Karen Jolly’s Slow Scholarship

This summer I attended two very different conferences in my field, where I gave two inter-related papers reflecting on the processes of scholarship in a digital world.

The first conferDAIV19ence, in Cambridge, was a small one of specialists in early English history, Writing Britain, 500-1500.  My paper, “Inscribing Identity:  Northumbrian Old English and Latin in Dialogue,” addressed two of the conference themes:  the role of language in regional identity and digital humanities.  In it, I explored some theories about extensive versus intensive social power as a way of understanding the political dynamics in tenth century (Viking era) northern England, using the bilingual text (Latin glossed with Old English) from my current project on the manuscript known as Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (one set of texts already published available on ScholarSpace).

That brings me to the digital part, where I got to show off the work of colleague David GoldbergGoldberg, collaborating with me in producing a tool to digitize a glossed manuscript.  The problem with typing up a glossed manuscript is how to represent the relationship between the base word (Latin in this case) and the Old English gloss word floating above it.  MS Word has the advantage of needed special characters and other formatting, but has no way to tie the two words together other than hard or soft spacing, which often gets skewed.

David wrote a program we are calling Glossa, still in its infancy, that allows me to type or paste in the two lines of text,  “grab” the Latin word, then grab the Old English gloss word(s), creating a permanent association.  This means we can create a two-way glossary (Latin to Old English or vice versa), allowing further linguistic analysis as well as searchability of the text.  Finally, this xml code can be shared with the Text Encoding Initiative for others to use.  Attendees at the Writing Britain conference were very interested in both the potential for the software as well as the linguistic implications of analyzing this bilingual text for what it can tell us about tenth century England’s diverse political and social landscape.

The other conference I attended was the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, with over 2000 delegates.  My paper there may seem antithetical to the digital world, given in a series session called “Slow Scholarship.” However, the aim of the sessions was not to dismiss the benefits of “big data” with digitization, but to combine it with the kind of patient, focused attention to detail that humanities research has always prized.  Digitization should free us up to spend more time contemplating the meaning of texts and artifacts, not zoom us past that stage of reflection.


My paper, “Letter by Letter:  Manuscript Transcription and Historical Imagination,” explored the theory of “deep attention” in relation to “hyper attention”  as developed by Kate Hayles.  One slow side of my work is transcribing, letter by letter, the glossed manuscript.  In doing so, I see things--odd words and different understandings the glossator has of the text–that I would not have noticed if I had just scanned it and then searched the text.  On the other hand, I want that tedious work of typing to have some long term value, hence my desire to digitize it in such a way that it is searchable and can be compiled to look for patterns that I might not see in the slow process of transcription.

The other slow bit in my title has to do with imagination, and here I transgress the boundaries of traditional historical scholarship by writing historical fiction (or attempting to).  The more time I spent with this glossator–whose name is Aldred–the more I got to know him, in a peculiar way, given that the only evidence we have about him is from his Old English gloss translations of Latin liturgical and encyclopedic materials and two “colophons” where he describes himself somewhat ambiguously.  But to know him in his home terrain means exploring the landscape he inhabited.  Bakewell 016

So off I go to England to traipse around Northumbria and Cumbria, imagining what he might have seen a thousand years ago, and taking some (digital!) pictures to remind me.  This one to the right, at Bakewell in the Peak District, shows one side of a cross fragment with a supposed carving of the Scandinavian hero/god Woden on his horse Sleipnir, an image illustrating the Viking settlement and acculturation to Christianity in England.

Bakewell 030Meanwhile, this image of stone fragments, also at the church in Bakewell, is a reminder of our fragmentary knowledge of the past, similar to the fragments left by Aldred in the manuscripts he glossed.  It is my job to take these jigsaw pieces and built a puzzle from them.  That takes time, time digital tools can enhance.


[cross posted from Revealing Words]