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Nota Bene

Making Digital Marks on Medieval Manuscripts


Edited By Tamsyn Mahoney-Steel

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.
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In his farewell address, President of the United States, Barack Obama, commented, “[o]ur Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power—with our participation, and the choices we make.”1 To put this another way, documents require community in order to be both effective and affective. As Andrew Cole and D. Vance Smith have argued, the Middle Ages still have legitimacy for the development of theory. If medieval thought still underpins how we approach the world critically, then broad access to and understanding of the era’s documents are important to our appreciation of our own era. Yet, the bar needs to be lower for comprehending the significance of these documents. While items such as the US Constitution already have enough political, historical, and cultural currency as not necessarily to require community to be actively built around them, many more obscure documents need bringing to light. The efforts of digitization can only bring us so far. Good metadata is important for discovery, but it is not enough to uncover the multifarious connections between documents.2 Even systems that uncover topical links between texts that have been transcribed or processed via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) cannot alone provide context. But, communities working to annotate key information and interrelations, and to provide ← 113 | 114 → commentary and context, can create a living system around our cultural heritage that can make it both relevant...

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