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21.08.07 Endres, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts

The Medieval Review

21.08.07 Endres, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts


Bill Endres' Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts: The St. Chad Gospels, Materiality, Recoveries, and Representation in 2D & 3D is much more than a technical guide to various methods of digitization of early manuscripts, although that is one of its primary strengths. Like other contributions to the Arc Humanities Press series Medieval Media Cultures, the volume is brief, digestible, affordable, and most welcome.

Referring to his magisterial and multi-faceted study of the St. Chad Gospels (a ca. 730 AD wonder of uncertain Insular origin that has been housed at the Lichfield Cathedral since the third quarter of the tenth century), the first three (of five) chapters are quite technical, with explanations of how exactly digital imaging works, advice about post-processing of digital images, and a walk-though of Endres' process for target-based alignment of digitized historical photographs with RGB and MSI images. This alignment process allows for easy comparison of historic and modern images in an adjustable overlay viewer. Endres effectively demonstrates the importance of using historical photos as references to study the aging of a medieval manuscript, comparing old and new images to analyze degradations like flaking and cockling. For parchment manuscripts, contracting, expanding, curling, and cockling seemingly at will, this alignment process is both important and challenging.

Chapter 4 ("Sacred Artefacts: Open Access, Power, Ethics, and Reciprocity") turns to a more ethical focus, capaciously considering the implications of the digitization and open-access dissemination of images from an artefact like the St. Chad Gospels that has a deep spiritual connection and sacral function for its community of ownership. He contrasts this situation with a manuscript like the Codex Sinaiticus that has been removed from its community of origin and belongs to a national library (68-69) (while it is certainly true that the legal implications of providing open-access to a manuscript that belongs to a Cathedral are somewhat different from those governing a manuscript belonging to the British Library, it is worth noting that manuscripts that have been removed from their place of origin may still be of sacral and spiritual importance to their community of origin and should be treated as such). In order to commit to creating a fully open-access project, Endres embraced a relationship-based process of reciprocity and open communication that helped to overcome initial concerns from the Cathedral's leadership and congregation about how the images of their precious Gospel manuscript would be used, credited, and disseminated to the world. The Cathedral's leadership was concerned about the manuscript's condition and potential continued degradation: Endres incorporated a detailed conservation analysis into his project. The community was concerned about losing their connection to the manuscript: Endres formed relationships with the local "babysitters" assigned to oversee his handling of the manuscript by discussing his observations with them. He continues to engage with the local community by providing updates on the progress of the project and returning to Lichfield to give lectures about his work. By listening to the community's concerns with empathy, Endres was able to address those concerns in a way that demonstrated his respect for the community and their relationship with the St. Chad Gospels.

Chapter 5 ("A Crisis in Knowledge-Space? A Look Toward Virtual Reality") moves to more philosophical and theoretical territory with an introduction to virtual reality as a space in which to investigate the material aspects of a manuscript (such as heft, texture, and pliability). He lays the groundwork for this argument by reviewing what he calls historic "knowledge-spaces," broad selective categories of how humans have historically created and disseminated learning: platonic dialectic, the handwritten manuscript, the printed book, and the interactive online space known as Web 2.0. All of these contribute to effectively-designed Virtual Reality, a final type of knowledge-space in which humans can interact with a 3D model of a manuscript in ways that move beyond what is available in the "real world"--not only turning the pages, but layering MSI images and annotating the pages in the 3D model. Endres notes that "A discerning view of human senses...is crucial for designing VR. For studying manuscripts, if VR is to provide rigorous and groundbreaking approaches, it must not only accommodate human sensory perceptions, but it also must wisely expand and enhance them" (85). One example of such enhancement is the use of a haptic interface to experience the weight, texture, and tension of parchment, including moving the hand across zones of the parchment that are off-limits to human touch (such as the ink and pigments). I have handled hundreds of medieval manuscripts--but I have never run my fingers across the texture of layered pigment or tooled gold leaf, and I admit that the idea of doing so in a virtual space has some appeal.

There is very little to criticize in this volume--a few minor editorial oversights, the likely result of the refreshingly-quick turnaround for which the Arc Humanities volumes are known. For anyone interested in understanding the intricacies of digital imaging and the complexities of working with ancient material in a modern context, Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts is indispensable. The print volume is enhanced by online full-color images and gifs, with one URL for each chapter, in this format: http://billendres.com/book/chap1/chap1.html. The website devoted to Endres' imaging and images of the St. Chad Gospels provides additional features, such as the layering viewer and a complete set of open-access images: https://lichfield.ou.edu/st-chad-gospels/features. All three components--book, online images, and website--can stand alone by design, but together they offer an extremely valuable example of what careful forethought, community engagement, open access, and thoughtful design can accomplish.