About the Archive

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NB: There are a number of aspects of this site that are not quite complete. I'd appreciate it if you referred any issues you see to me using the information on the contact page. Right now the Clopton transcriptions are the most complete elements of the site both in terms of transcription and in terms of notes and editorial apparatus.


Whether for print or for the internet, the layer approach used in computing has influenced our modern notions of presentation. We treat the text—or content to use the popular term—as some sort of platonic ideal floating in the cloud, divorced from any mechanisms of production or display and thus able to fluidly fit any container we put it into. This is a lie. The people who created that content used tools to do it and had certain things in mind when doing so, the people who created the infrastructure it rests on had certain things in mind for that infrastructure, and you as the viewer are using tools to view or read that content.1 This does not, of course, even touch upon the contextual environment all those people may be in, which influences their decisions.

In some ways, this impulse on our part is very much akin to how the poststructuralist concept of the "Death of the Author" tends to be viewed as a simple binary of control between readers and writers, when really it’s a daisy chain of negotiations between the author, the tools they use to inscribe meaning, the tools used to disseminate and preserve that inscription, and the tools used ultimately to read and understand it. The Author isn’t dead and the Reader doesn’t get to run the asylum. We’re all stuck together trying to make sense of things. By not acknowledging the contexts and paratext of the things we interact with, we abstract them to the point that they become easy to ignore, especially digitally, with implications for interpretation that I've written about elsewhere.

One of the things that my study of manuscripts and material objects has taught me is that the content of an item—its text—is always affected by the other materials presented alongside it—its paratext. In turn, both of these are not presented in a vacuum and so the context in which an item is inscribed and that in which it is received needs to be taken into account.

As an example of this, you just have to take a look at a quick Google image search for "medieval saint illumination." Every image on the results page comes from a manuscript, and is the result of the limitations and affordances of the media used to produce it and the medium it was produced upon. In many cases they are meant to be associated with vitae, or the lives of particular saints, and at times the order that those legends are put into matters. Instead, here they are totally removed from any sort of context afforded by the physical object and often from any related text through the decisions made when photographing them and the decisions Google made associating these images with particular bits of metadata. Because the context of the image is removed, it can be reinterpreted and reinscribed with fleeting associations, as when images from medieval manuscripts are used to make internet memes. While I'm hardly against meme-making, what does bother me in this process of abstraction is that the original contexts of these items as well as their associated paratexts are often obliterated for all practical purposes. Yes, the information exists, but locked away in specialist language in the bibliographic descriptions contained in library catalogs. It does the people of the past and the objects they produced an incredible injustice.

This page, presented as a series of questions, is intended to help prevent that abstraction. It is also intended to remind the reader that although these items are currently being viewed digitally, they exist in the physical world as very real objects and that both the decisions made and the means by which they are interpreted should reflect that.

Why did you create the site?

This site began as a way to display the transcriptions I did for Lydgate's Testament and Lamentation of Our Lady Maria as they appear in the Great Church of the Holy Trinity, Long Melford. As I explain in the article written on Lydgate and the chapel, the verses at Long Melford are doing slightly different work that than those in codices due both to the materials they are written upon and the way they are changed to fit the environment they are presented in. Due to this article, I became aware of how much Lydgate material exists in multiple witnesses and how little is available to students, scholars, and the general public. This site exists as the beginning of an attempt to rectify that.

Why Minor Works?

There are many reasons why the archive is limited to minor works, split along practical and philosophical lines. Practically, the work on the archive must be done around the other academic work and teaching schedule of the editor. Transcribing even a small work in multiple witnesses is a quite time and work-intensive process. Moreover, it requires a significant financial outlay to acquire image rights to manuscripts. Doing that work for one of Lydgate’s larger poems in multiple witnesses, such as the Siege of Thebes (30 witnesses) the Troy Book (23 witnesses) or the Fall of Princes (60 witnesses) requires a team and resources of the sort that the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive enjoys to produce results in a timely fashion. Ideally, should circumstances change the multiple witnesses of these larger works will be transcribed and the archive may more generally discuss Lydgate in toto. It is for this reason that the full body of Lydgate's output, as determined via the digital Index of Middle English Verse, has been included as planned items.

Another problem is that even if Lydgate is included in the print editions of anthologies (as opposed to supplementary or web materials, as an afterthought in discussing Chaucer, or omitted entirely) he is represented only by his dramatic works or by selections from the Fall of Princes. This is an injustice to the to the body of Lydgate's work, which deals extensively with matters of the spirit, praise of Christ, the Virgin, and various saints, as well as non-political practical advice. Increasing awareness of the depth of subjects Lydgate wrote upon might better inform both the larger works anthologized and the history of the period.

Finally, the intention of this site is to present multiple witnesses and their transcriptions alongside each other, rather than as an online edition where a supposedly pure version of the text, close in intent to the author's original, is constructed from the witnesses available. Instead, multiple minor works in multiple witnesses allow readers to better understand the various ways in which Lydgate’s verses were put to use during and after his life. Fragments of his poems often enjoyed their own circulation and influence as separate works, which can be obscured by traditional editorial practice. Additionally, in some cases fifteenth-century manuscripts utilized Lydgate's verses alongside those of Chaucer and others to create new, composite pieces. Since these pieces are often unique, they are often not anthologized or made available to students. By providing the manuscript witnesses alongside each other and making the editorial interventions as transparent as possible, my goal is that a reader on this site can choose which work or works they want to engage with in their study of the poet. Since all the existing witnesses will be available for each work, this site then serves not as a replacement for the critical edition or anthologized text, but as a necessary supplement to them; it shows the ways that both modern and medieval editorial procedure can enhance and obscure our understanding of the manuscript in its historical context. It also represents the content of the manuscript chosen not as a static, dead thing, but as part of a network of very real and living ideas in the fifteenth century.

What are your editorial principles?

The editorial principles for how I transcribe each item are provided by the "Editorial Apparatus" menu item for each manuscript. As how each witness is depicted on paper or parchment is different, the choices made vary slightly so as to best reflect the material object, rather than force the material object to fit an objective set of standards. There are, however, some decisions made in terms of presentation and comparison of lines that are uniform to the site, and which will appear at the top of the apparatus page for each witness.

If you wish to compare a line against the readings in other witnesses, click on the blue dot along the right hand side of the screen. Clicking on the dot again will close the box that opens up.

The structure of the book is currently represented via a reference to the folio number in the upper left corner under the site banner. Plans are in place to change this to both the folio number and a graphical representation of the quire structure.

For the site as a digital artifact rather than a series of lightly-edited facsimile texts, there are some basic design principles I wrote down when beginning this project and still attempt to follow:

  1. "Coding standards—unless rigidly enforced, which the TEI encoding standard is not—can and will never be all things to all people. They are thus best observed in the breach. Follow them when you can, but don't allow the technical standards to obscure the material item and its own unique narrative. Deviate when you have to, but explain to people what you are doing. Provide guideposts—links to the standards and a data dictionary indicating your idiosyncratic interpretation thereof—whenever possible."

  2. "Whenever possible defer to the actual thing you're working from. Undue abstraction is bad."

  3. "Use the tools that will be most efficient for you. Don't pick a platform or method because it's cool and new technically. Always go for the simplest method you can."

    I do this by rendering everything to HTML and javascript rather than try to have some sort of noSQL-based setup. The site as it displays is static except for the model and line comparisons. Both of these functions have to use some dynamic functionality, so they do.

    I also generate my lists of works via a MySQL database and a PHP script that feeds into the XML.

  4. "Explain what you're doing. You are the expert, yes, but that doesn't mean you're infallible. The more abstract you are, the more you need to explain. You should never see a visualization or text displayed without both the underlying data and an explanation of what exactly it means. Someone who does not have a technical background needs to be able to follow both the scholarly and technical explanations, and it's on you to write in such a manner that they can. Examples are your friend, here."

  5. "Respect your audience. You're working with multiple groups of people with their own sets of expertise. You are the bridge between them and your work, so explain things in such a way that what came before is not lost in chasing what is to come."

How do you go about transcribing an item?

This has its own page, as it is a fairly involved process.

How do you get the line readings from other witnesses for the comparison feature?

I utilize a combination of PHP, javascript, and XQuery to grab the line reading comparisons. More information about it can be found here.

Why do some items have facing images that can be made larger or smaller, while others are static?

Where it is available, I utilize the International Image Interoperability Framework, a standard designed to allow interoperable comparison, manipulation, annotation, and display of images. IIIF stores information about connected images in JavaScript Object Notation files, which are a popular way to store and send data across the web. By calling to this JSON file, you can then use a frontend (I use a modified version of the Mirador viewer) to serve the image from any one of a number of IIIF servers directly to your site. This is a relatively new technology, but it has the benefit of being Open Source, which allows me to alter or modify the way the software works on my site while letting others utilize images I have taken without a lot of overhead on their part.

In practice, most of my use of IIIF and Mirador is to collect information about the images and display a window that allows a user to expand the page or panel image to see details better. There is much more that Mirador and IIIF can do, but for the purposes of the site those extra elements are not necessary. If you are interested in exploring Mirador as a tool a full-featured demo can be found here.2

Why does it take so long to get the comparative line readings?

As the link in the bullet point above notes, this is due to an issue with the installer for the Saxon program.

How did you create the model of the Clopton Chapel?

The model of the chapel was created using a process called photogrammetry. Multiple pictures were taken at different points in the chapel and any digital noise from them was removed via the use of the Photo Ninja postproduction suite. The pictures were then processed utilizing a piece of software common in archeological circles called PhotoScan. Presentation of the model uses the three.js javascript library to display the model on the web.

Why does the model of the Clopton Chapel not have a floor?

This is actually intentional. Since one of my philosophical concerns regarding the digitization of the material object is that we are unintentionally creating virtual facsimiles that serve as black boxes, leaving the floor out of the chapel model alongside the way that the negative space framing the image creates a window effect forces you as the user of the site to remain constantly aware that what you are looking at is only a representation of the physical thing. It still serves its intended purpose, which is to show the relationship of the verses within the physical space, but it emphasizes that it is not a replacement for that physical space.

  1. This is one reason why it bothers me that so many humanists have to use tools built for the sciences, shoehorning their own projects and their concerns into boxes designed for another discipline entirely.
  2. I would highly recommend playing around with a Mirador installation and becoming familiar with how it is structured (and more importantly, what you can suppress from being displayed automatically versus by means of Cascading Style Sheets. While IIIF and Mirador are powerful tools, their documentation (as of January 16th, 2017) leaves something to be desired and thus a lot of experimentation is necessary.