"From Parchment to Cyberspace or Putting the Cogito into Digital Humanities"

WHO: Stephen G. Nichols, James M. Beall Professor Emeritus of French & Humanities and Research Professor at Johns Hopkins University.

WHEN: Thursday, March 28, 2013, 4:15PM

WHERE: Pomona, Hahn 101

DESCRIPTION: Medieval manuscripts seem far removed from our contemporary world of Internet technology. What possible role in this world could one find for medieval scribes who copied literary, philosophical, historical, or scientific treatises by hand -- often accompanied by beautiful miniature paintings and decorations? How can they correlate with the born digital documents we read, study, or create everyday on our laptops, iPads, and computers?

However counter-intuitive it might seem, medieval manuscripts have played an important role in the development and refining of important tools for computational research in recent decades. On reflection, this should not come as a surprise since the evolution of the codex itself played a major role in the technology of the book in the Middle Ages. Viewed from this perspective, the world of the medieval scriptorium where scribes copied and illuminated (the term denoting manuscript painting and decoration) medieval codices has more in common with a 21st-century"digital scriptorium" than one might imagine. In fact, the teams of digital architects, programmers and meta-daticians required to deliver documents to our computer screens are much more similar to the teams of scribes, artists, and master scribes in a medieval scriptorium than they are to the printers who produced letterpress or offset books from the Renaissance to the late 20th century.

This lecture will explore the paradoxical symmetry between the medieval scriptorium and the contemporary digital scriptorium from three perspectives. First, I will explain the making of a medieval illuminated manuscript using illustrations and descriptions from codices of the 13th-15th centuries. Secondly, I will demonstrate the production of a digital surrogate or presentation of a medieval codex in the Digital Library of Medieval Manuscripts at Johns Hopkins University by going behind the scenes into the digital scriptorium. Thirdly, I will then suggest that as fascinating as the technology involved in transferring a parchment artifact to cyberspace may be, of far greater interest and significance are the possibilities of "thinking with, about, and through these objects" that digital versions provide. In other words, by making an historical artifact once available only to a very few privileged people accessible to anyone with a computer at any time of the day or night every day of the year, whole new vistas of teaching and researching medieval culture open up. The lecture will conclude by exploring briefly innovative teaching and research questions that digital versions of historical objects make possible.

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