My DARMC adventures

I first started working on DARMC at the end of my junior year at Harvard, just after taking one of Professor Michael McCormick’s research seminars on Carolingian history. Our seminar included several workshops on new scientific techniques being brought to bear on historical debates, and DARMC-generated figures were a frequent feature of both seminar lectures and my fellow-students’ research projects. At the end of the course, Prof. McCormick made a characteristically energetic pitch for all of us to come on board as DARMC contributors if we so desired. The prospect of making a little extra money while doing interesting historical research was very appealing to me. It became even more appealing when, just a couple weeks later, I was forced to give up my usual end-of-term employment—cleaning bathrooms for Dorm Crew—after a freak accident during which I broke both of my feet. The story of this accident isn’t relevant to DARMC, though I will happily tell it to you if we ever meet at a party. Suffice to say, it was very nice to have a summer job I could do from a seated posture.

My involvement with DARMC also introduced me to fascinating areas of historical inquiry that I was perhaps unlikely to have pursued on my own initiative. My knowledge of science is, alas, dilettantish at best, and in my historical studies I’ve always gravitated much more towards texts and literature than archaeology or material culture. I like the intellectual intimacy of communing with vanished minds, and the warmth of individual personalities engages my interest more intensely than larger historical trends. Through DARMC, however, I became aware of the ways in which seemingly-mundane details extracted from a large number of texts can be used to create compelling visualizations of the larger world inhabited by the scribes and authors for whom I feel such affection. A data-driven approach can reveal the circumstances and assumptions that underlie historical writings, opening up new vistas for the imaginations of eager readers.

So far I’ve been a co-contributor on a variety of databases: I’ve filled out spreadsheets documenting weather events from monastic annals, and shipwreck coordinates from archaeological journals. My chief solo project was the construction of a database inspired by E.A. Lowe’s Codices Latini Antiquiores, a descriptive catalogue of all extant Latin manuscripts written before the ninth century. (I felt a profound empathetic connection with the monastic scribes of yore as I carefully populated several thousand spreadsheet cells with manuscript stats.) The database isn’t up on the website yet, but I’m excited to see what our GIS whizzes can do with it. Eventually, I hope, viewers will be able to track the movements of each manuscript, as it was transported, presented, purchased, and purloined across eleven or more centuries.

Even though the Codices Latini Antiquiores database is complete for the moment, I still find myself thinking about ways it could be improved or expanded. I never, for example, found a satisfactory way to treat palimpsests—texts written on top of other texts. In his catalogue, Lowe treats each script as a separate item; thus, a palimpsest with two scripts became two separate entries in the database. This format is probably ideal for most paleographers’ purposes, but I found myself intrigued not just by the scripts themselves, but by the fortunes of the individual pieces of paper on which they were written. I’d like to be able to track a piece of papyrus, parchment, or vellum across the globe—where was it first written on? When and where was it rewritten? When was it dismembered and put into book-bindings? Where did those books end up? All of this information is present in the database, but it isn’t linked up in a way that’s visualizable… yet. I’d also love to be able to track when and where particular works are being copied. At the moment, it isn’t really possible to search the database by work or author—each manuscript typically contained works by a number of different authors, which all had to be listed under a single field (for space reasons: if I had given each and every work its own entry or column, the database, already enormous, would have quickly ballooned out of control!) A purposeful database focusing on works rather than scripts would, however, be relatively easy to build using the information from the works column. A DARMC project for the future, perhaps.

My Codices Latini Antiquiores project also led me to contemplate the implications of digital tools for the future of academic research. From my own brief undergraduate foray into the study of insular paleography, I am aware that a number of scholars take issue with E.A. Lowe’s classifications of insular hands and manuscripts—and I’m sure that there must be plenty of debates raging in other areas of the field as well. I think it’s important to be very aware of the limitations of any data set: in this case, not only is the data determined by factors such as manuscript survival and discovery, it’s also circumscribed by Lowe’s individual scholarly judgments. A visualization based on a database inspired by the Codices Latini Antiquiores is thus, in some sense, a visualization of pre-C9 Latin manuscripts, but it’s also a visualization of Lowe’s paleographical theory. I don’t think this compromises the validity of the database in any way—converting a theory into a manipulable map opens up new and powerful avenues for critique. If one were to modify the existing database to reflect another scholar’s paleographical identifications, and then compare the two visualizations side by side, that could be an extremely illuminating and forceful supplement to debates hitherto conducted in articles and monographs. I think this is a pretty good example of the exciting (and perhaps slightly terrifying) ways that scholarly debate could evolve in the digital age. I’m thrilled to think that I might have contributed in some small way to the inception of a fascinating new era of paleographic inquiry, and I hope to continue making useful contributions to DARMC in years to come.

– Brianna Rennix

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