Constructing belief in the post-truth era.


What happens when you detach information from materiality? It’s a question I’ve been considering in my work for a few years, and one that digital humanists and archivists know to be important. Hilary Jenkinson believed the archivist ‘is perhaps the most selfless devotee of Truth the modern world produces’ [Jenkinson, 1947], because they are unobtrusive custodians of the real. But if we really have passed through a Baudrillardian mirror, and the image is now superior to the written word, what appears online takes on a new authority. What does that mean to how we construct belief?

My stepdaughter is 8 years old, and a huge Minecraft fan. She now only plays intermittently, and when she was visiting a month or two ago I asked her why she didn’t play on it quite so much anymore. She asked me had I heard of Herobrine. Herobrine is the product of a Creepypasta story: he appears in worlds constructed by Minecraft players, manipulating them and sometimes deleting them entirely. He takes on the persona of Steve, but has white eyes that glow in the darkness. He stalks players across the digital landscape.

There are myriad discussion threads on the subject of Herobrine. Minecraft players seem to delight in perpetuating his “ghost story”, particularly to new users of the game. My stepdaughter had obviously discussed him with other players and this had led her to question the point of playing if Herobrine was likely to delete the worlds she had laboriously creating. Also, I suspect, she was a little afraid that he would loom out of the Minecraft mist one day whilst she was playing, and scare her.

It struck me then that there was no means for my stepdaughter of truly checking the veracity of Herobrine’s existence. The discussion threads on which his existence is disputed are without reliable authorial attribution. Her pleasure and enjoyment of the game had been fundamentally affected by the myth.

Herobrine was probably influenced by the Slender Man phenomenon.

In 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods in their hometown of Waukesha in Wisconsin, and stabbed her 19 times. They did this as a sacrifice to Slender Man, a character who was created for an Internet competition on the website Something Awful.

The idea was to see who could use their Photoshop skills to create the best new mythological creature…In the first of two photos, an unnaturally tall and spectral being in a prim black suit is seen in the shadows behind a group of young teenagers, followed by the vague caption: “‘We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them…’ -1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

Knudsen’s second photo was stamped with a fake library seal…several children smile towards the camera, while those in the back gather around a tall figure in a suit, summoning them with long and eerie arms. This time, the caption reads: “One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man’…Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. – 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.”

Slender Man: From Horror Meme to Inspiration for Murder | Rolling Stone Magazine, 2016

The development of the Slender Man meme was taken up by users of YouTube and 4chan, and a participatory relationship developed around the story. By 2011, the Slender Man had acquired Creepypasta status. The myth was made so real that Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, were prepared to stab one of their peers to death as a sacrifice to him. Both girls are to be tried in Court as adults, because the judicial system deems them capable of recognising right from wrong.

But are they? Once the usual referentials are discarded, and a perfect double of the real exists in the digital domain, how do we distinguish truth from fiction? If we are left with the simulacrum, what happens if the simulacrum tells lies?

There is a growing call for the dissemination of misinformation to be policed more effectively, particularly on sites like Facebook. In light of the recent US election result, Mark Zuckerberg has gone on record to dismiss the idea that Donald Trump’s victory was as a result of fake news stories perpetuated on social media.

Facebook wants to publish news and profit from it, but it does not want to act as a traditional news organisation would by separating fiction from facts using human editorial judgment. By relying on algorithms Facebook privileges engagement, not quality. It acts as a publisher without accepting the burdens of doing so. Yet, as Aldous Huxley noted, “facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”.

The Guardian view on social media: facts need to be labelled as facts | The Guardian, Editorial, 2016

What happens when the only source of information available to the majority is online, and that information is untrue? The least worst scenario is it drives people away from something that they enjoy. In worst case scenarios it leads to murder; and perhaps persuades a nation to vote in someone who espouses alt-right sympathies.

According to The New York Times, we have entered the age of post-truth politics:

According to the cultural historian Mary Poovey, the tendency to represent society in terms of facts first arose in late medieval times with the birth of accounting…it presented a type of truth that could apparently stand alone, without requiring any interpretation or faith on the part of the person reading it…accounting was joined by statistics, economics, surveys and a range of other numerical methods. But even as these methods expanded, they tended to be the preserve of small, tight-knit institutions, academic societies and professional associations who could uphold standards.

The Age of Post-Truth Politics | The New York Times, 2016

The problem is our critical faculties are continuously challenged by the material with which we are presented. That isn’t exclusive to the digital domain, of course: lies can be presented in ink as well as code. But the challenge is that if something like Slender Man, or Herobrine, becomes a participatory event in which people engage; when they create and develop in order to entrench a lie and become part of its origin story, and subsequent consumers of that material have no recourse to other sources of information that might contradict these myths, then how we construct our truth is fundamentally flawed. In addition, the critical skills that are essential to determine truth and authenticity are increasingly lacking.

I started this post with an anecdote about my stepdaughter’s use of Minecraft to construct alternative worlds for herself. We do the same thing with truth: we build it, block by block, and fashion our own hierarchies of understanding. Sometimes, the resulting edifice is destroyed by a lie. In a post-truth era, we should be careful on what foundations we rest our understanding upon.


Pokémon GO and the cultural sector

If the mantra of the cultural sector is now: “Gotta catch them all!”, then Pokemon make particularly pertinent representatives. 

Gotta catch them all?

Many of you will remember the original Pokémon phenomenon: my cousins, who were small boys during the height of the craze, would frequently watch the show whilst visiting our grandmother. There were the usual anime tropes: “big eyes, small mouth”, the Americanised theme tune, and lots of cheering. With its catchphrase ポケモンGETだぜー!which translated to “Pokémon Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, Ash Ketchum (the lead character, known as Satoshi in Japan) and his array of friends, who changed regularly across the seasons, sought to capture and train some of the huge array of Pokémon – 729 named varieties – so that they could be made to fight one another in stadiums, in front of huge audiences.

I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the subjugation of an entire species for the entertainment of another, even if that species is fictional, but hey ho. In any case, “Pokémon is the second-most successful and lucrative video game-based media franchise in the world, behind only Nintendo’s Mario franchise“. To me, it certainly wasn’t as good as the cartoons from my childhood: She-Ra, Mysterious Cities of Gold, DuckTales. There seemed to be altogether too many close-ups and freeze frames: it was over-bright, and what the Hell was that yellow thing? Bear in mind, this is coming from a woman who was quite capable, in her youth, of suspending disbelief enough to watch Biker Mice From Mars. 

It was, and is, easy to dismiss the phenomenon as a means of making money (and it did, through its swap cards and Nintendo games, make billions of Yen) but aside from the fact it is fantastically entertaining and clearly a huge pop culture experience, it also has fascinating connotations with religion. In The Guardian article entitled If Pokémon Go feels like a religion, that’s because it kind of is, Hannah Gould, an anthropologist, wrote:

Shintoism, Japan’s oldest religion, teaches that the world is inhabited by thousands of kami, or gods. When made offerings of food and incense, kami bestow good luck in business, studies and health, but when disrespected, they can turn vindictive.

Pokemon are akin to these kami: they can be found all around us, capricious as any gods. And the adulation children still have for the Pokémon universe is often as powerful as those who believe in an afterlife. 

More fascinatingly, Gould cites Anne Allison, a scholar of contemporary Japan, and her work Millennial Monsters, when she comments that Pokémon:

demonstrate(s) a kind of ‘techno-animism’, which imbues digital technologies with a spirit or soul…This type of animism is embedded in commodity consumerism, where emotive ties between people and things are used to push products. But it is equally a means of fighting the dislocation of modern life by allowing consumers to create meaning, connection and intimacy in their daily routine.

I would suggest that Pokémon GO is an extension of this desire to reconnect with the “real”, as so much of it is dependent upon a participant’s activities in the physical domain. It muddies the waters between here and there, by using a phone’s GPS system to project an augmented reality onto the real world as seen through your camera lens. It is the sort of juxtaposition between the real world and the digital that captures, albeit fleetingly, our needs and desires. Perhaps, in this currently confusing world of BREXIT and 24-hour news, we need to have virtual reality in the form of a grinning, yellow, hyperactive Pikachu, transposed onto the world as we pass through it.

Capturing a Charmeleon: using GO in the cultural sector

Taking the old and making it new: the essence of the digital humanities.

One of the key elements of Pokémon GO are the significant stopping points within the app, designated by the designer Niantic and often being monuments, libraries or other sites of historic or cultural and local interest.

So how can the cultural sector ride this phenomenal wave of interest that’s currently being borne out? In the first instance, as a venue, you would need to determine whether you’re near a PokéStop or a Gym. If you’re on the map as a stop, then you are very likely to see an increase in visitors, whether they’re coming through the door or walking around the grounds. At such stops you can collect Pokéballs, or snacks for your creatures, or receive medical treatment. 

If you’re a PokéGym, then your venue will be a place for users to fight and train their Pokémon. You can also take over these venues, if your Pokémon are strong enough. I’m not quite yet (you have to be a Level 5 trainer), but you can essentially capture the flag at these Gyms, and become the anointed trainer there. 

The National Archives in London is one such cultural organization designated as a Gym in the Pokéworld. 

One GO user, Alex Finnis, has written an article on areas he’s tracked them through London. St Pancras Station is a PokéGym, for example, and Hyde Park is a rich hunting ground for the creatures.

You can also lure Pokémon to your location: once you have set a Lure, then Pokémon will be drawn to it and thus, those who seek them will soon follow. Some businesses in the United States have enticed players into their businesses by offering discounts on products for those who set lures; the more Pokémon, the more people trying to catch them, and visiting your business or cultural organisation.

Niantic are yet to accept submissions for businesses to become portals, as each stop or gym needs to be a public space and to be permanent, but monetising this must surely be the next step.

Hell no, Pokémon GO!

You may, of course, feel that engaging in augmented reality dumbs down the cultural sector: entertainment disguised for our consumption as education, but nothing more than crumbs allocated to us by the superior classes. With our faces glued to a smartphone screen, we rarely look up; and now, when we do, a corporation controls what we look at.

There are certainly arguments against its use. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Arlington National Cemetery, both designated PokéStop, have asked that users avoid playing the game at the sites, as doing so was inappropriate to the sanctity of those places. And the Academic Medical Centre (AMC) in Amsterdam has asked that hunters avoid the hospital, after players were found wandering around restricted areas.

Are those the sorts of visitors we want to our libraries, our exhibitions, our rare collections? The answer is, most assuredly. Tech-savvy participants in the cultural experience are what push us forward. 

But engagement is, of course, more than simply packing numbers through the door, but also encouraging them to really immerse themselves with our collections. But how best to incorporate it into an exhibition? How can it be used appropriately, and effectively? 

I’m not necessarily suggesting that we plonk a Jigglypuff in the British Library, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong in using GO as a means of making  gamers familiar with cultural institutions that they would never have dared enter previously. And augmented reality has been used to great effect by organisations such as the Museum of London in the past with their StreetMuseum app. 

One of the interesting things about the Pokemon GO phenomenon is that, whilst using AR can often feel like an isolating, individual experience (one is usually bound to a particular area in a museum, or wearing Google Glass), there are a significant number of users reporting on the way in which hunting for the virtual creatures has actually brought people together in the real world. 

Tonight I caught a Bulbasaur. It was clinging to my lounge curtains, so I threw a ball at it and captured it. It was a singularly edifying experience, as experiencing culture should be. I am hooked. 

Monetising knowledge in New Academia


I’ve always wanted to be an academic pirate. When I say I’d always wanted to be a research  pirate, I hadn’t actually realised that that was what I’d always wanted until I read a similar phrase in an article on the website I Fucking Love Science, entitled: “Research Pirate illegally makes millions of scientific papers available for free”.

Can anyone actually own knowledge? That’s the question at the heart of a legal battle between some of the world’s largest academic publishers and a Russian neuroscientist named Alexandra Elbakyan, who operates a website allowing users to access millions of research papers for free. According to Elbakyan, the publishers owning these papers are restricting the spread of knowledge by charging people to read them, although a lawsuit filed by Elsevier may result in her being ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. [IFLScience]

What an amazing thing to be! I’d always assumed I wanted to buy expensive stationery and write flowery literature that would never actually be read by anyone, but would nonetheless make me obscene amounts of money. Here, now, was an alternative in which I could thoroughly utilise the many Breton striped tops I own.

The matter of journal articles protected by paywalls is one under increasing scrutiny in the light of large-scale digitisation strategies, and the fact that academic writing is no longer necessarily published routinely in hard-copy form. I genuinely do understand why people believe paywalls are necessary in relation to academic writing: as Elsevier claims, the income received by charging for access to journal articles funds future research projects – an increasingly vital factor in the light of severe budgetary restrictions in HE. And presumably the articles that are requested the most and have the most amount of money spent on acquring them, are deemed the most important – which in itself, lends itself to the issue of measurability so important in light of changes to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – measurability of reach, and impact.

And of course it could be argued that the paywalled journal article is a way of ensuring the validity of a piece of research: only the best and brightest are published and made available.

I understand the reasons for paywalls, but I don’t agree with them. To my mind, they are a means of excluding people from knowledge acquisition. Who, outside of an academic institution, can afford such cost? Indeed, prices have risen so significantly over the last few years that even those aforementioned academic institutions are downscaling the amount of journals they subscribe to, as having too many is simply too costly. The expense of obtaining access to a journal article is often more perplexing because the authors and peer reviewers of such work aren’t paid anything for their roles.

The Research Pirate Alexandra Elbakyan could potentially be charged $150,000 per paper for each article she uploads to the Sci-Hub website  (dubbed “The Research Pirates of the Dark Web” by The Atlantic – my God! How thoroughly exciting!), a site which is now (according to The Atlantic) only accessible through Tor. Such a ruling seems fairly ridiculous, hard to enforce and, frankly, somewhat anachronistic. The key, says Elbakyan, is conformity. Writing for a specific journal means an academic has to adhere to the standards of that publication, or the defined standards of the peer reviewers, and in such a way creativity is stifled.

“The system is broken…It devalues us, authors, editors, and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access.” [The Atlantic]

Is the answer open access? Harvard University seems to think so: it’s encouraging its academics to publish their work in this way, claiming publishers are creating a situation which is “fiscally unsustainable [and] academically restrictive”. And they should know, it costs them $3.5 million a year, and their Librarian Robert Darnton has said a concerted effort should be made to move towards open access publishing. He advocates the creation of a national digital library, easily accessible to the general public, espousing the beliefs of Jefferson and Franklin that the health of the Republic was based on the free flow of ideas.

I am an advocate of open access publishing. I am also most certainly an advocate of pirate publishing. Anything that liberates knowledge from monetary confines, or any restriction that inhibits its free movement, is fine by me. I feel that the new paradigm in higher education is to monetise research product as a way of establishing the “worth” of a research project. The REF asks us to define what our work is “for”. It must in the first instance have utility, and thereafter it must have “impact” and “reach”. I don’t think that is what education is for but alas, severe budgetary restrictions mean universities have to fight for every penny. And the more worth their research carries, the more money they’ll get.

I think I will raise the Jolly Roger and join the pirate researchers.

David Bowie is crossing the border.

Neon Creations, “David Bowie is crossing the border”, commissioned by The Hub Ltd for the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A.

All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings. | David Bowie, 1995

The singer, songwriter, painter and actor David Bowie, aka David Jones, died today aged 69. I woke to the ominous red “breaking news” banner on BBC Breakfast News, and was so shocked that I shouted out loud, something inarticulate: my partner assumed something terrible had happened to me, and it had.

I was introduced to Bowie’s music by an ex boyfriend who had exemplary taste (obviously, he was dating me *implied winky face here*). I’d always had a vague understanding that Bowie was someone quite important, but here, in the early 2000s, my love of him was born. I’ve been listening to BBC Radio 6 Music for most of the afternoon and have been close to tears on several occasions: The Man Who Sold The World, Starman, Ashes to Ashes. They are songs that still resonate: still remind me of the shy young girl I was at the age of 20, sitting in our little house with the cats and the CD player and the candles and the wood burning stove, waiting for my boyfriend to finish work, with the world howling in the darkness outside. I’m crying again listening to Guy Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, who is himself close to tears, talking about what Bowie meant to him. They’re playing an Elbow cover of The Bewley Brothers now.

David Bowie was the internet before the internet…a sort of clearing house for ideas. | BBC Radio 6 Music

I have recently been reading The Panizzi Lectures: Bibliography & the Sociology of Texts, by D F McKenzie. In that lecture, McKenzie talked about the poet Milton’s use of the word “violl” and the “idea of the book as a sacred but expressive form, one whose medium gives transparent access to the essential meaning…there is a tradition in which print-inclined authors assume this.” [McKenzie, p.24]. The phial, or the text in this interpretation, is “less than sacred text, the destabilised, the indeterminate, or the broken…” [p.27]

It seems to me that Bowie was an artist for whom culture was a feast for him to partake of. As the opening quote to this post shows, he saw that art was changed by each interpretation: that there could be no definitive, ultimate version of anything, and that perhaps, therefore, each new incarnation was just as important as that which came before it. Bowie’s work was rare amongst popular artists, in that you can create your own interpretations of his songs: often his lyrics were ambiguous, meaning that you could, perhaps, break the phial, desecrate the sacred, and make something new of it, a new reading that could be personal to the listener. It seems appropriate to use this analogy, too, because of course:

Milton’s spelling of the word, in addition, reminds us of the viola, and contains therefore “a typical Milton pun: it is as if, in reading a book, we should also be moved by the harmony of the work, what Shakespeare called ‘the concord of sweet sounds’. [McKenzie, p.24]

I don’t believe Bowie was overawed by the canonical: he seems to have held a reverence for it, but reinterpretation was more important to him than the preservation of the perceived sanctity of a piece of art. This is represented quite profoundly in the V&A exhibition David Bowie is, which is currently on a worldwide tour. In it, Bowie’s history seems to embody the essence of the digital humanities: music with its roots in jazz, punk, Euro-disco and electronic German art-rock; “mixed media, cinema, mime, Tibetan Buddhism, acting and love” [About David Bowie]: science fiction, Brechtian theatricality, Surrealism, William Burroughs; Andy Warhol, murder, technology, the outsider: he was also responsible for the first ever song distributed through the internet (1996’s Telling Lies). 

Bowie has come not just to represent his innovations but to symbolize modern rock as an idiom in which literacy, art, fashion, style, sexual exploration and social commentary can be rolled into one. | Rolling Stone Magazine.

In addition to all that, he painted the face of masculinity: twisting the “traditional” norms related to gender and sexuality, encompassing the “spaces in between” that Norbert Wiener so eloquently talks about when describing the essence of the digital humanities. That may seem like a tenuous analogy, but it is the reason I wrote this blog post: Bowie existed in those spaces, applied technology in new and fascinating ways, took what was traditional and created something new. He broke open the phial and released the sweet sounds within.

Who were Lou Reed, Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop? And what of Cherry Vanilla, Wayne/Jayne County, and Leee Black Childers? And why was it so important to read On The Road, see this film A Clockwork Orange, or hear Kraftwerk, Anthony Newley and Mott the Hoople? It turned out discovering David Bowie came with a reading list to immerse oneself in and retrace the steps he’d walked in, to perhaps decrypt this strange news from another star… | James Gent, Happy Birthday Starman: A Tribute to the genius of David Bowie.

My friend James Gent has written a far more fitting tribute to the Thin White Duke, albeit a week before Bowie’s death: it can be found here and shows Mr Gent at his eloquent and emotive best, describing Bowie as the person who “freed all us suburban outcasts” [@jamesgent76].

We must continue to turn and face the strange in his absence.



Monmouthpedia and the Fable of Borges’ Map.

The fable of Borges’ Map is probably familiar to a fair few people. It is the story of an empire where cartography becomes such an exact science that the map measures the country it portrays exactly in every detail.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. | Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

The story elaborates on a concept in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded: a fictional map that had “the scale of a mile to the mile”. One of Carroll’s characters notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well”.

The ambition displayed in the tale was for the whole world to be rendered accurately in map form. One can understand the desire to present the world in as great a detail as possible: isn’t that what all academics do, in their own small ways? Create their own maps of the territories they occupy, seeking to enlighten, to explain? I first encountered the fable in Jean Baudrillard‘s Simulacra & Simulation, and was very struck by his idea that we have become so reliant upon our maps of the world that we have lost touch with the reality behind them. Whilst I believe that this deep-seated fear is one which has ramifications for the Digital Humanities, in particular I saw how Borges’ Map might be applied to the case of Wikipedia, and in particular its work with the town of Monmouth.

Monmouthpedia is touted as “the world’s first Wikipedia town”. The aim of the project is:

“…to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant, animal and other things in Monmouth in as many languages as possible, but with a special focus on Welsh. This is a different scale of wiki-project. The project is jointly funded by Monmouthshire County Council and Wikimedia UK, Monmouthshire County Council intend to install free town wide Wi-Fi for the project.”

Basically, a vast number of objects within the town have a QR code placed upon them (or a QRpedia code, as they are termed here – not your traditional black and white codes but plaques appended to properties), which lead you to a Wikipedia page containing information about the thing you’re looking at. As Monmouth is particularly rich in archaeology, there are now over a thousand QRpedia codes in Monmouth leading the visitor to Wikipedia. The walls of the museum are dissolved completely here – the learning experience can be found on every street corner, and every tree, and to a certain extent, it could be claimed that this learning experience is liberated from the bounds of cultural hegemony, being available to all and directing the user to a democratically edited website, where the knowledge is supplied by the user, for the user. (Of course, the user is not completely liberated: one has to be in possession of a smartphone, and the Wikipedia articles and artefacts endorsed with QRpedia codes have to be chosen by someone.) But I confess, I love the idea of Monmouthpedia, and intend to visit soon in order to experience it fully for myself. And QRpedia codes are popping up in cities all over the world – Johannesburg, Bremen, to name but two. We are slowly, and inexorably, mapping the world around us, “the scale of a mile to a mile”, providing us with all the information we might require about a specific object.

And yet.

The heritage sector are keen to use QR codes. They’re inexpensive to produce and the user can be directed to wherever the organisation using the code chooses to send them. But anecdotal evidence during my time on placement at the National Library of Wales suggested their use was limited, and they are increasingly being supplanted by augmented reality, image-recognition applications or near-field communication (NFC).

And what are the theoretical implications of mapping the world around us? Are we in danger of recreating Borges’ map digitally – creating a map which encompasses every surface, point for point? And if that is the aim, to map everything, are we in danger of losing ourselves within the QR code: where nothing outside of it is acknowledged as real?

Once again, I must say that the idea of removing learning from the cultural hegemony is a marvellous thing to me, and that is why I adore the idea of Mounmouthpedia. But in the back of my mind lingers Borges’ fable, the tale of the map which became the world.

Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture | National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

For the last two days I have been in attendance at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, at a fantastic Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities workshop in medieval studies. I was fortunate enough to not only participate in the event as an attendee but also as a speaker on the first day. Entitled Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture, the intent was for the workshop to be discursive and interactive, and that was certainly the case.

The first paper of the day was presented jointly by Dr Elizabeth New of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth, and Dr Julie Mathias, of the Department of Information Studies. Their discussion, entitled Deeds, Seals & Archival Collections, set the tone for the day. Dr New opened the session discussing the Penrice & Margam Estate Records, which are held at the National Library. This reasonably complete archival collection from Margam Abbey, in Glamorgan, contains material from the 12th century through to the Reformation. The collection is rich, and extensive, and fortuitously survived the fate of many other monastic collections, which were lost, destroyed and scattered during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Margam collection went wholesale into the hands of Rice Mansel, through intermarriage to the Talbot family of Penrice, and thereafter on deposit to the National Library, who finally took full possession of the collection in lieu of death duties.

Dr Mathias then took over the talk, showing the audience the National Register of Archives website. She told us that if you’re interested in a particular family or a collection, it is not safe to assume the records are all kept together. The Margam family, as an example, had thirteen collections, with papers scattered with organisations around the country. It is therefore always worth checking the National Archives website.

We then moved on to the Penrice & Margam Charter 20, the manuscript of which was circulated around the group. The handwriting, a Carolingian Minuscule (an 8th to 12th century handwriting, named after the Emperor Charlemagne) is made up of carefully formed letter shapes, with plenty of space between the words, and is an ancestor to our modern handwriting. Dr Mathias identified specific letters within the manuscript in order to determine a date: for example, a capital W, which didn’t appear until after the 12th century. Carolingian Minuscule eventually evolved in Anglicana, a cursive business script which allowed for the faster production of manuscripts. Charter 20, said Dr Mathias, had no date attached, but there was a place date, which put the manuscript as having been created either in Cardigan or Cardiff. There was some discussion of this point amongst the group, and Dr Mathias told us that if one is ever in doubt as to a particular abbreviation it was always best to consult Trice-Martin’s book of abbreviations and place names, to make doubly sure.

Dr New then moved on to examining the seal appended to the manuscript. She noted that the seal was much larger than the actual document, and that without the seal, the document is invalid – there was a shift to the use of seals as a form of validation. Seals from the middle ages would have been made of beeswax or tree resin, and quite often coloured – the seal on this particular Charter was a dark brown, and the seal of William, Earl of Gloucester. The seal would not have been this colour at the time of its creation: the belief is that seals of this sort were varnished, possibly with a varnish that was quite rich in colour, and used to preserve the wax and make it look fancier. This painting over of the wax fell out of fashion in the mid-13th century: elements of the seal, therefore, also assist in dating a manuscript, and are an integral part of the identification process.

We then moved to another manuscript, Penrice & Margam Charter 198, where the writing becomes, as Dr Mathias put it, “a little more laterally compressed”, as we move into the Anglicana era. Dr New mentions the sealing clause included within the text of the manuscript, an identifying factor in manuscript studies that we don’t see until the early 13th century, and usually comes before the witness list within a document (although this is not always the case, so caution should be taken when searching for it). In the case of Charter 198 it is an unusual clause: it states “My seal is appended”, but there are two seals attached to the manuscript, one being the communal seal of the burgesses of Kenfig in South Glamorgan (now, apparently, buried by the sand dunes, but once a small and thriving town) and the other being the seal of Alice, widow of John Prevat. “My seal”, she states rather forlornly in the sealing clause, “is to many unknown.” Alice probably hadn’t needed to use a seal until after the death of her husband, and no doubt needed the seal of the burgesses of Kenfig as further validation of her own, new seal.

Dr Mathias took us through some of the aspects of Penrice & Margam Charter 443. A 15th century manuscript, written in Anglicana despite the rise during this period of the Secretary hand, there is a sealing clause contained within the text and two seals (those of Hugh Kene and Agnes, his wife), which are attached to one tag. There were obviously two separate seal matrices, with different designs – one is made up interlaced letters, H&K (presumably a monogram of his initials) and the other is endorsed with male and female heads, and a phrase relating to love and loyalty, but Agnes herself is not specifically referenced on the seals. Hugh Kene is clearly identified by his initials, but we only know that Agnes used it because she is mentioned in the sealing clause.

Penrice & Margam Charter 17 has a sealing clause which, quite shockingly, has writing on it in pencil, where someone during the 20th century has made a note of the Abbey the manuscript mentions in the text. Aside from this transgression, the manuscript is interesting because the sealing clause mentions the fact that a seal has been loaned for the purpose of validating the document. The seal, that of the Prior of St Michael of Ogmore, shows an ecclesiastical figure. A similar seal can be found at the National Museum Wales: the photograph below is an image of that seal, and not the one at the National Library, but I have included it to give you some idea as to the beauty of this fragile artefact.

ImageWhat’s also interesting about this manuscript is that the sealing clause appears to have been added at a later date to the manuscript: presumably a space for a name was left until such time as someone willing to lend their seal could be found. The witness list in this manuscript is particularly long, possibly because the person providing the gift to Margam, the seal-less Ketherech, son of John Du, needed more than one witness because without a seal, he lacked validity.

There were many other manuscripts and seals shown to the group: Penrice & Margam Charter 54, Caradog Uerbis to Margam, in which Uerbis makes it clear in the document that the document, and he himself, is “under the seal of my lord”; and Penrice & Margam Charter 72, Ifor Fychan and sons to Margam, which has only one seal which represents Fychan and his sons, the matrix being made to represent the whole group. There was also Penrice & Margam Charter 84, the Papal Bulla of Innocent III, and Penrice & Margam Charter 1978, endorsed with the seal of Geoffrey Sturmi of Stormy Down. The image on the seal is that of a man dressed as a hunter or forester. I have included an image of Geoffrey’s seal, taken from an artefact held at the National Museum Wales.


Dr New said that the academic Robert Patterson, working from photographs, thought that the monks of Margam forged the seal to get themselves more land, but Dr New believes that it is genuine. Patterson thought the contents of the manuscript and what is being gifted within it doesn’t seem right, but it is probably almost impossible for them to have forged the documents, and the seal was used several times thereafter with no question as to its validity. In this case, Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s opinion that “The monks of Margam are not to be trusted” seems false.

I have included here several other images of seals, in this case seal replicas which Dr New passed around the group, the images of which are reproduced here with her kind permission. One was the Great Seal of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror:






And this wonderful seal, which I think is a seal of Henry VIII but I may be very incorrect on this as I didn’t make a clear note, so if anyone out there has the knowledge and can attribute this correctly, please do!



We were astonishingly privileged to be able to get access to so many rare and beautiful manuscripts, and to have the expertise of Dr Mathias and Dr New on hand to take us through these objects. You’d be pretty hard pressed to get a better opening session at a conference: I’ve certainly yet to find it.

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

Professor Andrew Prescott at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth | 16th April 2014

At the conference “Syrffio’r silff: hynt a helynt llawysgrifau Chaucer/From glass case to cyber-space: Chaucerian manuscripts across time” held at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth on the 14-16th April 2014, the keynote speech on the final day was given by Professor Andrew Prescott, Head of Digital Humanities at King’s College, London. The talk, entitled, “Manuscript Digitisation: some retrospective thoughts”, was recorded on an iPhone 5s and covers the talk and the questions thereafter.

Please click on the link above to access the Soundcloud recording of Andrew Prescott’s keynote. His excellent blog Digital Riffs can also be accessed here: