MMSDA Report – Medieval Strand

As one of the fellows recently engaged in the DiXiT initiative, I was asked to attend the 2014  MMSDA as our first training camp. The interesting point is that this has actually been my second time coming to the MMSDA. Two years ago I attended this very course and now I can’t help smiling and thinking that there was exactly where my journey into the digital world began, happily rewarded now with this unbelievable opportunity. Partly because I was the only one revisiting it, I was asked to write this brief report. Hopefully it will be useful for potential attendees to make up their minds and have a go at Digital Humanities by applying to this introductory course.

Before I dive into the analysis of the course, it is necessary to make a clarification: one the main novelties regarding my previous attendance was the division of the current course into two different strands, Medieval and Modern, which meant that during the first three days, students were asked to split in two groups for some lessons and visits. Thus, I will cover the Medieval version of the course, while my DiXiT fellow Elli Bleeker addresses the Modernist viewpoint in her excellent report.

Let’s start by a brief description of the attendees. The first thing I noticed  was the wide  interdisciplinarity of them. This variety affected, on the one hand, the  historical period (Medieval and Modern,) which broadened the historical limits from the Early Middle Ages all the way up to the 20th Century. But also I could see scholars coming from a broad range of fields of study: historians, paleographers, diplomatists, philologers, computer scientists, etc., a clear evidence of the interest that DH is generating in all kind of researchers dealing with text criticism. And what about nationalities? From Finland and Norway to Italy, from Spain to Poland, Europe was quite well represented (although I still missed more Mediterranean presence). Together with some American fellows, there was a varied and rich national representation which offers an idea of the worldwide dimension that DH has achieved.

Regarding the structure of the course, a complete schedule can be found here. I will not write an exhaustive description of each of the lectures (see instead Elli’s report, whose words I guarantee have more wisdom than mine), but rather I will try to offer a general overview of it.

The most obvious feature of the way organizers have structured the contents, was the apparent division of the course into two parts that addressed both, traditional and digital editions. First, the lectures on traditional editions took place between Cambridge and London (Warburg Institute) and it reviewed the basics concepts on manuscripts, paleography, codicology, critical editions, etc. Then, the Digital part run entirely at King’s College London and dealt with the basics on XML, TEI and digital editions.

However, this division may result particularly deceptive. In my opinion, in this course, traditional and digital editing are not intended to be simply juxtaposed and presented as two opposite, different ways to work with texts. Quite the opposite, the goal of the course was to bring together both spheres and see the relations and synergies between both parts. The digital part is not just an addition, it is actually articulated with the traditional part. In fact, during the encoding practices, students worked on materials first shown in the lectures and library visits (such as the Red book of Darley, for instance). This is crucial to understand the key characteristic which truly defines the spirit of this course: both parts deserve equal treatment since a good digital editor needs a deep, solid understanding of the artifacts, scripts, texts, images, etc., subjected to digitization.

With regard to the current scheme of the lectures, it replicated mostly the same one of two years ago, although the organizers have  made some changes regarding the contents, especially affecting Friday afternoon session. Two years ago these lectures focused on digital representation, that is, encoding images and linking images and text. This year, however, Franz Fisher and Patrick Sahle discussed about digital modelling and evaluating digital editions. I ignore the reasons for this major change in the contents, but in my opinion, it was definitely a change for the better. It is not that I ignore the importance of marking up images. In fact, I feel thankful, because of my two attendances, for  having enjoyed the possibility of  being instructed in more skills that the rest of my colleagues. However, I must concede that this year lectures were more suitable for a proper ending of the course. They were more synthetic and reflective, and thus, a better culmination for five days of intense work, whereas encoding images may be considered as just another technical skill, useful indeed, but maybe not enough for everyone attending the course (not everyone deals necessarily with images or miniatures). Moreover, we cannot forget that the point of the whole course is the teaching of scholarly editions in both, traditional and digital support. Therefore, dedicating the last part of the course to scholarly editions gives, again, an optimal ending to the whole week.

There were other less relevant changes, such as the substitution of some speakers, but the explanation for these may rely on the personal availability of the scholars during the dates of the course. Either way, everyone would agree with me, once checked the names mentioned in the schedule, that one of the main assets of this course is the contrasted quality and experience of the professionals delivering the lectures.

Another major part of the course took place during the library visits. Hands down, one of the most interesting parts of the course, a privilege some would say. Of course, the visits were not planned just for intellectual tourism. They offer the opportunity to develop in practice and in a unique scenario the principles and concepts learnt during the morning lessons: Parker Library at Corpus Christi College and Saint John’s College in Cambridge,  and Senate House Library or Lambeth Palace in London, together with the personal collaboration of their librarians, offered a unique scenario to see materialized the notions first addressed in the lectures.

And finally, as a sort of colophon of the course, there were some special lectures: Simon Tanner on “Planning Digital Projects”, Alberto Campagnolo on Book conservation and DH”  and Tim Bolton on “Provenance and book-collectors” (again, allow me to recommend Elli’s report, where you will find a detailed description of these lectures).

When it comes to my personal opinion on the course, I have to say that it is obviously influenced by my professional background. Two years ago, some of the attendees (me included) were expecting a more digital-focused approach, since in our opinion only two days dedicated for learning such new, different concepts did not suffice. This year I encountered the same problems again. People coming from Humanities found such a thorough “back to basics” unnecessary, since the main incentive for us was in particular the digital part. However, one of the attenders with a background in Computer Science was delighted by these introductory lessons since it was his first encounter with this sort of matters. On the contrary, his knowledge on encoding surpassed by far what was taught at the course. The bottom line here is: since Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary undertaking comprising multiple areas of knowledge, in the MMSDA there will be always something already mastered by the attendee,  but also many new things to learn and discover.

Moreover, scholars exclusively seeking for digital training have to bear in mind the following questions about what, in my opinion, MMSDA is and is not:

– MMSDA is not a course solely specialized in encoding, although it may serve as a first platform, as a departure point for scholars already trained in Humanities/Computing Science willing to have a gentle approach to the apparently messy world of Digital Scholarly Editions. If you are already convinced of acquiring further skills on XML and TEI, then you should  seek for other options (such as the Digital Humanities at Oxford Summer School, for example).

– MMSDA is a course aiming to integrate both approaches, traditional and digital.  This means that both aspects, the Digital one and the humanistic one MUST be well-balanced. This element of integration is what really defines the authentic spirit of the course. Both spheres are equally treated throughout the week, as I appointed before.

I want to conclude by saying that two years ago I had just a vague idea on what a Digital Edition was. My main goal was just to establish a first contact with this field, to get a general glimpse of it. I knew it could be useful for my the future but at the same time I was aware that the real chances of using it, at least in a short run, were quite remote. Now my approach has radically changed after becoming a member of DiXiT and having a 3 year project regarding SDEs ahead. Moreover, my knowledge on this field had evolved. In short, my approach to my second attendance of the MMSDA was totally different. I had a clear goal in my mind and a more solid base, which allowed me to enjoy more deeply the course. Because of this, I could perceive some changes for the better with regard to my previous visit. The organizers have taken seriously the feedback supplied by the attendees and applied adjustments accordingly to improve the experience of the course. Although the original spirit of the course remains intact, I could feel how everything was  just better organized overall. It has certainly grown, divided into two specialized strands, and now it’s being backed up by something bigger, an ambitious international project with three years ahead, a dozen of academic institutions with their respective scholars involved, and a group of twelve PhD students eager to take the knowledge acquired during the course one step further.

So if you feel curious about digital editions, do not even hesitate it. Dare to have a go at the MMSDA!


Francisco Javier Álvarez-Carbajal

Born in Palma de Mallorca in 1986, I graduated in History in the University of Oviedo, Spain (2009). My degree dissertation was awarded with the 2012 Extraordinary Prize. In 2010 I enrolled in the PhD program of the History Department at the University of Oviedo under the direction of professor Miguel Calleja Puerta. Within the framework of a "Severo Ochoa fellowship", granted by the Government of the Principality of Asturias, I began my PhD research on "The documentary production of the Counts of Luna at the end of the Middle Ages: lordship administration, political struggle and social legitimacy". In April 2014 I got an ESR Marie Curie Fellowship and I moved to Lyon, where I work for the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales for DiXiT (Digital Scholarly Editions Initial Training Network). My current project, Practice and Usability of Digital Critical Editions is directed by Jacques Berlioz and supervised by Marjorie Burghart.

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