2014-03-21

Vatican Library to be digitized ... again

These stories about the Vatican Library - the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana or BAV - digitizing its manuscript collection are starting to get repetitive.

Repetitive: because we have been here before, and most Rome correspondents never dig into what must be some rather messy background. Readers of this blog will recall a post four years ago about an impending digitization. At that time, a British company named Autonomy Systems was named as contractor. Is this the company which Hewlett Packard took over in 2011 and got into a fight with?

I don't know. I do know I still don't see the promised manuscript library. And I don't see any explanation by the BAV, though Cesare Pasini's rather silly encomium of that project is still online.

Chief prefect Pasini is still at it. He was referring grandiloquently in December to the "vast project" funded by Leonard Polonsky to digitize Greek and Hebrew items, but this too has moved at a snail's pace. The website under the auspices of Oxford University shows only a handful of Greek manuscripts  have actually been digitized so far.

At the Vatican, the digital library as of now is still a very meagre affair: if it were not for the Palatini latini files donated by the German University of Heidelberg, there would only be 24 codices available on the site. A sobering account in the National Catholic Reporter says the BAV is in fact 23 million dollars short of funding, adding that outside groups have helped the BAV digitize 6,800 codices, but it seems fewer than 5 per cent are on its website.

Yesterday, March 20, there seems to have been a news conference at the Vatican to announce a new contractor, NTT Data of Tokyo. The press release is short on specifics. Pasini says the Japanese company will "support the further improvement of the project". Not a word about the four lost years, or why the projects have stumbled.

Most of the news reports I am seeing miss all these subtleties. And trust a Daily Telegraph sub to make the shoddy reporting even worse: the headline "Vatican library plans to digitise 82,000 of its most valuable manuscripts" is plain misleading. The press release clearly says NTT Data will only be working on 3,000 items over the next four years.

Of one thing we can be sure. If the day ever comes when the Vatican has digitized all 82,000 of its codices, the Daily Telegraph will have long ceased to exist.

2014-03-20

British Library Mappaemundi

More digital mappaemundi are due soon, from the British Library website. I haven't posted about digital maps since 2010 but have been doing some work on map vectorizing in the background.

Here is a plot of the Dura-Europos map - a completely vectorized trace - which is an example of what could be done to make a whole range of first-millennium maps readable to modern human eyes (and machine-readable too):
The idea is to trace the actual lines on the map and digitize these with drawing software, as I have done for various diagrams, such as Lambert's stemma on Piggin.net.

As far as I can see, Virtual Mappaemundi (VM) will only digitize the script of the maps, but will not vectorize the lines. Maybe this is an opportunity to extend the process by crowd-sourcing?

The March 14 post on the BL blog by Cat Crossley about the digitizations of the nine mappaemundi doesn't tell us a whole lot about the technology, but Cat has just tweeted back:
I could only track down low-res pics before getting the blog out, rest assured all VM project images are hi-res + magnificent!

2014-03-09

A Short Chronographic Work

We are about three months away from seeing the first-ever critical edition of the Ordo Annorum Mundi, a minor chronographic work that has not won adequate scholarly attention in the past. This is very welcome news.

I have just registered this from looking at the website of Brepols, the Belgian publisher of the Corpus Christianorum series. Its Series Latina comprises critical editions of Latin texts from the first eight centuries of the Christian era and is one of the great contemporary monuments of scholarship.

The Ordo will appear in volume II of the works of Julian of Toledo and is being edited by the eminent Spanish scholar José Carlos Martín-Iglesias of the University of Salamanca, one of the foremost living experts on Julian. He has already established that the Ordo's author is not Julian, but has decided this volume is the best place to publish it (since no one can say who the author is).

The publisher's page states about this part of the project:
On a voulu attribuer a Julien de Tolède une petite chronologie qui fait le calcul des années du monde depuis la création jusqu'à la naissance du Christ dans sa première rédaction, du Ve siècle environ. Cet opuscule est bientôt arrivé en Espagne wisigothique et a connu des nouvelles rédactions du temps des rois Chintila (636-640) et Wamba (672-680). On peut reconstruire jusqu'à cinq versions différentes de cet oeuvre entre le Ve et le VIIIe siècle.
The Ordo may not be of any great intrinsic value, but its importance comes from its usefulness as a tracer of intellectual history and other literary works. It is intimately related to the Great Stemma and was consulted and extensively quoted by Beatus of Lièbana in his Apocalypse Commentary (which means that it is not unlikely that Beatus saw and adopted the Great Stemma itself for his own purposes).

This important volume is scheduled for publication this June. In anticipation of its publication, I have left my own text and page of notes on the Ordo Annorum Mundi largely unchanged, since it will soon be superseded by Professor Martín's expert analysis.

2014-03-06

Florence Online Again Soon?

Last year I described the wreck of the Laurenziana Digital Library in Italy. This was to libraries what the Costa Concordia sinking was to shipping, except that there was no craven captain involved.

There seem to be some faint stirrings of life in the wreck of one of the world's great medieval manuscript collections. There is no announcement on the portal of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana about any fix, but on Wednesday at breakfast time, I briefly managed to access a manuscript in the Biblioteca Digitale. They are no longer using the ill-conceived Java set-up, but serving pages with their own URLs, just as Archive.org does.

This must have been a test only by the engineers, because for the rest of the day and today I have obtained a 503 error only.

There is a touching honesty about the site: the site map asks us to report 404 errors if we see them:
Questo sito è continuamente aggiornato e verificato in modo da evitare link scorretti e fastidiosi Error 404.Vi saremo molto grati se vorrete segnalarci errori.
But a 503 is not a 404. Can we hope that the digital library will be online again soon? Is anyone able to obtain access? Or has anyone seen a blog post about this?

2014-02-24

Italian Digressions

One of the memorable phrases of Richard Burgess's recent article, 'The Date, Purpose, and Historical Context of the Original Greek and the Latin Translation of the So-Called Excerpta Latina Barbari', is the "Italian Digression". This is his term for an extensive and not-quite-explicable interpolation of material about the rulers of Italy, Alba Longa and Rome into a Latin chronograph, the Excerpta Latina Barbari.

Chronographs often resemble Wikipedia articles that were originally conceived as harmonious texts and then acquire additions which various officious readers decide it "would be good to have as well". The result is usually a lopsided mess. Wikipedia neatly allows its readers to compare versions and even undo the more foolish and self-indulgent digressions. Late Antique manuscripts do not come with such conveniences.

That makes it an intellectual challenge to unwind this process of accumulation. As Professor Burgess demonstrates with his analyses of chronographs, this can sometimes succeed.

Readers of this blog will recall that the Great Stemma is an early fifth-century chronographic diagram where the reader can see the whole course of biblical history at a glance, somewhat like the divine vision omnis etiam mundus ... ante oculos eius adductus est (the whole world placed before the eyes, in Gregory the Great's phrase for an overview of the whole human condition at a glance).

The Great Stemma seems to have developed in parallel with the Liber Genealogus of 427. Digressions quickly developed in both.

The first edition of the Liber Genealogus (datable because it mentions the Roman consuls of 427 as the very latest ones) was exclusively concerned with the biblical timespans.

The LG edition of 455 (which gives its date as the 16th year of the reign of Genseric as well as the year of death of Valentinian III) throws in for no apparent reason a long witty anecdote from 1 Esdras 3. What has this debate about the comparative merits of booze, power, sex and truth at the Emperor Darius's feast got to do with chronography?

Perhaps the answer lies in the Esdras story's conclusion: that truth endures and is strong forever? Or is the whole digression an erudite game, where each editor of the LG chases up a topic initiated by his predecessor? You tell me a story about the Jews and Darius, I'll tell you a literary Darius story back.

The digressions do not stop. The LG same edition of 455, represented by a single manuscript now preserved at Lucca, Italy, also digressively inserts a list of kings of Rome. This kind of list is generally termed an Ordo Romanorum Regum. What we don't fully understand is why Late Antique writers felt the urge to insert this seemingly irrelevant information into annalistic documents.

Some years ago I wrote an article on a similar "Italian digression" which seems to have been added to the Great Stemma. What have ancient Roman kings got to do with biblical history? Their dates don't help you to figure out the age of the world, or the antiquity of Judaism. Perhaps it is something merely ideological. Maybe 5th-century Christian writers felt a need to flaunt their knowledge of early Roman history as an expression of their patriotic allegiance to the Christian empire and their revulsion for the barbarian Germanic invaders who were disrupting the old order.

We don't really know the answer. But digressions may give us a feeling for the issues that preoccupied a generation of editors, just as alterations to Wikipedia articles often give you a picture of what kind of people are hiding behind the pseudonyms and what the Wikipedians' obsessions are.

2014-02-15

Lost Leet Records Rediscovered

Mostly I post here about medieval documents and what they reveal about the history of information design, but I will stretch the ambit today to tell you about the remarkable rediscovery last month of a set of early modern documents, the records of the court leets of the three manors of Elvaston, Thurlston and Ambaston in England for 1687-1697. Documentary preservation anywhere is something worth celebrating.

A court leet was an organ of local government, meeting twice yearly to re-appoint officials such as the parish constable and farmland regulators, enact temporary by-laws and punish those who did not repair the fences, clear drains or take part in the common work of a rural economy.

Their records only rarely survive but give us an extraordinary insight into real-life social relationships. What behaviour annoyed the villagers? Did they have the courage to punish rich, powerful people who flouted the rules?The minutes of these meetings, written in various handwriting that suggests the recorders had only limited education, give us some fascinating answers.

It was regarded as cheating to put your cows out to grass on the common before sunrise (your cattle would eat the best grass before your neighbours got up). People were annoyed if they had fixed their allocated sections of fences and gates, or cleaned silt from drains, but neighbours did not do their own share of the task. Letting your animals create trouble on common land was bad, and freeing your livestock after it had been impounded was even worse. The villagers did penalize the most powerful family, the Stanhopes, just as freely as they punished wrongdoers of humble status, so the idea of cowering, subservient, ignorant peasant farmers is not an accurate picture of English rural freeholding.

We know all this, because the papers record the decisions and the fines imposed at community meetings that were an impressively effective form of 17th-century democracy.

The 60 documents have a rather dramatic history of their own. J. Charles Cox, an Anglican clergyman and doctor of law, had the run of the old Derbyshire record room and its priceless collection of quarter-sessions archives in the 1880s while he compiled his two-volume book (full title: Three Centuries of Derbyshire Annals as illustrated by the Records of the Quarter Sessions of the County of Derby from Queen Elizabeth to Queen Victoria, London and Derby: Bemrose and Sons, 1890).

Cox states that the court-leet records were left among the papers of a criminal court, the quarter-sessions, by John Adderley, a contemporary official, although communal farmland administration had nothing to do with criminal justice. The quarter-sessions collection is now in the custody of the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock. In March 2008, a Record Office archivist, Mark Smith (I'll give you a link below to his blog), undertook a search for the leet records for me, and advised that they were lost.

This led to a very plausible fear, which I wrote about on my family history website, that the papers had been destroyed, lost or stolen during one of the record collection's various relocations:
We can only speculate on the reasons for this. Cox conserved and catalogued many ancient documents, but other people were not so careful. Until the 1950s or 1960s, the archives were not well cared for, and the legacy of the great antiquarians like Cox was neglected. It would seem today as if the Elvaston court-leet records have vanished.
Last month— six years later— Mark contacted me out of the blue with some welcome news: the series of manorial records had been rediscovered. They were in fact still where Cox had found them: among the quarter-sessions records, but it turned out they had been given what Mark called a "rather unhelpful" archival location reference. His colleague Neil Bettridge, who had been working on the Manorial Documents Register for Derbyshire— part of a national project— and had come across them. Mark writes:
Cox was quite right in saying the papers did not belong among the Quarter Sessions records. With that in mind, I have created a new collection number for it, D7687.
A reference to the records can now be found in the Record Office's online catalogue. Liz Hart of England's National Archives tells me that the revision of the Derbyshire section of the Manorial Documents Register is due for completion in late 2014 and will then be made available as an online MDR. I hope the Elvaston court-leets page there will link to my account of the papers on the Piggin.org website.

This lucky find is excellent news for anyone interested in European social history. The court leet records are unusually valuable for their insight into how people 300 years ago conducted collective farming, probably more effectively than in many a Soviet kolkhoz of the 20th century.

The rediscovery also brings a major addition to the documentary record for the charming English village of Elvaston (where there is currently a major dispute going on over the use of a stately home).

And amid the drumbeat of depressing news about archives burning or rotting, it is important news to hear that anything lost for so long has been found again. Mark Smith writes a blog: perhaps he will tell us more about such finds.

And since you are reading about this on a history-of-information-design blog, what do the papers tell us about that topic? Although Cox sneers at the "uncouthness of the handwriting" (John Adderley merely signed them in his capacity as steward and kept them), they seem to be drawn up by "uncouth" people with a solid sense of good layout.

Everything is set out on a neat grid. Wide indentation from the left is employed in consistent fashion (useful to guide the eye). The amounts of the fines imposed are set flush right and connected to the offences by leader dashes (both as guides to the eye and to prevent fraudulent alteration). From all of this, we see that even recorders of modest education in the late 17th century understood perfectly the need to employ modular design and "waste" some blank space to make a document easy to read.

2013-12-13

Rehabilitation for Forgotten Frick

When he was not at the blackboard, Carl Frick, a provincial German schoolteacher, studied the tangled world of Late Antique chronography. In 1892 he published Chronica Minora. This book was denoted volume one on the title page, indicating it was planned as the start of a series, but there was never any follow-up.

In a field where three celebrity scholars were at work, Frick (1848-?) was at a disadvantage, working without a place in the academic mill. He had the added misfortune to bring out the first volume in the same year as editions of chronica were also published by the legal historian Theodor Mommsen and by Paul de Lagarde.

Of Mommsen, the most eminent scholar in Germany in his own lifetime, and Lagarde, an unpleasant anti-Semite, we know a great deal. The story of another key scholar of chronography, Heinrich Gelzer, was recovered by Martin Wallraff in a book article in 2006. Frick however was largely forgotten.

Even the German national bibliography research unit with its vast documentary resources seems to have lost Chronica Minora and is apparently not aware of his date of death. One might note that here in Germany's second city, there appears to be only a single copy of Frick's main work in any Hamburg library today.

This week, Richard Burgess, the most eminent contemporary historian of Late Antique chronography, placed online an article which goes a considerable way to rehabilitating Frick and his achievements. The article seems to have been issued in print last month in the journal Traditio and is now also available via Burgess' repository on Academia.edu.
Professor Burgess's article acutely dissects a mysterious document, the Excerpta Latina Barbari, which forms codex Paris. Lat. 4884, now digitized at the BNF website (Catalog). He backs the BNF catalogers' view that it dates from about 780 CE, making it about a century later than supposed by some other authors, and that it was made at Corbie in France as a "perfect replica" (in Latin translation) of a "mass-produced" Greek codex which is now lost but was then in the possession of Bishop George of Amiens. His principal thrust is an argument, which is very much in the Frick tradition, in mitigation of the translator's so-called barbarian aptitude and a robust rejection of two recent alternative theses about the Excerpta from Benjamin Garstad and Pier Franco Beatrice.

Frick, who probably did not even see this Latin manuscript in Paris, tells us he borrowed in 1883 a sixteenth-century handwritten copy by Joseph Justus Scaliger from the Hamburg State Library. (This was in the day when the postman still brought thousand-year-old manuscripts to scholars' front doors.) Frick did not edit the text anew: he simply copied from a predecessor. But he had the creative idea of drafting up his own Greek version of the document. This was a central feature of Chronica Minora.

Burgess calls this (note 2) "still the most important study, which includes a surprisingly useful and insightful back-translation into Greek on facing pages" and praises (note 69) the "sensible comments of Frick in defense of the translator, whose Latin he says is no worse than that of Gregory of Tours (sixth century) or Virgilius Maro grammaticus (seventh century)." He also ridicules (note 10) Mommsen's claim to have personally examined the Paris manuscript, suggesting the polymath instead "had a student transcribe Schoene's text and add the entry numbers (for even they suffer from corruptions)." In conclusion he states:
Carl Frick's 1892 introduction and edition should have resulted in an intensified study of the Chron. Scal. But the earlier appearance that year of Theodor[e] Mommsen's own Chronica minora volume in the massive and authoritative Monumenta Germaniae Historica series, which has never gone out of print, meant that Frick's volume one was the last of the series, went out of print, and was on the whole forgotten ..." (page 43)
My own interest in chronography studies grew from the possibility that the evolution of chronicles might provide a key to date a fifth-century historical diagram, the Great Stemma, and a chronological text of perhaps the sixth century, the Ordo Annorum Mundi, which is transmitted with it. The Excerpta, or Chronographia Scaligeriana, as Burgess proposes it should be called, is not of direct assistance, since it is of a later date (Burgess proposes the final version in Greek cannot have dated any earlier than the 530s). However the chronographia comes from the same general culture as the Great Stemma and Liber Genealogus, where the uncanonical Protevangelium of James was regarded as a source of valid historical information.

In his volume, Frick has nothing to say about either the Great Stemma (imperfectly edited by me) or the Ordo Annorum Mundi (soon to be published by Brepols) and we cannot know what he planned to include in any later volumes, since his project collapsed. One is naturally curious about deserving figures who die in obscurity, so I find it touching that Burgess has now elevated Frick above Mommsen in his assessment.

It is Frick's modesty and dogged work which makes him an appealing figure (see my previous post). Whether any of Frick's papers survive at Höxter, where he ran a well-provided school library, I do not know. I once emailed the school but got no reply. At least one of his Latin textbooks remained in use for a century.

In Frick's further defence, I would also stress that his employment as a schoolmaster (see his Prussian education ministry file) should not be taken as a sign that he had a markedly lower academic standing than his professorial contemporaries. We judge this from a 21st century perspective at our peril. He worked in schools in a period when secondary education attracted many superb scholars. The more conservative sort of German schoolteacher today still joins a union known as the Philologenverband. In the nineteenth century, many of its members really were philologists.

Teachers of Latin and Greek in Frick's day were often first-class scholars or writers, as I can attest from the example of my cousin John Henry Fowler, an Oxford graduate and talented writer who earning his living as a rather dour Bristol boarding-school master. But the profession has come down in the world. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD warned only last week that the demotion and reduced professionalism of teachers is the central problem in the steady decline of many western education systems.