18.06.08, Barrett, et al., eds., Ruling the Script in the Middle Ages

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Adam Kosto

The Medieval Review 18.06.08

Barrett, Sébastien, Dominique Stuzmann, and George Vogeler, eds. Ruling the Script in the Middle Ages: Formal Aspects of Written Communication (Books, Charters, and Inscriptions) . Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 35. Turnhout:Brepols, 2016. pp. viii, 545. ISBN: 978-2-503-56743-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Adam Kosto
Columbia University

One of the articles in this collection describes a program that uses artificial intelligence techniques to group palaeographic samples by similarity--not according to any particular predetermined characteristics, but simply according to the number of groups selected by the user. One can imagine running a program of that sort [1] on this collection of twenty papers presented at the International Medieval Conference at Leeds between 2010 and 2014. It might identify substantial clusters such as: articles on cartularies; articles by recent PhDs; articles describing computer-aided analysis of documents; articles written in inadequately edited Euroglish; articles on script forms; articles with images of insufficient quality to allow the reader to see the point being illustrated; … Such a program might be necessary as the editors have decided to present the papers not in a way that reflects their original grouping in conference panels, but instead alphabetically by author. As they explain in the introduction, there is a method to their madness: "the combination of research questions is emphasized by the alphabetical order of the volume. This avoids the expected" (21). That is, they want to encourage connections across various methodological, regional, and thematic approaches. The particular concern of the editors is to position the "auxiliary disciplines"--especially palaeography, diplomatics, and codicology--in the field of communications studies (the theme of the series in which this volume appears). And the one thing that does tie all these papers together is a focus on "the material and graphical aspects of communications strategies" (1) as analyzed using the specialized techniques of those disciplines. The introduction offers much of interest on the historiography of medieval literacy and communications in various national traditions and the field's "blind spot" with respect to precisely those graphical and material aspects that the disciplines are so well positioned to study. Things like diplomatic formulas and mise en page are just the sort of rules that make communication possible, thus they do merit study from that perspective. But the jumble of articles assembled here, which vary widely in length, form, quality, and tone, hardly makes the case that thinking in terms of communications has any real benefit; indeed, few even mention the concept. In principle, a hypothetical reader could make high-level connections among the angle between writing and ruling lines in Syriac manuscripts, the content of documentary formulas in Breton charters, the organization of a Swiss cartulary, and the number of clerks who produced monastic accounting rolls from England. But my guess is that few readers (beyond reviewers) will in fact tackle this weighty volume as a whole. [2]

That said, the volume does serve as an introduction to a range of interesting new work being done in the auxiliary disciplines, and in particular the application of digital humanities techniques in those fields. Fully thirteen of the papers draw from dissertations completed only after this series of conference sessions began at the beginning of the decade: Martin Bauch (Darmstadt 2012) on Emperor Charles IV, Diego Belmonte Fernández (Sevilla 2016) on Seville cartularies, Isabelle Bretthauer (Paris VII 2011) on late medieval Norman documents, Claire de Cazanove on early medieval cartularies (Paris I 2017), Els De Paermentier (Gent 2010) on the comital chancery in Flanders and Hainault, Harmony Dewez (Paris I 2014) on accounting practices at Norwich cathedral, Tamiko Fournier-Fujimoto (Caen 2012) on the cartulary of Saint-Étienne de Caen, Rahel Fronda (University College London 2015) on micrography in Hebrew Bible manuscripts, Cyprien Henry (Paris EPHE 2018) on episcopal charters in Brittany, Tobias Hodel (Zürich 2016) on the documentary culture of Königsfelden, Estelle Ingrand-Varenne (Poitiers 2013) on Western French epigraphy, and Jean-Baptiste Renault (Strasbourg 2013) on documentary culture in Provence. Specialists will want to track down the fuller publications of these scholars for richer treatments of their arguments.

As for the digital humanities, older database projects have become much more user-friendly and accessible. For example, De Paermentier's study of charter formulas in the Low Countries draws on the 35,000 documents in the Diplomatica Belgica database, while Peter Stokes's analysis of eleventh-century English Latin and vernacular hands leverages the DigiPal database, with its over 63,000 images of individual letter forms. [3] But the really exciting developments are in tools that are not corpus-specific. Maria Gurrado deploys the Graphoskop program to analyze changes in writing angles in French manuscripts. [4] Hodel recovers erased text in a cartulary with the help of the retroReveal project's image processing software. [5] And the program mentioned at the start of this review is the Groningen Intelligent Writer Identification System (GIWIS), applied here to chancery registers of the counts of Holland. As several of the other papers show, one does not need computers to generate findings based on large corpora; old-school diplomatic and paleographical techniques, and a healthy dose of patience, still yield fruit when applied to, for example, 1,000 documents of Alençon notaries (Bretthauer), 1,500 samples of Florentine notarial hands (Irene Ceccherini), or 2,500 manuscript books (Émilie Cotteraeu-Gabillet, in an exercise in "quantitative codicology"). Nor, of course, does one need to work with large corpora to develop important findings. Still, these new tools are forming an increasingly important part of a medievalist's scholarly toolkit.


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2. This is not the only recent volume in this series with such weaknesses. See, e.g., Leslie Lockett, review of Simon C. Thompson and Michael D. J. Bintley, eds., Sensory Perception in the Medieval West, Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy, 34 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016), The Medieval Review 18.01.07.

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