What follows is the fifth in a series of guest posts on the subject “Medieval Studies in the Age of Big Data,” introduced in a post last month. Previous contributions to the series, by Martin Foys, Tim Stinson, Bruce Holsinger, and Deborah McGrady, can be found here, here, here, and here. Stephen G. Nichols (Johns Hopkins University; full bio below the post) is one of the principal investigators on Mellon-funded Manuscript Studies in an Interoperable Digital Environment initiative.
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James Carville was right. Sometimes we can’t see the evidence under our nose. Or, in the case of the digitization of medieval manuscripts, how the mass digitization of medieval codices has radically altered the object of study. “Big data” has a way of doing that, of creating a parallax effect not so much by changing the appearance of the data – though it can do that, too – but, more importantly, by shifting the viewing perspective of the observer…of our viewpoint as it happens. It isn’t simply that we’ve digitized scores of copies of a work like the Roman de la Rose – 160 and counting – which, despite being housed in museums and rare book libraries all over the world, are now accessible on our computer screen whenever we choose to look. Nor does it have much to do with the technology and tools that allow us to work with such resources. Those are now part of the landscape. We’ve spent more than fifteen years focused on technology to get to this point. Enough, already! Now we urgently need to understand the way these resources have changed how we look at our texts, and, reciprocally, “how they look at us,” so to speak.
At least that’s what we ought to be doing. But apparently it’s still all about technology. Big data, more digitization, that’s where the action (and our attention) remains fixed. Don’t take my word for it, read the blogs. They’re instructive. And one thing they tell us – aside from mantras about digital literacy – is that when people do talk about the manuscript data, the viewpoint is still irredeemably textocentric.
Excuse me? Isn’t that what manuscripts are supposed to do, transmit texts? Obviously, that’s one function; but are their “texts” to be understood in the same way as their modern counterparts? How could they be? After all, their situation was very different from that of modern literary works.
Neither during the Middle Ages or in Modern times did medieval works enjoy the autonomy we take for granted for literature today. The meaning of modern works cannot “be altered by their users, because they are not objects like other objects in the world.” As Lisa Siraganian notes, works that cannot maintain their autonomy, like any object, are “forever available to the perceptual experience (as opposed to interpretations) of readers, spectators, or enterprising poets” (quoted from “What do we mean by Autonomy?” a review by Todd Cronan of Siraganian’s Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life).
Medieval works, constrained by the technology of publication in parchment copies each hand-written by scribes, enjoyed at best only semi-autonomy. They were in fact objects “available to the perceptual experience…of enterprising poets” who also happened to be scribes in many cases (think of Christine de Pizan). The fate of medieval literature in the modern period witnessed an even greater program of intervention, this time in the name of “textual integrity.” For the last two hundred years or so, medieval literary works have been subject to the mediation of text editors. The public at large could only read medieval literature in editions, or in translations based upon them. The perceptual experience of editors, in turn, was guided by successive theories of editing practices, each one cogent in itself, though outdated as soon as the next practice gained adherents. Born of Humanist concern to establish reliable texts of classical works in the Renaissance, critical editions of medieval works privileged text and language – including their grammatical, prosodic, phonological, and dialectical elements – above all else. But the fact remains that the scores of copies of medieval works now available to us tell the story of a dynamic performative life accorded to medieval poems like the Roman de la Rose through their multiple versions.
Another thing that manuscripts tell us about what constitutes a medieval work follows from its lack of autonomy. Text editors long defended the necessity of the critical edition as requisite to preserve the integrity of the poem against the vagaries or “errors” of scribes. Faced with evidence that the Middle Ages was not a culture that demanded an inviolate originary text – at least in the case of vernacular literature – we’re justified in concluding: first, that the period not only tolerated but encouraged scribal “participation” in the work being copied; and, secondly, that this was so because manuscripts of literary works were not textocentric, but a pluri-representational matrix in which the literary text was simply one element – though a crucial one – of the whole. Since the artists and rubricators who worked on manuscripts were free to innovate, scribes, too, though to a lesser extent, could intervene in the texts they copied. Inescapably, then, each manuscript representation of a narrative poem, especially a long and complex one like the Rose, instantiates the work as perceptual experience of the scribe(s), the illuminator(s), the rubricators(s), and ultimately of the master scribe who planned it.
This puts an entirely new light on the function of the critical edition. For what it has provided all these years is an ideal instantiation of a poetic work that – like God in medieval theology – exists everywhere in its manuscript instantiations, and nowhere as an independent entity. In the spirit of Voltaire’s mot about God, since the work couldn’t be definitely located, scholars had to invent it. For as long as the manuscripts were scattered in rare book repositories all over the world, that was fine. Better to have an ideal work than nothing. But now that we can see and study a whole series of authentic manuscript versions of the work – the Rose, for example – we need to rethink the relationship between the manuscript exempla and the concept of “the work.” And we need to do so independently of Lachmannian stemmas and Urtexts, which graft creationist paradigms onto philological issues. My teleologically neutral candidate at the moment involves adapting set theory to the problem, where the poetic work, as “a set,” could be postulated from manuscripts of the work, which may be construed as functioning as members or elements of the set, a subset in fact.
But whatever concept ultimately helps us to resolve this crucial question, it will emerge from intensive study of the manuscripts that our mass digitization projects make available to us.
Stephen G. Nichols, James M. Beall Professor of French and Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University, is co-principal investigator (with Alexandra Gillespie) of the Manuscript Studies in an Interoperable Digital Environment initiative. He has written and edited many books on medieval French literature, history, and visual culture and is one of the founding editors of Digital Philology. He received the Modern Language Association’s James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding book by an MLA author in 1984 for Romanesque Signs: Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography.