like we’ve presented a couple more times, um, expanding the work. Like there was another manuscript that showed up in the, um, the Rise of Skywalker, so I think we’re gonna keep going with this.

The other, you know, the other project that I’ve been working on that sort of is in the same space is in fact my books of hours, uh, work. So I have a couple of pieces I’ve done on books of hours as transformative works. And that actually came from a completely different place where I was looking at digitized images through a bunch of different frames. So that’s where I get my uncanny valley, um, thing and my like zombie thing. And so I was looking at all of these and I was like, well, what about transformative works as a frame for digitized objects? Cuz you’re literally transforming them. I should go back to that because I never actually went very far that way. 

Caitlin Postal  33:05

Oh, you should go back to that.

Dot Porter  33:07

I think that would be, I think that would be interesting, but instead I sort of got caught on this thing. But what about manuscripts themselves as transformative works? We were talking about, at the beginning of this, about how people personalize manuscripts and thinking about what a transformative work is. Especially in not only the transformation, but like a fan work, which is you are doing a thing explicitly because you love it because you care about it. Like that’s what fan, the fan part is. Um, and I always cite, there’s this, uh, article by Anna Wilson about affection as a part of that. And so actually the first manuscript that I tried this with was one from our collection, which is LJS 101, which is a, um, 9th and 11th century Carolingian manuscript that is sort of–part of its ninth century, part of its 11th century. And there were changes made and, but I was missing this, this sort of affection. I actually presented on this at Leeds, and at the end I was like, I can’t say that this is like a fandom transformative work because I can’t say, with any kind of certainty, that the people who did these things did it because they had affection of any kind.

And then I was, I think I was, um, watching Will Noel give a lecture about books of hours and it, I had this like, epiphany. I was like, what is the genre of books that I can point to from the Middle Ages that I can say with any kind of certainty that the people who had them made and used them had affection of some sort as their sort of central thing of it? And it’s like, well, it’s books of hours because there, I mean, it’s religious affection, right? Because it’s really centered about like, “I love Jesus and I love Mary, and so I’m having this book.” And I was like, well that’s really great. And so then I’ve sort of done more of this looking at books as transformative works, um, books of hours of transformative works.

Aylin Malcolm  35:15

Can I just ask what a transformative work is?

Dot Porter  35:17

I should look at the official definition, but it’s basically a work that takes a work from a canon. Let’s say Star Wars. I’m gonna say, I’m gonna take Han Solo and I’m gonna take Luke and Leia. So I’m gonna write a story about what happened to them after Return of the Jedi: they go on an adventure. That is a transformative work because I’m taking these characters and the world that they live in, and I am making my own story. Um, it would also be if. I write a story where, um, Darth Vader doesn’t die at the end.

Aylin Malcolm 35:50

So medieval like Sir Orfeo kind of thing?

Dot Porter  35:52


Aylin Malcolm  35:53

Orpheus actually comes back with his wife and everything’s okay.

Dot Porter  35:56

And everything’s okay. Right. So that, that’s a–

Caitlin Postal 35:58

John Lydgate shows up on the pilgrim’s ride home from Canterbury.

Dot Porter  36:04

So that’s, or even like, um, he went to hell, he followed Virgil to hell.

Caitlin Postal  36:08


Dot Porter  36:09

Dante! Wait, like Dante’s Inferno, like, yeah.

Aylin Malcolm  36:12

What is Dante’s Divine Comedy, if not fanfic?

Dot Porter  36:15

It’s fan. It’s fan fiction. It’s a transformative work. And, oh, and actually it’s interesting with the books, the books of hours as a transformative work. When I first got this idea, I, I talked it over with Nick Herman, who is our, uh, the SIMS curator of Manuscripts. He’s done a lot of work on books of hours, right. Cuz he is an or historian in the Middle Ages. And so there’s a lot of, um, books of hours. And so I actually sat down with him when I first had this idea just to make sure I wasn’t like, totally off my rocker because I’m, I have constant fear that I’m like totally off my rocker. And he listened to me and he was like, you know, Books of hours. It’s not like they sprouted up all on their own. They were actually based on, um, like the, so I’ve got this breviary here next to me.

Aylin Malcolm  37:02

Tapping this huge book.

Dot Porter  37:03

I’m just tapping this huge book.

Caitlin Postal  37:05

Yeah, I can’t see it, but I’m picturing it.

Aylin Malcolm  37:08

Can you hear the book?

Caitlin Postal  37:09

I can hear it. Yeah.

Dot Porter  37:10

So the Breviary is the books that the monks and nuns would use to, um, do their hours of the day. So they have prayers that they do at different hours over the course of the day and then overnight. And that’s what books of hours are based on. It was a way for secular people to incorporate this part of worship into their daily lives, and so it was sort of the slow thing of coming out from, from the religious secular, and that is a transformation.

Caitlin Postal 37:38

Well, I’ve got a, I’ve got a season two of Inside My Favorite Manuscript idea for you where you, that’s gonna put all the pieces together. You have people use VCEditor to build their own manuscripts and then discuss them with you on Inside My Favorite Manuscript, but it’s like inside my manuscript, right? Like inside mine that I created.

[Music Interlude]

Caitlin Postal  38:03

Thanks for listening to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Committee. Thank you so much to Dot for joining Aylin and I in this just fantastic and so fun conversation. You can find Dot in various places on the internet @leoba and also via Penn. Who knows which places those will be one week from now? 

You can catch up on Coding Codices at our website: podcast.digitalmedievalist.org. Or get in touch with us at dmpostgrads@gmail.com.

[Music Fade]




  • Featured image: UPenn LJS 101, fol. 37v, ed. by Tessa Gengnagel.

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