Works in Progress Michaelmas Term 2009: Current Digital Research in the Early Modern Period

January 11, 2010

One might think that the city of dreaming spires would lag behind in the cutting-edge field of digital research in the humanities. A very different picture emerged from the CEMS work in progress session on early modern e-research on 24 November. Professor David Robey, Arts and Humanities Consultant at the Oxford e-Research Centre, described the databases he is soon to put online which will list more than 100 projects and c. 240 researchers in this field in Oxford – significantly more than at the King’s College London Centre for Humanities Computing, normally regarded as the leader in the field. Oxford hosts far the largest number of AHRC projects with a digital component of any UK university. As so often with Oxford, however, research is scattered across so many different areas that it can be very hard to build a coherent picture – hence the pressing need for the database. (You can join the mailing list by sending a blank email to

We heard about four exciting projects. Professor Robey has himself devised a database on Sound and Metre in Italian Narrative Verse,
In an area where we are used to the presentation of images, Professor Robey’s site unusually explores aural effects, allowing users to investigate sound patterns including rhyme, alliteration and metre across a wide body of Italian poetry.

Dr Margaret Bent and Dr Julia Craig-McFeely presented DIAMM, the Digital Archive of Medieval Music, This project is a world leader in digital photography at the very highest level, and its techniques have been used in the Dead Sea Scrolls pilot digitization project. The demonstration revealed the astonishing effects that can be achieved by photographing at very high resolution and applying digital restoration techniques to the images: a few indistinct smudges can be metamorphosed into a complete page of music. The online image resource has gained a wide range of users not only university/research musicologists, but also from other disciplines, and non-academic users such as performing ensembles and schools; the availability of the images has stimulated demand for printed editions. It is good to learn that the expertise this project has built up will be available for those planning new projects.

Dr Ian Archer, Dr Felicity Heal and Dr Paulina Kewes presented the Holinshed Project, This has now gone online with the complete texts of the 1577 and 1587 editions of this massive Tudor compendium of British history, with links to the page images on EEBO (Early English Books Online), as well as extensive contextual materials. The technical difficulties in permitting comparative searches in an old-spelling text had been considerable but have now been overcome, and the variations between the editions can be fascinating. One example is the revision of the sanguine view of English architecture in 1577, when the houses of the nobility were praised as:

so magnificent and stately as the basest house of a Barren doth often match with some honours of princes in olde tyme, so that if euer curious buylding dyd florish in Englande, it is in these our dayes, wherein our worckemen excell, and are in maner comparable in skill with olde Vitruuius, and Serlo.

to the disillusioned complaint in 1587 about the difficulty of finding a good English builder:

Neuerthelesse, their estimation more than their gréedie and seruile couetousnesse, ioined with a lingering humour causeth them often to be reiected, & strangers preferred to greater bargaines, who are more reasonable in their takings, and lesse wasters of time by a great deale than our owne.
This database is already receiving heavy use by Shakespeare scholars, investigating the main source for many of his plays, but it will also be immensely valuable for anyone investigating the nuances of Tudor historiography, and challenged by the bulk of the printed editions. The forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Holinshed’s Chronicles will present the first fruit of research made possible by the comparator.

Dr Giles Bergel presented his plans for a digital archive of the broadside ballad ‘The Wandering Jew’s Chronicle’, which presents a fascinating case-study in the way such texts may completely cut across conventional periodizations in literary and political history, and distinctions between oral, scribal and print cultures. He showed how often such items were often inaccurately catalogued, leaving an urgent need to offer this often-slighted ‘popular’ material a higher profile. For more, see The Conveyor for February 16 2009,


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