The Electronic Beowulf & the Digital Chaucer

Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him, son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands…” Prologue, Beowulf.

I have to confess that I have absolutely no recollection of having ever read Beowulf, though I suspect I must have done at some point during my undergraduate studies (although that was, in fairness, over a hundred years ago), but after discussion with my academic supervisor and following feedback from my first essay, we decided that my second essay should focus specifically on two important and well-known digital humanities projects: the Electronic Beowulf, and the Digital Chaucer

Those of you who have read this blog before will have noticed a preponderance of Chaucer flavoured material, and should know (or have guessed) that my PhD research is focused on the Digital Chaucer project. Beowulf, however, in any of its incarnations (manuscript, Seamus Heaney-edited or electronic) is pretty much unknown to me. I am therefore currently ensconced in the National Library of Wales reading Kevin Kiernan’s excellent Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, which details his research in attempting to determine a date for the epic poem and also an author.

Kiernan basically posits that, rather than the manuscript being a written version of an old oral poem, the poem was actually compiled in the main at the time of writing, by the second scribe who worked on the manuscript. The controversy of Kiernan’s research still resonates in Old English studies today, and is fascinating (although the book itself is highly technical, and unless you have a working knowledge of scribal handwriting – which I don’t, yet! – it can seem quite daunting).

It is, in the main, a very good read, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is reading Beowulf or has any interest in the history of a piece of literature.

And now, back to my reading.

An extract from “What Have the Digital Humanities Done For Us?” aka My First Essay.

“Computers now began to be used not just for the production of concordances but also for the analysis of text to determine authorship. In 1962 Alvar Ellegård used the computer for a disputed authorship study into the Junius Letters, a series of political letters written in the 1770s by an unknown author lambasting figures in the government of the time. Whilst the bulk of Ellegård’s work was done by hand count, a computer was used to supply calculations that assisted in creating an overall picture of the vocabulary [Hockey, 2004, p.5]

In 1964 the statisticians Mosteller and Wallace utilised computers for their work on the Federalist Papers, a series of essays written between 1787 and 1788 to persuade the citizens of New York State to ratify the Constitution. Whilst the writers (Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison) published these essays anonymously under the pseudonym ‘Publius’, there is agreement as to the authorship of almost all of the essays, save but for twelve [Fienberg, 1971] and it was with these twelve that Mosteller and Wallace concerned themselves. 

Their work was groundbreaking, not merely from the point of view of establishing authorship of the letters themselves, but also in the field of statistics and, of course, in the burgeoning field of digital humanities. [Hockey, 2004, p.5]

However, the work could be cumbersome and not without error and controversy, as Andrew Morton would probably testify. The New York Times reported in November 1963 that Morton had determined, through linguistic analysis of the Pauline epistles, that Paul the Apostle had only written four of the letters attributed to him. Morton had arrived at this conclusion thanks to the utilisation of a computer to study sentence length and Greek function words, using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as his base text to which the others would be compared. It is now generally believed Morton’s analysis was flawed primarily because of certain assumptions made as to the sentence structure and punctuation of the ancient Greek [Fraser, 1996; Hockey, 2004]. The response to Morton’s analysis can probably be best summed up by the letter he received from Chicago after the research was publicised: “It simply read, ‘Dear Sir, you are a dirty pig. Yours in Christ, Anon.’” [Fraser, 1996]

And now, a note from our sponsors…

I am extremely fortunate to be able to conduct my research here at Aberystwyth University with the benefit of funding from KESS. I’m not sure whether many of you will have heard of KESS (not to be confused with Kes, the Ken Loach film about the kid with the kestrel, starring Brian Glover) but KESS, or Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarships to give its full title, is a major European Convergence programme led by Bangor University on behalf of the HE sector in Wales. Benefitting from European Social Funds (ESF), KESS supports collaborative research projects (Research Masters and PhD) with external partners based in the Convergence area of Wales (being West Wales and the Valleys). 

I was applicable for this funding because I was (am!) a very proud resident of Blaenau Gwent, which is part of the convergence area, and as such I am now one of 400+ PhD and Masters students funded by the KESS scheme. Integrated within my PhD is a high-level skills training programme, leading to a Postgraduate Skills Development Award, and also Postgraduate training administered by Aberystwyth University, so ultimately after three years I hope not only to have achieved my doctorate but also to have acquired a range of skills that I can put to use within the convergence area. 

For further information, please click on the link here: it will take you to the KESS website.

Thanks for reading. 

Welsh Wills Online Expert Seminar – Digital Research & Development

Held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

I was recently invited to the Welsh Wills Online seminar at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The building is a beautifully imposing place, and the list of guest speakers equally so. The discussion on the table: the Library’s collection of probate records, those which passed through the ecclesiastical courts between 1521 and 1858, and those which were administered by district registries from 1858 to approximately 1940. 

Amongst the keynote speakers at the seminar (Hilary Peters of NLW and Dr Susan Davies of the Department of Information Studies, as well as Dr Elisabeth Salter and Professor Lorna Hughes) was Michael Pidd of the University of Sheffield, discussing the seminal digital humanities project, The Old Bailey Online.

Pidd discussed the high-profile project, originally funded by the Opportunities Fund, which has now been running for nearly 10 years and usually sees 3 to 4 million users per year. The site is impressive, utilising semantic tagging and NLP algorithms, but Pidd conceded that the site hadn’t had much uptake from academic communities (I wonder whether this is because of a belief amongst some academics that sites such as The Old Bailey Online are mainly for “family historians”, a differentiation between levels of research which Dr Davies suggested could be quite a damaging attitude).

The National Library holds around 190,000 wills and administrations, and these are currently available in facsimile form through the National Library’s website. They provide a full picture of the life and culture of Wales and despite the fact that researchers are currently unable to search the corpus for specific items, or people, approximately 7 million pages have been viewed since 2009.

The highlight of the day for me was Skype-ing Dr Donald Spaeth of Glasgow University and enjoying his mellifluous tones as he discussed digital representations of probate records and the potential in that, and afterwards the humorous Dr Tim Causer of the University College London detailing the collaborative nature of The Bentham Project and its use of crowd-sourcing. This interesting article in the New York Times detailed the project’s aims, and led to the project’s volunteer base numbers trebling overnight on its publication. 

The value of the Welsh Wills Online project is, to my mind (as a beginner to the field), absolutely huge, and if the Library were to incorporate some of the development techniques as used by Pidd and his team on the Old Bailey Online project, or indeed the crowd-sourcing techniques utilised by The Bentham Project, the Welsh Wills Online project could be a jewel of a resource, and could be utilised for any level of research.

It was genuinely thrilling, once again, to be in the company of Andrew Prescott, who is extraordinarily knowledgeable about the advancements in the field of digital humanities and live tweeted throughout the seminar. 

The event was eye-opening in many different ways, not least in how the different techniques utilised by these other projects could be applied to the development of the Hengwrt Chaucer project. The free tea and cake wasn’t a bad inducement to attend either, and hopefully I gave a good account of myself (despite not speaking at all throughout the event – give me time!) and will be invited back to some more DH events.