Nota Bene

Making Digital Marks on Medieval Manuscripts

by Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs XVIII, 128 Pages
Series: Medieval Interventions, Volume 3


We stand at the cusp of an exciting moment in digital medieval studies. The advent of ubiquitously available digitized manuscripts alongside platforms that host encoded medieval texts has democratized access to the cultural heritage of the Middle Ages, and gives us the potential for greater understanding of that era. Seen through the lens of late medieval French literature, in particular the Roman de la Rose and the works of Guillaume de Machaut, this book exhorts us to be optimistic about what we can achieve. Challenging the pessimism inherent in views that see our historical situatedness as a barrier to truly understanding the medieval era, Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel argues that digital networks of manuscript images, texts, and annotations, can not only aid us in comprehending medieval literary culture, but are, in fact, complementary to medieval modes of thought and manner in which manuscripts transmitted ideas. Using her teaching of Guillaume de Machaut and her work with the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, Mahoney-Steel envisages a future in which the digital humanities can enable us to build transhistorical relationships with our medieval objects of study.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Examples and Table
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Interpreting the Medieval Text
  • Chapter 2. Encoding and Decoding Texts: Marking-up Texts for Analysis
  • Chapter 3. Teaching with Digital Annotation Tools
  • Chapter 4. Annotating the Everted Network
  • Chapter 5. Envisioning an Annotated Environment: The Roman de la Rose Digital Library
  • Conclusion
  • Index
  • Series Index

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This book began as a book on annotation. I started by thinking about annotation in relation to critical theory. How we use it, why we use it. But the results were not satisfying. This is not a book about what we have done, but a book about what we can and will do. In writing use case scenarios for the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, I began considering a potential future in which users of the Library could tag manuscript images with information and create interconnections between that information, turning the Library from a one-way street in which scholars come to us for static information, into a two-way collaborative experience in which users continuously build upon the information, creating ever richer interconnections. It is a grand vision for the resource, but one I hope to realize some day. Indeed, other academic projects are exploring the potential of these kinds of holistic research environments, The Ten Thousand Rooms Project at Yale being just one excellent example (http://tenthousandrooms.yale.edu). There are two questions I ask myself when envisioning a use case scenario. The first is of course how this will benefit our users: how their research and teaching will be enabled by a resource with increased functionality. The second is how this will allow us to understand how medieval people used these texts and manuscripts. I am not looking for a medieval mindset per se, I believe it is ← xiii | xiv → too crude a move to place the entirety of late medieval Europe—a nuanced, chaotic, and creative period of history—under a category of a particular mindset. But, I am confident that we can achieve a certain kind of cultural vista, and I believe that technology is what will enable us to do this. Hence, this book moved from a study of how we use digital annotation, to a manifesto in how we might creatively employ digital platforms and the web to build a deeper relationship with our objects of study. Nonetheless, this is a book also founded in experience, the rich and rewarding journey I have had encoding medieval texts, teaching medieval poetry, and managing digital medieval projects.

The inception of this book owes much to my work at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University with the Roman de la Rose Digital Library. Having written the use case scenarios for the Rose Digital Library, the idea was put forward by Sayeed Choudhury, Hodson Director of the Digital Research and Curation Center (DRCC), that I develop this into a book. The scenarios were based around how we might enhance the existing resource to create a collaborative environment where knowledge and scholarship about the milieu of thirteenth and fourteenth-century literature, particularly in relation to the Roman de la Rose narrative, might be shared and nurtured. I was especially thinking about this idea in relation to introducing our students to the cultural backdrop of this literature. Having taught subjects ranging from the works of Guillaume de Machaut, to Chaucer and his contemporaries, to the University of Paris in the Middle Ages, to the Rose itself, I was keenly aware of the effort involved in bringing students to a fulsome understanding of late-medieval culture without resorting to cliché. Yet, many of the students I taught had little to no experience with medieval studies and even fewer had dabbled with Middle French or Middle English. It was likely that for the majority of these students, their encounter with medieval lives, languages, and literatures would be largely limited to my teaching. Thus, I always felt the burden of going the extra mile to give these keen learners a truly immersive pedagogical experience. Where possible, I insisted on taking them to interact with cultural artifacts, such as manuscripts (and, when teaching in the United Kingdom, architecture, too), first hand. Furthermore, the digital era offered much in being able to experience things that were geographically remote. I began to think more and more on how we could capitalize on the digital revolution to enhance learning. How could we enable networks of information about the Middle Ages to flourish online in such a way that we could give students and researchers multifaceted and deep-seated access to knowledge, while still ← xiv | xv → taking care to acknowledge the problems of our historical situatedness and the different kind of perspective that digital objects can give us?

Digital-networked environments have been becoming ever more important for how we live our lives, from social platforms, to business communication, to online teaching environments. Yet, I feel we are still in the processes of capitalizing on networked information when it comes to promoting understanding of our subject areas, particularly historical ones. For the Rose Digital Library, I began thinking about how we could interact with the 130+ manuscripts on our site in such a way as to build a community of learning around them. To this end, digital annotations seemed like the obvious starting point and I focused on how we could create a user community who would append information to manuscript images. Furthermore, these commentaries on the folios would have to be linkable to forge networks of information across the manuscripts and beyond. My coworkers at the Digital Research and Curation Center, while I was working there as a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Postdoctoral Fellow, were invaluable in helping me to hone my ideas. Tim Di Lauro taught me the art of a well-constructed and in-depth use case scenario based on a template that had been honed by those at Johns Hopkins for developing high-level digital projects, and I am indebted to him for his advice on how to translate scholarly needs into clear instructions for a programming team. The most recent iteration of the Rose Digital Library has involved an enjoyable collaboration with my colleagues: programmers Mark Patton and John Abrahams, and project manager Cynthia York. They have filled me with enthusiasm for developing the Rose site, which in turn has inspired my excitement for writing about it in this volume.

Of course, I would not have been in the position of working with the people in the DRCC had it not have been for the opportunity to take up a CLIR postdoctoral fellowship at Hopkins. I am deeply grateful to all at CLIR for their training and introduction to the world of working as an “alternative academic” or “alt-ac.” I especially owe thanks to the mentorship of Elliott Shore and Lauren Coates, who lead all CLIR fellows into this new world with their warmth, wit, and wisdom.


XVIII, 128
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVIII, 128 pp., 8 b/w ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel (Volume editor)

Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel is the Digital Scholarship Specialist for Johns Hopkins University Libraries. She holds a PhD in medieval studies from the University of Exeter and has published on the medieval motet, Linked Open Data, Guillaume de Machaut, and collaborative work in the digital humanities.


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