Project Blog

Update One: Getting Started

It has been very nearly three years since I reached out on Twitter about a transcription challenge running concurrently with the 13th Annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age. I met Dr Morreale shortly after that, and while participating in the “Transcribing the Pelerinage de Damoiselle Sapience” event, I was sold on the concept of community-oriented, crowd-sourced projects. I am familiar with “The Canterbury Tales Project,” having transcribed for Dr Robinson and Dr Bordalejo, so digitally transcribing medieval manuscripts was not something entirely new to me. However, the framework of the challenge, the impetus of competition, and the expediency involved in Dr Morreale’s project during the symposium revealed to me just how powerful the TCF is.

When the opportunity arose to develop my challenge, I jumped at the opportunity. The collection of texts I work on, The South English Legendaries (SEL), is monumental and mercurial. At this time, the thirteenth-century collection of saints’ legends and biblical histories is found in 77 different witnesses, and with over 140 different legends, there are over 2000 unique circulating texts associated with the collection. There is an overwhelming and daunting amount of material, and it is beyond the scope of any single scholar. It has become almost a trope in studies of the SEL to acknowledge the difficulties presented to scholars who pursue investigating the legendary, with nearly everyone concluding their studies by acknowledging that the collection must be investigated in a collaborative effort. Alas, while scholars have gathered to produce collections of essays, there have been few efforts to transcribe the legendary collectively.

The Saint Dunstan Transcription Challenge is my response to scholars like Anne J. Thompson and Manfred Gorlach, who write about the need for new editions and a collaborative approach to reading the SEL. The SEL was ultimately a community-facing collection of legends intended for a lay audience, with its popular tone and use of the vernacular, Middle English. While Gorlach must be lauded for his study on the textual development of the SEL, it has been half a century since anyone re-evaluated the development of the legendary. Transcribing the life of Saint Dunstan is only the first step in enhancing our understanding of the collection.

Working alongside the Transcription Challenge Framework Committee, with the support of FromthePage, my ambition is to refine a model of community-oriented transcription, informed by Universal Design for Learning, to develop a set of transcripts that can be used to (1) develop student-oriented editions so the collection can be taught at an undergraduate level (current editions are too expensive), (2) establish a set of data points to begin analysing the textual development of the collection, and (3) theorise and implement UDL in digital medieval projects.

The website is done, the images are uploaded, the first project update has been written, and now I move to advertising. Is anyone interested in advancing our understanding of the South English Legendary, meeting a few new scholars, and trying something new?

Update Two: Research Questions and Justifications

In my last post, I briefly noted a few of the aims of the Saint Dunstan Transcription Challenge. I would be remiss not to acknowledge that this is a prototype project, which, if successful, might be used as a model for a more extended project that would see the entirety of the SEL transcribed and collated in a similar way as The Canterbury Tales is currently being transcribed and collated. The Legend of Saint Dunstan circulated in 23 witnesses and is one of the most widely circulated legends in the collection, and beginning with the most widely circulated immediately opens up avenues of investigation that transcribing another legend, like Saint George, might not. By beginning with legends that circulated widely, we might produce a collation that acts as a check to the assertions that Manfred Gorlach made in his groundbreaking monograph, The Textual Development of the South English Legendary. As it has been over 50 years since its publication and numerous new witnesses have been uncovered, it is well worth the time to reexamine the veracity of Gorlach’s claims.

With this primary aim in mind, it is worth highlighting other motivations for completing a prototype project.

  • There are two competing theories about the development of the SEL. The first is that the SEL was a structured and highly organized legendary developed by a small group and then disseminated widely. The second is that the SEL was an ad hoc collection developed to satisfy the needs of select reading communities. These two competing views, which I have perhaps overly simplified, might be tested, so to speak, by examining the relationships between the different SEL witnesses, both at the manuscript and legend levels.
  • While some SEL witnesses have been described in the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, most have not adequately been given a linguistic profile. Such analysis would better situate the witnesses to elucidate further their dissemination patterns, their audiences, and, more importantly, their scribes and places of production. To this end, transcriptions must enable dialectic analysis, and our transcription policies must reflect this.
  • The SEL is not frequently taught at the undergraduate level, which, I believe, is a disservice to students, as the legends are engaging literary works worth reading. Because the current editions do not contain appropriate apparatuses for students, are cost prohibitive, and are increasingly outdated with new discoveries, it is time to provide students with examples of medieval literature reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of thirteenth-century England. I like to tell people who will listen that the SEL shares more in common with the Marvel Cinematic Universe than we would like to admit. Moreover, in the interest of encouraging students to develop new knowledge and contribute to scholarship, the SEL is ripe for discoveries at all levels of academia: from book history to palaeography, from genre studies to rhetoric, from religious studies to performance arts, the SEL is an abundant source of material waiting to be investigated.
  • The SEL needs a new critical edition for scholars to examine.
  • The SEL needs a variorum. What separates the SEL from so many other collections of saints’ legends is its variation. Each witness contains different legends in different arrangements. A variorum that enables a reader to play amongst the manuscripts comparing legends from different manuscripts, playing with arrangement, and examining how the collection developed over time more closely reflects the reality of the collection as it circulated in medieval England. The first step to a variorum is full transcripts and collations of the manuscripts witnesses, a monumental task if done in isolation, a task easily accomplished by a community.
  • The SEL should have a dedicated annotated bibliography alongside a new edition, student edition, and variorum. We are not a big group, but we are a proud group, and a bibliography would enable us to engage more easily in productive dialogues with each other, especially as so many of our studies focus on either a single witness or legend.
  • The SEL is an optimal collection to examine implementing Universal Design for Learning in a digitally focused classroom studying Middle English literature. The SEL legends are accessible by design, but the language and access to manuscripts make it prohibitively difficult for students to engage with the collection critically. My key focus is to integrate UDL best practices into this prototype project to see how we can decolonize the archive, present new literature to students, and encourage collaborative learning in a field dominated by isolated and insular scholarship.

These are just a few of the motivations behind the Saint Dunstan Transcription Challenge. It seems ambitious, admittedly, but that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Update Three: The more the merrier

We are one week away from beginning the project, and those who have signed up have received the details. 43 people from around the world have signed up! This number exceeded by best wishes, which encouraged me to add an additional text to give more people the ability to participate. After considerable internal debate, I decided to add the legend of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, a fellow, and indeed the first Archbishop of Canterbury. This text is about half the length of the legend of Saint Dunstan, and it circulated in about as many witnesses, making it a good text to collate to begin interrogating the textual development of the SEL.

Our first meeting will take place July 21, over Zoom where I will give a brief introduction to the project, its aims, its outcomes, the importance of participating, and the policies. After, participants will be divided into groups and put into breakout rooms for introductions and assignments. Then we will be off to the races!

Update Four: And We’re Off!

On July 21, half of the sign-on participants met through Zoom to discuss the project and meet our groups. With so many international participants, it was difficult for everyone to meet simultaneously, so the Zoom meeting was recorded and shared through Google Drive to all the participants. After the meeting ended, we set off transcribing.

It was a bit of a rocky start. Some of our images hadn’t uploaded correctly to FromThePage, and as participants began to dive in, questions about Slack, FromThePage, and the manuscripts emerged, many questions which I had not anticipated, but questions which were nonetheless resolved through cooperation and a little bit of empathy.

As of writing this, a little over 96 hours have passed since we began, and already 47 pages have been completely transcribed and nearly 1500 lines of Middle English. Between responding to queries, resolving any technical issues, and collaborating with my international medievalists, I am reflecting on what I would do differently, how this process could be improved, and most importantly, how to set up participants for success and make this a seamless operation. I will update again. Ten days remain.

Update Five: Halfway There

We have crossed the halfway point of the transcription challenge, and there has been great progress made. This experience has in many ways been a trial by fire, but every single participant has been engaged, collaborative, and positive. There are a few really interesting observations that can be made at this point: there are two redactions of the Legend of Saint Dunstan. Whereas the DIMEV only accounts for one work (DIMEV 4584), the transcriptions clearly show a long and short version, where the long version includes the legend of Dunstan grabbing the devil by the nose, which is reflected in the two current editions of the SEL by Horstmann and D’Evelyn and Mill, but not so in the Index. This is a further example of how difficult it is to define the boundaries of SEL legends and exemplifies their mouvance.

When I had conceived of this project, I went in with the expectation that the scribal practices would dictate much of the transcription policies, responding of course to “new philology.” What emerged quickly in the process, however, is that these manuscripts, with few exceptions share remarkable similarity in scribal practice and making a more rigorous transcription policy not only feasible but necessary to ensure accuracy. Moving forward, as I anticipate further transcriptions of the other 202 legends, a more rigorous transcription policy can be implemented, using the policies developed here as the foundation.

Seven days remain.