Episode 7: Facsimile Narratives

“I honestly don’t think that mass digitization is the answer. It’s acknowledging the loss.”

You can listen to the episode on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Spotify, Stitcher, and TuneIn.

About this Episode

Recorded 24 July 2021. Edited by Tessa Gengnagel.

Guest: Mateusz Fafinski

Content: In this episode, Mateusz Fafinski discusses his work on the theory of digital humanities, in particular his notion of facsimile narratives and the nature of historical sources in the digital sphere, as well as his work on the adaptations of the post-Roman worlds in early medieval Britain and remediations of the past in computer games. He is an assistant lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin and published his book Roman Infrastructure in Early Medieval Britain: The Adaptations of the Past in Text and Stone in March 2021.

Resources and Further Reading

Mateusz Fafinski, “Facsimile Narratives: Researching the Past in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” in: Digital Scholarship in the Humanities (2021), fqab017, DOI: 10.1093/llc/fqab017.

Mateusz Fafinski, Roman Infrastructure in Early Medieval Britain: The Adaptations of the Past in Text and Stone, Amsterdam University Press, 2021, DOI: 10.5117/9789463727532.

Anita Radini et al., “Medieval Women’s Early Involvement in Manuscript Production Suggested by Lapis Lazuli Identification in Dental Calculus,” in: Science Advances 5/1 (2019), DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aau7126.

Lou Safra, Coralie Chevallier, Julie Grèzes & Nicolas Baumard, “Tracking Historical Changes in Trustworthiness Using Machine Learning Analyses of Facial Cues in Paintings,” in: Nature Communications 11/4728 (2020), DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-18566-7 [editor’s note 30 September 2020].

Jerzy Topolski, Metodologia historii, Warszawa: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 21984.

Harvey Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” in: Nature 568 (2019), 226–229, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1043-4 [retracted 7 July 2021].


automated transcription by <https://otter.ai>, manually corrected by Tessa Gengnagel

Tessa Gengnagel 0:14
Hello and welcome to Coding Codices, a podcast from the Digital Medievalist Postgraduate Subcommittee. My name is Tessa Gengnagel and I will be hosting this episode for which I am joined by Mateusz Fafinski. Mateusz Fafinski is an assistant lecturer at Freie Universität Berlin. Previously, he was a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Lausanne, and a Text Technologies postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. He’s both a medievalist and a digital humanist and he works on the adaptations of the post Roman worlds, the nature of historical sources in the digital sphere, early medieval Latin manuscripts, as well as the role of urban space in early medieval societies. I should also mention that in March this year, 2021, his book, Roman Infrastructure and Early Medieval Britain: The Adaptations of the Past in Text and Stone was published with Amsterdam University Press – and I’m sure we talk about that as well. But first of all, let me welcome you to the podcast and thank you for taking the time.

Mateusz Fafinski 1:11
Well thank you for inviting me, I’m actually very excited to be here; I mean, being interviewed for a podcast is a new experience for me, and I’m really looking forward to our discussion today.

Tessa Gengnagel 1:28
What drew you to digital medieval studies in particular? So, was there any key moment that influenced you to go in that direction as well?

Mateusz Fafinski 1:37
My way is not dissimilar to a lot of scholars in our field. I was drawn to the solutions that are possible through that methodology. I had some background, non-academic background, in data analysis. And I was interested in: How can I put this into practice when it comes to history, in this case, my PhD project, which dealt with late antique and early medieval Britain? And I worked a lot with charters and I was interested in: Hey, what can we do using digital cartography to map those places? And can we in a different way then think about spheres of influence? Can we, in a different way, map things like regions? And it worked. And because it worked, I was like, there is a huge potential there, I want to do more. But I think that first experience of being drawn to a solution fast made me also think very quickly that I am actually interested in how it works theoretically and methodologically. Because this is what I was missing at the beginning. Maybe not all of those digital solutions are equal, maybe we need to think a little bit about: How does it all work? And then I discovered a huge field of scholars who are doing the same thing and this has been my way ever since.

Tessa Gengnagel 3:11
Maybe this would be a good opportunity to talk about one of your articles a bit more in depth which deals with the theoretical implications of digital humanities work – also in the context of medieval studies but not just in medieval studies; because you are concerned with digitized medieval manuscripts but that is just one example of what you call digital facsimiles. And the publication that I mean is Facsimile Narratives: Researching the Past in the Age of Digital Reproduction and it was published this year in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities. I’m going to sum up a little bit of what you say and then pose a question. So in your critique of digital humanities scholarship, you argue against two concepts if I understood that correctly. The first is the concept of an inherent neutrality of databases and the second is the positivistic model of digital humanities inquiry. And as an example for this kind of unreflected, let’s say, simplistic scholarship that leads to questionable results, you cite two articles, one of which was published in Nature and the other in Nature Communications. So these are from scientists from other disciplines publishing something on historical materials and questions. And actually, when I was looking them up, I saw that the article in Nature was retracted on 7 July, so there were definitely major issues with that even from a purely methodological, statistical point of view. And the article in Nature Communications also has a note attached, stating that the editors are aware of criticisms and considering further steps. So these are clearly questionable articles. But my question is, how prevalent would you say is that kind of scholarship within the digital humanities themselves? And of course that depends on your definition of digital humanities. Does it matter not just what we are arguing against, but also: Who are we arguing against?

Mateusz Fafinski 4:59
So the answer to your last question is obviously it matters. But I think there’s a number of problems here. One is digital humanities is bigger than we think. I think one of the problems that we have, we tend to think we are this field and we are fine, but sort of the access to the field is open to everybody, and it should stay that way. And the field is constantly expanding. So that’s one thing. The other thing is, the problem is not the inherent narratives that are embedded in our data and also in our methods. The problem is whether we acknowledge them or not. The digital humanists, no matter what their background is, have an obligation to work with the narrative in their data. And the way I’m trying to methodologically argue that is that the database and a corpus are essentially a genre. And to think about them as just an objective collection of data points will always, and I’m not afraid to say that, will always lead to – at some point down the line – to bad results. And those two examples I cite, I cite because there that way down the line is extremely short. But I think it’s a danger for all of us in the whole field of digital humanities. And this is where I think medieval studies and manuscript studies in particular are of great help. Essentially, what we visit on a website– there’s not only facsimiles of the medieval manuscript, it’s also a facsimile of the catalog structure. And that catalog is no longer accessible directly to us when we visit that website. So that’s an example of what I call a inexplicit narrative in the paper. And then when somebody comes to this collection, for example, somebody who wants to work with it but doesn’t have a background in manuscript studies, they’re not aware of this narrative immediately. Because how could they know that this is actually a collection structured according to a catalogue published at the end of the 19th century, which, for example, has chosen to put particular manuscripts in particular regions because this is what they thought, and the scholarship has moved 120 years since then? “Digital facsimile” is not a term that I have invented but I argue for a very substantial broadening of its definition. That it’s not only a photo, or a photographic reproduction, that is then put digital, but that digital facsimiles comprise all kinds of digitized historical data. And then when they are aggregated together to form databases of different form, they, on the one hand, take their analog narratives with them, but they also create new narratives. And I see it as a huge challenge for digital humanities in the next 5, 10 years. How are we going to face this? Because I think there will be more and more studies like the ones that I criticize that, having the best intentions to work with the newest tools and newest solutions applied to heritage data, will make mistakes because they have not faced those narratives.

Tessa Gengnagel 8:28
How does the bias relate to the narrativity? So isn’t there an issue with bias that goes beyond acknowledging that there is a bias and which disqualifies certain data, for example, for certain kinds of analysis?

Mateusz Fafinski 8:41
I definitely don’t think that the solution is just: “Hey, let’s acknowledge the narrative and then we’re fine.” We have to face the narrative. And facing it does not mean just saying: “Oh, it’s there.” It means also dealing with it. And that means also dealing with some – I’m a historian – with some nasty past in our field, and some nasty biases that are, for example, present in those old interpretations of, let’s say, late 19th, early 20th century, that then, sadly, quite often, without a reflection, get replicated in their digital form. What’s being chosen to be digitized– this is an extremely powerful decision. And it’s a decision that hugely shapes the field of digital humanities. It was very, very visible in those last 18 pandemic months. I taught manuscript studies every semester and I suddenly found myself extremely limited because I could only show my students those manuscripts that are digitized, and there is a lot of them. But there’s still a number of very important cases which are not digitized or not easily accessible. This is very visible if you try to teach global manuscript studies. You create the corpus slightly differently; different kinds of data makes it then into your teaching. So when I talk about facing the narrative, I’m also talking about additional biases that are then introduced when we work with those collections without, let’s say, acknowledging the narratives in them. But we also bring our biases and our narratives in there, so it’s sort of piles on, it layers up as it goes. That means we need to think a lot about the conclusions that we draw from the results of, for example, studies that are being done on those collections and on this kind of data.

Tessa Gengnagel 10:52
What can scholars do to counteract this aside from asking for certain objects to be digitized? Is it something, I don’t know, I’m just wondering if there’s anything…

Mateusz Fafinski 11:04
I think there are two things: One is listen to the archivists. I think this is a huge problem in our field. A lot of the work that we’re doing now, the archivists have done in the 90s. We should learn from what they say and what they said. And the second thing is, what can we do? I honestly– it’s going to sound a bit heretical, but I honestly don’t think that mass digitization is the answer. It’s acknowledging the loss. I talk a lot about the loss in the paper because loss is an inherent part of digital humanist practice and of digitization as well. Digital humanities are a very positive field, you go into thinking, it’s like, we’re going to discover new things because we’re going to gain things. But we’re also going to lose a lot. Because the process of digitization leads to loss of certain features. It’s selective, not everything can be digitized. And I think the first step is acknowledging this loss. And I cannot stress how powerful an acknowledgement is. A power of a conclusion is very different if you say at the beginning: “Hey, I am fully aware that, for example, the data I’m working with does not include this, this and this.” This is the fight against this pseudo-positivism which tends to go the direction of: “Oh, yes, this is a digital solution, so it’s amazing. It covers all the bases.” It actually doesn’t. The digital solution, or the digital analysis, is in no way fuller than the analog one, it’s just different. It allows us to see different things. So to answer your question, what can we do apart from calling for digitization of other collections or of now marginalized objects or artifacts, which we should definitely do, is to try to include in our studies and our experiments those invisible or hardly visible narratives and see what happens then. For example, when we work on spread of different manuscript technologies, let’s try to think what happens if we in our qualitative models, because they are the way of dealing with this, if we include the fact that we don’t know or don’t have in the digitized form, to the same extent, the manuscript technologies that are non-Western.

Tessa Gengnagel 13:39
You mentioned in a footnote the work of a Polish historian by the name of Topolski and his work at the intersection of cybernetics and historical studies. So another direction, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little bit more, because you say that his work was groundbreaking but it’s still largely unknown in the West. And I’m personally interested in that because I also have the feeling that there’s a lot of literature from cyberneticists and also philosophers of science from that time, from the 70s, from the 80s, that would be very relevant for us now and should be more well-known, probably.

Mateusz Fafinski 14:15
This is very true. So Topolski was a Polish historian and also a methodologist. It was very much a thing in Eastern and Central Europe because of the political system. Marxism saw philosophy of history as one of the central issues. Let’s be now very frank: Because of that, a lot of really bad books were published, which tried to quote Lenin in order to solve methodological conundra. But at the same time, a lot of very good books were published in the DDR, in Czechoslovakia, in Poland and in the Soviet Union and in other countries of the East block. Topolski published his first edition of Methodology of History in 1966. And already there building on the works of Polish and Soviet cybernetics, he theorized something that we could call digital history. He didn’t have access to a computer, he was just thinking about, okay, so if we use cybernetics to an analysis of historical sources, what could happen? And in the first edition, it’s actually a very short chapter, and then there’s another one in 1984 where it’s a bit bigger. But we tend to forget all the work that was done behind the Iron Curtain when it comes to digital humanities. In the Soviet Union, in the 70s, in the 60s, there were pioneer university courses in what we would today call digital analysis of historical sources. They called it cybernetics in history. Those are fascinating endeavours that are very difficult to access, because well, they are not digitized. And they’re also written in languages that are not well-known in the West. Topolski has been translated into English but it’s not the best translation; I forgot the year it was published, I think somewhere in the 80s, and I don’t think it does justice to the book. At the same time, and this is something that has to be mentioned, especially by somebody who keeps on talking about seeing narratives, those books are also very often permeated with problematic statements that were inserted in those books very often because of the political climate in which they were written. So we have to read them a little bit against the grain. Because not every footnote to Hegel there is put there because the author actually wanted to put it, sometimes they also had to put it. But this does not invalidate the fact that we would do ourselves a huge favor if we made a push to translate more of those works into English, German, French, Italian, and read them a little bit more, because we would find that a lot of the theoretical reflection that we want to make has been made already.

Tessa Gengnagel 17:25
We haven’t really talked a lot about your book and your research from a medieval studies point of view, so I wanted to ask: Why did you write about Roman infrastructure in early medieval– well, where’s the title, I lost it…

Mateusz Fafinski 17:38
Britain. [laughs]

Tessa Gengnagel 17:38
Britain. [laughs] I didn’t want to say anything wrong because, I mean, always got to be a bit careful when you’re talking about Britain…

Mateusz Fafinski 17:46
Yes. [laughs] So, essentially, with my different scholarly hat on, although it is also, to an extent, the same scholarly hat, I’m hugely interested how societies in the past deal with what they got from the past before them. And I’ve analyzed this on the basis of, how did the societies in early medieval Britain and the polities there deal with what was left by the Romans – and I don’t like the word, actually, I’m using this as a mental shortcut, but it’s not about what’s being left because there are questions of continuity and discontinuity there. And infrastructure in my book is understood extremely broadly and this is an understanding that I bring, sort of, from the field of urban studies as well. Infrastructures can be material and immaterial and, for example, charters or manuscripts and how to produce them are also a form of infrastructure. They have a huge impact. And there are also symbolic infrastructures, there are ways of thinking that are also form of an infrastructure, and I think it’s something also with a huge contemporary resonance. So in the book, I’m interested a lot in: What happened with the urban spaces? What happened with those symbolic infrastructures? And how things that were connected with the Roman past could be used to make contemporary arguments or contemporary gains. So in other words, how could you prop up a polity in 6th and 7th century by using those Roman infrastructures. And a huge role in this is played by charters. So those forms of documents were – to simplify it a lot -: Somebody gives something to somebody else. And those could be material things. But those could be also immaterial things like privileges. Past is an extremely powerful resource and we see it today a lot in the current political discussions. And this is what this book is about: What can you do with your past?

Tessa Gengnagel 19:57
What I find so interesting about this is that it not only resonates in current political discussions, like you say, but also in pop culture. So the first thing that I actually thought of when I read your book title was, I don’t know if you’ve played it, but Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla which is set in early medieval Britain in the 9th century. And one interesting part of that is that there are a lot of Roman relics, monuments, statues. It evokes an image of Rome in decay and planted in the green British landscape among sheep, basically. They made a design choice to include those Roman remnants and actually in the settlement that you build as a player, there’s also a, let’s say, fanboy of Roman culture where you can collect several items from Roman culture and bring them to him and then you get some rewards. And, I don’t know, have you played that? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mateusz Fafinski 20:49
I have played it. I think it’s a problematic game. One of the chief issues that I want to sort of bring to the fore in the book is that we should get rid of this easy continuity/discontinuity dichotomy which I think Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla very strongly tries to entrench. So there is this Roman past that’s planted in the idyllic Roman landscape and it’s there and it decays. And because it decays, it creates this very powerful visual image. And this is rooted in a piece of literature, actually, which is an old English poem called The Ruin which I also discuss in the book in which the author visits what probably are the ruins of Roman Bath. And they wax lyrically about how the world built by giants now stands there and decays and nothing is happening with it and how it reflects the human conditions as well. It’s a poem, it’s not a historical document. It’s a great poem. It’s one of the most powerful pieces of English literature, I would say. But it’s a poem. And I just want to remark very briefly that I don’t think computer games have to be authentic. I think they should not spread falsehoods and this is a problem, especially with the Assassin’s Creed games, because this is the question of where do we draw the line. But their job, so to speak, is not to be authentic in this sense; but there is a question to what extent they have to incorporate this. I have this saying that I keep on repeating that every news outlet and every game developer should have a resident medieval historian. It would only do them well. But back to this dichotomy between continuity and discontinuity. So one of the things that the book tries to argument for is that there was an organic evolution of those infrastructures. So yes, there were Roman ruins spread in various places. But they were used in various ways. Dismantling a Roman building, for example, is actually a very powerful act of reuse. It requires actually substantial resources to do so. And we know of cases in Britain where this happened, I’m not trying to say that there were no places in early medieval Britain where there was a Roman ruin in the middle of the field, because there are ones like that even today. But ruins are not inactive resources, they also could have played a role and in many cases those Roman infrastructures– I use the term, they adapted themselves out after Empire, those polities and those societies. So because they used those ruins and those remnants in various ways, at some point, they stopped resembling what they originally were. And we tend to think about it as decay. Because, oh, a Roman road is no longer used as a road, it’s used as a boundary marker. But it actually means that it’s still being used. It’s just used in a different function. It plays a different role. For me, the most powerful example of this comes actually not from Britain but from southern France. And if you go to the wonderful, beautiful city of Arles in Provence, you will see this amazingly preserved Roman amphitheater. And the way we see it today is a product of 19th century, early 19th century, rebuilding, if I remember correctly around 1832, because in the medieval times inside the amphitheater, there were houses built and there were three churches and there was a little town in it, in which the Roman amphitheater lived on, just as something else. And if I want one thing to be taken from my book, it’s to appreciate those medieval reuses, to think about them as a next stage in life of those monuments and those infrastructures where they’re still being used, they’re still being important for the local community. And there’s something powerful and very beautiful about it.

Tessa Gengnagel 25:16
It would be good for us to know more about how people adapted to their environments in the past, if we have to do that going forward in the future. I think that brings me to my last question, so: What are you working on at the moment? And also, is there anything you would like to explore in the future?

Mateusz Fafinski 25:32
Now I’m involved in a number of projects. One of them which hopefully soon will have an alpha release is a manuscript project with the Stanford team called Medieval Networks of Memory, where we work on 13th century mortuary rolls. It’s essentially a medieval Twitter feed, in which when somebody dies, a role is being stitched and taken by somebody called the breviator from monastery to monastery and people there write little medieval “tweets” (scare quotes) in which they say: “Oh, we pray for the soul of that deceased abbess or that deceased abbot, please pray for us.” And sometimes put other things there. So it’s a project that tries to analyze the scribes of those rolls, of two of them in the initial stage, to build an interactive map where you can explore them, and to also ask important questions – we’re back to hidden narratives or inexplicit narratives – for example: Who of those scribes were women? Because the default is very often: This was all written by men; I’m very interested in female literacy in early medieval Europe and in high medieval period. And sort of refocusing the way we analyze scribal hands and remodeling the way we think about female scribes. And there are interesting discoveries coming up and there are interesting discoveries in the last two years being made. You might have heard about the study two years ago about the tooth being found in a female skeleton with traces of lapis lazuli, which is a pigment used in medieval manuscripts. Those kinds of things, I think, stimulate that conversation. So that’s one of the projects. The second one which is more to do with late antiquity is thinking about the transformations of urban space in light of late antique monasticism, which is hopefully going to be a book which I’m writing with a dear friend, Jakob Riemenschneider. And I continue working on another now methodological article in digital humanities in which I’m interested in looking at scripts and hands and scribal activities as computational models and thinking what we can learn from sort of both sides, what we can learn from manuscript studies in that respect, and what we can learn from computational approach. I’ve mentioned that very briefly but I am hugely interested in the application of qualitative models in digital humanities. I think that the dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative is false, I think they have to play together. And we have to sort of re-up a little bit the way we think about qualitative models, and: How can we apply them and digital humanities more and better?

Tessa Gengnagel 28:30
This sounds extremely interesting and fascinating and I’m definitely looking forward to reading all of your future scholarship and work. With that I thank you for joining me. Thank you, Mateusz.

Mateusz Fafinski 28:43
Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. And thank you again for inviting me.

Tessa Gengnagel 28:48
I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yeah, some information for our listeners at the end. As always, you can find everything you need to know on our website, which is podcast.digitalmedievalist.org. You can also find us on Twitter as @digitalmedieval, or email us at dmpostgrads@gmail.com and I hope everyone has a nice day and stay safe and stay tuned.