Tag Archives: digital medievalism

Metablog XI: link clear-out

As is now normal, alas, I have to apologise for the gap in posting; there have been exam marks to finalise and then, heavens help me, I actually took some time off to do non-medieval things. But now I am back and I’m trying to work towards the point where I’m not just up to date with my own stuff but also with at least some other people’s. That’s still a long way off but as a first effort I have taken a long haul through the links in my sidebar, taking out those that no longer existed or are inactive, updating those that had moved and fixing some typos in what survived. Now, everything I’m linking to should be some kind of relevant and active.

There’s room in such an exercise for reflection, of course. It’s noticeable, for example, that most of what I had to prune was in the Resources section; I had to take out far fewer blogs even though my criteria for them are more stringent (viz., they have to have medieval content less than a quarter old on the front page). It seems that a one-person operation with commercial hosting is more practical to maintain than a static institutional website, who knew? Well, we all knew it probably, but it shouldn’t really be that way should it? Digital continuity is for some reason something the Academy can’t manage as well as WordPress. Then again, it may be the one-person thing. When it can be someone else’s fault if something isn’t done, it’s easier for everyone to ignore it maybe? Certainly, group blogs seemed to have survived less well than single-author ones, though obviously this is not real statistics given it’s a selective sample of a tiny size.

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth's atmosphere

A conceptualisation of the blogosphere by analogy to the Earth’s atmosphere, located and explained at Perishable Press (linked through)

Then there’s nostalgia (which is, as we know, not what it used to be). It’s not just me that’s had trouble keeping up with updating; some of the most venerable medievalist blogs, the ones who were an encouragement to me that other people did this thing when I was starting and who have been written about as bloggers, are now silent or dormant. In some cases there were real, sometimes fairly awful reasons; in some cases like mine it’s just acute time shortage; but I guess that it’s also that for a lot of now-silent bloggers online interaction has moved, to Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use those (because as Stuart Airlie once insightfully told me, it’s all about control) but no less a figure than Geoffrey Chaucer shows how this can happen. It’s not that blogs are dead, despite worries to that effect for many years now. There are also several fairly new blogs on the roll, but they are more noticeably academic publicity operations and less anonymised relations of the life academic than was once the case. The medium continues, but it’s now being used for different things, indeed roughly the things I set out to use it for when I started, although I slipped towards the middle of that continuum fairly rapidly. I doubt I started the trend, I think it was the pressure for impact and relevance that did that, but it is still noticeable. There’s still masses to keep up with, of course, and as yet I can’t, but I do hope to again some day. Now, at least the list of what I can’t keep up with is up to date again…

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).

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.

‘Cooked gold’ in tenth-century Barcelona coinage: a likely correction

One of the advantages of doing scholarship on the Internet, insofar as one can, is supposed to be that you can update and correct your work. Those who like this idea seem to believe that one would never put any of one’s projects down and move on, but be happy to update them forever, rendering them forever unreliable as citations, and in general you may guess that I don’t agree that this should be the future.1 All the same, sometimes one does find something that makes one’s work look likely to be wrong and then there seems little point in not using this outlet to make that public. The unlucky victim this time is my article, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243, and specifically the bit of it where I discuss a particular usage of the documents from around Barcelona in the late tenth century, prices given in auro cocto, ‘cooked gold’.2 Here’s what I said in the article:

“The use of bullion was becoming more common, and the increasing incidence of qualifications like ‘bono placibile’, and in the case of the foreign mancuses, ‘chocto’, literally ‘cooked’, ‘burnt’, suggest that its standard was frequently a matter of concern.

“The term ‘chocto’ is worth a brief digression. This apparent testing or melting may have been because of a variety in standards of the gold dinars that were reaching Barcelona from various mints in al-Andalus and, probably, beyond. The origin of individual dinars is only specified in later documents, when the bulk of coin in use must have been such that such testing would have been impractical. At this early stage foreign coins may have been converted on arrival into bullion of a known standard. It is hard to read the term ‘chocto’ as referring to anything other than melting; destructive assay methods would hardly have been used on so large a scale and would, in any case, have left no minted coin with which to pay the required price.62 It may therefore be that the coins were being reminted into local versions of the mancus.63 When the supply of Islamic mancuses began to dry up in 1020, a moneyer by the name of Bonhom began to mint local ones that circulated for many years.65 The paucity of finds of imported coin of an earlier period might be explained by such a practice.”

”    63 See A. Oddy, ‘Assaying in Antiquity” in Gold Bulletin 16 (1983), pp. 52-9. I am grateful to Marcus Phillips for bringing this useful paper to my attention.
”    64 On local manufacture of mancuses elewhere see L. Ilisch, “Die imitativen Solidi mancusi. ‘Arabische’ Goldmünzen der Karolingerzeit’ in R. Cunz (ed.), Fundamenta Historiae: Geschichte im Spiegel der Numismatik und ihrer Nachbarwissenschaften. Festschrift für Niklot Kluüßdorf zum 60. Geburtstag am 10. Februar 2004 (Hanover, 2004), pp. 91–106.
”    65 On the mancuses of Bonhom and Eneas, see [Anna M.] Balaguer, Història [de la moneda dels comtats catalans (Barcelona, 1999)], 53-5 and [Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Balaguer and Philip Grierson, Medieval European Coinage, with a Catalogue of the Coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 6: the Iberian Peninsula (Cambridge, 2013), pp. 78-81]….”

This was a sticky bit when I wrote it and looking back now the problems are even more evident. Poor-standard coins should have been more concerning once there were more of them, so why would the people of Barcelona have adopted an expensive reminting process before that point but then abandoned it? I provided an answer to this but I don’t like it, and the fact that the Bonhom mancuses survive but my notional earlier ones don’t could be just coincidence—and this whole article was after all about coins we probably don’t have—but it doesn’t make the theory any more likely. Still, in the light of what I knew it seemed like a workable answer. But then, on New Year’s Eve 2014 (because I know how to have a good time) I was reading up on the scientific study of Byzantine gold coinage for the All That Glitters project, and I found Robert Halleux getting all Greek and quoting a papyrus that contains ancient instructions for the testing of gold, in French translation which I translate as follows:

“If you want to purify gold, melt it anew or heat it, and if it is pure it keeps the same colour after being put in the fire, pure like a piece of money. If it appears more white, it contains silver; if it appears ruddier and harder, it contains copper and tin; if it is black, but pliable, it contains lead.”3

Not content with that, Halleux then quotes a [Edit: thanks to Gary for the corrected source here]letterthe Natural History of Pliny the Younger as well: “aurique experimentum ignis et, ut simili colore rubeat ignescatque et ipsum”, which is an oddly-cut quote that makes me think M. Halleux’s Latin was perhaps not so smart as his Greek in 1985. His citation certainly wasn’t, as I can find no sign of this text in Pliny, but Part of it, however, appears to mean, “gold tested in flames, both so that it shines and burns with the same colour and…”.4 Whatever M. Halleux was actually quoting, This just seems much more likely to be what is going on in my documents, testing by fire in a non-destructive way rather than actually remelting. In that case, however, it seems much less likely that the coins would have been restruck, so the Bonhom mancuses probably were the first local ones made in Barcelona.

Gold mancus of Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76)

The Bonhom mancuses are themselves vanishingly rare, however, and there seem to be no pictures of them on the web, so, here’s a slightly later Barcelona mancus struck under Count-Marquis Ramon Berenguer I of Barcelona (1035-76), from a Cayón sale of 2009

Admittedly we still have no more sign of the actual Andalusi mancuses in the area than we do my hypothetical ones, but at least we know that the Andalusi ones did exist and that the Barcelona documents were reacting to coins we have from elsewhere.5 I don’t think it does anything serious to my overall argument in my article, either, but this alternative reading of the ‘cooked gold’ in those documents is good reason to scotch what was always one of my weaker suggestions. So let it be noted, I disavow my old idea, and I now think that that ‘cooking’ was no more than a light flame-grilling to see what colour the coin turned.

1. Compare David Parry, “Burn the Boats/Books” and Jo Guldi, “Reinventing the Academic Journal”, both in Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt (edd.), Hacking the Academy: new approaches to scholarship and teaching from the digotal humanities (Ann Arbor 2013), pp. 15-18 and 19-24, both fixed texts of what were originally online presentations archived here, with Alex Sayf Cummings and Jonathan Jarrett, “Only Typing? Informal Writing, Blogging, and the Academy” in Kristen Nawrotzki & Jack Dougherty (edd.), Writing History in the Digital Age (Ann Arbor 2013), pp. 246-258.

2. J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243 at pp. 234-235.

3. R. Halleux, “Méthodes d’essay et d’affinage des alliages aurifères dans l’Antiquité et au moyen âge” in Cécile Morrisson, Claude Brenot, Jean-Pierre Callu, Jean-Noël Barrandon, Jacques Poirier & Halleux, L’or monnayé I : purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance, Cahiers Ernest Babelon 2 (Paris 1985), pp. 39-77 at p. 40:
“Si vous voulez purifier l’or, fondez à nouveau ou chauffez, et s’il est pur il garde la même couleur après la mise au feu, pur comme une pièce de monnaie. S’il paraît plus blanc, il contient d’argent ; s’il paraît plus rude et plus dur, il contient du cuivre et de l’étain ; s’il est noir, mais mou, il contient du plomb.”

The text of reference here is Halleux’s own, R. Halleux (ed.), Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm : fragments de recettes. Texte établi et traduction (Paris 1981), within which the bit here cited is Papyrus Leyden X 43, but it ought also to be locatable in Earle Radcliffe Carey (trans.), “The Leyden papyrus X: an English translation with brief notes” in Journal of Chemical Education Vol. 3 (New York City 1926), pp. 1149-1166.

4. Halleux, “Méthodes d’essay”, p. 40, citing Pliny, Natural History XXXIII 59, which you can see for yourself with a slightly more comprehensible text here.

5. On the absence of actual mancuses in finds from Catalonia, see Miquel Barceló, “L’or d’al-Andalus circulant als comtats Catalans entre 967 i 1100: un or vist o no vist?” in J. M.Gurt & A. M. Balaguer (edd.), Symposium Numismatico de Barcelona I (Barcelona 1979), pp. 313-327; on the chronology of the documentary mentions see Pierre Bonnassie, “Nouveautés linguistiques et mutations économico-sociales dans la Catalogne des IXe-XIe siècles” in Michel Banniard (ed.), Langages et Peuples d’Europe : cristallisation des identités romanes et germanique. Colloque International organisé par le Centre d’Art et Civilisation Médiévale de Conques et l’Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail (Toulouse-Conques, juillet 1997), Méridiennes 5 (Toulouse 2002), pp. 47-66.

This post was written with the aid of The Bevis Frond’s White Numbers (Woronzow 2014), which has made it much more pleasant to pull together.


Images from Montserrat!

This gallery contains 8 photos.

Readers who’ve been here a little while may remember that since about 2012 I have been mounting a sporadic attempt to quantify and locate the various members of the clergy attested in the tenth- and early-eleventh-century documents from around the … Continue reading

Seminar CCXXII: counterfactuals and computer games

There were more seminar series at Birmingham than I could easily keep track of, and less well advertised than would have made it easy, but I was delighted nonetheless to see the name of old acquaintance and general nice guy Robert Houghton, now of Winchester, on a poster at some point in late 2014 and made a point of making it to the paper on 11th December 2014 even though I had no real idea what the seminar, the History and Cultures Workshop, was. It transpired to be one of the many postgraduate-run events and I think I surprised them by being a staff member (just about) there at all, but perhaps they were no more surprised at me than I was at Rob’s title, which was “Modelling the Middle Ages in grand strategy computer games”.

Game start screen for Charlemagne in Crusader Kings II

Not my screen, I don’t play, but this seems to be game-start condition for Charlemagne and you know, it could be a lot less accurate…

It transpired that Rob had, while teaching at St Andrews, also managed to find some extra work advising the makers of the grand strategy game Crusader Kings II—so if you play it and have been favourably impressed by its apparent accuracy that may be his fault—and the coincidence of his two rôles had made him start to think about how such games might be used as teaching tools, and whom that would reach, and he had started doing some very informal research among his teaching groups. After all, if it can work then games are an interactive and exploratory tool that are quite unparalleled by anything we can offer by more conventional means; I remember an admissions interview at Oxford in which the candidate was courageous enough to say that there was probably no better way of getting a sense of what it was like to walk around medieval Florence than playing Assassins Creed, and although I’m pretty sure it should be easier to kill yourself falling off the Duomo than it seems to be, I got and get their point.

Of course we are not complete strangers to walk-around visualisations in historical teaching, but it's obviously not as interactive as a game environment and you can hardly climb anything

Rob’s findings, anyway, with a very small cohort as he freely admitted, were more or less that most people don’t get their medievalism this way but for those that do it may actually influence their understanding very deeply. In that case it may matter what they are playing, because what’s available gives a rather Eurocentric, ultra-violent, male-dominated picture (although this is not unique to computer games, of course). However, there are limits on what can be done and still have a playable game. Particularly with grand strategy games the player has a level of abstraction, information and control that no medieval ruler ever did, but the gradation from there to single-handed sword swinger is very shallow. Also, the computer can’t create the environment without solid parameters. Where you don’t know something, you can’t just leave it blank; that pixel, that bit, must be present. There were other issues usefully pointed out too, both by Rob and the others present, but I got particularly engaged with the issue of counterfactuals.

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

The pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee burning off Montevideo, 17th December 1939

Again I should preface this with a tale of an Oxbridge admissions interview but this time it’s my own. You see, at school, for the sins I mostly had yet to commit, I ran a paper-based wargame of my own invention for a year or so. I more or less stole the combat system from Fighting Fantasy and made it work for World War II and imagined-World-War-III air and sea combat. Because my path was probably already clear, I got interested in trying to recreate certain battles as tests of the game system, and especially the above, the Battle of the River Plate. I got it to the point where I could, with all kinds of reservation, make River Plate come out about right two-thirds of the time. Now, I must have mentioned this in my application form as most of what I remember about my Cambridge interviews is the late lamented Clive Trebilcock pushing me for five minutes or so on whether I thought such things could be used as tests for counterfactuals; if I could make River Plate come out right two-thirds of the time, for example, did that mean that this gave some basis for saying that the odds were genuinely against the Germans despite appearances? And I gave no ground: no, I said, because firstly I know the desired outcome and so can make player decisions that are likely to create it; also, because I can’t test for how important chance ought to be. I have set the parameters of the system—damage delivered by weapons, ability to minimise and inflict it, resilience of ships and crews—to give what seem to be like the ‘right’ outcomes, but the more accurate I get with that the less of a rôle chance has, and the more it slides from being a test of alternatives to just a recreation with dice. On the other hand, the more room for actual play there is, the less testably accurate it will get. I probably didn’t put it as eloquently even as that while 18 and nervous as hell, and there are ways I can now see to refine it—retests varying single factors, for example—but I still think it wouldn’t work.

Screenshot of a Crusader Kings II game

Not quite Rob’s example, but a situation in which something alternative has quite clearly and thoroughly happened whose story would be quite fun to know

More to the point, though, it wouldn’t be much fun if you could make it into a useful predictor system. And here Rob was on the same page. He had a marvellous Crusader Kings II screenshot in which someone playing as the ‘Duke of Alba’ had managed to conquer or otherwise gain control of basically all of north-eastern Europe and the Baltic. Now, I can just about think of ways something like that could be set up in fiction—royal Scottish exile during a succession crisis who has a monastic conversion and joins the Teutonic Knights, rises to be Grand Master and then gets recalled to the throne and, like Ramiro II of Aragón marries, for the sake of the dynasty, an heiress to Brandenburg whose brother dies soon after…—but it really is fiction, this could never have happened (even if ‘Duke of Alba’ were a real title). But should the game exclude it? Many reasons why not come to mind, not least trying to program for all such eventualities, but most obviously that one of the ways people treat computer games is to try and bring about heroically unlikely outcomes, winning through with the least likely playable character or from the weakest starting position and so on, and that this is one of the things that makes such games fun, because you can win against great odds. In Assassins Creed, I don’t believe it helps you particularly but you can climb the Duomo.

Screenshot of an attempt to climb the Duomo in Florence in Assassin's Creed

Go on…

Now, obviously sometimes in history people did win through against what seem to have been great odds, but as far as we are concerned as historians there was actually only one possible outcome of all the actual variables in play, and part of what we’re doing is trying to account for what seems to have been unlikely by identifying the significant variable. But even at age 18 I could see some reasons why a game will probably never be a tool for testing such outcomes; too much must be preset by assumptions about the outcomes. In some ways it might be better for teaching them, because then the presets are actually part of what we want to teach, but if the Duke of Alba can’t wind up ruling the entire southern Baltic coast or the Aztecs somehow reverse-conquer the Spanish Empire, then I’m still not sure I wanna play…

My only halfway reputable cite for using counterfactuals in medieval history is Jes Wienberg, “Europeanisation around the Baltic Sea: a counterfactual perspective” in Jörn Staecker (ed.), The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region: papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), pp. 421-429, but that has a good go at defending the practice.

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.