Digital tools: facilitating the analysis of glossed medieval manuscripts

The readings for our last session, “Visualizing Signs of Use in Medieval Manuscripts,” focused on the analysis of the handwriting, glosses and annotations of a 13th century scribe known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. In this case, digital technology—paleographic tools such as DigiPal and the Tremulator—facilitates the availability and handling of the manuscripts. The two articles try to answer questions coming from very different fields, based on the same object of study: the proliferous work of this scribe.

Dr. David Johnson’s article, “Who Read Gregory’s Dialogues in Old English?” is concerned with the reasons why the Dialogues, written by Pope Gregory I, were translated into Old English, and with its readership. Looking at some prominent Anglo-Saxon men who read the texts, such as King Alfred and Aelfric of Eynsham, Johnson illustrates their popularity and significance for a wide audience, as part of Alfred’s educational reform, and particularly as a source for vernacular sermons. The close study of the annotations that the Tremulous Hand performed on the Old English manuscripts offers more insight on the use and the readers of the Dialogues. Looking at how the Hand altered the punctuation—an interesting example is the punctus elevatus, used to indicate a pause when the sense is complete but the sentence is not—Johnson suggests that these passages were indeed intended for oral delivery (197). Although the scribe’s original interest in the texts was perhaps lexical, his work seems to have the intention to make them available to others.

The medieval scribe is known as the Tremulous Hand due to a tremor, which is the object of study of another article. It is surprising to learn that a medieval patient could be diagnosed by closely examining his annotations eight centuries later. Dr. Thorpe and Dr. Alty analyze his handwriting from a neurological and historical perspective: their aim is to determine what kind of tremor he suffered. Therefore, theirs is the first analysis of essential tremor in a medieval context. The authors look at the passages he marked, how the tremor developed as shown in his handwriting, literature on the diseases in the medieval period, etc. They conclude that the evidence suggest he suffered from essential tremor.

The research needed for these studies can be exhausting and time-consuming. Luckily, digital technologies have been able to facilitate this endeavor. DigiPal, for example, provides photos of medieval handwriting, with information and several ways of examining the data. You can search for a particular letter or graph, the work of a scribe, a collection, etc. Dr. Johnson and his son have developed another web-based tool called the Tremulator to analyze the Tremulous Hand’s writing, which made this work more manageable. In our meeting we had the opportunity to have a demonstration of how this tool works. Each user can examine the manuscripts, record data, and share it. Once we click on the character or graph we want to work with, a menu shows up, allowing us to mark if we consider it Tremulous’ work or not, its function, characteristics, and—interestingly—the level of certainty we have in our decision. The speed is another benefit of the Tremulator: this is a fast process, and the menu saves the last setting, making it faster to just click another one and apply the same settings. The user can filter out a search, and configure the app according to particular specifications.

We ended this meeting with a discussion on how the Tremulator can be improved, and also used for other projects. The participants suggested having examples of the marks and good images of them to guide the user. The opportunity for collaboration was highlighted as one of its benefits: the work of each of the scholars could be identified with a color to track the contributions. It could also be used to foster students’ scholarship, in which case a method for revising the work must be implemented.

Building upon the idea of collaboration, I think about the functionality e-books bring today and how we can take it further. Even though physical books have not lost their charm and many of us prefer to feel the pages in our hands, we cannot deny the increasing use of e-books and some of their benefits. When researching, I prefer the digital version of a book on theory, as it allows me to search for words easily and make comments I can later erase, etc. A tool like the Tremulator can be also used to work with books/images that are not easily available (for example, in my field of specialization: Cuban contemporary literature) in such a way that promotes collaboration in class, research projects, dissertations, and facilitate transnational research.

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