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From Codex to Coding: A Week at MMSDA

This article was originally published on the Quadrivium Project blog (1 July 2014).  According to their website, ‘Quadrivium offers annual skills training to postgraduates and early career researchers in medieval and early modern textual studies. Our website has been designed to showcase cutting-edge research from our academic staff, to advertise our present and past events, and to share information on the Ph.D. process, conferences in medieval studies, public engagement, and academic and alt-ac careers.’


Medieval and Modern Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age (MMSDA) is an intensive training programme on the analysis, description and editing of manuscripts, held jointly in Cambridge and London. Funded by the Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network (DiXiT), the course is run by DiXiT in collaboration with the Institute of English Studies (London), King’s College London, the University of Cambridge and the Warburg Institute. Divided into two parallel strands – medieval and modern – the five-day course takes place in classrooms, lecture halls, computer labs and library Special Collections. The course is open to all students registered for doctoral programmes anywhere in the world, aimed especially at those writing dissertations that ‘relate directly to western medieval or modern manuscripts, particularly with respect to literature, art and/or history’.

MS N.31, The mortuary roll of Amphelisa Prioress of Lillechurch.

Cambridge, St Johns College, MS N.31. The mortuary roll of Amphelisa Prioress of Lillechurch (died c. 1208-21).

My experience with manuscripts prior to this course was fairly limited – I had personally handed a total of … one manuscript (Bodley 340, in case anyone’s wondering). How is this possible for someone in her third year of a PhD in medieval English literature, you might ask? The fact is that many manuscripts are now digitised (thank you, Parker Library on the Web and British Library). Digitisation, while making manuscripts much more easily accessible by many more people, can sometimes also make libraries more reluctant to give students access to the real deal – ‘just go online’. I was able to get my hands on Bodley 340 because a) for once I was working on a lesser-known manuscript, i.e. not the Vercelli Book or the Beowulf-manuscript, and b) the Bodleian hadn’t digitised this manuscript so I couldn’t ‘just go online’. MMSDA really appealed to me because I would get to see lots of real manuscripts, and also – and this part both intrigued and intimidated me – learn about XML and TEI (a.k.a. tech alphabet soup).

I recommend this course to anyone who is interested in learning more about palaeography, codicology or digital humanities. As someone who had minimal experience in all three of these categories, the week was information overload – but in a good way. Below are a few snapshots from the medieval strand of the course.


Peter Stokes (King’s College London) taught us about manuscripts, bookbinding techniques and provenance. A few random facts:

  • In the Middle Ages books would have been stored horizontally, on their sides, not upright the way we store them today
  • The animal skin used to make parchment ‘wants’ to return to the original shape of the animal – it will do so if you burn it, throw it in the river, etc.
  • Sometimes the animal’s backbone is visible in the parchment, but this is not usually found in high status manuscripts
  • Foxing is the age-related spots and brown colour found on paper documents, and one of many reasons why animal skin stands the test of time far better than paper. The weird thing about foxing is we still don’t know what causes it. Mould? Fungus? Oxidation?
  • A medieval codex might include an inscription with a library classification code. Different libraries would use their own distinct codes (not like good old Dewey Decimal), so these can be used to identify a library where the manuscript was once kept
  • Recycling: Have a manuscript you don’t really need anymore? Cut it up and reuse it in the binding of a new one! This practice increases in the Early Modern period because of the Reformation – ‘we don’t need to hang onto this old Catholic stuff anymore!’

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS H.11, fol. 60v-61r. Isidorus, etc. (late 12th century).


One of Peter Stokes’s most striking observations on palaeography was the nomenclature nightmare: how do we describe handwriting? He gave us this example. See the following palaeographical descriptions:

  • ‘Essentially Caroline’ Minuscule (Ker)
  • ‘Anglo-Insular’ Minuscule (Boyle)
  • ‘Anglo-Saxon Round Minuscule’ (T. J. Brown)
  • ‘Anglo-Saxon Vernacular Minuscule’ (Dumville)
  • ‘English Caroline Minuscule’ (Roberts)
  • ‘English Vernacular Minuscule’ (Stokes)
  • ‘Anglo-Saxon Insular Minuscule’ (Da Rold)
  • ‘The script with letter-forms that derive ultimately from the old Insular minuscules’ (M. Brown)

You’ve probably guessed —yes, all of these expert palaeographers are describing the same text (Bodleian Auct. D.2.16, 1r, detail). The problem for digital humanities is that while palaeographers may realise that these are all the same thing, computer databases do not. Peter says, ‘I challenge you: go to any online manuscript catalogue and – with a single query, however complex – find all manuscripts with handwriting from the first third of the twelfth century.’ (If you are able to do this, do get in touch with Peter.)

Peter’s take away message?  ‘A computer doesn’t prove truth; it offers a new way of exploring material that you must then interpret yourself.’

Cambridge, St John's College, MS L.9. Consilium Lundoniense (vellum charter, 11th century).

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS L.9. Consilium
Lundoniense (vellum charter, 11th century).

Book Conservation

Alberto Campagnolo (Ligatus Research Centre, University of the Arts, London) gave a talk on book conservation. He compared the role of the codex in the library vs. the museum. The off-limits manuscripts I mentioned earlier are treated as objects rather than tools. If you want to find out what words are used to describe Grendel’s mother, for example, you don’t show up at the British Library requesting Cotton Vitellius A.xv (or if you do, you won’t have much luck). The Beowulf-manuscript has meaning as an object, not as a tool. Klaeber’s 4th edition of Beowulf, however, has no meaning as an object, no historical significance – you can buy a paperback copy for £29.46 on Amazon. This book’s role is as a tool. But what about a medieval codex that you are allowed to use as a tool? When I paid a visit to Bodley 340, I was using it as a tool (I needed to check a word that wasn’t clear from the one existing transcription), but I was also looking at it as an historical object —the materials, binding method and structure were sources of information as well as the written contents.

Book conservationists must protect their treasured tomes from dangerous and ubiquitous foes, which William Blade lists in his The Enemies of Books (1880):

1) fire

2) water

3) gas and heat

4) dust and neglect

5) ignorance and bigotry

6) the bookworm

7) other vermin

8) bookbinders

9) collectors

10) servants and children.

(Note: in this last category there is an exemplary anecdote titled ‘Story of boys in a country library’, a truly horrifying prospect.)

Cambridge, St John's College, MS C.9, fol. 35v-36r. Irish Psalter, also known as the Southampton Psalter (10th century?).

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS C.9, fol. 35v-36r.Irish Psalter, also known as the Southampton Psalter (10th century?).

Editing and Transcribing

Elena Pierazzo (King’s College London) gave a lecture on editing and transcribing, where she told us about ‘witnesses’ in the context of codicology. A witness can range from the original copy of a text, autographed or controlled by the author, to the only surviving copy in a larger tradition, to a copy that’s part of a wider tradition but has an individual importance. Sometimes the tradition is ‘so messed up that it is impossible to understand the relations between the witnesses’. Editors will argue and argue about which witness to use where there are multiples surviving. Once decided, the editor then has to choose what kind of edition to create: e.g. a facsimile edition, a diplomatic edition, a semi-diplomatic edition or a critical edition. The process of surveying all existing witnesses to create an edition sounds like a Herculean task.

Elena’s take away message? ‘An edition is only a working hypothesis at best! The rest is pride: so get over it.’

Cambridge, St John's College, MS F.27. De S. Benedicto (10th century).

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS F.27. De S. Benedicto (10th century).

Encoding Texts: Markup, XML and TEI

Elena Pierazzo also gave us a whirlwind introduction to markup and TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) in digital editions. With markup you can embed tags in an electronic text to distinguish the text’s logical, structural or syntactical components, making the text ‘smart’. Markup can be procedural (focussed on formatting, blind to content) or descriptive (encoding content as well as structure).

XML is made up of elements. This is an element: <element>content</element>.

Its content is bookended by the start-tag <x> and the end-tag </x>.

Elena says oXygen is one of the best XML editors – it’s relatively easy to set up and use, very powerful, cross-platform and reasonably cheap, and its developers are apparently ‘keen in digital humanities needs’. You can sign up for a free 1-month trial on their website. 

The first text I coded in oXygen? Elena’s recipe for hummus. (We moved onto some medieval manuscripts later.)


Planning Digital Projects

Simon Tanner (KCL) began his talk on planning digital projects with a query about a glass of wine: ‘Is the value in the wine, the glass or the drinking?’ You can apply this question to digitisation projects. What creates the project’s value: the content, the container or the process of consuming the content? Simon explained that we live in an attention economy, not an information economy – we need the ability to attend to specific information when we’re caught up in a data tsunami (a.k.a. the internet). Does your digitisation project have an intended audience, a group of people who will ‘attend’, or will it just add water to the quickly rising flood of information?

The following thoughts/attitudes are Simon’s warning signs that you are in a ‘digital death spiral’:

  • ‘Digitisation equals funding’
  • ‘Digital is everything today’
  • ‘Who knows how much it’ll cost but digital is bound to be wonderful’
  • ‘Planning is so 20th century, let’s be agile’
  • Let’s digitise ‘cuz our competition/Google/my mate is doing it’
  • Let’s digitise ‘cuz if we build it, they will come!’

Beware the digital death spiral! You should have a plan, you should know how much digitisation will cost and how much time it will take, you should have an intended audience – don’t just digitise to be cool and 21st century. And remember the project manager’s dilemma: excellence vs. low cost vs. speed. In reality, you can only do 2 of these at most!

Cambridge, St John's College, MS C.9.

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS C.9.

A Thought to End On

The final event of MMSDA was a talk on provenance by Sotheby’s expert Tim Bolton. If you ever have the opportunity to talk to Tim or hear him talk, do so. The fact that in the very last session on the final day of an intense five-day course the entire audience was in stitches over a PowerPoint presentation on the book trade leads me to conclude that Tim missed his calling in stand-up. (Really, in my mind there’s no reason why you can’t combine the two.)

If I rehash Tim’s jokes they won’t be nearly as funny, but I do want to end with one of his anecdotes. He told us about collector Sir Thomas Phillipps who was a true bibliomaniac, amassing the largest collection of manuscript material in the nineteenth century (and that’s saying something – there were a lot of serious antiquarians back then). No library was successful in getting hold of Phillipps’s collection during his lifetime, even though the collector was keen to hand it over to the British nation. No library could put up with his stringent stipulations, which included the barring of certain individuals from accessing his books: Catholics, women, his son-in-law James and ­ wait for it – eaters of cheese.

If you think you want to give MMSDA a go, fear not – your gender, religion and cheese-eating habits will not preclude you from enjoying the wonders to be seen in the libraries of Cambridge and London.


Cambridge, St John's College, MS N.31.

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS N.31.

Note: The manuscript photos were taken by the author with permission at the library of St John’s College. They are reproduced here with the kind permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.


4 comments on “From Codex to Coding: A Week at MMSDA

  1. crystalbeamer
    July 14, 2014

    Reblogged this on Tattered & Torn and commented:
    This looks like an incredible opportunity! As an MA student of English Literature, focusing on the Medieval period, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to handle ANY medieval manuscripts. However, I have drooled over the digitized images of this 14th century manuscript – British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x (art. 3). The University of Calgary has had the incredible privilege of working on this project. The manuscript contains Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and my personal favourite Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    • beoshewulf
      July 14, 2014

      Keep an eye out for the call for applications next year. They do offer travel bursaries, so even if you’re not in the UK, you might be able to get financial aid in traveling there. I definitely recommend the course if you’re interested in medieval manuscripts!

  2. Home financing
    August 10, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your info. I truly appreciate
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    • beoshewulf
      August 11, 2014

      Thank you, I’m glad you found the information useful!

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