Vatican Libary Making Progress

There are signs at last that the Vatican Library's manuscript digitization program is making good progress: there are now 1,549 manuscripts of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana available online (up from 1,503 on January 1, a gain of 3 per cent in just 3 weeks).

The index page, which previously, listed every single digitization, has got so unwieldy that it has now been reduced to a compact, top-level, springboard page listing the collections the project has touched so far.

There's no sign yet of Vat. lat. 5729, the colorfully and richly illuminated Bible of Ripoll, which I want to see. So far only 78 of more than 15,000 medieval and modern items from that collection have been digitized. But the progress makes me optimistic.


Persistence of Games

A curious example of the persistence of board games is mentioned by Irving Finkel of the British Museum in an entertaining New York lecture in 2012 which I watched a couple of years ago.

An article published in 1925 in Sudan Notes and Queries describes a "sedentary" game played on marks in the sand by Arabic speakers in Sudan. Finkel points out (from minute 35 of the video) that the game seems to be mehen, the "game of the snake," the spiral boards for which are found in tombs of Egypt's pharaonic period from around 2800 BCE.

"It seems to me that it is compelling to link the one to the other," says Finkel, overruling objections that a game could not have remained in continuous play for nearly 5,000 years.

The article's description of the game terms it Li'b El Merafib and indicates it was principally played by men during Ramadan. The author provides the schematic drawing at right. A transcript can be found at the Waterloo Games Museum, while a digitization of the magazine is offered by AlFahl.net in a large PDF. The author, R. Davies, had no idea that the game was Egyptian. The game involves a chase from Y to X and back, with "hyena" pieces pursuing on the return leg, which makes the last phase of the game very exciting.

I was curious as to the identity of the author, who patronizingly says Li'b El Merafib is more exciting than games played by English children, which makes him appear rather blinkered, although to be fair, he did consult the scholarly literature available to him
A little research establishes that the author must have been Reginald Davies (1887-1971), who left a box of his manuscript papers to Edinburgh University Library (see Archives Hub with biographical details). A printed bibliographical reference to the same papers by Sharkey appears to be entirely unreliable.

Davies became the first British Resident in Darfur in 1922 and his policy of building up a local sultan may bear some responsibility for the appalling civil wars that have rent Darfur in recent decades. Finkel terms him a "British Army officer", which he most certainly was not: He was a civilian and university man, a group who were in fact intensely jealous of army officers who snatched their salaried jobs. For all the trouble Davies created as a colonialist, one must acknowledge that he faithfully recorded one of the remarkable clues we have to one of humanity's most intriguing practices: the board game.

Davies, Reginald. “Some Arab Games and Puzzles.” Sudan Notes and Records, no. 8 (1925): 137–52.

Finkel, Irving. Like Spilt Milk: How Ancient Board Games Were Disseminated, 2012. YouTube.


Enemies of Hugh Capet

One of the difficulties of publishing a scholarly book is doubtless the fact that the time-span between research and hitting the market can be several years. This struck me when reading a couple of works from 20 years ago on the Stemma of Cunigunde. I mentioned this remarkable diagram some while back in a blog post.
A plot of it on my website allows you to see more detail. This diagram is the oldest visualization in existence of a genealogy that can be independently documented. The only older genealogical visualization is the Great Stemma, where many of the persons, ranging from David and Solomon to Jesus, are historical figures, but are documented by a single source only, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and the diagram is not contemporaneous but based on that single source.

The great modern authority on medieval tree diagrams is Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, who published her study, L’Ombre des Ancêtres, in 2000. She rightly gave considerable attention to the Stemma of Cunigunde and its medieval evolution into various new formats.

What I now notice is that her investigation must have been conducted a good decade before her book's publication, because she does not cite the two key studies dating from 1992 and 1994, by Nora Gädeke and Karl Schmid, which advance our knowledge of the Stemma of Cunigunde.

Schmid's study of the Stemma was especially interesting. He instantly recognized that its subject and focus is Cunigunde (at the bottom left), not Charlemagne or any of the figures high up the diagram.

He proposed that the Munich manuscript is a copy, perhaps made decades later, of a document probably drawn up in Metz, where Cunigunde's villainous brother Dietrich II was bishop and no doubt had clerks and a library capable of drawing such a work. Schmid does not opt for a date, though tendentially he suggests this would have been after Cunigunde's coronation as empress in Rome in 1013.

The purpose of his article is to argue that the stemma's core content must go back to a 991 visualization that would have been drawn up by "Carolingian legitimists" in support of Karl, a child, as pretender to the kingship of West Francia in opposition to Hugh Capet (elected 987). Hugh won out and is now regarded as the first king of France, the legitimists lost, and little Karl (the last Carolus in the diagram) simply falls off the face of history. Whether he was killed or lived out a full life as a pitiable might-have-been is unknown. Instead he gains his place in history as the original inspiration for a very remarkable diagram.

The eye-catching festoons at the left and right of the drawing above would have been created to make room to add Cunigunde and the Ottonians to the anti-Capet diagram.

Schmid (Wikipedia entry) bases this ingenious lost-diagram hypothesis on an analysis of errors and non-sequiturs in the graphic arrangement that survives. His article is a most impressive feat of graphic reconstruction, and I think his point of view is convincing. As far as I know, this was the last scholarly thing he wrote. It was published following his 1993 death in a volume that contains his obituary.

From Forum Eeerste Wereldoorlog.nl
He even reaches back a little further, tentatively suggesting that the enemies of Hugh Capet may have found their model in a hypothetical document dating from the 978-984 war between Lothair of West Francia and the Ottonians. Schmid thinks that because the stemma often suppresses the title of "emperor" and because the final central roundel in the drawing above is empty, omitting the name of Louis le Fainéant which should obviously fill it, that ur-ur-diagram might have existed. He conjectures that this could have been a piece of proto-French political propaganda circulated during that conflict to ridicule the proto-Germans' pretensions to be upholding a (First) Reich. That is a sobering millennial thought in this year, when we often have in mind the sombre centenary of a war where elaborate French propaganda, like L'Impérial Semeur at right, so often mocked the Second Reich.

Gädeke, Nora. Zeugnisse bildlicher Darstellung der Nachkommenschaft Heinrichs I. Arbeiten zur Fruhmittelalterforschung 22. De Gruyter, 1992.
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. L’Ombre des Ancêtres. Paris: Fayard, 2000.
Schmid, Karl. “Ein verlorenes Stemma Regum Franciae. Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Entstehung und Funktion karolingischer (Bild-)Genealogien in salisch-staufischer Zeit.” Frühmittelalterliche Studien 28 (1994): 196–225. doi:10.1515/9783110242263.196.


Why Greek diagrams are rude

How come it took until Latin Late Antiquity for a great infographic like the Great Stemma to explode on the scene? How come that the earlier Hellenistic culture of the West never evolved a graphic technology like this, with its flows of data that drag the eye down and onwards, with its callouts that divert your attention in the fashion of hyperlinks, and with its blending of multiple data classes - in this case chronography and genealogy?

Last year, the Israeli historian of mathematics Reviel Netz, who is professor of classics at Stanford University, spoke at the British Academy in London and offered an interesting new synthesis of his ideas on diagrams. As far as I know Netz has not paid any attention to the Great Stemma, but his thoughts on the Hellenistic intellectual world have a strong bearing on what followed on from it.

Netz is not only famous as the author of The Archimedes Codex, but also as the scholar who introduced in 1999 the idea that the geometrical diagrams in the works of Euclid, Archimedes and others should not be understood as after-the-fact explanations of geometrical discoveries or as mere ornaments to the text, but as integral to the logical proof, as snapshots of the discoveries themselves.

The geometers thought spatially, or diagrammatically, then honed the explanations in words afterwards.

Ideas evolve, and Netz seems to have moved onwards to a view that, in a sense, restores some of the primacy of text in that polarity. That would be my somewhat exaggerated take on what he was saying last year during Leaping out of the Page, a lecture in London that you can see on YouTube.

The question he explored in his 2013 March 14 presentation at the British Academy was: why are those Greek mathematical diagrams so bare, so sketchy, one might almost say, so rude?

Netz seeks to explain the fact that there is no evidence of anyone debating a better way to draw such diagrams (at 51.10 by elapsed time in the video) and he comes up with the following answer.  Literary texts on papyrus in the classical period lack any word-breaks, paragraphs or illustrations. The readers had to inject all of that. The text they held in their hands was what Netz calls "schematic": rude cues for the educated reader to unlock and "perform" the text in his mind.

The diagrams conform with this: they are schematic too (52.18). Nothing more than that was expected of them. This seems to come out of ideas in Netz's book, Ludic Proof, in which he explored the startling similarities between Hellenistic poetry and mathematical texts from the same era.

So what could this reveal to us about Late Antique diagrams?

Firstly, it highlights the way in which Greek mathematical figures are so very different from Late Antique flow diagrams like the Great Stemma, the arbor porphyriana and the 37 stemmata of Cassiodorus. We may use the English term "diagram" for both types, but they do not belong to the same genera of things at all. The Late Antique graphics are startlingly new and creative, with no identifiable roots in mathematical techniques or any existing literary practices.

The idea of devoting an entire papyrus roll to a graphic without any accompanying text must have seemed strange and new-fangled to people when they first saw it.

Secondly, these observations reinforce our understanding that flow diagrams are part of the haptic world of things that we manipulate. Netz argues (24.57) that geometrical figures are cerebral and differ utterly from touchy-feely arithmetic: "When Greeks do counting, what they do is to operate on an abacus. They have counters that are being moved around on an abacus... You have a flat surface, and on this flat surface you are moving stuff."

Something parallel would have happened when the designer of a flow diagram was laying it out. He had to use counters or ostraca to plan it. Later on, the reader of the flow diagram will inevitably handle it too, putting fingertips on its "icons" and tracing its flows. The flow diagram is something everybody has an urge to manipulate, a Late Antique precursor to the iPad: it's a physical thing, designed to be not only looked at, but touched, and aimed at the "manual" user, even the semi-literate, not the cerebral reader showing off his paideia.

Netz stresses how, in Euclid or Archimedes, text and geometrical figures marry together. Papyri are one of the main media of Antiquity and a "happy" literary papyrus, as Netz calls it, always contains the same thing: column after column of text to be read left to right. The figures are subsumed into these slabs of text (which is why I say, not entirely seriously, that Netz now sees the text having primacy).

So my third reflection is on the thorough-going difference between the unidirectional content of a papryus book and the jump-in-anywhere nature of the first great infographic. The Great Stemma does not have any accompanying text: all its words are build directly into the drawing. It has no mandatory start or finish: you can read it from the right, or the left, or even upside-down.

From the point of view of traditional literary culture, the Great Stemma would have seemed to break every rule in the canon.

Leaping out of the Page: The Use of Diagram in Greek Mathematics. London: British Academy, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hzzdLsTb5E&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
Netz, Reviel. Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic. 1st ed. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
The Shaping of Deduction in Greek Mathematics: A Study in Cognitive History. Ideas in Context 51. Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Netz, Reviel, and William Noel. The Archimedes Codex. Revealing the Secrets of the World’s Greatest Palimpsest. London. Orion, 2007.


Floreffe Bible now Online

The only way that we know that a graphic artist – or studio – in the fifth century CE drew a magnificent chart of biblical history and genealogy is from the later copying of that work onto parchment manuscripts during the medieval period. Fortunately, 24 such copies are still in existence.

Since I began studying the Great Stemma in 2009, there have been constant advances by museums, archives and libraries in bringing digital versions of this chart online. The British Library has now added the Bible of Floreffe Abbey to its collection of over 1,000 online manuscript digitizations. This must have happened rather quietly, as I have not seen it mentioned in the BL blog yet.

For the study of the Great Stemma, this is a rather important development. Until now, just seven of the manuscripts had been issued online, but nowhere on the internet could one study a peculiar evolution of the Great Stemma into what I call the "School Stemma," a revision of the graphic to bring it in line with orthodox, 12th-century doctrine about the ancestry of Christ.

The Floreffe Bible contains a beautifully coloured version of the School Stemma, with exquisite script that faithfully reproduces all the defects and nonsenses of whatever text it was modelled on. Check it out and page through its glories.

We do not yet know where the revision took place. I call it the School Stemma because I guess that it was "cleaned up" so it could be safely taught to impressionable young monks. Charts containing this version also come from Parc (now Belgium), Foigny in France and Burgos in Spain. The chart may also have been copied at Arnstein, Germany as well.

As a result, I have revised my table of Great Stemma manuscripts, doing a good deal of re-arranging to make the layout more user friendly. It will be clear after consulting the table that not only are eight of the 24 manuscripts now available online and readable in their entirety, but that these neatly cover six of the seven recensions (alpha, beta, delta, gamma, epsilon and School). Additionally, the sigma recension is online at the BNF, though the resolution there is too low for a visitor to read the script.

As a result, the Great Stemma can now be seen on the internet in its complete range of forms. By the greatest of good luck, the four manuscripts which offer the best evidence about the fifth-century ur-form (Plutei, Roda, San Millàn and one of the School group) are now all accessible. One could hardly wish for more.

My table tabulates all these online witnesses. The amber-gold squares in the table mark all the high-resolution images where you can click through to each archive's website. The paler yellow squares mark low-resolution images and snippets.

Happy clicking.


Digital Reviews

Getting manuscript documents (and early printings) online in a form that is electronically readable is only half the battle: keeping it accessible and raising standards to the point that multiple projects could be united into a permanent digital library are the follow-ups we tend to forget.

Germany's Institut für Dokumentologie und Editorik is now publishing RIDE, a review of digital editions (issue one is out and issue two is coming up).

The checklist that reviewers use to assess accessibility and inter-operability is an interesting one. There's a chart of technical issues noted so far and here are some of their criteria:
  • Which licenses are used to determine the copyright of the material published by the projects?
  • Do projects adhere to a standard data model like TEI?
  • Is the raw data accessible, either for the individual parts of the edition or as a whole?
  • Which interfaces do the projects support to allow reuse of their data?
The questionnaire picks out other more general issues like:
  • Is search with wildcards available?
  • Are the methods employed in the project explicitly documented? 
All points that I'll have to figure out. I document my methods, but this documentation is scattered, with part of it appearing here in the blog. It should all be combined in one place.

Like most digital publishers, I am keen to put material in the public domain, but am cautious about the form of declaration. I'm sceptical about TEI. I do want to put the raw data out there, but we are all aware that the rate of uptake is going to be minute: at the most, three or four researchers per century are likely to want to use my MS Excel tables. The interfaces question refers to things like an API or Representational State Transfer principles, which are only vaguely in the mind of independent researchers running single-person projects.


Line-by-line Poetry

A  nice piece in The New York Times this week points to the increasing traction that electronic formatting for poetry is gaining at small presses.

The report, Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly by Alexandra Alter, explains the macro-typography problem with poetry: lines, not paragraphs, are the fundamental unit. If electronic publishers of poetry attend to the formatting of every line, they can create beautiful presentations.

But in early e-books (and needless to say, in most web presentations of poetry), publishers rushed out poems without appropriate formatting and the results were awful. The Text Encoding Initiative and other projects developed enormously complex standards for historic poetry, but these were not appropriate for contemporary poets, because the rules were so ridiculously complicated to apply.

I worked through these issues 12 years ago in developing the poetry page of my Macro-Typography site. [Note: this shows broken at the moment in Firefox, but loads fine in IE.] Sadly, my efforts to devise a few simply standard units were too far ahead of the curve. At that time, poets did not understand the internet, and web designers did not understand poets.

I argued during the the introduction of HTML 5 that poetry should be taken into account. It wasn't.

Perhaps I was too impatient. It took centuries to establish the conventions used by typesetters in setting up poetry for printed books. It was bound to take a few years for web typographers to be understood.

The solution I propounded in 2002 is now gradually establishing itself. Poetry must be formatted in units of lines so that any spillovers when the screen is too narrow always appear indented, not flush left. The range of formats for lines must include various initial indentations, along with special cases such as the caesura and the flush-right line. Stanzas must be appropriately spaced from one another.

Alexandra Alter describes how eBook Architects, a company in Austin, Texas, is now developing virtuous web-display routines as it formats poetry professionally:
[T]he text was hand-coded and marked up semantically, so that the formal elements were tagged as lines, stanzas or deliberate indentations. When a line runs over because the screen is too small or the font is too big, it is indented on the line below — a convention that’s been observed in print for centuries.
Bravo. It's good that poets are gradually realizing that poetry can look beautiful on an electronic screen, and that Aldine blackletter on creamy white paper is not the sole way to publish. It's a pity it is still so hard to set up electronic publication that specialist companies have to be engaged to provide bespoke solutions. It ought to be part of standard HTML.