Blog Post

Studying Antiquity in the Digital Age

si enim sunt futura et praeterita, volo scire ubi sunt. quod si nondum valeo, scio tamen, ubicumque sunt, non ibi ea futura esse aut praeterita, sed praesentia [. . .] ubicumque ergo sunt, quaecumque sunt, non sunt nisi praesentia.

For if the future and the past exist, I want to know where they are. But if I am not yet capable of such knowledge, I still know that wherever they are, they are not there as future or past, but as present [. . . ] Therefore wherever they are and whatever they are, it is only by being present that they are.
(Augustine, Confessions 11.18)


The fields of classics & medieval studies are oftenconsidered to be as uninnovative as it gets.  The study ofantiquity is taken by many people - including some within these fields - to beantiquated by nature.  Yet I think that historically these fields havetraversed boundaries.  The study of ancient thinkers was the core aroundwhich the early universities were founded, universities in which students andprofessors across disciplines debated and collaborated.  The developmentof the printing press opened previously inviolable texts to the public,allowing words once shrouded in mystery and (in some sense) idolized as relicsto be resurrected.  The unread, unchallenged word is dead; throughdemystification and diffusion, the word lives and thrives to propagate. And so, modern technology and the Internet have transformed the study of theclassics in astounding ways - and I hope that this progress willcontinue.  Despite the stereotype of the Luddite Greek professor, thefield of classics was actually one of the first humanities disciplines to usedigital technology in research.  The work of David Packard Jr. producedelectronic versions of ancient texts in the 1970s and Gregory Crane's continueddevotion to digitizing classical  texts completely changed the wayclassicists do research.  Additionally, scientific technology such asmultispectral imaging has enabled scholars to read severely damaged and otherwise illegibletexts.  So all of this is to say that while we study antiquity, there isno reason to assume the methods are antiquated!

I continue to encourage my colleagues to imagine &experiment with modern technology not only serve as an effective outreach tool,but also enhance - even transform - one's own research.  One boundary I amendeavoring to traverse involves the use of technology to present ancient andmedieval manuscripts to those who otherwise would never be able to see them.Why is this important?  I think the easiest way to explain is todescribe my own experience (while hoping that this entry doesn't become toolong or discursive):

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I ended uptaking an intermediate Latin course taught by Michael I. Allen (the I is forIdomir, by the way).  He was adamant thatyoung students interact with the ancient manuscripts in their physical form;his belief in the ?mystical experience? of seeing and holding these texts wasso strong that he held our Latin class in the library Special Collectionsroom.  It was this experience ? viewingthe text as it was originally written, reading the tiny marginalia and doodlesin the margins, experiencing the color, texture, even the smell (like lapsangsouchang tea) of the parchment ? that kindled a passionate love of theclassics and the medieval tradition.  I can say that until I hadthat experience, I had never felt such a strong connection to the Latin we werereading in class.

I went on to study unpublished manuscripts in Spain & England,and ultimately went to graduate school to work further on neglected texts ? ofwhich there are many. Why are thesetexts neglected? There are a number ofreasons: because the texts are late manuscripts (so not early enough to be ofinterest to classicists), or because they haven?t been translated (sadly, thisis a deterrent for many in both classics & medieval studies), or becausethey were written by an unknown/anonymous author, or because an early criticdeemed them unworthy of further study... etc. But as one who has worked with a number of discarded/neglected texts ?they can be incredible! Often thereasons for neglecting these historical documents are entirely subjective oreven objectively false.  For example, asaint?s life that a 19th-century scholar deemed ?a late forgery? hasalmost entirely been written off by the scholarly community because That ManSaid So. But his argument is full ofholes ? and the document contains intriguing political and meteorologicalevents (which are documented in other texts as well).  So I hope to traverse not only the boundariesof time but also the stodgy weight of Someone?s Sacred Opinion by engaging ? and whennecessary, defending ? maligned texts such as these.

Clearly, interacting with manuscripts changed my view of history.  I discovered that what we consider "the text" was a living, changing being.  Watching the metamorphosis of a work as it passes through the hands of various scribes evoked a peculiar feeling of community - not just among the various hands altering a work, but among those scribes, their commentaries, the text, and myself.  The act of reading itself inducted me into a community of scholars stretching back for centuries.  


With regard to the presentation (and dissemination) ofmanuscripts via the Internet, there is much work to be done in this realm.  Precious few libraries have allocated timeand money to high-quality digitization projects. While some scholars believe these projectsare somewhat rote or mundane ? thus, not worth the research funds, I would saythat such projects could assist the humanities in further crossing boundaries:

1. Presentation of manuscripts on the Internet would allow for students atmanuscript-poor universities to see what these texts look like ? including marginaliaand tiny details of the parchment/papyrus. U.S. students would especially benefit from this, as our universitiesdid not come with medieval manuscripts already installed.  Generally, if a scholar can?t see amanuscript in person, he/she must purchase the microfilm and then find amicrofilm reader to pursue the document. A high-quality digital picture would be better by far (and would allowfor color variants). Before I went toEngland, I had seen microfilm of a particular manuscript; since the work did not contain any illuminations, I had no idea that the text was vibrantly colored until I saw it in person.

2. Think of the time, money, and resources that could besaved if scholars could check certain paleographical aspects through digitalpictures instead of being required to use blurry microfilm or visit in person.

3. As far as outreach, boundaries of class and eveneducational attainment would be moot. Nospecial credentials are needed to access manuscripts online ? but those wishingto see them in person may need a letter, student standing, etc. The texts would be ? as they ought ? theproperty of the public.

4. Texts with color and complicated layout would beunmitigated by printers. As it stands,complicated medieval layouts can be difficult to reproduce in a printededition. Generally marginalia are neverreproduced. The worst part of this is thatthe student never learns that the text breathes a history entirely its own. It does not necessarily exist as a fixed,permanent creation ? the manuscripts help tell the story with their variants,crossed out bits, emendations, interpolation, the debates in the margin ? all of these give us indelible informationabout the past that is irrecoverable in the transition to a printed text.  Even the particular arrangement contributes toa distinct experience of reading ? paging through a medieval encyclopaedia willreveal that alphabetical order was not, in fact, the way earlier generationsorganized information. There issomething very organic ? rather proto-HASTAC, really ? about the boundariestraversed by ancient and medieval scholars, especially in terms of theirtopical approach to the organization of data.

5. At this point, technology cannot bring to students thefull experience of working with ancient manuscripts. The smell is lost, the texture, thephysicality ? all elements which contribute greatly to a glorious reality of adocument. There are scholarly inquiriesthat can only be solved by viewing the manuscript and its binding inperson. But I do think that investing inhigh-quality, public archives of special collections can translate some essenceof the experience.

6. Such archives would preserve images of manuscripts/papyriin the case of catastrophe. Countlessmanuscripts have been lost, stolen, vandalized, damaged, destroyed, eaten bybugs, or simply altered by the passage of time. Digital archives should never replace original documents ? but they canprovide some security that a particular work (and its unique variants) will notnecessarily pass into oblivion if something happens to the original.

This is far too long already! I will stop for now, and perhaps pick up onthe theme of traversing boundaries later. There are so many different ways to engage this thought-provoking topic!  I will close with just a few links to delightful onlinemanuscripts ? I?ll try to come back and add more (either in this post or in asubsequent one). Please feel free toleave a comment about what it was like to view some of these documents as theyoriginally appeared. Did anythingsurprise or interest you?

The Aberdeen Bestiary (includes translations, commentary,and other information)

Ms. Digby 23 Project (includes Plato's Timaeus in the Latin translation by Calcidius, and the Old French Chanson de Roland).
(requires creation of a free user account)

Early Manuscripts at Oxford University (many differentsorts)

Collection of beasts from various bestiaries (not a singlemanuscript, but it's too lovely not to share):
(click on one to view description, allegories, & one picture; then click on"gallery" to view many other pictures of the beast from various bestiaries)

HASTAC III. ?TraversingDigital Boundaries.?
This blog is part of a series of blogs leading up to thethird annual HASTAC conference, which will be held April 19-21, 2009, at the Universityof Illinois atUrbana-Champaignunder the theme ?Traversing Digital Boundaries.? As the theme suggests,thegathering will focus on the exploration of new territory and on workthatcrosses, manipulates, or simply ignores traditional boundaries. Theconferenceprogram will include presentations of research, performances,technologydemonstrations, posters, panel discussions, and ?virtual? participationviatelepresence technology. For moreinformation, visit orcontact




Thanks for this post. As a medievalist, I also find myself encountering the too often distinct concerns of digital humanities and medieval scholarship. To your set of links, I would also add the Digital Scriptorium, here:

Also, I don't know if you're aware of this already or not, but there is a group of medievalists dealing with issues of how to use technology to enhance their work. Our website is here:

It is another I-CHASS project, as well, so there's some significant overlap between HASTAC and GMAP


Thanks for the link to the digital scriptorium - I know there are so many others that I didn't list.