Modern age meets Middle Ages

March 7, 2007

Melea Burke/Lariat staff
Dr. Sarah Jane Murray, assistant professor of medieval literature and French, and research assistant Amanda Weppler, a Cypress junior, peruse a medieval manuscript Thursday in Murray's office in Tidwell Bible Building.

Staff writer

More than 800 years ago, a scribe labored to copy down a Latin translation of one of Plato's dialogues, the Timaeus. Elsewhere, a different scribe copied down the Old French story Chanson de Roland.

The manuscripts, complete with centuries of notes in the margins, were later combined into one codex called Digby 23 and eventually bequeathed to Oxford University, where it has rested quietly since the 13th century. Some of the margin notes, called glosses, may have been unread for years, said Dr. Sarah Jane Murray, assistant professor of medieval literature and French at Baylor.

If Murray has her way, Digby 23 will still rest quietly in Oxford, but it won't be unread. She proposes to make the manuscript and all its notes available on a Web site:

"The glosses are important historical witnesses to the way that people at the time were reading the Timaeus," Murray said. "Language is a cultural witness of society at the time and to be able to provide scholars a chance to study it is very interesting."

Murray first became interested in the possibilities offered by the field of humanities computing, using electronic technologies to study humanities, as a graduate student at Princeton University, where she was involved with one of the earliest humanities computing projects.

"As I became involved in the process, it taught me new ways to read documents that really cannot be approached in critical editions," Murray said. "It taught me the value of the manuscript but also the value of electronic technologies to help us study manuscripts and to learn to ask new questions about the medieval period that we could not have asked before."

The Digby 23 project differs from other projects because it does not just transcribe what the text says, but also all the different characters used in the text.

"Just like secretaries used to use shorthand, scribes use different symbols to represent different words," said Amanda Weppler, a Cypress junior and one of Murray's research assistants. "There are also some that don't seem to serve a specific purpose except stylistically."

This may not seem important, Murray admitted, but she added, "We're trying to preserve, as best we can, all the information in the manuscript. So we are not telling people what to study; we're making it possible for people to ask any question they want about the manuscript."

This is also important for scholars who are interested in studying not just the text itself but also how the language changed over time and how scholars in the past studied the text.

"If you're interested in studying how the Timaeus or the Song of Roland was read by medieval readers, they were nothing like the paperbacks that are published today," Murray said. "And we're interested in studying how people read the Timaeus then."

The Digby 23 project will also eventually allow scholars to search for other things in the manuscript, such as themes and images. Many projects just scan manuscripts online so people can view them, Murray said.

"The problem with this is ... we're using the computer just as a photocopy machine that's making pictures available, but you still have to read them by hand just as you would if you were sitting in front of the manuscript," she said. "Imagine a world where all the manuscript images were completely searchable."

Murray said she and her team hope to create a transcription of each image that is not meant to be read, but allows the engine to make the picture searchable.

Another way technology is changing the study of humanities is by offering scholars a different way to make an argument, according to Vika Zafrin, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in humanities computing at Brown University.

"(Humanities Computing) is research and presentation of materials that either can't be easily done on paper or can't be done on paper at all," she said.

"We now have the technology to do all kinds of exciting things."

She said she was especially interested to see that the Digby 23 project would be encoding themes in the manuscript.

Generally, projects similar to this track the number of times each word is used in the text and what part of speech it is. Murray and her team intend to not only do this, but also to cite each time different themes occur in the text.

For example, a search for "love" will pull up every passage in the text that relates to that theme.

Identifying what part of speech a word is in a sentence is not subject to debate, Zafrin said.

"But saying, 'This word means fear in this sentence' is," she said. "Encoding themes is inherently subjective."

She also said the normal process of writing a scholarly article in response to another article can take months or even years because of the peer-review process, but sites like the Digby 23 project Web site offer a quick and easy way for scholars to respond to one another.

"It's a really exciting way to express an argument differently than a linear-written article and should be more likely to elicit responses because it's easier to provide a short response to very specific questions," she said.

Murray is assisted by Stephen Bush, a Waco graduate student, and Weppler. Bush manages the technical aspects of running the Web site and Weppler transcribes the text.

Weppler, who also invents names for new or unusual characters, said this experience has taught her more than just how to read medieval Latin.

"I've also learned the ability to be flexible and solve problems," she said.

"I've learned to deduce what a word means and what a symbol means, even if I'm not familiar with a symbol. It's pretty rare for even graduate students to get to do this sort of thing. This is really a remarkable opportunity."

The Digby 23 project has been funded by a grant from the Young Investigator Development program of Baylor, Murray said. This funding has enabled her to pay Weppler and Bush, as well as to cover other start-up expenses.

"I would love to get to the stage where we have enough funding to employ a team of students and not just two," Murray said.

She said she has applied for a $30,000 Digital Innovation Grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, which would allow the team to finish building the prototype over the next year.

"We're excited, but at the same time we realize that the competition is fierce and it would be almost completely unexpected for us to win the first time around, so we'll re-apply," she said.

Murray said one of the things she enjoys about her research on the Digby 23 manuscript is exploring connections between the two texts.

Though people often assume their attachment was arbitrary, Murray said she believes there is a reason the texts were put together.

"Everybody has assumed that these two manuscripts were attached for no reason whatsoever, because what would a minstrel story about knights have to do with Plato's dialogue?" she said.

Timaeus, Murray said, contains the first written account of the myth of Atlantis. In the dialogue, a Greek lawgiver visits Egypt and marvels at how old and wise Egypt is. An Egyptian priest tells him that Athens is old as well.

"He says, 'We're nothing compared to Athens, but you don't know your own history,'" Murray said.

The priest tells the story of a country called Atlantis, which tried to conquer Europe and Asia. Athens saved the world by defeating Atlantis in battle, but shortly afterward a tidal wave swallowed the whole city.

Since Athens did not write the story down, no one remembered it but the Egyptians, who recorded it in their temples.

The story connects to Chanson de Roland because Roland is the first recorded account of a great battle in French history, Murray said. This battle helped to define France as a nation.

"Plato, I suppose, understands the point of the myth because he's the first person to write it down and so it comes to us," Murray said.

"The motto, I think, of the myth of Atlantis is that, without writing, we have no knowledge of the past. Without writing, we have no idea where we came from. Without writing, we too are children."

And it seems that, with the help of Murray and her research team, these myths will be rerecorded in a new form of writing to reach yet another generation.