Editing Texts and Teaching by the Computer

Edward Vanhoutte

Last year, a special issue of the leading Oxford University Press journal Literary and Linguistic Computing focused on teaching the Middle Ages with technology. The nine published papers discuss "the use of technology as a resource for information, as a medium for student-centred discussion, and as a tool for student-authored materials." (147) Indeed, students of history, as of any science, must be guided in the application of digital technology to their field of study. A quick query this morning of the Yahoo! Search engine returned 910 sites in 44 categories when entering the word 'medieval'. Surely not all of these are useful and sound to academia. And this applies to the whole field of Humanities Computing. Taking digital output for granted is the same as saying "it's printed in a book, so it's true." When I was studying Paleography in Professor Meg Twycross's class at Lancaster University, she astonished us with digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts. Her passionate way of teaching, and the 24-bit colour display deluded our perception of the marvellously illuminated manuscripts and made us forget one thing. That this was all fake. These were facsimiles and not the real thing. These facsimiles had been captured by CCD devices of which we knew no details, and with unspecified parameters, they had been brightened and sharpened for the purpose of teaching, and stored in a lossy format for means of transportation. But they were as close as we could get to the documents.

Teaching the Middle Ages also requires reliable texts or versions of texts. Linguistic, graphemic and graphetic information, information on the hand, the scribe and the lay-out of the page and text internal information such as verse schemes and parts of speech need to be coded in a scheme that ensures the highest level of accessibility, longevity and intellectual integrity (Sperberg-McQueen 1994) and enables interchange between platforms. Such a scheme is the TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) which proposes a set of SGML (ISO 8879:1986) Document Type Definitions (DTDs) for the markup of e.g. primary sources, text-critical features and file internal information. TEI-conformant SGML has proven to be the most ideal basis for adding accessibility to availability. I shortly mention Peter Robinson's The Wife of Bath's Prologue on CD Rom (1996) and Elisabeth Solopova's The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales on CD-ROM (2000). The user of these editions are presented with a multiplicity of texts which they can consult, read, compare and check several versions against their digital facsimiles and discover the textual variation which exists between them. The application of automatic collation and cladistics, one of the leading biological ordering mechanisms) to the database of variation proves long-standing stemma's to be wrong and the use of hypertext opens up new possibilities for reading and studying medieval texts. From this work a whole new field of theoretical studies arise. The concepts of digital facsimiles, digital archives and digital editions, are discussed in numerous papers, and the problems of textual variation, multiplicity in the base text and the function of the editor as a humanities computing professionals ask for a re-orientation of theory, practice, evaluation and curriculum.

And attributing to this debate is an energizing, I almost said electrifying, experience.


© Edward Vanhoutte, 4 July 2000.
This text was presented as a panel-introduction on the 4th International Congress. The Fifteenth Century. Antwerp: UFSIA, 4 July 2000.

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