Project creates a digital space for visually-focused humanities scholarship

By Meghan Chua


Graduate student Olivia Ernst had studied this particular medieval charm, a medical remedy that involves herbs or phrases, before she saw it in its original form. The charm was meant to help women through childbirth and appeared to be very long.

However, when she saw the original manuscript, Ernst realized that parts of the charm began with a large capital letter – usually the sign of a new charm entirely. Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t one big charm at all. Maybe it was a collection of different remedies.

Insights like this into medieval manuscripts have long been hard to come by for most researchers. Scholars like Ernst who research early-medieval Anglo-Saxons, covering roughly the fifth through 11th centuries A.D., have two potential sources for their information: the visual original manuscript, or the text-based official transcript written by an editor at a later time. If they can’t afford to travel to England to see the original, and can’t find the manuscript online, the official transcript is all they have.

A digital humanities platform at UW–Madison is developing an online tool that addresses that availability. Digital Mappa is headed by Martin Foys in the English department along with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, and is funded in part by a UW2020 grant from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The platform allows users to build projects in a digital space, with the ability to link documents to one another, make comments, highlight interesting points, and collaborate with others.

A screen split into four windows shows two views, one zoomed in, of a scanned medieval manuscript. The other two windows show a transcript and comment related to the manuscript. A fifth pop up links to another comment.
Graduate student Olivia Ernst studied the “For Delayed Birth” charm by looking at the scanned manuscript and adding it to the Digital Mappa platform. Being able to access a visual copy of the manuscript allowed Ernst to make new observations about the way the charm is structured. Digital Mappa also allows users to make comments and add links.

Maxwell Gray, a research assistant in the English department working on the project, said that the platform can show not only the content of a manuscript but also its visual history. In one example, the lettering on a manuscript had been partially scraped off to make room for more writing – which never happened. In a high-quality photograph of the manuscript, scholars can see the ghost of the original writing.

“Being able to see that kind of visual history is very interesting,” Gray said, adding that in printed publishing, that quality can be hard to come by.

Having a visual version of the manuscript available helps scholars like Ernst see more deeply into the intent of the manuscripts they study. Editors of official transcripts often make judgments on unclear words or potential typos and record what they think the manuscript’s original scribe meant to write. As Ernst has worked adding digital versions of the manuscripts into Digital Mappa and pairing them with the official transcript, she has found a lot of interesting moments where the nuances of the original manuscript have been lost.

In one charm, a transcription editor made a note that one line was metrically unsound, and took it upon themselves to change that line to follow the rules of poetry. “For generations, people have been using that transcription and not realizing that there’s something else going on there,” Ernst said.

As Ernst continues to expand the Old English Poetry manuscripts available in Digital Mappa, making note of the discrepancies against the transcript, these rare forms of media become more accessible to everyone.

“Even though what we’re doing with DM is taking stuff that is already publicly available to researchers, by putting it all in one place and adding minimal annotations to help highlight some of the differences, some of the interesting parts, some controversial moments, we’re just making it that much easier for researchers who don’t have that training to start doing manuscript work,” Ernst said. “It feels like continuing to democratize the field and making it more accessible.”

Gray said that within the humanities, there has been a lot of recent attention to visual objects. Medieval literary studies has been at the forefront of that. But, Digital Mappa is not just a tool for medievalists, nor digital scholars. Gray said other fields from early-modern art to comic arts could also benefit from using it.

“What we’re providing is a really simple set of tools for anyone to take whatever kind of visual objects of study they’re working on, and present them in a way that is really accessible to viewers,” Gray said.

Digital Mappa ultimately seeks to expand the idea of what form academic work can take, appealing not only to faculty and researchers but also to undergraduate students and the public.

Already, Ernst said Digital Mappa is a great environment to capture a piece of a manuscript and share it with others, especially through social media (say, #medievaltwitter) or groups of scholars with similar interests.

With an upcoming release of Digital Mappa 2.0, slated for later this spring, the platform will be even easier to install and more user-friendly. “What we’re able to do there makes my job a lot easier and will allow me to do a lot of really new, cool, interesting things,” Ernst said.

Those who are interested in creating a project with Digital Mappa can reach out to the team, including Gray, to get started.

“We’re creating a whole new website that I think is going to be a lot more inviting and engaging to people who are finding us online, and we’re also going to be more prepared to work with teachers and students on campus who are – as we hope – interested in teaching with DM,” Gray said.

The Digital Mappa project is funded in part by a UW2020 grant, supporting innovative and groundbreaking research with the potential to transform a field of study. UW2020 grants are supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from other sources.