Digital Medievalist 7 (2011). ISSN: 1715-0736.
© Dot Porter, 2011. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licence

Burghart, Marjorie, ed. 2011. Album interactif de paléographie médiévale/Interactive Album of Mediaeval Palaeography. Lyon: UMR 5648 CIHAM <http://ciham.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr/paleographie/>

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Commissioned Review

Commissioning Editor: Rebecca Welzenbach, School of Information, University of Michigan.
Accepting Editor: Rebecca Welzenbach, School of Information, University of Michigan.
Received: May 18, 2011
Revised: July 26, 2011
Accepted: August 1, 2011
Published: October 5, 2011

Keywords: review; Burghart, Marjorie; palaeography; elearning; manuscripts.


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§ 1    This site, published by the Digital Humanities programme of the UMR 5648 - Histoire, Archéologie, Littératures des Mondes Chrétiens et Musulmans Médiévaux in France, offers a practical introduction to the art and science of reading manuscript texts. I hesitate to use the word "read" in this context, however. You need not be able to understand a language to learn to identify the letter forms and how those letters are combined to form words, and indeed this site focuses on the purely practical issue of being able to associate medieval glyphs with modern letter forms.

§ 2     The site is made up of a collection of transcription exercises (there are currently 27). Example texts have been carefully selected to cover a variety of formats (including codices and single-page documents) and types of script from the ninth through the fifteenth centuries. They are drawn from a small number of continental European institutions (University of Cologne, the Abbey of Saint-Maurice, and St. Gallen are represented multiple times, as are various other holdings of the e-Codices project). Links are provided from the exercises to records provided by the institutions that own the manuscripts (or to e-Codices, for those institutions served by that project), which provides more information about the manuscripts as well as more complete images for many although not all of the exercises. I would not mind seeing more early examples, or a few from the British Isles, but that could also be my Anglo-Saxon bias showing. I certainly have no complaint about the general coverage offered now.

§ 3    The exercises may be navigated by chronology, language, or according to level of difficulty. Exercises are included from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, with more representing the later centuries. Twenty-two exercises are in Latin and five are in French, all of the latter from the thirteenth century and later as one would expect. Levels of difficulty are "easy" (seven exercises), "average" (eleven) and "difficult" (nine). There is no indication on the site how level of difficulty is determined (what is the difference between a rather difficult average exercise and a not-too-difficult exercise?). However in the exercises I tried I could not really argue too much with the determination.

§ 4    Each exercise is organized into zones. The introduction provides a brief description of the document (in French only). Beneath the Introduction is the image of the medieval document. Next is the transcription zone, with a series of boxes arranged into lines, each box corresponding to a word on the image. At the very bottom of the exercise is the solution zone, where users may sneak a peek at transcriptions provided by the site. A user manual provides complete instructions on how to use the site, although it is pretty self-explanatory and I found it easy to get started without referring to the user manual.

Figure 1: A sample exercise A sample exercise

§ 5    As mentioned above, the introductions are only provided in French. I found them easy to understand, having a very minor familiarity with French and access to a French-English dictionary. They are quite short.

§ 6    Each word on the image has been bounded with a box, and a click on the word will pop up a larger image of the word and will also take the cursor into the appropriate box in the transcription zone. This is a very nice feature for the beginner, and I would think it would be especially helpful as one works to become familiar with the sometimes inconsistent word spacing found in medieval writing. For the more advanced student it would, I think, be less useful, even distracting. Certainly as one works through the exercises and becomes more comfortable with word spacing it would become more and more unnecessary. Pop-up images of each word are also visible in the transcription zone even when the full text view is not visible - clicking in a word box will bring up a small image of the corresponding word. In addition a click on a word in the solutions section will bring one back to the image, where the bounding box shows which word has been clicked as well as the transcription for that word directly on the image.

§ 7    The design of the exercises, which use the word as the central organizing principle, may be the site's main weakness. Many of the wide varieties of medieval scripts are notable for lacking spaces between words, and as one moves from being a beginning to an intermediate student of paleography it is important to take on more responsibility for the identification, not only of individual letters but also of words and phrases. Another related criticism is that the focus on individual words distracts from the context in which those words live. Assuming that most students of paleography are learning the practical identification skills in order to apply them to actually reading, comprehending and interpreting texts, focusing on words with little regard to context is a major weakness.

§ 8    To be fair, there is a lot to appreciate in this site. Like my favorite sites and tools (including the UVic Image Markup Tool, which was used here to encode the images), it does one thing and it does it well. As an introductory site for people just beginning to approach medieval writing, I don't know of a better, more practical approach. Ductus, which is fairly well-known, although I do not know how widely used it is, is both less practical and more well-rounded, supplying much more contextual information about specific texts and scripts. One might conceive of a course that uses both resources, starting with the easiest exercises from the Interactive Album, then moving to Ductus for more context and more free-form transcription, returning occasionally to the Album for more difficult exercises. Having created such a good introductory site, however, I would suggest that the site designers consider how they might extend the practical approach to a more advanced approach. Not necessarily for more difficult texts - indeed, some of the example texts provided now are quite sophisticated both for the script and for the number and types of abbreviations and ligatures - but a slightly different way to run the exercises without focusing so strongly on the word as the organizing principle. It should also be mentioned that the site is very attractive: clear, uncluttered, easy to navigate and easy to use. I particularly like how, no matter which navigational view you choose, thumbnail images and short descriptions alternate from left to right as the exercises are listed down the page, rather than all thumbnail images being on the left and descriptions on the right. This makes it quite easy to see which description goes with which image, and it just looks good.

Figure 2: 13th century exercises in alternating view 13th century exercises in alternating view

§ 9    For those interested in creating their own paleography exercises following this model, the development team has made their code and workflow public through the University of Victoria Image Markup Tool site.