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From Parchment to Cyberspace

Medieval Literature in the Digital Age


Stephen G. Nichols

From Parchment to Cyberspace argues the case for studying high-resolution digital images of original manuscripts to analyze medieval literature. By presenting a rigorous philosophical argument for the authenticity of such images (a point disputed by digital skeptics) the book illustrates how digitization offers scholars innovative methods for comparing manuscripts of vernacular literature – such as The Romance of the Rose or texts by Christine de Pizan – that reveal aspects of medieval culture crucial to understanding the period.

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Introduction: Why I Wrote This Book, or Medieval Manuscripts Unchained


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This book tells a story. The story is partly about me—or at least about my quest for new ways of discovering and teaching medieval literature—and partly an account of a revolution that makes medieval documents accessible to everyone. At the heart of the story lies a paradox that I noticed early in my career. While medievalist colleagues in History of Art or Music worked directly with medieval artifacts—paintings, frescoes, sculpture, manuscript illuminations, music scores, for example—literary scholars pursued their research using modern critical editions prepared by scholars specially trained in deciphering the handwriting of medieval scribes, and analyzing technical aspects of medieval bookmaking. In short, there was a division of labor between textual critics trained in paleography and codicology (the sciences of old handwriting and manuscript construction) and literary historians concerned with the work transmitted by the manuscript.

There was good reason for the separate tasks of textual scholars and literary historians. Unlike a medieval painting, fresco, or sculpture, which are unique creations, literary works often exist in a number of manuscripts produced at different times and places throughout the Middle Ages. They have survived partly by chance and partly because they formed part of important institutional or private libraries in the late Middle Ages, and are now held in rare book repositories all over the world.1 Faced with multiple and diverse copies of a given work, textual ← 1 | 2 → scholars wanted as authentic a text of a literary work as...

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