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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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I want to get to know this man better. I am staring at a screen of scrubbed text ready for mining. The text is that of Guillaume de Machaut’s Loanges des Dames, a collection of over 270 lyric, fixed-form poems that the fourteenth-century, French poet wrote over the course of his life, the vast majority are paeans to love and ladies, although occasional complaints about things such as gout creep in, too. The texts have been decapitalized, punctuation and diacritics have been removed, “stop words” have been applied. I am left with love word soup. I want to get to know Machaut better. To climb inside this mash of vocabulary and understand a man. I am not searching, I hasten to add, for the kind of authorial intention decried by the New Critics; for the “ghost” of Machaut standing behind his works and declaring that this here is just so, as he would want it. Instead, I want to be able to put my head inside the nuanced and ever-changing vista of a medieval poet, to find the ticks of habit that stayed with him through his life and which found expression in repeated snippets of phrases that he found rhythmically pleasing, to find the moments of rupture when something changed. Analyzing dendrograms, I wonder if a point where the visualization indicates a clustering of his later poetic output, a point that seems to suggest a shift in how he is writing, is the point where his beloved...

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