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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

13 June 2015

The Origin and Context of the Salisbury Magna Carta


THE ORIGIN AND CONTEXT OF THE SALISBURY MAGNA CARTA

Elaine Treharne (Stanford University) and 
Andrew Prescott (University of Glasgow)


Argument

This short article, to be expanded for journal publication later this year, presents a discussion of all four surviving versions of the 1215 Magna Carta. It argues that the Salisbury Magna Carta (S) was written not by a centralised administration, but, rather, by a Salisbury scribe working in and for the institution. By analysing the hands in other certain Salisbury (or Old Sarum) manuscripts and documents, particularly The Register of St Osmund (c. 1220), we suggest that similarities between hands in that book and the hand of show such distinctive shared characteristics as to intimate the Salisbury origin of the Magna Carta. This calls into question scholarly understanding of the methods of dissemination of major administrative texts in the High Middle Ages.

The 1215 Engrossments of Magna Carta


Among the highlights of the 800th anniversary celebrations of King John’s grant of Magna Carta was an event at the British Library from 2-4 February 2015 at which the four surviving 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta were brought together for the first time since 1215 (and perhaps the first time ever). This facilitated a detailed comparison of the documents as part of the major Magna Carta project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and directed by Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia and Professor David Carpenter of King’s College, London. The photographs of this ‘unification event’ illustrate how each of the 1215 engrossments differ in size and shape. One of the benefits of the ‘unification event’ is that good quality digital images of each of the 1215 engrossments have been placed in the public domain on the British Library website, facilitating closer study. They remind us how each engrossment has its own distinctive features.  



BL, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Cii)


London, British Library, Cotton Charter xiii.31a (Ci), which Professor Carpenter has recently shown was in the archives of Canterbury Cathedral in the 1290s, is the only engrossment with a Great Seal of King John attached, although the document is badly damaged as a result of incompetent nineteenth-century restoration work following fire damage in 1731. 

The seal in Ci is attached by a vellum tag, which an engraving by John Pine in 1733 suggests was originally in a different position and threaded through a fold at the foot of the document (Collins 1948: 270-1). Presumably the seal was reattached when Ci was ‘restored’ by a British Museum bookbinder named Hogarth in 1836 (Prescott 1997). This seal is now dark red/brown in colour, which suggests it is of white wax, varnished brown. Chaplais observes that by the early thirteenth century, charters 'were normally sealed with the great seal in green wax (cera viridis) appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands (usually of two colours, red and green being the most common combination)’ (1971: 15). Chaplais notes a few examples of charters sealed in white wax appended with a tag and adds ‘By the early part of the thirteenth century sealing in white wax was generally reserved for great-seal documents of ephemeral or temporary value’ (1971: 15). The sealing of this engrossment is anomalous, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that the seal was fixed or added to this document when it was acquired for Sir Robert Cotton, but in the present state of this document this is impossible to establish.
The 1215 engrossment which is now London, British Library, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii), is the only one of these four documents in landscape format, but, as Collins emphasized, this document appears to have been heavily cropped when it was bound up for Sir Robert Cotton in a large volume of charters.

BL, Cotton Augustus ii.106 (Cii)

Cii was reported as still being bound up with all the other charters in Augustus ii in 1810 (Collins 1948: 272) and this huge volume was eventually disbound in 1834 to reduce the damage that was being caused to the documents contained in it (Prescott 1997: 406-7). It has been assumed that the three slits at the bottom of Cii were for seals (Breay and Harrison 2015: 67), but Collins (1948: 272) points out that the slits may have been made when the document was cropped and bound into a volume which seems the most likely explanation, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015:14). David Casley stated that Ci and Cii were in the same hand. Recent multispectral imaging of Ci may assist in verifying or otherwise Casley’s claim.  


Lincoln Magna Carta (L)

Although the seal in the Lincoln engrossment (L) is now missing, the three holes in a triangular arrangement through a fold at the foot of L indicate that the sealing practice in the case of this document followed that described by Chaplais as normal for early thirteenth-century charters; namely, a seal appended on twisted or plaited cords of silk strands. Unlike Ci and Cii, the twelve-fold folding of the charter is still evident, and on two of the folds is an endorsement, ‘Lincolnia’, in a hand which is apparently the same as that of the text of the charter. L also bears thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Lincoln pressmarks and appears in the Lincoln Registrum of about 1330. As Collins (1948: 265) remarked, ‘There is hardly a peradventure about the pedigree of L’ and there seems little doubt that this is one of the two engrossments of Magna Carta recorded as being dispatched to the Bishop of Lincoln on 24 June 1215 (Rowlands 2009: 1426). 

Despite misguided experiments with steam cleaning by Sir Hilary Jenkinson (Vincent 2010: 7), preserves diplomatic features which accident and misguided conservation treatment have compromised in the other engrossments. Given that it is also the engrossment with the best attested provenance, it is surprising that it has usually been the 1215 engrossment which has been sent abroad, including a loss-making trip to Australia in 1988, which helped precipitate a major dispute within Lincoln cathedral. The catalogue to the current British Library exhibition describes how L became stuck in America during the Second World War when it was exhibited at the British Pavilion of the New York World Fair and attempts were made by the British government to give L to the American people to encourage the American public to support Britain during the war (Breay and Harrison 2015: 246-9). A suggestion that one of the British Museum copies be given to Lincoln Cathedral to make up for the loss prompted Arthur Jefferies Collins to threaten to resign from the British Museum (ex info M.A.F. Borrie).

Salisbury Magna Carta (S)

Of the four 1215 engrossments of Magna Carta, however, the one whose appearance differs most obviously from the others is that in the Salisbury Cathedral archives (S), since it is the only one not in a documentary hand. As Sir James Holt comments: ‘The other three are plainly in a Chancery hand; S not so - not, at least, until the scribe of S is discovered at work in other Chancery documents. His hand is too “bookish”’ (Holt 2015: 374). Collins (1948: 270 n. 3) is even more trenchant: ‘Just as the text of S is inferior to that of the other exemplars, so its script is the least convincing. To my eye it rather suggests a date a decade or so later than 1215 and smacks of an ecclesiastical scriptorium. It seems to me to be similar in type (but earlier than) the hand of the charter of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury of 1244 in the British Museum, Add. Ch. 7500’. However, Collins noted that Charles Johnson and Hilary Jenkinson, two leading authorities on documentary script, would not rule out the possibility that S was written in the royal chancery in 1215, and Collins emphasized the variability of scripts in later reissues of Magna Carta.

Detail from Salisbury Magna Carta (S)

Nevertheless, doubt as to whether S was written in the royal chancery has constantly recurred. Claire Breay notes that 'The Salisbury Magna Carta does differ from the others in that it was not written in the hand of a scribe of the royal chancery. This may mean that it was produced by its recipient and presented for authorization under the Great Seal, but its text is as authentic as the other three (Breay 2002:37). In 1981, Daphne Stroud mounted a sustained criticism of the authenticity of S. She wrote that ‘Both in text and script S is the odd man out of the four manuscripts. It is written in the careful and dignified script employed at this period for copying books, not in the business hand normally used for Chancery documents in which Ci, Cii and L are written. It also has more textual variations than the other three’ (Stroud 1981: 51). Stroud noted that it had been assumed that tear at the foot of the document was thought to have been caused by a seal being ripped off but observed: ‘This is a reasonable assumption provided it can be established on other grounds that the document is in all probability genuine, but the M-gap does not by itself constitute proof that S once carried the Great Seal of King John’ (Stroud 1981: 52). Neither Wiltshire nor Salisbury were mentioned in the list on the dorse of patent rolls for the distribution of the writ for the publication of Magna Carta or in the schedule of charters issued. Stroud argued that the chancery never issued a writ or charter for Wiltshire and she proposed that S was not a chancery engrossment of Magna Carta, but a copy made by Elias Dereham, the steward of Stephen Langton who was later a resident canon of Salisbury. Elias took delivery of six engrossments of Magna Carta at Oxford on 22 July 1215 and had ample opportunity to make a copy of the document for his own use in order to preserve the terms of the original grant in the face of the more conservative reissues in 1216 and 1217. Although Stroud admitted that ‘we shall probably never know for certain how, when or why S came to Salisbury’, she suggested that one possibility was that ‘in later years, when the cause of the Charter was won and Elias himself was living quietly at Salisbury with the new cathedral rising under his direction, he still kept his copy of the Runnymede document as a tangible memorial to those few weeks in the summer of 1215 when he played a vital role in the most stirring political event of his time’ (Stroud 1981: 57).

Daphne Stroud’s article prompted a magisterial review of the issues surrounding in 1982 by Sir James Holt (1985: 259-64). Holt suggested that the clerical errors in were within the limits acceptable for a scribe writing such a lengthy document. He felt that Collins’s suggestion that the document might date from the 1220s was over-optimistic about the precision with which scripts can be dated. On the other hand, he felt that Daphne Stroud was being excessively rigid in implying that there was a single business hand for chancery documents and that book hands were not used. Holt stressed the variability of scribal practice evident in royal instruments and noted that, in any case, special measures might have been taken in the unusual circumstances of the summer of 1215 and the royal chancery might have drafted in external scribal assistance. Holt pointed out that the tear at the foot of S was in just the right place if  it was the seal was attached by silk strands threaded through holes arranged in an inverted triangle or M-shape, a less common method of appending the seal than the arrangement in L, but nevertheless an arrangement occasionally used (although one might expect a fold here if this sealing practice was used; Collins 1948: 271 suggests the fold was trimmed off after the loss of the seal). 

Above all, Holt examined the evidence of the dispatch list of writs and charters. Holt highlighted the distinction between the dispatch list for the writs, where the concern was to ensure that the sheriffs of every county were ordered to swear to the Twenty Five and that enquiries into abuses were begun, and the list of charters issued, which was less comprehensive. Holt argued that the list only notes those writs not sent to the sheriff by royal messengers and suggests that Wiltshire does not appear in the list because the writ been sent through normal channels, a conclusion subsequently endorsed by Ivor Rowlands (2009) in his detailed analysis. In the case of the list of charters on the dorse of the patent roll, the omission of Wiltshire is less surprising because only thirteen charters are listed (one for each of the dioceses with bishops in place, suggests Rowlands). Holt also noted that it would be unlikely that the university graduate Elias Dereham, if he was the scribe, would have made the mistake of preferring the future indicative to the more correct present subjunctive.

Emily Naish, the archivist of Salisbury Cathedral, has recently made the important discovery that there is a copy of the text of S on ff. 5v-7v of the Salisbury Cathedral cartulary, ‘Liber Evidentiarum C’, compiled before 1284 (Carpenter 2015b). This shows that has been at Salisbury since the thirteenth century and probably explains the endorsement, read by Collins as ‘Dupplicata’ on (see Carpenter 2015b, too), which also appears on a number of other Salisbury documents and doubtless indicated that they had been copied into the register. While there has been discussion of the dating of S, there has been no attempt to localize the hand, although Collins hinted that it might be a Salisbury hand in referring to London, British Library, Add. Ch. 7500. Further examination of known Salisbury hands in the first decades of the thirteenth century, though, does indeed seem to strongly indicate that S was written by a scribe from Salisbury Cathedral (or, rather, its pre-1220 institutional precursor at Old Sarum). Moreover, the Salisbury Magna Carta hand is both entirely commensurate with other hands datable to c.1215, and exemplifies that book-hand could be used alongside charter hand within a single institutional context. 

The hand and palaeographical context of S

The hand of can be compared, in the first instance, with other contemporary documents, including London, British Library, Additional MS. 4838, The Articles of the Barons, issued in 1215 (as well as with the three other 1215 Magna Carta engrossments, of course). Additional MS. 4838 is digitally available at the British Library website (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=add_ms_4838_f001r). It is written in a legible, cursive charter hand, with its slightly backward-looking aspect; and a duct illustrating typical thicker ascenders and curvilinear strokes. Many ascenders are looped and descenders of p and q are tapered, curving slightly to the left. The final foot of and often extends below the line. Scribal characteristics include a single-compartment a, as well as double-compartment with an enlarged bow; d is round-backed; the tongue of is elongated in final position; g, notably, has a closed, or almost-closed, tail which extends in a loop from the right of the downstroke; the downstroke of sits on, or descends slightly below, the line. Both long s and a loosely-formed round s, arguably akin to Derolez’s ‘trailing s’, occur. The latter, in particular is important. The lower left limb of extends under the line and flicks to the right. Ligatures include the 2-shaped in or combination; ct where the ligature is formed from the top of t’s shaft extending and curving down towards the on the left. Biting letters include the common d+e, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the crossed Tironian nota; barred capitals (such as BCGNOPQ); the flat-topped form of suprascript a used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra-; and the dashed double i.
By contrast to this charter hand, and as noted by all scholars who have worked on the four 1215 Magna Carta versions, Salisbury’s charter is written in a mostly textura hand rather than a diplomatic hand. It is available in a rather odd yellowy digital simulacrum here: <http://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/pressrelease/2015/february/magna-carta-1215-salisbury-cathedral.jpg>. There is far less currency than one might expect from a documentary text; its formality is demonstrated in its upright aspect and general restraint. The duct suggests a pen angle of about 30’, and letters are formed with significant consistency. Ascenders are usually tagged or slightly wedged to the left; descenders are short and occasionally finish with a small tick to the right. Significant scribal characteristics include the persistent use of double-compartment a, sometimes with an enlarged bow in final position (‘Carta’, line 5; ‘custodia’) or initial position (line 9 ‘aliquid’, line 14); d is round-backed with a curve to the right at the end of the ascender, or straight-backed with a finish of equal floreation; the tongue of is very slightly elongated in final position. The letter g takes a variety of forms and is one of the most important characteristics of this hand: it is either relatively small with an equal sized closed tail and bowl (‘maritagium’, line 14—a typical book-hand type); or, also as in book-hand, it has a closed tail which is angular on the left (line 13, ‘exiget’); or, and most frequently and notably, the tail finishes with a flourish, which loops under the tail-end and sweeps up to the bowl (line 4, ‘Burgo’; line 7, ‘Regni’). The downstroke of sits on the line, as in textura hands. Occasionally, and, again, interestingly, a small majuscule r occurs, most often in front of variant forms of ‘Rex’, but also in ‘Relevium’ (line 8). A slightly later manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, 275, a composite manuscript that has a thirteenth-century Life of Thomas Becket inserted between later texts (it is c. 1230, given that it’s written below top line), also shows this feature, such as at folio 233aR/11 and 12, ‘Regis’ (and elsewhere, including in medial position where it is ligatured with a [‘baRonia’, f. 233bV, line 25]). Of this form, Derolez (2003:91) comments ‘The majuscule r (R) occasionally present in Praegothica is found much more rarely in Textualis, except in a few early English manuscripts’. He gives an unillustrated example in his footnote 80 of a manuscript, dated pre-1201. It is likely, given the evidence presented here, that this feature is found rather later than Derolez suspects.


CCCC 275, f. 233aR/11, 12

Forms of R in Salisbury Magna Carta



In Salisbury’s Magna Carta, both long s and a loosely-formed round (perhaps ‘trailing s’) occur. The latter, in particular is important, too, and occurs in many charter hands in this period. The lower left limb of x curves under the preceding letter. Ligatures include the 2-shaped in or combination; a characteristic form of the crossed 2-shaped r, indicating –orum (line 5, ‘aliorum’); and ct where the ligature is formed from by a curved stroke extending from the top of c’s bow to the top of t. Biting letters include the common d+eb+b,d+d, and p+p. Other noteworthy characteristics include the usually crossed Tironian nota, which sit on the line, together with the occasional uncrossed version (lines 5 and 6 ‘7 heredibus’ and ‘7 Barones’ demonstrate each respectively); barred capitals (such as BCF, GHM, NOPQ); the open-topped form of suprascript a predominantly used to denote abbreviations like qua- or –ra (‘quam’, line 6; ‘libras’, line 8. This seems to be a consistently earlier practice than the flat-topped version of the mark.); the dashed double i; and a consistently curved abbreviation stroke. One final infrequent scribal practice in this text is the conjoining of enlarged a and round-backed d, where the back of d crosses through the bow of a, as in the image below. This is a feature most commonly witnessed in charter hands.


Conjoined 'ad' in Magna Carta S
There is far more one could say, but this collection of data, taken in toto, is sufficient to build a strong case for the production of S, the Salisbury Magna Carta, by a Salisbury scribe, as we shall demonstrate. A number of comparanda exist to support this claim, among them the existence of multiple Salisbury scribes writing in manuscripts and diplomata that are, and always have been, in situ in the archive that created them. Some of these are closely datable, but, of those I [ET] have examined quickly, most postdate the 1215 date postulated for the Magna Carta. Thus, for example, a small number of membrane slips containing the signed oaths of obedience to Salisbury’s bishop by abbots and abbesses provide approximately dateable writing associated with the institution. These illustrate hands confirming the obedience of Claricia, abbess of the Cistercian abbey of Tarrant in 1228; her successor, Emelina (before 1240); and Richard I of Reading in 1238, among others. Still, together with multiple charters, writs, and other diplomata extant from all aspects of the Salisbury chapter’s business, individual scribal characteristics can be discerned that permit a comprehensive description of script and textual production from the twelfth century to the Reformation (to be published in Treharne 2018). For the earlier thirteenth century, it is perhaps little surprise to learn that a wide variety of hands is exemplified in the corpus of diplomata from high grade book hands to those demonstrating the influence of court hand or evincing considerable currency or lack of calligraphic proficiency. In one remarkable volume, these variable scribal performances are gathered altogether as a witness to the diversity of scribal habits and competencies. More to the point here, these hands offer strong evidence supporting the localization and thus the origin of to Salisbury itself.

Registering Rules and Records


Such a finding emerges from the evidence suggested by a comparison of palaeographical characteristics between and certain scribes of The Register of St Osmund, now housed in Salisbury Cathedral Archive (see http://www.sarumcustomary.org.uk/exploring/PDF_files/1%20OCO/OCO-L.pdf). This Register, until recently deposited in the Wiltshire County Record Office, is generally dated to c. 1220, presumably because that is the date of the foundation of the new cathedral building at Salisbury. It may, of course, have been begun slightly earlier in readiness for the move from Old Sarum to the present site, since the volume contains the fullest extant text of Osmund’s Consuetudinary, including descriptions of the roles of the cathedral’s major officers and liturgical rites. It seems likely that the Register was compiled and maintained as both guide to the organizational practices of the cathedral and as a repository of the privileges, liberties and possessions of the institution. Following the Consuetudinary, the volume becomes, effectively, a cartulary with many documents added as the thirteenth century progressed. Taking stock in this way during the years of planning and implementing the move--a move initiated by Richard Poore, bishop of Salisbury 1217 to 1228, and granted in 1219 by papal indulgence--made absolute sense to ensure a secure record intended for the cathedral’s reference and archive.

The earliest scribe in the Register copied the opening folios containing the Statutes and Regulations of the cathedral. His is a book-hand of greater formality than that associated with Salisbury’s Magna Carta.

The Register of St Osmund, pp. ii-iii


Consistent with other textura of the period, the aspect is generally upright, though sometimes rather backward-tilting; the ascenders and descenders generally compact (and often lacking the flourish seen in S); the pen-angle about 30’. Two-compartment a predominates, and the occasional enlarged a makes a few appearances; straight-backed and round-backed d are used; the small 8-shaped g is most common. Like S, and many other examples, the left limb of x swoops under the preceding letter. There are frequent, but not ubiquitous barred majuscule forms. These increase in number as the manuscript’s earliest scribe works through his multiple stints. His biting letters include d+e and double p. As in S, there is the occasional use of a conjoined enlarged a and d in ‘ad’, where the ascender of round-backed d pierces the bow of a.


Register, p. 1

Register, p. 73






In the early pages of the Register, the Tironian nota is not crossed; later hands illustrate varied usage that is sometimes crossed, and sometimes simply 7. The suprascript a with a flat, closed top is most common in the introductory pages, but there are instances, too, of the open a seen in S. The macron, like S’s, is curved. Confirming a date of the first third of the century (and somewhat earlier, indeed) is the ‘above top line’ format of the folio. While the hand is more laterally compressed than that of S, there are distinctive similarities, as one might expect.

The most notable preponderance of similarities between a scribe of the Register and Salisbury’s Magna Carta comes quite far into the Register in a sequence of texts copied some time after 1222. At pages 111-113, in a section on canonical behaviour, the scribe, whose hand is more cursive than that of S, nevertheless evinces similar forms of enlarged a, trailing s, majuscules, punctuation, and various other features, illustrated below in the conglomerate image. Of most significance, this scribe writes the very notable g with a tail that loops back upon itself to touch the bowl. Now this g is very distinctive, and certainly allies the scribal practice of the Magna Carta hand with that of the Register’s scribe at these pages. It is seen elsewhere too, but always in manuscripts or diplomata that are possibly slightly later than Magna Carta, including, obviously, the Register itself. It occurs in other diplomata associated with Salisbury, including this below--from a document issued to Salisbury by Archbishop Langton in c. 1220 or a little earlier.

Document of c. 1220, issued by Stephen Langton in Salisbury Cathedral Archive. Note form of gS, and also final -s
Other instances of this particular form of g include Duchy of Lancaster, Cartae Miscellaneae 36, dated to 1229-30, and included as Plate Va in Hector; London, British Library, Royal 14. C. vii, fol. 150, dated 1250-59, and included in Denholm-Young as Plate 12; and in the final lines of CCCC 275, fols. 233a-n, which is post-1230, where the g is part of a final flourish at the foot of the writing grid. Its use in the Magna Carta might, then, be among the earliest recorded instances.

Amalgamation of some of the interesting similar features in the (yellowy) Magna Carta and the Register of St Osmund
What does emerge from this preliminary examination of Salisbury’s Register and some of the chapter’s documents and diplomata is how very varied scribal hands are in this period, as Holt indeed pointed out. This is particularly so when they are not consistently the highest grade of Gothic textura (quadrata, semi-quadrata, and so on). Not only is it quite difficult to categorize the preponderance of hands beyond the broadest categories, but also, there are dramatic changes in appearance and letter-formation within what are approximately contemporary stints in similar contexts of production. This reflects ‘the proliferation of documents’, as Clanchy says; the concomitant increase in numbers and levels of training of scribes; and the varieties of script commonly used for different kinds of writing (Clanchy 127-34), many manifested differently according to scribal proficiency and time. This is made abundantly clear by the rich diversity of evidence documented in the Salisbury Cathedral Archive. But then the consistent and significant number of similar forms between the Salisbury Magna Carta and other known contemporary Salisbury scribes becomes diagnostic of a shared writing environment. Thus, it is surely to this archival community that scholars should look to identify the common context for the Magna Carta’s production, if not the very scribe himself.

Textual Performance

In the face of the identification of the scribe of S as a member of the very institution which received and housed the charter, it would be tempting to leap to the conclusion that S is not an authentic Magna Carta and somehow did not deserve its place at the reunification event at the British Library in February. As both Claire Breay and Sir James Holt have previously emphasized, this is not the case. Salisbury, together with other cathedrals throughout England from the twelfth century onwards, had become increasingly meticulous about recording and curating significant diplomata, both within the cartulary or register, and in single sheet format. The identification of the scribe of S as from Salisbury tells us important things about how Magna Carta was disseminated and about forms of textual dissemination and preservation in the Middle Ages. It is indeed salutary, as Nicholas Vincent states, to acknowledge that a solid, if not preponderant, proportion of diplomata produced were written by scribes attached to the beneficiary rather than to the king (Vincent 2004: 31). Moreover, Holt (2015: 374) comments that the use of a book hand in S does not make it any less authentic: ‘In the circumstances at Runnymede and Windsor the Chancery could have impressed extra scribes to help with the lengthy exemplifications which the settlement required (although, if so, none of their work is apparent otherwise): more probably S could have been the work of one of the recipients, a messenger or agent of one of the counties, presented for authorization by the great seal - an acceptable though by now unusual procedure’. We can now suggest that consistently present palaeographical comparanda between some of the scribes of the Register and the scribe of S indeed indicates that S was written by a scribe from the cathedral which retains that version of the Great Charter to this day. The evidence of the tear together with its long attested history at Salisbury suggest that S was produced and then presented for sealing with the Great Seal. It would be an unlikely coincidence that a scribe who had been impressed to help out the royal chancery just happened to write out a copy which is now in his home institution. It is far more likely that recipients were able to present their own copies of Magna Carta for sealing by the Chancery.

The practice of ecclesiastical scriptoria preparing charters recording grants in their favour was a long-standing one, dating back to the earliest days of the appearance of the charter in England. It might be assumed that with the growth and professionalization of the royal administration in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries that this practice died out, but the variety of scribal forms on royal acta, which persisted on reissues of Magna Carta well into the thirteenth century, suggest that the sealing of documents prepared by the recipient was a more commonplace practice than has been assumed. If S was prepared by a Salisbury scribe, this may explain some of its textual idiosyncrasies, since the Salisbury scribe may have been working from a draft or intermediary copy in preparing his text. The textual relationships between drafts and final version is complex, and one of the great achievements of the Magna Carta project will be to help piece together these relationships.

We have tended to see the distribution of texts like Magna Carta as a one-to-many relationship, with a single approved text (the letters testimonial) being handed down and disseminated. But there were a number of earlier drafts of Magna Carta, the text of which is preserved in statute collections. This was first pointed out by Galbraith (1967), and David Carpenter (2015a: 19-21) has recently identified many more examples of texts derived from drafts incorporated into statute collections. The dissemination of Magna Carta was many-to-many, with drafts circulating and institutions presenting texts of the charter for sealing. Indeed, analogously, the process of dissemination of this political text reflects the way in which literary scholars have come to appreciate the complex cross-currents and intersections in the spread of literary texts, which do not follow simple hierarchies of descent. In this context, prescriptive ideas of authenticity are not helpful, and it is worth remembering Galbraith’s dictum that for contemporaries, for whom it was the act of making the grant which counted, the documents recording Magna Carta ‘would have meant no more than a carbon copy, or a printed copy of, say, a modern treaty means to-day’ (Galbraith 1948: 123). This outlook was still evident in 1731 when Speaker Onslow’s reaction to the damage to Ci was simply to have a certified copy made in a modern hand, as if it was a property deed which had been damaged. (This vera copia is now shares a pressmark with Ci, as Cotton Ch. Xiii.31b.)

Moreover, for many people in thirteenth-century England, it was how they heard Magna Carta which counted. Holt drew attention in 1974 to a French text of Magna Carta made shortly after 1215 in the Cartulary of Pont Audemer which also contains a French version of the writ of 24 June 1215 (Holt 1985: 239-57). Holt (1985: 242) proposes that the Magna Carta of 1215 was ‘the first document of political importance known to have been issued in the vernacular’. This is a problematic claim at a number of levels: it assumes that pre-conquest vernacular texts such as lawcodes were not of political importance; and it ignores suggestions that the content of Henry I’s coronation charter must have been made known in French and English, since it was addressed ‘all his barons and faithful men, as well French as English born’ (Poole 1913: 444-5). It is also worth noting Poole’s hint that the second charter of Stephen of 1136 might also have been promulgated in the vernacular: ‘It looks as though a scribe familiar with the style of French charters had attempted to produce a diploma in the Old English form’ (Poole 1913: 447).

French translations of reissues of Magna Carta also survive in other statute collections, such as Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth 329a (Holt 1985: 243 n. 2). The fact that the Pont Audemer copy of the 1215 also includes a translation of the writ ordering the sheriff to proclaim the terms of the Charter indicate that the translation was made for use in a proclamation. Holt reviews evidence for the use of vernacular languages in proclamations for the thirteenth century. The re-issues of the Charter of 1216, 1217 and 1225, the Provisions of Merton, were also proclaimed in the shire courts. Holt assumes that these proclamations would have been in French and not English, a conclusion supported by Carpenter (2015a: 431): ‘We do not know the language of these readings, but they were probably in French as well as Latin’. In Holt’s view, the use of English for such proclamations began with the 1255 order concerning the excommunication of the infringers of Magna Carta which was to be ‘published clearly and lucidly both in the English and French tongue whenever and wherever it may seem expedient’ (Holt 1985: 242). Holt also notes the well-known royal letters of October 1258 confirming the Provisions of Oxford and promulgating ordinances for the reform of local government, issued in both French and English ‘so that they might be read by the sheriffs and understood and observed intact by all men in the future’ (Holt 1985: 242). In 1300, Edward I ordered Magna Carta to be proclaimed in Westminster Hall both ‘literally’ and ‘in the language of the country’ (lingua patria) (Carpenter 2015a: 431). 

The assumption has been that Magna Carta would have been disseminated in French and not English, and that the use of English in proclaiming major political documents developed only from the middle of the thirteenth century. However, recent work emphasizing the vibrancy and continued vitality of English in the twelfth century would seem to point towards the possibility that Magna Carta and its thirteenth-century reissues were proclaimed in English as well as French. The process of preparing these translations for proclamation was evidently an informal and ad hoc one, and it was only the chance discovery of the Pont Audemer text in 1974 that documented the French translation. It is worth noting that Poole (1913: 450) was more open than Holt and Carpenter to the possibility that Magna Carta was proclaimed in English in 1215, suggesting that the procedure adopted was similar to that for the Provisions of Oxford. Although Magna Carta was a settlement between John and the nobility and a grant directed to freeman, its ramifications were wide-ranging and in matters such as fish weirs or weights and measures it would certainly have been necessary to convey information about Magna Carta in English. Further investigation of the language of Magna Carta, and linking this understanding to recent scholarship on the history of English during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is a major area for future investigation; much of the discussion of this topic is still dependent on work done by Reginald Lane Poole and Faith Thompson over eighty years ago.

There is much more to learn, then, as demonstrated by the brilliant new work of the Magna Carta project team. Our work on the Salisbury origins of its own extant Magna Carta demonstrates that the process of textual dissemination for the 1215 Charter was indeed a complex and multi-faceted one, and that these diplomata were both produced and received in a variety of contexts. For King John’s subjects, it may have been how they heard Magna Carta that counted. For them the ephemeral and live text proclaimed in the towns and meeting places would have been as authentic a Magna Carta as the four original surviving instantiations from 1215 are for modern scholars. That this Great Charter can still generate such interest and debate is testimony to its continuing significance for all of its many successive audiences.   

Acknowledgements

Elaine Treharne should like to thank the Dean--the Very Reverend June Osborne--and the Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral for their permission to work in the Library and Archive. In particular, I should like to thank the Canon Chancellor, Reverend Canon Edward Probert, and the Archivist, Mrs Emily Naish. I owe enormous gratitude to Mrs Naish for many helpful conversations, for her knowledge of the archive, her kindness and her time. 

References and Further Reading

Breay, Claire. 2002. Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths. London: The British Library.  
Breay, Claire, and Harrison, Julian, eds. 2015. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. London: The British Library.
Carpenter, David. 2015a. Magna Carta. London: Penguin Classics.
Carpenter, David. 2015b. The Cartulary Copies at Lincoln and Salisbury of the Lincoln and Salisbury Engrossments of the 1215 Magna Carta: http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/feature_of_the_month/May_2015_2
Chaplais, Pierre. 1971. English Royal Documents, King John-Henry VI (1199-1461). Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Clanchy, M. T. 2013. From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Collins, Arthur Jeffries. 1948. The Documents of the Great Charter of 1215. Proceedings of the British Academy 34: 233-79.
Denholm-Young, N. 1954. Handwriting in England and Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Derolez, Albert. 2003. The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books from the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Galbraith, V. H. 1967. A Draft of Magna Carta (1215). Proceedings of the British Academy 53: 345-60. 
Grieve, Hilda E. P. 1954. Examples of English Handwriting, 1150-1750. Colchester: Essex Record Office Publications.
Hector, L. C. 1966. The Handwriting of English Documents. Dorking: Kohler and Coombs Ltd.
Holt, J. C. 1985. Magna Carta and Medieval Government. London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press.
Holt, J. C. 2015. Magna Carta, 3rd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Parkes, M. B. 1969. English Cursive Book Hands, 1250-1500. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
Prescott, Andrew. 1997. ‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation’: the Restoration of the Cotton Library in C. J. Wright ed., Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Lawyer and his Legacy. London: The British Library, pp. 391-454
Rich Jones, W. H., ed. 1883. Register of S. Osmund (London: Longman & Co.), 2 vols. 
Rowlands, I. W. The Text and Distribution of the Writ for the Publication of Magna Carta, 1215. English Historical Review, 124: 1422-31.
Stroud, Daphne. 1981. Salisbury’s Magna Carta: Was It Issued by the Chancery? The Hatcham Review 2:12: 51-8.
Treharne, Elaine. 2018. Collective Memories in Salisbury Cathedral Library and Archives, 1200 to 1600.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2004. ‘Why 1199? Bureaucracy and Enrolment under John and his Contemporaries’, in Adrian Jobson, ed. English Government in the Thirteenth Century. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. pp. 17-48.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2010. Australia’s Magna Carta. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Vincent, Nicholas. 2012. Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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5 June 2015

Are the Arts and Humanities More Digital than the Sciences?

The SMKE workshop on Scholarly Communication in the 21st Century: a Survivor’s Guide on 4 June 2015 was very enjoyable and packed with information. I fear my keynote was less a survival guide than a mixture of personal reminiscence and a chance to share my enthusiasm for work I consider forward-looking, such as the artists Thomson & Craighead, and Ruth Ewan. For what they are worth, the slides from my talk are available at: http://www.slideshare.net/burgess1822/doing-the-digital-how-scholars-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-computer

The doctoral students and early career researchers who attended this event will have been left in no doubt as to the extent to which academic life and publication expectations in the UK is dominated by the grizzly subject of the Research Excellence Framework (one of the finest examples of Newspeak currently in use in British public life, known affectionately as the REF). The release of the results of the REF, sensitively timed for the week before Christmas 2014, led to a rash of abstruse calculations designed to show that particular universities or departments had done amazingly well, demonstrated in a bewildering variety of league tables. The absurdity of the exercise is illustrated by the way in which universities that evidently had very limited interest in research loudly claimed  to have centres of international excellence. It’s tempting to suggest that the whole thing is an objectionable and unethical intrusion into academic values, as my friend Lorna Hughes argues in her blog, but the outcomes of the REF have to be taken very seriously, as they are not only marketing opportunities for university, but a great deal of funding depends on the REF results, and departments are already being closed down and academics fired or put on teaching-only contracts throughout the UK due to poor REF results. That is the reason UK academics are obsessive about the REF.

Having said that, the publication of the results of the REF offers a great deal of fascinating information about trends in scholarly research in the UK. Statements by each department outlining their research strategy and achievements (environment templates, in REF speak) and describing the impact of their research outside the academy are available for download on the REF website. Details of each of the thousands of pieces of research submitted by individual researchers are also available as spreadsheets. There is an enormous amount of data from the REF available for crunching, and I’m delighted that my friends at the Academic Book of the Future project at UCL and King’s College London will be undertaking a detailed analysis of this data to investigate trends in scholarly publication. Their results will be very interesting, but in the meantime the initial top level analyses on the REF website offer some intriguing insights into the state of digital humanities in the UK.

There were four large subject panels in the REF: Panel A was broadly medicine and life sciences; Panel B included chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering; Panel C was broadly social sciences and law; while most of the arts and humanities were under Panel D. A large number of sub-panels assess individual disciplinary areas (or again Units of Assessments, UoA, in REF-speak). In the previous research assessment exercise in 2008, there were 15 main panels, and 67 sub-panels. In 2008, those digital humanities centres which submitted to the REF chose the Library and Information Science UoA, and they did very well, with both King’s College London and HATII at the University of Glasgow getting particularly good results.

There were two big changes between the exercise in 2008 and REF in 2014 which had major implications for digital humanities. First, it was declared that (with some exceptions which we don’t need to go into here) only academics on full research and teaching contracts were eligible for submission to the REF. This was devastating for digital humanities, since a number of digital humanities centres had submitted to the previous research assessment exercises librarians, curators and staff from information services who were publishing books and articles on digital humanities. These were now excluded from the REF. Moreover, research staff who were working on other people’s projects - a very large proportion of the staff in a department like that at King’s College London - were also excluded (again, there were some exceptions, but we won’t go into the theology of it here). In short, anyone who wasn’t occupying a conventional academic post was generally excluded from the REF. For a new discipline which is predicated on different types of posts with new mixtures of skills, this was devastating, and it meant for example that HATII in the University of Glasgow, which had performed very well in the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, couldn’t muster sufficient critical mass to be entered in REF 2014.

The second big change arose from the reduction in the number of panels. This meant that disciplines were arbitrarily grouped together to reduce administrative costs. Some of the initial proposals - for example that Classics should be lumped in with History and Archaeology - produced strong protests. Classics was successful through its national subject association in arguing that it should have a separate sub-panel. Library and Information Science was merged with Cultural and Media Studies in UoA 36: ‘Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management’ - unlike Classics, the librarians were unable to fend off this change. (Incidentally, the hope sometimes expressed that Digital Humanities will eventually have its own sub-panel in the REF is pie in the sky. With the trend towards merger of disciplines in the REF to reduce costs, Digital Humanities will not have its own sub-panel until it is of a size comparable to such disciplines as History or Chemistry, which may happen one day, but certainly not in my lifetime.) Given that the intellectual relationship of Digital Humanities to cultural and media studies is a contentious subject, the way in which REF is now providing such a strong institutional imperative for DH to become linked with cultural and media studies is striking, particularly as it is not being driven by the DH community itself. The contrast between the success of Classics (through its strong subject association) in arguing for independent status with the failure of Digital Humanities to have much influence on the REF process is also instructive, and suggests that Digital Humanities in the UK should pay more attention to the creation of a strong national subject association, and pay less attention than it has done in the past to international collaboration, which is of little value in lobbying on REF matters.

It is surprising that this shotgun marriage of Cultural and Media Studies with Digital Humanities in the UK has not been more widely discussed, as I feel it has major implications for the future of Digital Humanities, particularly given the historic prominence of Britain in the subject area. The tactical question for individual universities in preparing their REF submissions was how far their submissions should also fuse the subject areas. For those universities where long-established digital humanities centres, such as the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, were not returned to the REF, their work nevertheless features prominently in the environment templates of their partners, such as the Department of History. In the case of the University of Glasgow, the submission to UoA 36 by the School of Creative and Cultural Arts makes no reference to Digital Humanities activities, but Glasgow’s Digital Humanities activities figure prominently in the University’s submission to the English Language and Literature panel. Some institutions take little account of the merger of the panel in their submissions. The environment template for UCL describes the work of the Department of Information Studies there, with Digital Humanities and the work of UCLDH signalled as one of the major research groupings within the Department, with links to engineering, thus providing a fairly traditional view of the role of DH. By contrast, King’s College London made a joint submission of two departments, the Creative Media and Cultural Industries Department, and the Department of Digital Humanities. The environment template (which I helped to write) offers an intellectual synthesis of the two subject areas that responds strongly to the changed constitution of the panel.

It is difficult to interpret the panel’s ranking of these environment templates, but looking at the outcome, there is clearly a sense that the panel this time preferred environment templates that addressed the whole range of the subject areas and looked to the links between library and information science on the one hand and Cultural and Media Studies on the other. It is unlikely that there will be more panels in the next REF - indeed there will probably be pressure to reduce costs by having yet fewer panels - so Digital Humanities centres and departments hoping to submit to the REF need to take all this into account.

While the disciplinary position of Digital Humanities as reflected in the REF might seem to be subject to some major challenges, in other ways the REF offers grounds for optimism. The REF web site offers some preliminary analysis of the different formats in research submitted to the REF. Not surprisingly, the message across the board is of the dominance of the book, chapters in books and above all the peer-reviewed journal article. Of the 215,507 outputs submitted overall to the REF, 157,021 were journal articles and 28,628 were books or chapters in books. The REF goes out of its way to ensure that research can be submitted in any format, but few institutions took advantage of this. There were 757 physical artefacts submitted, 1746 exhibitions and performances, 1684 other documentary outputs, and 553 others. The proportion of digital artefacts submitted to the REF was very small: just 761 altogether.

But if we look at just the outputs for Panel D, the panel that covered most of the arts and humanities, something very interesting emerges. Of those 761 digital outputs submitted to the REF, 674 or 88% were from the arts and humanities. In other words, it seems to be scholars in the arts and humanities who are more insistent that their work in digital media is central to their research. The overall output format figures from Panel D were 19527 books or chapters in books; 1707 exhibitions and performances; 874 other documentary formats; 731 physical artefacts; 674 digital artefacts; 471 other.

It does look as if it is scholars in the arts and humanities who are more likely to experiment with the format of their research and who are disseminating their research in digital form. I’ve made a cut-down version of the spreadsheet giving details of the digital REF outputs, and made it publicly available as a Google sheet. It’s a fascinating browse: not only are there very well-known projects, such as London Lives, the Newton project or EpiDoc, but also many less high-profile projects, and overall this list of pioneering digital research illustrates the variety and creativity in the field. As you browse through the list, you will see that there are issues in the classification which may suggest caution in interpreting these figures. For example, many recordings of musical performances because they were submitted on CD or DVD are categorised as digital artefacts, but I’m not sure they represent digital scholarship as we would understand it. On the other hand, many digital projects were submitted as scholarly editions which were included in the figure for printed books, so it's swings and roundabouts: here's a Google sheet of the scholarly editions.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that the arts and humanities is more digital than other disciplines - after all, many of those printed articles in the other STEM panels describe work on technologies which will enable future digital scholarship in the humanities - but there does seem to be a stronger engagement with digital methods of communicating research in the arts and humanities than elsewhere. Eric Meyer and Ralph Schroeder in their recent book for MIT Press, Knowledge Machines: Digital Transformations in the Arts and Humanities likewise report the results of a 2009 survey of 426 humanities scholars, in which 98% considered digital tools useful and 83% considered themselves enthusiasts or advocates for digitisation. Eric and Ralph point out that, surprisingly, there is apparently more enthusiasm for digital methods among humanities scholars than among social scientists. Only 60% of a survey of social scientists considered digital tools useful, and a mere 33% described themselves as enthusiasts or advocates for digitisation. Eric and Ralph suggest that this is because humanities scholars have a closer engagement with primary materials and editions, a pattern that also seems to be echoed in the REF information.

As government cuts continue to bite, it will be necessary to increase our advocacy for the value of the arts and humanities. Maybe our pioneering of digital creativity and content deserves greater prominence in this advocacy than it has had hitherto.

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11 March 2015

My Acts of Reading


Guest blog entry for the blog of the Digital Reading Network.  

In an earlier post on this blog, Sue Thomas asked us to consider where and how we read. She reminded us of Alberto Manguel’s comment that ‘the act of reading in time requires a corresponding act of reading in place, and the relationship between the two acts is inextricable’. Sue reflected that this sense of reading and place is being further transformed by the device we use when we read.

Many of my most vivid memories are associated with reading, from my mother teaching me to read before I went to school, to my father taking me as a child to the children’s library on Saturday morning and the terrifying moment as a first-year postgraduate when I first tried (and failed) to read a medieval document on my own, leaving me wondering what type of career I might eventually have. As it was, I mastered medieval handwriting and went on to work at the British Library. When I first saw the World Wide Web in 1993 (thanks to that remarkable man Tim Hadlow, then the British Library’s Systems Administrator), I immediately felt it would change everything. 

But it was really in the practice of writing that I first noticed the changes. By the time I left the British Library in 2000, I was already writing so little by hand that my handwriting (once a beautiful Italic hand) had deteriorated to illegibility, and I found the way in which universities are (still) so incredibly dependent on a bureaucracy of forms completed by hand a shock to the system. In 2000, I used the computer for writing, e-mail, keeping indexes on databases, looking at images, preparing Powerpoints and checking library catalogues, but not really for reading. Even when I was looking at images of manuscripts, I was viewing them more as objects than as texts to be read. It was from about 2003, as more and more academic journals were becoming available online, that I noticed that I was starting to read academic articles almost exclusively on my computer. This was part of a major and largely unstudied shift which John Regazzi has recently described in his book, Scholarly Communications: A History from Content as King to Content as Kingmaker. Humanities academics abandoned a default mode of checking bibliographies first, then monographs, then articles, and moved instead towards going first to journal articles, increasingly identified through Google. The shape, chronology and disciplinary spread of this change requires further investigation, but in my case there is no question that it turned my normal research procedure upside down.

I think this shift towards use of the online article reflects more than the unwillingness of an overweight academic to heave himself out of a comfortable chair and head to the library. It was about the easiest way of finding out the scholarly state of play on a particular subject. Using Google or a word search to find the most recent articles, and then using those articles as a gouging knife to dig out the key issues and literature on a subject is in many ways a more effective process than trying to work out the current state of play from monographs and printed bibliographies, both of which might be considerably out of date. By 2005, I found that, for my academic reading, most of my reading of journal articles was taking place online, but books were still read in the conventional way in bed, on buses, on trains and (for me) above all in libraries. I should perhaps explain that unlike many academics I have never built up a very carefully selected or extensive library. I’ve acquired many academic books over the years, but I suspect that for academic books this was more often than not a means of possessing books or authors I particularly admired, almost as trophies, rather than for use. I have always preferred to work in libraries, and have been lucky enough either worked in libraries or lived in close proximity to major libraries, so my working copies of academic books tend to be library copies. I am assisted considerably in this by having been a member for nearly forty years of the wonderful London Library, with its marvellously liberal lending policies.

The next change I noticed was in my relationship with newspapers. Newspapers have always been important to me, as a kind of neutral disengaged space of reading, where I can pretend to relate to the world but actually keep at bay (think of the prisoner Fletcher in Porridge whose reading of The Sun seemed to occupy large parts of the day, as if it was a means of both forgetting the prison and remembering the outside world. Not that I’ve ever felt a prisoner, but it reflects the wonderful way a newspaper can keep your brain in a pleasant neutral gear). My childhood days were punctuated by newspapers: the arrival through the letterbox in the morning; the newspaper vendors in cloth caps and mufflers selling a choice of three London evening newspapers in makeshift shelters at street corners on dark foggy winter nights. Reading a newspaper on the top deck of a bus remained a supreme pleasure for me until well into my 40s. Then it changed: I noticed I had stopped bothering with newspapers in the week (I’ve never been one for magazines). I think the combination of television, radio and the web meant that the pretence of reading it to keep up with current events had been stripped away. I became more conscious that I read newspapers purely as a relaxation activity, and somehow that seemed to be something more appropriate for the weekend. So I read newspapers nowadays on Saturday and Sunday, and will indulge myself with a large number - its one of the high spots of the week - but my relationship with this particular act of reading has profoundly changed.

But I remained stubbornly devoted to the book. I continued to read academic books, and my leisure reading was exclusively in old-fashioned printed book form. In Ceredigion, where I live, the excellent public library service is constantly under threat of cuts, and I like to support it. But I also loved pottering round Waterstones, and my essential pre-holiday preparation was a big book purchase, and as soon as I got on holiday, establishing a drip feed of good books was an essential requirement. I didn’t contemplate a Kindle or an iPad - until last year, I had only purchased one e-book, an academic book that I needed in a desperate hurry to complete some footnotes. Last summer, I was reading Mark Ormrod’s magisterial biography of Edward III in the Yale English monarchs series. Mark’s book is a remarkable piece of historical research, but it is 720 pages long. Carrying it around, with laptop and all the other paraphernalia of modern life, started give me nasty twinges in my back. It was clear that a 720 page biography of a king who reigned for fifty years was not something I could any longer contemplate easily reading on buses and trains.

I had acquired an iPad a few months earlier, and decided that the pain in my back necessitated a switch to an e-book, and acquired Edward III as an e-biography. It was one of the greatest revelations of my life. It wasn’t just that I no longer had to lumber around that huge brick of ink, paper and card, although that was a great relief. The clarity of the screen and the backlighting seemed somehow to make it easier to connect the book and for me definitely made the reading experience more intense. Far from the iPad getting in the way, I seemed to be able to connect with the e-book much more easily. I had the iPad to hand in odd moments when it would have awkward to get the large book out, so I made much quicker progress with the book. Then, after I had flown through Edward III at a rate which thoroughly surprised me, the convenience of getting the next book was just breathtaking. One of the saddest things in life is finishing a good book just as a bus journey is beginning and not then having something to read. But our rural buses in Ceredigion now have wi-fi, and I can get another e-book while the bus is trundling through the West Wales countryside.

My e-Edward III revelation rebooted my reading habits, and seemed to give my reading renewed enthusiasm and productiveness. Eventually, I crossed what I had previously considered the rubicon, and experimented with reading books on a smartphone. I was amazed once again. The phone offered even greater flexibility with no loss of engagement or clarity. The phone meant I could read in situations where previously it was difficult - I could see what a colleague meant when he said that he was able to read a French novel in a rush hour crowd in the tube, thanks to his phone. Indeed, once I began to read on the phone, it somehow came alive for the first time, and it has become more cemented into my life as a result.

Yet there is one fundamental area where my reading practices remain unchanged. My doctoral thesis was on the records of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The three years I spent in the Public Record Office exploring medieval court records and assembling transcripts of the cases were among the most satisfying of my life. My transcription process became very set: a 2H pencil and narrow feint punched 10 x 8 writing paper. I wrote on both sides of the paper and put the archival reference on the top left hand corner of the recto of each page. My notes are probably still one of the most comprehensive collections of materials relating to the revolt, and it was the dream of somehow making all this available online that first drew me into the digital humanities. In a remarkable act of scholarly private enterprise, the legal historian Robert Palmer of the University of Houston has scanned many of the record series I worked on - over eight million images of medieval legal records - which are on a website called the Anglo-American Legal Tradition (www.allt.org). I could imagine nothing I would rather spend the rest of my scholarly career doing than exploring this amazing collection of material, and as a result I’ve recently been transcribing legal records again. 

But here’s the odd thing. Although I put it the images on my iPad, I find it very difficult to produce typed notes on them on my laptop, which seems to me what I should now be doing. Although I can read the records fluently enough, somehow I can only process the information in it if I transcribe it - ideally with a 2H pencil, although sadly nowadays I am compelled to use A4 paper. Why do I feel this need to transcribe to process information? Is it because I got into a habit of work and thought at the Public Record Office that I now am locked into? Is it is residual irreducible marker of my digital immigrant status? There are hints that, reassuringly, it isn’t just me. Ségolène Tarte, in studying the processes used by scholars studying papyri, has found that manual transcription is also important for them, and Ségolène has suggested psychological reasons why that might be the case. Younger colleagues at King’s College London who work extensively with digital images report that they also still regard old-fashioned transcription as an important part of their armoury, while Stuart Dunn tells me that pencil and paper are still indispensable tools in looking at old maps.

So, I think that a handwritten transcription will continue to be important in studying materials like my medieval court records. It will be the last bastion of my professional practice that will remain unchanged, although obviously the availability of Robert Palmer’s marvellous AALT resource does mean that I am not now tied to going to Kew to steep myself in this material.

What is striking about this process of reshaping my reading practice over the past twenty years is its piecemeal character. It has been a process of gradual renegotiation of my reading habits, according to taste, circumstance and back pain. A lot of current discussion of digital transformations assumes that it will be a sudden, dramatic and disruptive process. A lot of this rhetoric derives from the management theorist Clayton Christensen (and misinterprets Christensen’s work in my view). The supposed disruption of the music industry by online services is frequently taken as a warning of the fate that awaits book publishers, universities, etc., if they don’t get more switched on and digital. My own experience of changed reading practices suggests that a much more common experience of digital transformation is one of gradually shifting accommodation, experiment and realignment - a piecemeal process, not less profoundly transformative for that, but a quieter slower and more gentle process than the ‘disruptions’ digital enthusiasts sometimes loudly call for, without really thinking about what they are demanding.

Now, its time for bed, and a good book.

                            

          

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