Conferring in Naples, IV and final: clarity, confusion, coffee and photos

The delay in posting is kind of past apology so for once I won’t bother and will just crack on. Despite the sociability of the previous evening, mentioned two posts ago, I was back in the ring on the morning of Saturday 1st October 2011, although it did take me slightly longer to get there because for its final day the Digital Diplomatics 2011 conference was in this unassuming little building…

Castel Nuovo, Naples

Castel Nuovo, Naples

And there’ll be more photos of that towards the end of the post, but for now let me just stick with the conference chamber…

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

Conference chamber in the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria

… and the view from it…

View from the rooms of the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria, Castel Nuovo, Naples

View from the conference room

… all of which made it quite surprising, in some ways, that any of our attentions were directed inside. This was perhaps especially an issue because we started half an hour late for various reasons and then Dr Renata De Lorenzo spoke for ten unscheduled minutes about the hosting body, sending things still further off schedule, but we rallied. And there were good reasons for doing so; the sessions unrolled as follows, with links to abstracts under the titles as before.

Digital Research

  • Michael Hänchen, “Die Erschließung, Formalisierung und Auswertungsmöglichkeit digitaler Urkundencorpora mittels einer Datenbank”, was a start-to-finish summary in masterly order of a digitisation project using the documents of two particular monasteries, Aldersbach and Fürstenzell. What I liked about this was the clearly-theorised approach: somehow in twenty minutes Herr Hänchen managed to explain exactly why they’d built things the way they had, and you could easily use his slides as a how-to for your own monastic archive. What I was less keen on was the expression of trends from a relatively tiny sample, percentages from 38 and 22 documents, and although some of the things he was finding were interesting, with that kind of sample it’s very hard to say if the peaks and troughs of the evidence’s distribution actually show anything.
  • Martin Roland, “Illuminierte Urkunden im digitalen Zeitalter – Mapregeln und Chancen”, was unusual in this company in being an art-historical paper about the relatively few but spectacular illuminated charters from Central Europe, comparisons between which have now become usefully possible because of digitization, but only just, because these are so diverse and so widely-spread that their mark-up varies considerably, meaning that the digitization has in some cases hidden like from like. This demands, felt Dr Roland, a classification endeavour to bring things more properly together. I want to note that he was the only presenter who used a handout as well as slides, which says something either for the digitalization of the conference or else for his determination to stick with traditional methods alongside new ones. His slides, however, were absolutely the best of the conference, so do have a look.
  • Anaïs Wion, “Éditer vs. analyser? L’exemple du projet Ethiopian Manuscript Archives”, took us much further afield than most of other other papers; she has been working with, or sometimes apparently at odds with, the Ethiopian government to digitise the numerous community archives that exist in the country. Much of this material is medieval, running from fourth to twelfth centuries, and the bulk of that is royal, but it has not been studied because those times and cultures are very far away from any modern Ethiopian political consciousness, but some of it is more modern and even some of the historical stuff exists only in oral form, as traditions supposedly handed down, which takes some fitting into a diplomatic schema! Digitization seems the obvious answer because the corpus is very dispersed, but Dr Wion raised the question of whether, once it was all transcribed, marked up and otherwise filed and sorted, it actually still needs editing? There is a question there. I would expect, in a parallel situation, that a big fat book of the country’s heritage would be a nice thing to have achieved, but whether it would be any more use than the database Dr Wion has already achieved might indeed be questioned…

There was then coffee, which by now will not surprise you, but this time the south vs. north thing described before hit really hard; the coffee was all gone before some of us had even left the conference room, and the only good thing about that at all was that it was easier to get people back in there, as long as they weren’t queueing for the single bathroom behind a staffed counter that was all that was available. I’m sure that the Società Napoletana di Storia Patria is a noble institution, and there is no doubt that their premises are medievalist heaven, but I cannot entirely recommend them as a place to hold a conference. Anyway, we continued…

  • Serena Falleta, “Dalla carta al bit. L’edizione digitale del cartulario di Santa Maria Nova di Monreale”, was one of those papers that I think had misjudged its audience, being considerably more basic in what I could pull out of the Italian than this audience really needed, which is a pity because I have been otherwise led to believe that the Monreale documentation is crazy interesting and I would have happily tried to understand more about what was in it and less about why encoding charters isn’t as simple as we might think, which let’s face it, we knew.
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics”, was of course probably no better, you’d be asking the wrong guy to tell you really, but what it was supposed to do was stress that sometimes, you don’t want the computer to make the decisions or find the links, because they can only be decided subjectively, and the correct division between computerised interpretation and human interpretation is precisely on that line of what is certain and what is unprovable. This is especially true in the area of trying to find certain persons in a database, for example; when you have fifteen occurrences of people called Miró with no surname in any given sample (I exaggerate, but not by as much as I might be) it’s hard to be sure how many of them are the same guy, so what you want is for the database always to tell you those fifteen are there, and do whatever you may think valid about identifying them elsewhere; the data should not be made to tell you more than it did initially. Of course, a data schema shouldn’t allow that kind of thing anyway, but anyone who’s digitised a large corpus of information from non-digital sources will tell you that you make split-second decisions about what something is every other minute; really, we need to keep those outside so that they can if necessary be revised if we’re making databases that will ever need to be revisited, by ourselves or by others.

Contemporary Diplomatics

  • Luciana Duranti, “The Return of Diplomatics as a Forensic Discipline”, was a paper I was looking forward to because Professor Duranti was one of the few people here whose work I had already met; she has had interesting things to say about what counts as an original that I recommend to you.1 Here she was transporting some of these concepts into the digital realm, arguing most notably for a separation between the concepts of reliability, accuracy and authenticity. The latter is especially problematic in a digital sphere where all the information of a digitally-presented document may be being pulled dynamically from a database, in which there is no document per se, just a set of encoded fields which are reassembled on the fly every time a record is invoked. All of this was coming from a very different context, work in digital forensics intended to establish legal authenticity criteria for things like e-mails, database contents, etc., where it becomes vital to know if what it now says was what it said at the relevant time; perhaps not unsurprisingly, it turns out that diplomatic concepts actually make quite good tools for structuring such an enquiry…
  • Antonella Ambrosio & Maura Striano, “Insegnare la diplomatica con le nuove technologie. Uno del percorsi possibili”, I’m afraid, fell on an unreceptive audience where your blogger was concerned. This was partly shortage of caffeine, I think, and partly shortage of food, but also it was that teaching diplomatic is something that seems basically pretty unlikely from a UK perspective, and that my Italian wasn’t good enough to get what might have been relevant to my experience out of the presentation. So I’m afraid my notes for this one only say, “(Comic Sans!)”, which is not the kind of review I ought to be giving people and I apologise.

Lunch was a more equable occasion than the coffee break had been, a buffet served in the very anteroom where the coffee had been extinguished, and all extremely nice, so we settled down for the final strait more cheerfully, even though it was entitled…


  • Gunter Vasold, “Work in Progress: Editionen als multidimensionale Wissensräume”, was looking at what it means for scholarship and the way we access it that a digital project may never in fact be complete, or that it may be available before that point and then sometimes updated after it. This makes for very complex information flows (as his slides make clearer), especially if different parts of the project pull on shared information that one of them updates without reference to others. In questions I urged that it be kept in mind that old versions would need to be openly archived, or else information from such a project could never safely be cited; we already face this problem with the world-wide web but making it a feature of scholarly editions is going a bit too far in my opinion. Happily this was also the speaker’s opinion so there’s an extra technical complication to consider…
  • Manfred Thaller, “What is an Environment for Charters?”, addressed some of the higher-level questions of the process of digitisation and mark-up, related to how one gets the data out to users in such a way that they can do what they want with it rather than what one had in mind without prejudicing the accuracy and completeness of the results they get. One either reports work of this complexity in bald outline like that or basically transcribes, and I can only now do the former, but the slides and abstract may help you if you want to look into these questions further.
  • Georg Vogeler, “Conclusion”, tried to pull out the themes of the conference, not a small task given the range of papers, but he identified four headings, one of which had three subheadings: that one was the digital preservation of European charter history, within which we had discussed the choice of what to digitise and for what purpose; the respective roles of hand and machine, intuitive versus automatic processing of information; the issues about how far we should smooth data to allow similarity to be evident; and how to store our data in a lasting fashion, which as Georg said, we had not really discussed but is a real issue that deserved mention. The other headings were: sharing of data, the obvious point of all this and yet done by very few people comparatively speaking;2 the different problems of source-rich and source-poor areas, the latter breeding analytical sloppiness because unverifiable but the former inhibiting complexity because of sheer bulk of data to process; and lastly, given the new possibilities and techniques at issue here, are we really still doing diplomatic and how can we teach people the same old stuff? So the closing note was something quite like What Would Bresslau Do, and that is actually very rarely a bad question to ask in medieval studies.3 I will leave it with you.

This still left a little time to look around the castle, however, before it was necessary to head back out into the wider world, and there were a few things worth seeing therein, which I will just briefly display some of…

Once again I absolutely wasn’t taking illicit photos in a museum, naturally. I mean, someone would surely have stopped me. Besides, some views you can’t copyright.

Cruise-liners in Naples harbour with Vesuvius in background

I don't care about perspective, ships should not look bigger than buildings or obscure dormant volcanoes

It turns out that we were only in the lower castle, even once as high on it as we could easily get.

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio in Naples

View from the Castel Nuovo to the Castel Vecchio

And finally, once fortified with gelato, back to the hotel, and then away the next morning. I think this may be the only photo I’ve ever taken from an aeroplane window that’s been any use at all so I cannot help but share it with you as a parting shot. Next post but one it’s back to London and Oxford reports at last!

View of the Italian coast from the air

View of the Italian coast from the air

1. For a start, have a look at her “Reliability and Authenticity: the concepts and their implications” in Archivaria Vol. 39 (Ottawa 1995), pp. 5-9, online at, last modified 15th August 2005 as of 20th August 2008. Now, it might somewhat cruelly be said that here she was doing no more than update and publicise concepts first broached by Pierre Chaplais in, among other places, his “The Origin and Authenticity of the Royal Anglo-Saxon Diploma” in Journal of the Society of Archivists Vol. 3 (London 1965), pp. 48-61, repr. in Felicity Ranger (ed.), Prisca Munimenta: studies in archival and administrative history presented to Dr. A. E. J. Hollaender (London 1973), pp. 28-42, but the thing is, nobody else seems to know that exists and I don’t believe Professor Duranti did either, and so what this basically means is she’s as sharp as Pierre Chaplais was, which is not a small thing to say.

2. Here of course I am among the guilty: sharing my actual data would be of little use to people given how irregularly it is stored, but the format might be some use and might, in some other discipline, be publishable in itself. I want to hold onto it, however, precisely in case it becomes so…

3. For those who might not know, this is a reference to Harry Bresslau, medievalist and editor of the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, who as well as editing many many things for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica and indeed writing its first history also wrote, slowly, an eventually three-volume work with a very complicated publication history, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 3 vols (Leipzig 1905-1931 and Berlin 1960; 4th edn, Berlin 1968-1969) that has become the standard textbook on diplomatic for a great many German-reading medievalists and is one of those things you go to and find out that the author already had your idea a century ago and spent three lines on it in the middle of something else he thought was more interesting….

6 responses to “Conferring in Naples, IV and final: clarity, confusion, coffee and photos

  1. I have nothing to say about the content of your conference however despite the lack of restrooms, that would be an impressive place to meet. Also, your volcano which is nearly hidden by the cruise ship looks suspiciously like Vesuvius. If so it a) REALLY shouldn’t be blocked by a boat considering its importance and b) isn’t dormant.

    Enjoyed the pictures as always – thank you.

  2. Pingback: Digitale Diplomatik 2011 – Tagungsbericht | Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik

  3. Pingback: Seminars CXXXI & CXXXII: searching the margins of Anglo-Norman England | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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