[Humanist] 24.144 digital palaeography: practical steps?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 24 07:14:44 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 144.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 23 Jun 2010 07:04:48 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: practical steps?

Bob Kraft's recalling of old questions calls up more specifics. Let me
be specific and ask the experts, such as we reach them here, to address
the following thought-experiment.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, just the writing on a clean ms page,
in an alphabet that is relatively unproblematic (such as Carolingian
minuscule -- which, yes, is a constructed idea, but let's entertain that
idea). For the particular alphabet we establish as a working hypothesis
the order and direction of strokes for each letterform, about which it
is possible to be relatively certain. We also establish the angle at
which the pen was held -- again, a relative certainty, or at least a
good working hypothesis. By training of a computing system with optical
scanning capabilities, we establish the identity of each letterform in
the system. The imagined machine then goes letter by letter, word by
word, line by line, following the writing.

And so my first question: what could this machine compute in doing what
I have described (assuming of course that the mechanical operations are
possible)? From that follows my second: having computed whatever, could
a comparison with the results from scanning a second ms yield
palaeographically respectable results? A guide to further investigations?

For rather different but overlapping purposes the calligrapher Edward
Johnston taught that if you could copy a ms hand well enough that your
lines exactly matched the lines of the original in length as well as
height of letterform you had the script in your hand and could claim to
understand it. At minimum (I have always thought and once got the
agreement of Angus Cameron and Leonard Boyle) excellent training for
the palaeographer. But could we train a suitably constructed computing
system, and would it then tell us anything of interest? Is it
technically conceivable and within the range of current possibilities
that the imagined system could deal with the tactile dimension -- which
the meticulous calligrapher would attempt to reproduce, of course, using
as close to the same materials as possible?

If, like Wily E. Coyote, I am running on thin air but have yet to look
down, someone please tell me what I should be seeing when finally I come to
my senses.

But, then, the above may be utterly wrongheaded for an altogether different
reason and be answered by an altogether different techno-scientific
approach. The neurosciences, after all, have begun to peek into the workings
of our brains and are beginning to have interesting things to say about what
goes on there. Why not crawl inside the head and take a look at what a
scribe's brain knows that the scribe is doing *when he or she is doing it*?
True, anything even remotely approaching what a palaeographer could use is
but a dream of a glimmer on the horizon. But, for example, A. S. Byatt is
bravely digging into these neurosciences for what they might be able to
tell her about her own imaginative processes. In that way she resembles the
British painter Harold Cohen, who got involved with computing to find out
more about drawing and painting than doing them could tell him.

What most interests me here is the sense that now is the moment that the
neuroscientific metaphor is opening doors of the mind, in the way that
computing in the 1960s and 70s was opening such doors for the creative arts
and scholarship. Before, alas, industrialisation set in, and the restless
moved elsewhere. And I wonder, what can we learn for our practices in the
digital humanities from such historical moments?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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