Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

Interrupting my perorations on the state of the Academy with another backlogged seminar report turns out still not to get us very far from computers and the open access agenda. This is because there is at Birmingham a man by the name of Aengus Ward, whom I had clocked as a quantity quite early on in my time there on the grounds that he apparently worked on Spain. He was somehow accidentally elusive, however, and it wasn’t until 24th February 2015 that I finally tracked him down at the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, speaking under the title “Digital Editing and the Estoria de Espanna: of XML and crowd-sourcing.”

King Alfonso X of Castile-León, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

The project’s masthead image is hard to beat, so I’ll just, er, borrow it…. Here is King Alfonso X of Castile-León in all his lion-checkered glory, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

I will freely admit that I had almost no idea what the Estoria de Espanna was before this seminar: a historical text, obviously, and after my period but still medieval. With the precision of great familiarity, Dr Ward filled in the rest: it is a chronicle that was begun as part of a big courtly learning project by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), frustrated would-have-been Holy Roman Emperor and canonically known as ‘the Wise’, though not wise enough to avoid being deposed by his son as also happened to fellow scholar-king Alfonso III of Asturias (886-910), a lesson I never get tired of pointing out. It covers the Iberian Peninsula from the supposed time of Hercules to that of Fernando III, Alfonso’s father, and there are forty or more manuscripts of it now surviving, including some translated into the Latin, the original being in Romance. Anyway, the crucial word in all of those may be ‘begun’, because ‘finished’ never really occurred: there was a ‘primitiva’ recension, compiled in 1270, but amended in 1274, then a ‘critica’, revised by Alfonso in prison in 1282, and then his son Sancho IV oversaw an ‘amplificada’ in 1289, with quite a lot of revisions to recent history at each stage. Also, we don’t actually have a full text of the ‘primitiva’. So what in fact do you edit if you are editing the Estoria?

Madrid, Biblioteca de l'Escorial, Y 1 2

One of the manuscripts of the Estoria that the team is using, Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial, Y 1 2. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For its first editor hitherto, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the answer was to produce a synthetic version, emended to whatever he thought was most likely to have been Alfonso’s considered intent – at least so we assume, since his edition apparently makes very little of the actual editing process.1 And, as long as you’re editing on paper, there’s not a lot better you can do, though you could be more explicit about it. But with computers, XML mark-up and a four-year grant from the AHRC, you can hope for rather better. The project is doing (by now, indeed, has done) full transcriptions of five manuscripts, of various versions including one of the translations, and are marking up what’s different, added, removed, spelled differently and so on in an XML system called Textual Communities (hmm… seems familiar…2). In the end (late in what is now this year) it will eventually be possible to enable many-way comparisons between different versions and different versions of versions, setting text next to image with the words linked at an underlying level, comparing images or texts of the different manuscripts, a ‘recension’ view of each manuscript’s text and a synoptic edition, plus a tentative reconstruction of the full ‘primitiva’, all fully searchable and open to the web. Such is the plan.

But what of the crowd-sourcing? Well, that was one of the surprises of the project, in fact. If I have this right, the students who were working on the mark-up had people who wanted also to try their hand at it, out of sheer geeky enthusiasm for old stuff I think (which is what we all trade on, after all), and so worked out at least the logistics of actually allowing version-controlled mark-up editing over the web. Then the project put in for extra money to develop this, got it and suddenly found that they had what turned out to be a dozen or so extra staff to train and manage, all without actually seeing them, which changed some of their jobs quite a lot. I make it sound as if there was no benefit, mainly because as a coin curator I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing, but obviously once the Estoria team were through that hoop this was a valuable extra source of labour and one of the mmajor reasons they’re looking to finish on time, as well as being a valuable demonstration of that elusive quality ‘impact’, not least as one of their transcribers subsequently went back to university to do a Masters in palaeography and diplomatic!3 And as Dr Ward said in questions, they do proof-read each others’ transcriptions already, so there isn’t actually that much extra work once the volunteers know what they’re doing.

Transcription mark-up of a page of one of the manuscripts of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Oh, and maybe you’re wondering about the spelling ‘Espanna’? Confused by that double ‘n’ where now we would expect an ‘ñ’? Don’t worry, so were the scribes…

In general, while I have no particular stake in this project, it seems like one of the better ones of these jobs I’ve encountered. It seems set to produce its planned result on time, they’ve actually built several extra components into it without prejudicing that, and the ways that they want to present the manuscript and the ways they’ve incorporated outside and amateur interest and built that up into full-blown participation and passing expertise all look like things that you could call best practice. They even have a regularly-updated and interesting project blog! Of course, the real test will be the website, because without that there is nothing except promises, but I came away from this feeling that those promises really did have promise. I look forward to finding out if I was right!

1. Alfonso X el sabio, La crónica general de España que mandó componer el rey Alfonso el Sabio, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid 1916).

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Princeton 1983).

3. Obviously not in the UK, where as long ago discussed such study has become far too marginal to have an actual degree course for it.

3 responses to “Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

  1. I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as “best practice”. But, by golly, I believe in bad practice, which occurs in many variants. BTAIM, I was amused by “I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing”. That’s essentially the argument of the Army against National Service in the 50s.

    • Haha, and just as actual fighting engagement was somewhat less than continuous, so did I catalogue very few things even when there no volunteers, but I still felt the principle…

  2. Pingback: Society for the Medieval Mediterranean 2015 (in Lincoln), part 1 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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