Category: History

3D Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral

Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral

Bill Endres of Kentucky University has released Manuscripts of Lichfield Cathedral, a beautiful beta version of 3D images of St Chad Gospels and Wycliffe New Testament, with great functionalities. Just hold down the alt key, left-click the mouse and drag it so that the cursor location becomes the point around which the page rotates [haven’t tried touch screen yet]. It’s like you’re there!

Paleographers can  annotate images and generate unique URLs, instructors can interactively share medieval material culture with students, and historians and DHers can nerd out! The possibilities are endless.

Playing History

I have a confession. I’m a renrat. I’ve enjoyed Renaissance faires since I was a kid and from at least the age of 14, I’ve made my own costumes, collected various historically accurate pieces (or “faire approved” garb), and learned sixteenth century colloquialisms and Shakespearean insults, so that I can play along with the actors, which I have done successfully enough to be confused for being one.

In reading Jeremiah McCall’s and Adam Chapman’s articles on historical video games, I found myself going through the same intellectual transformation I experienced as a Renaissance faire playtron: my mental model of experiencing bits of real history overshadowed superficial checks for accuracy. When I first began filling my massive trunk of bodices, skirts, and chemises, I payed close attention to historical accuracy in terms of fabrics and colours, and I would shake my fist at peasants wearing royal purple, demanding punitive measures for their disregard of sumptuary laws (even though I really can’t say my costumes are 100 percent accurate, whatsoever). Over the years, as movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean”  came out, the sixteenth century started to resemble the eighteenth, and men wearing excessive eyeliner stole Sir Francis Drake’s spotlight while the local faire moved from a shire- to a port-themed set-up. I could go on about the uncomfortable corporatization of Renaissance faires and the implications, but I’ll spare you. As annoyed as I was about the many historical inaccuracies that abounded (exploded, really), a couple of years ago, I realized there wasn’t much I could do except continue enjoying what early modern life still existed, which expanded the more I studied early modern European and Atlantic World history. Discursive engagement has never ceased because I’m playing history, not writing or reading it.

Like historical video games, Renaissance faires and the actors and playtrons involved undergo the same scrutiny and criticism. What’s more is, I approach faires like I do adventures in video games (except that I always hope that it becomes the Millennial Fair in Chrono Trigger so I can tryout the teleporter; and in I also tend to do side missions more than the primary…). However, as Adam Chapman saliently states,

“Simply focusing on the accuracy of the game [or a Renaissance faire] often re-informs us about popular history rather than recognizing the opportunities for engaging with discourse about the past (and the nature of this discourse) that this new historical form can offer.”

Discursive engagement with history occurs at less obvious levels in video games and Renaissance faires, and both are mediums by which history can be consumed as well as experienced. However, while neither is fully representational of the past, at the very least they are mimetic cultural products in which players enjoy “typical historical environments, characters, scenarios, and experiences,” from Maypole dances and the celebration of spring, to danse macabre; from staving off the plague with foxtails and horns, to chasing fairies with bells and trinkets; from yelling “God Save the Queen” during her processions, to drinking an ale in a pewter mug while listening to songs of performers with friends.

While Renaissance faires may provide a means to experience history, it is not clear how they may serve as “problem spaces” in the same way as video games. This is not to say faires are not problem spaces; they are, but in different ways because there really are not any goals and conflicts, unless this includes fulfilling a multitude of mini missions to complete your experience (these might include: attending the market, seeing a few shows, bowing for all the courtiers, sneering and yelling back at Puritans, losing children in the maze, playing games, concluding with singing songs with friends while sitting on grass in the shade with friends and sampling things brought back from the New World thanks to a generously bearded courtier).  In this case, the idea that “the choice of problem space, or more specifically the choice of whose problem spaces to represent necessarily locks the game [faire] into certain portrayals of the past,” particularly in Elizabethan England (with packs of Jack Sparrows running amok).  As often as the facts are not straight, like video games but not to the same degree, Renaissance faire characters generally have historically legitimate roles and goals, at least the major figures.

History and DH as Interdisciplinary

During last week’s session of our digital humanities (DH) course, we discussed the definition of DH, which has been a long and drawn-out debate among DHers for decades. From that class conversation, others dissected the meaning of both humanities and digital, and I found myself at odds with a few assertions:

“The humanities are opinions, not science.”
“The humanities are not social science.”

These are not verbatim quotes, but rather the gist of what I remember being said.

True, the humanities are not “science,” nor are they necessarily social science, but are they not at times scientific? Do we not use the scientific method to develop our hypotheses, to help shape our methodologies? In doing history, our current knowledge and our worldviews will inform how we think about history, but the historian is supposed be objective, not delineating personal opinions. However, history can be subjective, which the objective historian understands. We must shed all of our preconceptions and immerse ourselves into the distant lands of the past to fully engage in what things meant then. History is about perspective, indeed, but what’s most important are the perspectives of the people of the time being studied. Just objectivity is necessary for historians, and perhaps all humanities, so is objectivity for the scientific method. Perhaps they are intertwined.

This leads me to the next point. Why is it so important to differentiate humanities from the social sciences, which also use scientific methods? Humanities don’t rely on just close readings of texts, but they quantify and qualify data. Computational techniques and analysis, for instance, have significant effects on all disciplines, not just the sciences, whether social, hard, or “pure” sciences. In other words, humanities use the same tools as the social sciences, which enriches our studies, research, and findings. Again, I use history as an example: it is interdisciplinary, and it should be that way to assist in informing us about the past and understanding the human condition. It’s more than telling a story, it’s a matter of placing meaning and using a variety of disciplines as tools for creating categories of analysis. For instance, in studying “last dying speeches,” which are accounts of criminals last words before being executed in early modern England, psychology comes into play to inform our understanding of the power of apologies, as the public spectacle and expectation and then delivery of an apology from a transgressor helped to heal the body social. Surveying the demographics of criminals detailed in the Ordinaries’ Accounts, perhaps come from sociology. Ultimately, I would argue that interdisciplinarity deepens and supplements such a study, because, after all, history is not just retelling stories with facts and dates. It’s about crafting understanding and enhancing our knowledge, enlightening us about the past as well as ourselves, which is aided by a toolbox filled of infinite measures that extend beyond the humanities.

DH is interdisciplinary as well, and it seems that it’s not so much what you study, but rather what you do with it. Any medievalist (or early modernist as seen here) can have a blog or a website. But what does that website do? What’s its purpose? For our DH class we read and discussed the notion that DH is about “building,” using Stephen Ramsay’s point that “If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” This seems quite true, but I think it goes beyond building and comes down to the idea of sharing. Mark Sample elucidates this rather well in his blog. As the digital landscape redefines how we produce, disseminate, and consume scholarship, and the boundaries by which we share knowledge are, for lack of a better term, boundless. This allows for us to engage in scholarly conversations, and perhaps these conversations are what scholarship is about: sharing ideas, re-evaluating our current knowledge through new evidence that is brought forth by other scholars. Digital Humanities, then, broadens the arena for discussion.