Tag Archives: computing in the humanities

Crusading and a Non-Deterministic Climate

The marking ebbs, and the ability to blog reappears… And for once it is clear what I should blog about, because I said I would pass over Conor Kostick‘s long-ago paper to the Digital Humanities Seminar in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (which, as every sub-university-level academic organisation must every few years, has since changed its name), and then Dr Kostick himself cropped up in comments encouraging me not to, and so it seems rude to refuse. I admit that part of my initial reservation was that I might have to be rude, but now that I review my notes, even though the paper was called, “Digital Linguistics and Climate Change: a Revolution in the Digitisation of Sources since 2000”, which you can imagine annoying me in several ways I’m sure, I find less to be annoyed about than I remembered, but also less that one might call, well, conclusive.

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v

Saul killing King Nahash and destroying the Ammonites, in the so-called Crusader Bible (c. 1250), New York City, NY, Morgan Library, MS M.638, fol. 23v, image copyright not stated

Dr Kostick’s research at this time had arrived at the central theme of his paper from a circuitous direction. Starting with the study of the Crusades, he’d got into digital humanities as a lexicographical way of working out what medieval authors most probably meant by the words they used, which were of course changing as they used them. His example here, an interesting one, was that Archbishop William of Tyre, Chancellor of the Kingdom of Jerusalem already, may have been the first author to use the Latin word classis, classically meaning ‘fleet’, to mean ‘class’, as in first- and second-class, which are ways he divided up the nobility of Jerusalem in terms of tax liability. That wouldn’t have been clear without being able to find all the places he uses and all the places other people do and thus being sure that his is the usage that seems to begin it. This kind of technology lets us get further than the grand old lexicographers of old such as Charles Du Fresne Du Cange; as Dr Kostick put it, “we are standing on the shoulders of giants, with big binoculars”.

Charles Du Fresne Du Cange, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19

Du Cange himself, from David d’Angers and Alfred Gudeman, Imagines philologorum (Berlin 1911), p. 19, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From here, however, he had gone via an investigation of crusade preaching and had wound up at medieval climate data, not an obvious transition you might think, but several paths lead there. One is the kind of work that has been, let’s say examined, here before, attempting to correlate major political and social upheavals with climate events; another is the fact that at least one historian of the First Crusade, Ekkehard of Aurach, actually made the association for us, saying that the massive participation in that Crusade was at least partly down to a bad harvest, famine and ‘plague’ (perhaps ergotism, suggested Dr Kostick) in France that meant people with no other hope were willing to sign up with someone with a poorly-realised plan and take their ill-informed chances.1 The problem with many such analyses looking for other correlations, apart from the basic logical one of the difference between correlation and causation, has been poor focus of data, using, for example, tree growth in Greenland as a proxy for harvests in continental Europe, and this Dr Kostick avoided by taking as wide a range of sample evidence as possible. He started with chronicles, especially, using the same text-mining techniques as already mentioned, counting entries mentioning famine, plague and strange weather; added tree-ring data from a range of different areas (assembled by Francis Ludlow); and used ice-core data from Iceland and Denmark for finer dating. It’s a pretty good sample, as these things go, and this obviated many of the objections to such work I’d gone in with. So having done that, what do we then know? Well, the texts make it clear that both in 1095 and 1146, i. e. just before the First and Second Crusades, there were outbreaks of disease, which the tree-ring data suggests often coincided roughly with years of poor tree-growth, and the ice-core data sometimes allowed one to associate these and other such peaks with volcanic eruptions.

(I went looking for a climate data graph to put in here but the amount of short-sighted nature-blaming one quickly finds just made me angry so you’ll have to manage without an illustration between these paragraphs.2)

So case proven? Well, sometimes. It’s certainly possible, especially in the light of Ekkehard, to imagine how such a causal chain could fit together: a ‘year of no sun‘, poor crop yields, famine, destitution, desperate mobility, a convenient casus belli or particularly effective preacher, and suddenly what was meant to be a few thousand carefully-picked troops heading East, probably on the expectation of campaigning on an imperial salary for a few months, has become a horribly underplanned mass movement that winds up changing the world.3 The problem is that the chain doesn’t always work the same way. That works very well for the First Crusade, but in the Second Crusade, the popular participation was nothing like as large, though it was certainly large enough for Odo of Deuil to lament, I’ll admit; still, it was provoked by the fall of Crusader Edessa in 1144, and preparations were well underway by 1146 so I’d have thought that popular uptake is all that the bad year could have affected. Meanwhile, there was another significant peak between these two Crusades (not at 1101, at 1130 or so) which correlates with no such action, and there was no such peak before the Third or Fourth Crusades. Hey, maybe that’s why the Fourth Crusade couldn’t raise enough men, right? But the Third still presents problems.

A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from  David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r

An unexpected result of a bad harvest? Probably not, eh? A 15th-century image of the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from David Aubert, Livre traittant en brief des empereurs, II, fo. 205r, says Wikimedia Commons where this image is public-domain

Obviously, this paper was never meant to present a thesis as simple and obviously falsifiable as ‘volcanic eruptions caused the Crusades’, but without that, what do we learn from it? Our chroniclers already told us that plague and famine powered recruitment for some of the Crusades, and we didn’t need text-mining to see that. We might, now, understand better where that plague and famine had come from in these cases, but as with my earlier critique of Michael McCormick’s similar deductions about volcanoes, the problem lies in the volcanic eruptions that did not cause crusades, the famines and plagues that were not caused or strengthened by climate events, the crusades that did not correlate with bad weather or famines, and so on.4 No general rules could be extracted from this sort of causation, and neither was Dr Kostick out to present some, but without some such finding, it seemed like a very laborious way to conclude that a couple of our sources were maybe more right than we sometimes reckon. There seemed no question that Dr Kostick and his team had been more careful with data and correlations and even with causation than previous studies, but naturally enough perhaps, that had also limited what they could conclude.

That was my feeling as Dr Kostick wound up, anyway, but questions revealed other doubts and issues among the audience, many of which I thought he actually had good answers to. One of my colleagues argued that climate event references in chronicles are often wrong, to which Dr Kostick wisely observed that this was a good reason to correlate them with scientific data. Other questions focused more justly on causation: Graham Loud has in the past argued, apparently, that a famine which preceded the Third Crusade actually limited response from Germany, and here again Dr Kostick argued that while local responses to stimuli would obviously have varied, the bigger correlations still need explanation when they occur. True enough, but that seems to have been very rare… Well, I certainly don’t have better answers, and if Dr Kostick had been unwise enough to try and push his data further than it would go I imagine I’d have had bigger issues with that, but my feeling remains on this revisiting that his admirable caution robbed the paper of its potential power. The success of McCormick et al. suggest that, sadly, the route to publication of such work is not to care about such things but to push the deductive boat out well beyond sensible recovery, and maybe that’s why this one didn’t (yet?) achieve wider dissemination; it just wasn’t crazy enough!

1. F.-J. Schmale and I. Schmale-Ott (edd.), Frutolfi et Ekkehardi Chronica necnon Anonymi Chronica Imperatorum: Frutolfs und Ekkehards Chroniken und die Anonyme Kaiserchronik, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters 15 (Darmstadt 1972), pp. 19-38 (commentary) & 123-309 (text), cap. 13/40, pp. 124-127, the relevant section transl. J. H. Robinson in Readings in European History Vol. I (Boston 1904), pp. 316-318, online ed. P. Halsall as “Medieval Sourcebook: Ekkehard of Aurach: On the Opening of the First Crusade”, online here.

2. I should clarify that the thing I think is stupidest in these arguments is neither that there is dispute over climate change at all, which I find explicable if dangerous, nor that there is argument over its causation, which is predictable really, but the conclusion that some people who believe climate change now is not anthropogenic reach that therefore we need do nothing about it because it’s natural. I imagine these people largely do not live in the areas most affected.

3. This interpretation of events largely rests on my old piece linked off this very blog, but is similar to that put forward in Peter Frankopan, The First Crusade: the call from the East (London 2012).

4. My target here is of course Michael McCormick, Paul Edward Dutton and P. A. Mayewski, “Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A.D. 750–950”, Speculum, Vol. 84 (Cambrudge MA 2007), pp. 869–895, online here.


Chronicle II: October to December 2015

Somewhat to my surprise, I have now reached the second of the what-was-going-in-my-life round-ups I was promising to use as the anchor of the new blogging programme here at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, back in, er, February. It wasn’t supposed to take eight months to record what had happened in three, but as you’ll have observed there was a fair bit of hiatus and strife in there, and I hope that we can pick things up a bit now. There’s only one way to find out, anyway, and thus we now reach the point where I try and give some impression of my first semester employed at the University of Leeds. The first thing that needs to be said about that is that my new colleagues were absolutely lovely, and guided me through new offices and routines with cheerful generosity; it all unrolled a great deal more easily than it could so easily have done while I found my feet. To try and explain what I was actually up to, however, probably needs breaking down into headings, and the obvious ones would be teaching, what we might generally class as extra labours, seminars and similar, research work and, lastly, life more widely; I’ll say the least about the last, but it holds the rest together. So here we go. Continue reading

Seminar CCXXXVIII: digital eyes on the Lichfield Gospels

Those who keep track (not something I expect) may remember me posting about a field trip I did in my first year at Birmingham in which I took a small group of budding Anglo-Saxonists to Lichfield Cathedral, whose staff were absolutely marvellous with showing us round and with photographic permissions and so on, and which I thoroughly recommend as a place to visit. You’d have to have an unusually keen eye to have spotted that I borrowed one of the images there, of a page in the Lichfield Gospels or St Chad’s Gospels, from the website of a project run by Dr William Endres, but all the same I did, and so when he came to Birmingham on the 2nd April 2015 to present a paper called “The St Chad Gospels: a rare witness to early Anglo-Saxon England and beyond” to the Centre for West Midlands History Research Seminar, I thought that perhaps I’d better be there.

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral

The Gospels, on display in Lichfield Cathedral, albeit with special access for our 2014 visit

The St Chad’s Gospels have had a complicated history. There were once two volumes of them, made probably in Mercia in the 730s, but the work seems to have been stolen, for which Vikings usually get the blame, because there is a vernacular inscription in the surviving volume by a man by the name of Geili who had bought the two books (possibly still one then) and was now giving them to the Welsh cathedral of Llandeilo Fawr. This inscription means that among its other distinctions, the volume contains the earliest written Welsh. By the tenth century it was back in Lichfield, because Bishop Wynsige of that city 963-975 has signed it, and both volumes were still there in 1345, but by the time of the English Civil War (which the manuscript survived in hiding) there was only the current one, which has been safe in the cathedral since 1673. And since 2009 Dr Endres has been digitising it.1

The Welsh marginalia in Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 141r.

Screen capture of Reflective Transformation Imagery picture of the Welsh note in the Gospels, which is, I should say, Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 71r.

You may think that project is taking a long time even for one man, but the truth is that by now he has digitised it several times. In fact, he told us, he has photographed each page in 13 different spectra, all of which his website allows you to display either overlaid or singly, sliding from one to another. This is very helpful for tracking colour change and deterioration, of which there is thankfully little. Dr Endres has also added historical photographs of the Gospels from two old sets from 1887 and 1969, so there is a long-term check of some kind built in. But he has also started doing 3D photography of the pages, with pictures overlaid for which the lighting was set at different angles, allowing a kind of artificial tilting of the page under the light. I’d seen this done before but it’s always impressive, and in particular it had allowed Dr Endres to detect erasures and marks made by pens without ink, including dry-point glosses, which were mostly personal names, including those of three women in the margin of the magnificat of the Virgin Mary. That looks like selection, but the custom as a whole is hard to explain: why did people get to write their names invisibly in an old Bible? Dr Endres’s suggestion was that the names were meant to be read in Heaven, and I don’t have a better idea, I have to admit.

3D visualisation of Lichfield Cathedral MS 1, fo. 113v

3D visualisation of fo. 113v, swung so as to make visible the dry-point name at bottom centre near the marker

For me this was the most exciting part of the paper, as a lot of the rest was either about the philosophy of digitisation or was context to situate this Gospel Book in the context of others like the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels, of which more people have heard, and that was not so new to me.2 There was also more hypothetical stuff about the volume’s history and use. Some of the suggestions in my notes are quite high-flying, and I would particularly like to have got a reference for the half-joking one that it shows that St Augustine invented peacock jerky. Unfortunately, for reasons I now forget, I couldn’t stay for questions, but it was still nice to hear about this project, which I’d seen one side of on the web, from the inside, and I was able to express genuine pleasure to have been there to Dr Endres when I subsequently met him later in the year. It’s possible to look at this manuscript in great detail on the web at varying degrees of intensity, and it’s all been done on relatively little money. Once again we see how the lone interested person can often achieve nearly as much as a massive multi-institution project for a fraction of the cost, and wonder why there aren’t more projects like this one!

1. Jennifer Howard, “21st-Century Imaging Helps Scholars Reveal Rare 8th-Century Manuscript” in Chronicle of Higher Education, December 5 2010; William Endres, “More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript” in Clare Mills, Michael Pidd & Esther Ward (edd.), Proceedings of the Digital Humanities Congress 2012 (Sheffield 2014), online here; Bill Endres, “Imaging Sacred Artifacts: Ethics and the Digitizing of Lichfield Cathedral’s St Chad Gospels” in Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture Vol. 3 (Stockholm 2014), pp. 39-73, online here.

2. On which see most obviously George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-Books 650–800 (London 1987).

Name in Print XV

[This post originally went up in September 2014, when it was stuck to the front page, and now that I have reached that point in my backlog it’s time to unstick it and let it go free into the flow. You may also like to be reminded that I wrote something that might interest you… or you may not, in which case stay tuned for new content about global history some time fairly soon.]

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Cover of Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?

Second of the 2014 outputs now! In 2011, as you may remember, I went to a conference in Naples about digital study of charter material. It’s been a long time coming but the proceedings of that conference are now published, in the Beihefte of the Archiv für Diplomatik, and my paper is in there, the last in the volume indeed. It’s called “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” and it’s about database techniques that try not to over-determine structure. Let me put that another way by exemplifying with a paragraph. Taking a data search from the Casserres material as an example, I write:

“I think that, where I have been prepared to deduce here, the deductions are all reasonable, but of course they are not certain. This is not a failing of the database, however; it is an accurate result. There is not enough information to make those judgements, and the data returned from the query accurately reflects that. This design is set up to require the human user to make the final decision, or not. This subset is small enough that I can, even without a computer, establish accurately that we cannot tell which of these [homonymous people] are the same on a logical basis, and I ought not, therefore, to entertain data schemas that would make me do so. We do not, in fact, have to make technical solutions for these problems, because the historian can do as much with the information presented this way as he or she can with it anchored to look-up tables and so on.”

This is coming out of the problem of building a structured database whose purpose is to allow one to identify people without having to identify them to build the database. If this sounds like a problem you too have faced, or expect to, I may have something to say to you! It’s probably as close to a publication of ‘my’ database method as there will be, and on a first read-through possibly actually free of typos, which I have never before managed. I humbly put it before you all.

Grim statistics: this was written in September 2011, revised and submitted in November 2011 and revised after editor’s comments in March 2012 and then again in April 2013. Proofs arrived in December 2013 and it’s taken 9 months to come to press, not what I expect from the Archiv which, last time I dealt with it, went through the whole submission process in that time. From first submission to press would thus be 2 years 11 months, rather below even my long average. But, fortunately indeed for a technical paper, my methods are so low-tech that they remain useful I think…

Full citation: J. Jarrett, “Poor tools to think with. The human space in digital diplomatics” in Antonella Ambrosio, Sébastien Barret & Georg Vogeler (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011: the computer as a tool for the diplomatist?, Archiv für Diplomatik Beihefte 14 (Köln 2014), pp. 291-302.

I built a resources page

But you already have one of those, you may say, and indeed a whole ragbag of links on the sidebar here that you should really organise so that people may know why they could be useful. All true, but this one I built for my previous job, for the Birmingham graduate course Research Skills in Medieval Studies which I then convened, and since I no longer have access to the virtual learning environment where it resides, I thought almost as soon as I created it that it would be worth stashing the code and later copying it here also. I’ve stripped out the institutional-only bits and updated a bit of text, replaced dead links and so on. Hopefully you may find it interesting or useful…


Digital Resources

Sources of data

Object databases

Images and Maps

As far as images goes, one obvious resource that avoids problems with copyright restrictions is Wikimedia Commons, from which Wikipedia’s images all come; most of these are licensed for re-use and the metadata is usually helpful. The museum catalogues above, especially the British Museum and the Walters, also provide images of many significant objects and manuscripts. (We also deal with dedicated manuscript resources below.) Other image resources on the open web of interest to medievalists include the REALonline image server (whose sophisticated search however requires a certain amount of German), the Web Gallery of Art, and the site of Genevra Kornbluth, a medievalist art historian and photographer who is slowly digitising her photo collection.

For maps, the most obvious resource, being worldwide, sophisticated and free, is Google Earth, but of course this is not historical information. The University of Edinburgh runs a historical map archive as part of its much larger Edina service which covers the UK. Further afield can be at least partly covered by the various historical maps offered by the commercial concern Euratlas.


One of the most exciting applications of digital resources for medievalists has been the sudden and still-expanding accessibility of our original source material, manuscript books and single-sheets, in digital form. The following are only a few of what is now too substantial a set of initiatives of which to keep track. It is by now always worth seeing if the manuscript you need has been digitised by its owners. (As an example, the Vatican project listed below was brought to the editor’s attention by a friend while he was actually in the act of writing this bit of the webpage.)

Full-Text Databases

There are an ever-growing number of these. The one you will probably be most used to is Google Books, but Google’s adherence to US copyright law makes its availability outside the USA vexingly partial.

  • The most important alternative, because publicly-funded and more fully available although still largely composed of old texts, is the Internet Archive, which includes as well as texts a vast archive of music and the Wayback Machine, an attempt to archive the actual Internet.
  • The Bibliothèque nationale de France has a similar server mounted at its Gallica site, which makes its copyright-free collections fully available.
  • Another such server is to be found courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum, which also makes available the periodicals published by the Sigmaringen publishing house and the Staatsbibliothek’s manuscript collections.
  • The Internet Medieval Sourcebook is a venerable but still invaluable collection of primary sources in translation.
  • It forms part of one of the oldest medievalist sites on the Internet, the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. This is a collection of material largely intended for teaching, mostly now some years old, but with some nuggets buried in it.

Many more could be added. There are also specific groups of texts of interest to medievalists that are now available in digital, and searchable, form. These include the Acta Sanctorum and the Patrologia Latina, both published by ProQuest, though these are subscription-only. The Monumenta Germaniae Historica, however, is online for free and now fully searchable.

A particular group of sites can be mentioned that collect periodical literature. These are all European, where the whole open-access question (see below) has largely been solved with state money as if there was no problem there.

  • Persée is the French one of these portals, collecting most French academic journals.
  • In Germany we have DigiZeitschriften, which does the same job there.
  • In Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas maintain the latest five years of all their journals on the web for free.
  • In Catalonia (que no es Espanya!) almost all journals in current publication are available through Revistes amb ACcès Obert.

Data Archives

A cautionary tale is offered by the Arts and Humanities Data Service, whose surviving web presence is located here. The AHDS was set up by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (now Council) to ensure archiving of the digital outputs of researxch done under its auspices. An important part of this endeavour was permanence and ongoing attention to making data available in current formats, all requiring a continuing investment. Unfortunately for those goals, funding for the initiative was cancelled in 2008, after which its contents, frozen, were kept available by the Joint Information Services Committee (JISC), now a private company known only as Jisc. The only part of the old AHDS that still receives and archives information is the Archaeology Data Service, which is however an invaluable and highly searchable resource that contains, among other things, copies of all ‘grey literature’ from archaeological investigations done with state funding in England.

Other archives of scholarly data or source information (beyond manuscript archives, detailed above) include the National Archives at Kew, the French site ARCHIM, the Spanish one PARES and the wider-spread Europeana.

Bibliographical Databases

One of the most obvious ways in which digital resources assist historians of all stamps is in locating the work of other historians. Some tools like Google Scholar are pluridiscplinary, but the medievalist is favoured with several specialist databases.

  • The most well-known of these is the International Medieval Bibliography, published by Brepols. Until 1996 this was a print serial, then made available (and searchable) on CD-ROM, but now it exists only online through the Brepolis portal, again accessible only via subscription.
  • Much of the IMB’s content is, however, also available along with monographs (which the IMB does not index) via the OPAC server of the Regesta Imperii project at Mainz. This is a truly invaluable resource.
  • For those whose interests are focused on the British Isles, the Royal Historical Society maintains a similar but locally more comprehensive Bibliography of British and Irish History that can be found here.
  • Lastly (of more that could be named) the site Magazine Stacks aims to index most scholarly journals important in medieval studies.

Structured Data

Making data searchable by any means than free text, which is less and less useful the larger a sample gets, requires some form of structuring. All the catalogues and databases above obviously have some structure, but this section notes some resources that aim to give you processed information resulting from scholarly work, not the raw texts from which that work could be done. Many more of these tools exist than can be listed here, and creative web-searching is to be encouraged.

  • The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England gives biographical and source information on every identifiable person recorded in Anglo-Saxon source materials, and now also those in Domesday Book too.
  • Many other prosopographies exist: one that can be compared is People of Medieval Scotland 1093-1214, but it is worth searching for more.
  • Nomen et Gens is a similar project atbthe University of Tübingen that collects information covering the early medieval Frabkish kingdoms as part of a study of ethnicities.
  • Cathalaunia is proof that worthwhile projects of this kind can be done by one person, if that person has coding chops and a lot of spare time…
  • French-speaking areas have been especially forward-looking in the digitisation of medieval documentary materials. TELMA and Chartae Burgundiae Medii Ævi are two such databases that between them collect a good proportion of the early and high medieval charter evidence of modern France, the former among many other collections.
  • In England the Electronic Sawyer and various other resources available through the Kemble website offer similar possibilities for the much scanter Anglo-Saxon charter material.
  • As with the manuscript projects, the number of such initiatives now threatens to become untrackable; the editor could link to similar endeavours going on in Italy, Serbia, Russia and Germany with no trouble. MÕM (Monasterium.net) aims to unite these different projects into a single searchable database covering all medieval European charter evidence, and has not yet given up with 250,000-plus documents incorporated.
  • A perhaps unique way of accessing such information is offered by the site Regnum Francorum Online, which uses historical maps as a front-end for an index of prosopographical, bibliographical and archaeological information on the Frankish kingdoms of the early Middle Ages. This is hard to use but immensely informative when it can be made to work.
  • Another map-based project with more limited but no less impressive aims is ORBIS, based at Stanford University, which runs journey-planning software on a database built around the Roman road network!
  • Information from coins lends itself particularly well to this sort of treatment. The Early Medieval Corpus at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge collects all information published on coins from the British Isles of the period 380-1180, including both museum collections (the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles) and archaeological finds (the EMC proper). (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett used to maintain this.)

Digital interpretations of data

3D reconstructions

There are increasing numbers of these on the web. Some particularly illustrative ones are this amateur one of Ryd Abbey near Flensburg in Germany done in Blender 3D, which makes the construction stages of the model very clear or this one of the early Anglo-Saxon royal vill at Yeavering which is very true to the site. The one that perhaps most fully illustrates the potential of the medium, albeit not a medieval one, is this video showcasing a reconstructed seventeenth-century London on the eve of the Great Fire.


  • We’ve already mentioned Blender 3D, a free 3D imaging programme; there are also Microsoft Photosynth, a cloud-based application requiring Windows, and the app Autodesk 123D
  • For graphical representations of complex data, the current popular choice seems to be Gephi, which can be found here.
  • All the above software is free and usually open-source.

The Digital Humanities debate

There is a recent and heated debate about whether digital humanities is its own field or merely a way of approaching questions belonging to other humanities disciplines. One way to answer this has been to suggest that the discipline or sub-discipline is concerned with ‘big data’, accumulations of information so huge that only computerised analysis can produce results from them; a counter-attack has been that such work has so far done little beyond assembling its data. One scholar who discusses such matters accessibly is Scott Kleinman, whose blog is here; another is Jack Dougherty, whose blog is here.

Such issues have also resulted in publications, however, as scholars try to acquire digital ‘chops’ to increase the relevance and possibility of their studies and computer specialists get interested in humanities questions their techniques may be able to approach. Very few of these latter studies are conducted with the cooperation of experts in the relevant subjects, which limits their usefulness. Within the humanities, however, positions range from the extreme one that the new digital era necessarily brings with it an entirely new set of models for scholarly practice – this is most stridently set out in the edited volume Hacking the Academy, which is online for free here – to the Luddite one that the whole field is only a fad that frequently offers no more than expensive ways to check what we already ‘knew’. A middle position, that digital resources vastly increase the ease and potential of our research, seems most reasonable to us, with the added potential that if humanities scholars acquire enough of an understanding of such fields they will in fact be able to take the lead in directing such endeavours toward genuinely new outcomes.

One very recent book that explores the new possibilities of the ‘digital age’ for historians is Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Kristen Nawrotzki and Jack Dougherty, which is also online for free here and was itself experimental in construction, being edited openly online with comments from both solicited and unsolicited reviewers. A recent issue of the journal Literature Compass entitled ‘E-medieval: teaching, research and the ‘net’, even looks at such issues with a lens firmly on medieval studies. (Full disclosure: Dr Jarrett got into both these volumes, but the other essays are very good.)


That volume contains an essay written in entirely digital collaboration by Dr Jarrett on the scholarly value of blogging, which is something about which he has views. As this implies, he has a long-running academic blog, A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, which links to many other worthy medievalist blogs and a range of further resources. You may like it.

And lastly and perhaps most importantly, even if the comic PHD: Piled Higher and Deeper doesn’t seem relevant at this stage of your studies, it will!

Leeds 2013 report part 3

This was the longest day of my attendance at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds last year, not just because of it ending in the dance but because it was the only day of the conference where I went to four sessions before the evening. I guess that for some of you this will be more interesting reading than for others, so, varying the usual pattern, here’s a list of the sessions I went to and their speakers and papers, then a cut and you can follow it up if you like!

    1030. Digital Pleasures, IV: scholarly editions, data formats, data exploitation

  • Francesco Stella, “Database versus Encoding: which methods for which results?”
  • Jean-Baptiste Camps, “Detecting Contaminations in a Textual Tradition: computer versus traditional methods”
  • Alexey Lavrentev, “Interactions, corpus, apprentissages, répresentations”
  • 1107. ‘Foul Hordes’: the migration of ideas and people in Pictland and beyond

  • Oisin Plumb, “Go West Young Urguist: assessing the Pictish presence in Ireland”
  • Tasha Gefreh, “Foul Iconography”
  • Bethan Morris, “Reading the Stones: literacy, symbols, and monumentality in Pictland and beyond”
  • 1207. Peripheral Territories in Early Medieval Europe, 9th-11th Centuries

  • Katharina Winckler, “Competing Bishops and Territories in the Eastern Alps”
  • Jens Schneider, “Celtic Tradition and Frankish Narratives in 9th-Century Brittany”
  • Claire Lamy, “Dealing with the Margins: the monks of Marmoutier and the classification of their possessions (11th c.)”
  • 1310. Texts and Identities, IV: violence, legitimacy, and identity during the transformation of the Roman world

  • Glenn McDorman, “Military Violence and Political Legitimacy in the Burgundian Civil War”
  • Adrastos Omissi, “Hamstrung Horses? Timothy Barnes, Constantine’s Legendary Flight to his Father, and the Legitimacy of his procalamation as Emperor in 306”
  • Michael Burrows, “Lower-Class Illegitimate Violence in the late Roman West”

If any of that piques your interest, then read on! If not, hang about till next post and we’ll talk larger-scale Insular funerary sculpture instead. Continue reading

Picturing Abbess Emma’s associations

Really long-time readers of this blog will maybe remember a debate that got going on this blog in June 2008, apropos of a paper in the Journal of Neurocomputing that was using medieval charter information to showcase visualisation of social networks data.1 I was initially sceptical but talking to two of the authors got me much more interested and I subsequently talked one of them into delivering a paper in the final Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Diplomatic session at Leeds, a paper that we did want to publish but which sadly in the end could not be included in the final publication.2 That’s still a shame as there was good stuff to think with there, but of course what any historian dealing with dense social data is going to want to know about such software and techniques is, ‘how will it help me with my stuff?’ And since answering that question usually involves a lot of data entry, it has tended to rest there.

"Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm" from Boulet et al., "Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis", fig. 1

There is also the question of how much a “Representation of the medieval social network with force directed algorithm” like this from Boulet et al., “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis”, fig. 1, can tell you by itself, which is why of course in that article they then spend a lot of time breaking it down

For my area of interest, this was changed in mid-2012 as the indefatigable Joan Vilaseca of the Cathalaunia website began to investigate applying such techniques to the database he maintains there, which includes quite a lot of the documents from which I ply my trade. Magistra et Mater, who was getting interested in the possibilities of these things around then too, wrote some initial thoughts about what Joan and others were doing at hers in December 2012, and I had already made a stub note to talk about it in October of that year but, well, it’s been queued ever since. There is still plenty to say, though!

The thing that particularly caught my interest was that Joan put up a post on his blog in which he produced a list of the best-connected people in his database, the ones who appear with the most other people, and once the kings who appear in dating clauses and their notaries were filtered out, pretty much top of the list was Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll. Since there is perhaps no-one in the world who cares more about Abbess Emma than me,3 this seemed like a really good type-case with which to answer the quesion: does this kind of analysis actually tell us very much that we didn’t already know? And, weirdly, I think that my conclusion is that for me it’s perhaps most valuable for emphasising what we don’t.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database coloured according to grade of connectivity

To talk about this it’s necessary to get you the reader clear about exactly what Joan has actually done here, of course. As simply as I can put it, what we have above is a graph built in the following way. In Joan’s database Emma appears in 50 documents and in those 50 documents she occurs with an awful lot of people. Looking for only the most meaningful, Joan excluded from the count all persons with whom Emma turned up only once, which is a lot given that she orchestrated the Vall de Sant Joan hearing in which about 500 people swore testimony for her and then there’s still 48 more documents with her in. That still leaves 112 people with whom she is recorded associating more than once, in fact the total of associations still in the count is 1292. Many of these people also relate to each other and what you have above is a computer-aided display of all those links, with Emma at the centre and everyone else pulled out to where you can see the links. But you can already see from the way that some of the links are made with thicker bands of darker colour that some of these people dominate the sample much more than others. So, who are these people? Well, if you load up the SVG version of this graph on Joan’s blog you can just click straight through to his database records, which is marvellous, but in short the top five are two priests called Gentiles and Guisad, and then three laymen, namely Reinoard, Guimarà and Tudiscle.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39 (reduced-quality version), with Gentiles’s signature lower left centre

This all sounds more or less sensible to me: though I think only Gentiles and Reinoard, maybe Tudiscle, would have been in a top five I’d guessed, I can see why they’re all here. Gentiles was something like the chief scribe of Sant Joan: he appears in Emma’s first appearance as an adult, he went on appearing some six to ten years after her death, and in that time an awful lot of the documents of the abbey carried his scribal signature, even though as Federico Udina pointed out when he edited these documents, they’re not all in the same hand. This presumably means that he had subordinates signing stuff off for him and that his name was important enough that it still had to be there.4 Guisad was another frequent scribe for the abbey, apparently older, and he also appeared on the panel of a couple of the hearings in which Emma pursused people for her rights over their land.5 Reinoard was headman of one of the settlements in the Vall de Sant Joan and worked as court enforcer for Emma once as well as appearing in court when she called them, he was a collaborator of hers whom I’ve discussed elsewhere.6 Tudiscle and Guimarà present a more interesting case: these are two of the landowners whom Emma took to court, but in both cases those episodes were part of a longer relationship with the abbey which had here broken down. I’ve written about these two as well precisely because I think that in Tudiscle’s case the hearing was part of mending that relationship, as his importance seems not to have suffered subsequently, whereas Guimarà seems subsequently not to have worked with the abbess and in fact seems to have managed to shift quite a lot of property once donated to the nunnery onto Emma’s little brother, Count-Marquis Sunyer of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, as part of Sunyer’s campaign to clip his sister’s independently-ruled abbey’s wings.7 But before that he had worked for Emma, and these people certainly make good people to study if you want to understand how Emma worked, which is of course why I did.

Relationships of Abbess Emma in the Cathalaunia database, sorted by modularity

The same relationships now displayed according to their modularity, that is, by the size of the groups internal to the data

So, the first answer to the great question about whether this tells me anything looks like ‘no’; I had already found these people by older methods. But I’m arguably not the target here: the thing is that those methods were very like what Joan’s programming all but automates. I went through the documents, made note of the names who recurred most, assembled profiles of their appearances and decided who were the people I could tell the story with. Joan’s database and graphing together mean that I could, if I was starting again, do in about ten minutes the same exercise that took me weeks when I actually did it. I could do (and may do) the same thing now with Count-Marquis Guifré II Borrell, Sunyer’s predecessor and brother, for whom I haven’t done the same kind of background data-crunching, with far less trouble than I was anticipating. So in terms of research facilitation for others, this is a huge step forward even if it doesn’t help me. I can in fact only tell how much use it is precisely because I’d done it already by another means! (Whether Joan had to put fewer hours in to make it happen than I did for my research is another question of course…)

All the same, as I said above, what it now makes me think is how imperfect our data sometimes is for the kind of questions we might like to ask. If, on first principles, we asked ourselves who the principal contacts of an early medieval abbess was, we would probably presume that the main ones were her nuns. So indeed they may have been here, but as I’ve observed in a supposedly-forthcoming paper, while Emma was in charge of Sant Joan we know the names of only two other nuns, and those are only seen as they join the nunnery, we’ve no idea what Emma’s relations with them were like.8 If we then allowed ourselves to remember that this abbess was a count’s daughter, we might then think about her family as an important second string. But Emma hardly shows up with her family, and when she does it needs very careful reading: I think she only occurs alive and in person with brother Sunyer in the Vall de Sant Joan hearing where she was in theory taking him to court, for example.9 (She also turns up as a neighbour of land he was transferring twice, but of course she wasn’t actually there for that, though it gives us another reason to suppose they had other dealings.10) Also on the defending end on that occasion was their probably-elder brother Miró, Count of Cerdanya, who in his will named Emma one of his executors and had her called ‘my most dear sister’; I think she occurs with him once otherwise.11 She got Radulf to consecrate a church with her once, I think that’s it though.12 We can more or less see from this that this set of siblings were close collaborators even if not always very willing ones but the quantity of occurrences doesn’t really reflect what we can guess the importance of those relationships would have been.

The memorial stone for Abbess Emma in the abbey church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

Abbess Emma’s memorial in the medieval church of Sant Joan de les Abadesses

The information we get from this, therefore, is not wrong but it is partial. Emma probably did see Gentiles and talk with him most days of her adult life. It’s not clear whether Guisad was also a priest of the abbey but if so, he also would have been a regular feature of her days. She placed a lot of reliance on Reinoard, and that relationship was probably important to both of them in raising Reinoard above his fellows and showing those fellows how Emma could reward her collaborators. Tudiscle and Guimarà, at least at first, were more of that sort of person and even if the relationships probably didn’t mean as much to Emma as that with brother Miró did, for example, they’re historically very interesting and anyone working on Emma would be well served by being pointed towards them. But there is also quiet and missing data that must have made up a great deal more of her life, and that we can’t really reconstruct. It’s not by any means the fault of this technology that it can’t bring that to our notice: it obviously can’t give us back information we didn’t put in. But that also means that the technology is no more than one of the tools we have to use to understand that information in its context, some of which context is simply what isn’t there.13

1. Romain Boulet, Bertrand Jouse, Fabrice Rossi & Nathalie Villa, “Batch kernel SOM and related Laplacian methods for social network analysis” in Journal of Neurocomputing Vol. 71 (Amsterdam 2008), pp. 1579-1573.

2. What final publication, you ask? Why, Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013). You could buy it here if you wanted!

3. See J. Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229-258; idem, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 23-72.

4. Ibid. pp. 29-30; see Federico Udina Martorell, El Archivo Condal de Barcelona en los siglos IX-X: estudio crítico de sus fondos, Textos 18/Publicaciones de le Sección de Barcelona 15 (Madrid 1951), p. 205 for the argument.

5. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled, p. 59 n. 162.

6. Ibid. pp. 39, 41-42.

7. Ibid. pp. 52-53 (Tudiscle), 53-57 (Guimarà) & 64-65 (Sunyer’s pressure on the nunnery).

8. J. Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, to appear in a Festschrift for Rosamond McKitterick first planned in 2010.

9. The hearing is best printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 119 & 120, though the palæographic notes of Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 38, are still very useful.

10. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 103, 105 & 155. There are a few other cases where she and Sunyer both turn up as neighbours, but not of the same properties, so I don’t think that really counts here.

11. The will is only printed in Prosper de Bofarull y Mascaró, Los condes de Barcelona vindicados, y cronología y genealogía de los reyes de España considerados como soberanos independientes de su marca (Barcelona 1836, repr. 1990), 2 vols. I pp. 88-90. In Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 57 Miró presided over a hearing where Emma was the plaintiff, but she was represented by a mandatory and not present herself.

12. Udina, Archivo Condal, doc. no. 73. The two also occur as common neighbours in Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. nos 155 & 419, but again that only tells us that they probably met at some other point.

13. Cf. Jarrett, “Poor Tools to Think With: the human space in digital diplomatics” in Georg Vogeler & Antonella Ambrosiani (edd.), Digital Diplomatics 2011, Beihefte der Archiv für Diplomatik (München forthcoming), pp. 291-302.