[Humanist] 25.240 on digital palaeography

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Aug 24 03:48:33 GMT 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 240.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2011 13:07:33 +0100
        From: Shawn Day <day.shawn at GMAIL.COM>

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, National University of Ireland, Galway has kindly provided the following summary of the ESF Exploratory Workshop on Digital Paleography. Hopefully readers of this list will find it of interest. Thanks Dáibhí for talking the time to prepare this and for generously sharing it.

Digital Palaeography: ESF Exploratory Workshop

Würzburg (Germany) 20-22 July, 2011

Dr Malte Rehbein (Lehrstuhl für Computerphilologie d. Universität Würzburg and formerly of the Moore Institute, NUI Galway) was the convenor of a recent conference, funded under the European Science Foundation’s Exploratory Workshop Scheme, and held at the University of Würzburg. Bringing together 24 researchers from 9 countries, its purpose was to explore the potential application to manuscript palaeography of the newer digital technologies, such as automated OCR, metrical analysis, quantitative methods, and forensic (incl. DNA) analysis and imaging techniques, and the likely implications of these scientific methodologies for the ‘traditional’ art/science of palaeography.

The ‘traditional’ perspective was provided by Dr Eef Overgaauw (Keeper of Manuscripts at the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin), in a Keynote paper entitled ‘Palaeography: Old Questions and New Technology’. Rejecting the notion that there was a current ‘crisis’ in the field, he offered an elegant and entertaining overview of research in manuscript studies and the problems raised — and in most cases still unanswered — by ‘traditional’ methods (e.g., how to accurately date and locate medieval manuscripts on the basis of script alone). It is, he stated, a moot point whether the new technologies can really resolve some or all of the burning questions. He argued that, even where quantitative or numerical methodologies were applied, there would still be the requirement for manuscript expertise (he used the word connoisseurship) in order to make the most of the new data & to interpret them correctly.

The Keynote talk was followed by a series of presentations under the headings of ‘Enhancing Palaeography’, ‘Crossing the Disciplines’, and ‘The Digital World’, with survey talks by Stewart Brookes (King’s College London) on ’Digital Resources for Palaeography, Manuscripts & Diplomatic’ (with reference to http://www.digipal.eu (http://digipal.eu)), and Wendy Scase (Birmingham), ‘New Methodologies for Effective Exploitation of Digital Manuscript Corpora’ (with ref., e.g., to the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies (http://www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/mancass/C11 database and the Manuscripts of the West-Midlands (http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/mwm, which is A Catalogue of Vernacular Manuscript Books 
of the English West Midlands, c. 1300 - c. 1475). Specific collections were discussed by Paola Errani (Cesena), ‘Parchment and Scribes in the Malatestian Scriptorium’, which reported on the the development of methods to measure and compare the thickness of vellum in contemporary codices, to see whether recognisable (‘signature’) techniques in the preparation of the writing-material might be found. A similar study of a distinct corpus of manuscripts was described by Lior Wolf (Tel Aviv), ‘Identifying Join Candidates in the Cairo Genizah (see http://www.genizah.org.). He was able to report that their methodology has successfully matched up previously unrecognised pages and manuscript sections from the famous 19th-c. Cairo discovery of medieval Hebrew codices.  

Timothy Stinson (North Carolina) spoke on ’DNA Analysis and the Study of Medieval Parchment Books’, while Torsten Schaßan (Wolfenbüttel) spoke on ‘OCR for Manuscripts and Early Prints’. This linked up neatly with the paper, ‘Spatial Exploration Tools in the graphem Project’ by Matthieu Exbrayat (Orléans) (see http://www.univ-orleans.fr), which described how the individual pen-strokes of scripts have been analysed and compared with a view to identifying identical hands in different manuscripts. Melanie Gau and Robert Sablatnig (Vienna) spoke about ‘Investigation of Historic Documents with Focus on Automated Layout and Character Analysis’, which described their analysis of the sensational finds of Glagolitic (Old Church Slavonic) manuscripts in the monastery of Mount Sinai. As in the case of the Cairo Genizah codices in Hebrew, the Mt Sinai Glagolitic codices lend themselves more readily to OCR analysis because of the nature of the script itself (individual letters, not ligatured or otherwise joined together, as in European medieval minuscule MSS). The technique used would presumably not be quite so effective with other, more cursive, Glagolitic MSS, such as the so-called ‘Freising Monuments’ (see J. Pogacnik (ed.), Freisinger Denkmäler — Brizinski spomeniki — Monumenta Frisingensia (1968), but does offer possibilities for the analysis of late antique and medieval bookhands (capitalis, uncial, half-uncial, e.g., the Book of Kells).  

A more philosophical talk was given by Ségolène Tarte (Oxford) on ‘Interpreting Ancient Documents: of Avatars, Uncertainty, and Knowledge Creation’, which was an elegant exposition, from the point of view of a papyrologist (with experience also of the Vindolanda fragments) of the philosophical and existential challenges faced by all who encounter the older written relics of the past.

Other contributions were made by Natasha Golob (Ljubljana) on digital techniques for analysing late medieval manuscript decoration, Marc Smith (Paris), on script analysis, Dominique Stutzmann (Paris IRHT), and Holger Essler (Würzburg), and there was a valuable open workshop, utilising digital images of Oxford manuscripts, presided over by Dr Peter Stokes (King’s College London). Other scholars were in attendance as observers.

The entire proceedings were graced by the benign presence of the ESF Rapporteur, Prof. Claudine Moulin (Trier), herself a noted expert on manuscript dry-point glosses.  

It is intended that all the Workshop presentations will be made available shortly on a dedicated website. In the meantime, interested persons can contact Dr Rehbein and view the pre-conference literature at: malte.rehbein at uni-wuerzburg.de (mailto:malte.rehbein at uni-wuerzburg.de).

The conference was a good indication of how things have moved on (relatively rapidly) from the Munich Conference of 2009 on the same topic (see http://tinyurl.com/38pfmk3) and the Helsinki Digital Imaging of Ancient Textual Heritage conference of 2010, and even more so since the publication of articles such as Knut Kleve & Ivar Fonnes, ‘Lacunology: on the use of computer methods in papyrology’, Symbolae Osloenses 56 (1981) 157-79, or P. F. Beinema & A. J. Geurts, ‘Computer-supported codicography of medieval manuscripts’, Ontsluiting van middeleeuwse handschriften in de Nederlanden, Verslag van studiedagen gehouden te Nijmegen, 30-31 maart 1984 (Nijmegen 1987) 223-35. One plea made and supported by many at the Würzburg Workshop was that Digital Palaeography should take active steps to become part of the Digital Medievalist Community (see http://www.digitalmedievalist.org/); whether that time has come — or whether Digital Palaeography still needs to establish itself as a stand-alone discipline —remains to be seen.  

In the meantime, hovering (unspoken and unmentioned) over the entire event was the spirit of Prof. Bernhard Bischoff, doyen of Medieval Latin Palaeography in the last half-century, who remarked famously, in the Introduction to his book, Paläographie des römischen Altertums und des abendländischen Mittelalters (Berlin 1979: French transl. 1985; Engl;. transl. 1990): ‘Palaeographical work, of course, goes on. In our own time international co-operation undertakes to solve fundamental problems. Tools are being created which will provide palaeographers with reliable assistance and ease their work. With the aid of technological advances palaeography, which is an art of seeing and comprehending, is in the process of becoming an art of measurement’. The statement (characteristically gnomic in its formulation) was not altogether intended by Bischoff as a positive one. I think the Würzburg Workshop might have given him reason to be more sanguine about the future of Digital Palaeography.

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, National University of Ireland, Galway.

More information about the Humanist mailing list