Writing in the Mud: Studying Majapahit ‘Piggy Banks’ as a Historian of Medieval Europe

By Ryan Mealiffe, MPhil Medieval History, Wolfson College, Oxford

Material Culture Shock

Enjoying a peruse through the Ashmolean Museum on a drizzly February day in Oxford, I stumbled upon two tiny pigs. Fuming with puffed-up cheeks, adorable in stature yet fierce in countenance, I locked gazes with one boar’s red terracotta eyes before reading its label: ‘Piggy bank… from the Majapahit kingdom, eastern Java, 1300-1500.’

At first, I was amazed; then, wildly curious. Who made the first piggy banks? What internal cultural logic might have been the creative impetus for Majapahit ‘piggy banks’? How much of this logic is shared by people around the globe who molded similar vessels in the image of pigs?

One of two piggy banks (celengan) on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Fig 1: Piggy bank, 15th century. East Java. Terracotta; height 8.3 cm, width 11.3 cm, depth 7.4 cm. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, EA1997.5

A Formidable Challenge

These terracotta pigs (known as cèlèngan in Javanese) have sent me down a research rabbit-hole that has required me to reflect on what it means to do global environmental history and the methodology necessary to graft together the history of non-human animals, cosmology, power, status, gender, and material culture from multiple contexts.

My specialization lies squarely in medieval Europe, not 13-16th century Southeast Asia. The cultural, lingual, and physical distance between medieval Europe and Majapahit Java presents a methodological issue, a knowledge rift, that is often daunting and off-putting for historians. While formidable, it is also an exciting opportunity to take inspiration from pigs and transgress the boundaries of fields, rooting around for new connections and methodologies. For me, that meant weaving a crossed history of interaction and mutually constructed symbology between pigs and people.

Wild boar rooting in a meadow.
Fig. 2: A wild boar rooting through a meadow in search of food. University of Kentucky, Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Forestry Extension

Transgressive Agents and Salvage Accumulators

The shared history between pigs and people is millennia deep. The people of Island Southeast Asia created art of local sus as early as c. 45,500 year ago, evidenced by cave art of a Sulawesi warty pig identified in 2021. Europe (and most of Eurasia for that matter) has a similarly ancient, complex history with the genus, whether wild, domestic, or somewhere in-between. Unruly and cunning animals, the plastic behavior of pigs has often made them both destructive and useful for people across Eurasia.

Pigs threatened an ordered, engineered landscape ‘tamed’ for agriculture. As Jamie Kreiner describes in her book Legions of Pigs, pigs are ‘unruly commodities’ that root, escape enclosures, eviscerate crops and reengineer landscapes. In Old Irish laws, trespass of pigs was dealt with severely because pigs always eat in groups, quickly trampling and uprooting crops. Isidore of Seville wrote of boars in his Etymologies: ‘The pig/sow (sus) is so called because she roots up (subigat) pasture, that is, she searches for food by rooting the earth up.’

Stuttgart Manuscript, Psalm 79[80]:13, illumination of a boar uprooting a grape vine.
Fig 3: Psalm 79[80]:13: ‘The boar from the woods has destroyed [the vine] and the singular beast had devoured it.’ Known as the Stuttgart Psalter, this manuscript was produced in Paris c. 820-830. The illumination depicts a boar destroying a grape vine. Stuttgart, Württembergische Landesbibliothek, Cod. bibl. 23, fol. 96v

In Majapahit Java, expansive irrigation systems and fields, built with corvée labor and cash taxes, were integral not only to the livelihood of farmers but for the trade empire and apparatus of royal power that relied on taxation, in the form of both cash and produce, and a trade monopoly over rice, salt, and spices. It is unsurprising, then, that the Majapahit law code Kutara Manawa imposed strict fines for tampering with rice cultivation. The Deśawarnana, a royal eulogy written in 1365 at the apogee of the empire to glorify the king Hayam Wuruk, also connects the maintenance of the rice fields to the tranquility of the world and provision of the king.

The main thing is the ricefields, dry and irrigated – whatever is planted, let it be fruitful, guard it and cherish it!… An increase in the King’s possessions is the fruit of it, his means of protecting the world.

Deśawarnana, Canto 88

For the palace and its own area are like a lion and a deep wood: / If the fields are ruined, then the city too will be short of sustenance.

Deśawarnana, Canto 89
Ancient irrigation canal located near the Majapahit capital of Trowulan
Fig 4: Trowulan ancient canal, located ca. 300m southwest of the Trowulan Museum. Wikimedia Commons, October, 2014

The landscape of irrigation systems, fields, and bordering rainforests was perfect for wild boars and pigs, who tend to build their wallows in moist sites such as the edges of flooded areas and the muddy beds of canals or marshes. Recounting his experience in Java c. 1512 to 1513, Duarte Barbosa wrote that ‘swine of great size, both tame and wild’ were to be found on the island and noted their exceptional numbers. Herds of swine would no doubt find cultivated fields of appetizing crops attractive as they did in medieval Europe. The unruly nature of pigs threatened not only peasant livelihoods, but the prosperity of the realm. So why keep them, let alone associate pigs with amassing wealth?

Terracotta piggy bank (celengan) in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art from Majapahit Java
Fig. 5: Piggy Bank, 1300s–1400s. Java, Majapahit Dynasty. Terracotta; overall: 24.2 cm (9 1/2 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund, 1980.16

People across Eurasia accommodated pigs because the same behavior that makes pigs transgressive also makes them useful ‘salvage accumulators,’ scavengers of natural resources otherwise unutilized by humans. Pigs scavenge landscapes to take advantage of whatever their environment grows, preserving wealth on their haunches which people salvage or ‘cash in on’ through slaughter. Unlike other animals that supply secondary products, the sole ‘product’ of pigs is their body – their ‘meat energy’ and high reproductive potential (fecundity). In this context, the breaking of cèlèngan parallels the lifecycle and the value of pigs as agents and biological vessels of accumulation.

Early modern money box with green glaze unearthed in Oxford, England.
Fig 6: Money box, Early Modern Tudor – Elizabethan Period (AD 1457-1603). Oxford, England. Ceramic; height 9.4 cm, diameter 8.5 cm, circumference 27.0 cm. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, AN1909.1177
Celengan (piggy bank) pieced back together from surviving pottery shards from the collection of the Museum Nasional Indonesia, in Jakarta.
Fig 7: Celengan, 13th–15th century. East Java. Ceramic. The Museum Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta, 7858

Hunts and Feasts, Status and Gender

Wild boars were prime hunting game and a powerful status symbol in medieval Europe and Majapahit Java. Just as the aristocracy in Europe had the privilege to hunt in forests and celebrated the boar as a premier game animal, hunting wild boar was a privileged pastime among the Javanese elite. The hunt mapped political competition onto environment, an allegorical ritual of aristocratic domination over both nature and enemies on the battlefield. This connection is made clear by Isidore, who describes the boar (verres) as having great strength (vires). Anyone to quell such a fierce, tusked foe would display great virtus (courage, manliness). The boar hunt in Java overlapped significantly with the hunting practices of early medieval Europe. The Deśawarnana describes wild boar locked in combat with mounted hunters as ‘formidable’ with red eyes, terrible tusks as sharp as daggers, and foam dripping from their mouths. The more intimidating, colossal, and savage the boar slain, the more admirable the hunter.

The sows were pitiful when several were killed, / Overpowered together with their helpless young.

The boars now made ready to advance, / Four or five at a time – formidable, big and tall.

Their mouths were foaming, they were red in the eyes, / And their tusks were terrible, just like daggers.

Deśawarnana, Canto 52
14th century Javanese bronze boar, housed in the MET, New York.
Fig 8: Standing Boar, ca. 14th century. Java. Bronze; W. 17.3 cm (6 13/16 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.142.259
A depiction of a boar hunt from the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry, on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Fig 9: The Devonshire Hunting Tapestry – Boar and Bear Hunt, 1425–1430. Netherlands. Tapestry; woven wool with natural dyes. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, T.204-1957

Both hunting traditions also gendered pigs. Whether female or male, boars were thought of as masculine in Europe while sows were associated with the feminine and fecund domestic pig. The Deśawarnana displays a more complicated but still binary association. Before being ‘overpowered’ and ‘pitiful’ after several were killed, the sows of Canto 52 protect their ‘helpless young’ with defensive aggression appropriate to their gendered role. The Majapahit understood pigs, whether sow or boar, as simultaneously fierce and fertile. In parallel, cèlèngan can symbolize both power and wealth (which helps to explain cèlèngan featuring piglets).

The superior dishes arrived, the trays all made of gold;

Promptly those bringing them forward took up positions before the King.

His food consisted of mutton, buffalo, poultry, venison, wild boar, bees,

Fish and duck, in keeping with the teachings of the Lokapurāna.

Deśawarnana, Canto 89
Broken piggy bank (celengan) with four piglets from Majapahit Java, in modern-day Indonesia. This item is a part of the Princessehof Ceramic Museum's collection.
Fig 10: Money box in the shape of a sow with 4 piglets, 1200–1500. Java, Indonesia. Ceramic; W. 18.7 cm, H. 13.6 cm. Princessehof Ceramic Museum, Leeuwarden, GMP 1981-069

Associations of status and gender also fed into the ‘superior’ place of pork at Majapahit feasts. Pigs populate many cantos of the Deśawarnana and its author, Prapañca, counts wild boar among the ‘superior dishes’ served at royal feasts and lists them among the finest gifts of homage paid by officials of tribute kingdoms. In reciprocity for gifts, the king served pork on ‘trays all made of gold,’ mirroring chivalric largesse between lord and vassal in medieval Europe. This diverges from the legal categorization of pigs in the medieval west as ‘minor’ or ‘lesser’ livestock. Even though the details are likely exaggerated to flatter and elevate the status of the Majapahit king, Prapañca considered gifting pigs/pork an important part in this spectacle of wealth and generosity, perhaps because it would confer similar status to hunting and slaying wild boar.

Out of devotion they brought gifts, competing with each other:

Pigs, sheep, buffaloes, oxen, chickens and dogs in plenty,

As well as cloth which they carried in one after another in piles;

Those who saw it were amazed, as if they could not believe their eyes.

Deśawarnana, Canto 28

Situated in the context of Majapahit court feasts, royal hunts, and the accommodation of pigs for their capacity to store bodily wealth, the (oddly adorable) angry expression, aggressive stance, and tusks common among cèlèngan clearly evoke the fierce boar of the hunt. Their round bodies built from the fat (or clay!) of the land, command the power of a charging boar whose tusks have upwards of 100kg of momentum behind them. However, the power and bodily wealth of the boar is not entirely unwieldy, as many cèlèngan are restrained by chain-collars around their necks. For only one thing is more impressive, sure to confer more prestige, than slaying a beast: owning and dominating the fearsome and fecund nature of the boar.

Vaikuntha Chaturmurti aka Vaikuntha Vishnu statue from Kashmir. Currently housed in the MET, New York.
Fig 11: Form of Vishnu with four faces: the heads of his lion (right) and boar (left) personifications (Varaha and Narasimha) flanking a human head and sharing a single aureole. On the reverse is a low-relief carving of his demonic manifestation. The small attendant on Vishnu’s left is Chakrapurusha, the personification of his war discus, which would have been balanced by the personification of his battle mace, Gadadevi. The earth goddess stands between his legs. Vaikuntha Vishnu, last quarter of the 8th century. India, kingdom of Kashmir. Stone; H. 104.5 cm (41 1/8 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.301
Vahara, Vishnu's boar avatara, depicted in a watercolor illustration from the 18th century. Brooklyn Museum Collection.
Fig 12: Vahara, Vishnu’s boar avatar, rescues the earth goddess from the asura (demon) Hiranyaksha. Varaha Rescuing the Earth, page from an illustrated Dasavatara series, c. 1730-1740. Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver on paper, Sheet: 10 1/2 x 8 1/8 in. (26.7 x 20.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 41.1026

Indeed he [Hayam Wuruk] was simply a divinity descended as he roamed the world.

Deśawarnana, Canto 27

Divine Kingship and the Cosmic Boar

The king’s role as protector of the world and ‘lord of the lords’ (Canto 1) was a central tenet in the Majapahit model of divine kingship that developed after power shifted from Central to East Java. The Deśawarnana builds a case for Hayam Wuruk as a divine being – that the realm’s peace, prosperity, order, and prestige over the seas was proof of his elevated status. Without the paternalistic leadership of the Majapahit king and the monetary, material means to carry out his duties as Sang nata (‘one who puts things in order’) – the world would fall into chaos.

Statue of Vahara from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Fig 13: Bhudevi stands to the right of Vahara’s head, while a serpent-goddess (nagini) appears in front. Rows of sages, deities and other figures appear on the body of the cosmic boar. The conch shell, discus, and mace below are all symbols of Vishnu. Figure of Vahara, the boar incarnation of Vishnu, c. 850 – c. 950. Bihar, north Madhya Pradesh. Stone; 64.8 x 87.5 x 28 cm. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, EA1969.43

The Majapahit conception of a divine king who keeps the world in order alludes to Hindu cosmology, comparing the role of the king to that of Wishnu, the preserver of the world. Various kings of the East Javanese period adopted the names and likeness of deities on monuments, including Singhasari and early Majapahit rulers who bore names meaning ‘Wishnu’s incarnation.’ Hinduism in the early East Javanese period emphasized Wishnu and the kings of this period accordingly saw themselves as his incarnation. Even though Siwa (Shiva) became the central god in the Majapahit period, Prapañca draws upon the legitimacy of a long-established association between the role of kingship and the stories and symbology of Wishnu.

Majapahit cosmology was inclusive of a complicated coalition of indigenous, Buddhist, and Vedic elements. This tradition included the legend of Vahara, Wishnu’s boar avatāra (divine incarnation). In the Hindu creation story, Vahara rescues the Earth from falling into the celestial waters, rooting land from sea. Paralleling Vahara, the king’s prosperity and control over the floodplain of the Brantas river valley through irrigation projects prevented water from once again consuming earth. The link between fertility, wealth, prosperity, and the maintenance of the world was further realized in the Javanese mythology of Panji and Candrakirana, incarnations of Wishnu and his consort Sri, the goddess of rice. Their union symbolizes a guarantee of agricultural fertility, the marriage of wealth and prosperity to continuity and protection. So, wealth, prosperity, agricultural fertility, and the celestial boar Vahara are closely coupled with East Javanese kingship.

One of two Majapahit piggy banks (celengan) on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Fig 14: Money-box, 16th century. Java. Terracotta. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, HCR7420
Terracotta piggy bank (celengan) from Majapahit Java housed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Fig 15: Piggy Bank, 1301­–1500. Eastern Java. Terracotta with brown glaze; 12.2 x 17.3 x 9.1cm (4 3/4 x 6 3/4 x 3 1/2 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, 1996.724

Salvaging Meaning

The symbol of the boar connects to a web of meaning in Majapahit Java: parallels between the accumulation and salvaging of coins and meat, the glory of killing and taming wild boar, the generosity of gifting pigs and their meat, and the divine role of the king as protector of the world and controller of chaotic water paralleling the boar Vahara. This set of connected meanings provides an internal cultural logic for cèlèngan and supports two potential use cases: as gifts of homage and royal generosity, and as vessels for tax money intended for the king. Cèlèngan may have been gifts in lieu of real pigs, either to or from the king, filled with coinage and decorated to evoke a combination of the formidable boar of the hunt, the meaty-wealth of a pig intended for slaughter, and the divine nature of Majapahit kingship. This is further supported by the extraordinarily high density of cèlèngan around Trowulan, the administrative center and palace of the Majapahit rulers. These would have likely been larger examples, whereas smaller, modestly-decorated cèlèngan may have been used by households or tax collectors as vessels for tax money designated for the king not by writing, but by symbology. Of course, objects possess multiple, shifting meanings even in local contexts and cèlèngan likely took on other meanings and uses, especially among the common people of Majapahit.

Broke piggy bank (celengan) from Majapahit Java, housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fig 16: Piggy bank, c. 1300 – c. 1500. East Java. Terracotta; 16.0 cm x 13.0 cm x 17.3 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, AK-RAK-1988-18

Muddy Origins

I started this post with a simple question of origin: ‘Who made the first piggy banks?’ It is a question that suffers from many pitfalls. The idea of origin itself hosts an implication of cultural superiority. To credit ethnic or national identities as the ‘first’ to put hand to something of novel impact is a simplification of multiple, complex influences that, in this case, crossed in East Java, but many of which came from across the sea. Even in the most local example, cèlèngan derive their meaning from a web of influences that span beyond the imagined borders of Majapahit, through Asia and cross significantly with Europe. Studying the past in global terms problematizes this kind of unambiguous attribution by situating the local in a wider context of nuanced and hybrid influences, favoring an ambiguous, ‘muddy’ nature.

Cèlèngan are composite objects that cannot be understood outside a global web of meaning and influences neither fully Majapahit nor human. An environmental approach reminds us that the piggy bank would not exist without pigs – that human agency is intimately tied to the environment. By putting human agency into question, we must also take issue with an attribution of exclusively human origin. It is difficult to determine a rationale (an origin of the mind) for piggy banks because it was inherently ad hoc. Different people saw in pigs the function of money boxes and in money boxes the character, behavior, and capacity of pigs. Perhaps piggy banks are better understood not as material culture, but as material nature-culture­­ in recognition of the practical engagement between human and non-human agents that make them intelligible. They are material reminders that humans are ‘partners in conversation with a larger world’. The ‘idea’ or ‘intention’ behind cèlèngan and their cultural associations could only be envisioned when Majapahit people interacted with pigs. If any ‘origin’ is identifiable, it is in the muddy patches where clay met pigs and people.

Fig 17: Illumination from the Hours of Henry VIII (Tours, France, c. 1500) of laborers thrashing acorns from oak trees to fatten up pigs. The Morgan Library, MS H.8, fol. 6r

Doing History Like Pigs

The generative meanings produced by a crossed history of pigs and people between medieval Europe and Southeast Asia help to answer questions about cèlèngan and contextualize them in a comparative global history inclusive of non-human agents. The careful, belated conversation between two histories separated not only by space but by discipline yields insight that each record cannot substantiate alone. Pigs and people are global agents, co-producers of what is now an object recognized worldwide. Investigating the influence of such a relationship on material nature-culture requires a global scale and crossed history of sapiens, sus, and their shared environment that is careful to avoid simple comparisons. Doing history like this requires historians act like pigs; to jump the pen of national and disciplinary boundaries, transgress rules, root for new connections, and muddy the divisions between nature and culture.

About the Author: Ryan Mealiffe is a second-year MPhil Medieval History student at the University of Oxford. Their research focuses on the intersections of animal agency, material culture, cosmology, and environment in medieval Europe.

Header image: Illumination of wild boars, early 13th century. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Ashmole 1511, fol. 30v

St John’s Digitization Project

(By Sophie Bacchus-Waterman, Special Collections Photographer, St John’s College)

As Special Collections Photographer for the Digitization Project at St John’s College, I photograph the manuscripts and early printed books from our Special Collections. Given that we have over 20,000 early printed books and over 300 manuscripts, and it would be impossible for one person to digitize them all, we have devised a shortlist of items which will be made available online during this project. These might be manuscripts with significant cultural or historic value, interesting provenance, unique texts, or items that are regularly requested by researchers. Several items have already been made available on Digital Bodleian, and more are being added regularly.

Grazer Conservation Cradle

Books being photographed are placed onto the Grazer Conservation Cradle. The cradle is set to a 120° opening angle. If a book is not able to be opened at that angle, it is supported with foam wedges. Along the side of the cradle is a vacuum bar, on which the page being photographed is placed. Each page of the book being photographed is placed onto the vacuum bar, which, when switched on, acts like a vacuum and gently pulls the page into place. Along the vacuum bar is a ruler, which allows anyone viewing the book on Digital Bodleian to see its size. The colour swatch lets me keep the lighting and colour accurate from page to page.

Vacuum bar, ruler, and colour swatch on the cradle

Images are taken with a PhaseOne camera, which is directly parallel to the page being photographed. The camera can be moved closer or further away using a control panel on the side of the cradle. If I’m working with a smaller book, for instance, the camera might need to be closer to the cradle than if I’m working with a larger book. The cradle can also be adjusted with the control panel, and moved up or down as necessary, or left and right with a small dial. As I move through a book, the cradle might need be adjusted accordingly.

Control panel and dial for adjusting the cradle

Besides photographing the internals of our books, I also photograph the externals, using a flatbed and a wall-mounted Canon camera, in the setup seen in the photograph below.

MS 164, a 14th century French manuscript with a velvet binding, on the flatbed

The book is placed on the flatbed, and I photograph its front and back covers. It is also placed on its fore edge and spine, carefully supported with small towers of foam blocks on either side, which are covered with black cloth. I also include a ruler and colour swatch in photos of the externals, for the same reason as they are included in the internal shots.

Photographing MS 61

MS 61 was always high on our priority list for items to be digitized. A 13th century bestiary made in York, richly illuminated, MS 61 is one of the jewels of our Special Collections. If you would like to read more about it, you can see its catalogue description on Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries, encoded by my colleague, Sian Witherden.

I knew that MS 61 would initially pose challenges, due to its extensive use of gold leaf. Each illumination is backed with a thick ground of gold leaf, which reflects light when photographed. Given the amount of gold on certain folios, the light reflected in such a way that the gold looked white, an effect known as “specular highlights”, as seen in the below left photograph. In order to photograph a manuscript with extensive gold leaf, the lamps in the Photography Studio must be pointed upwards, away from the cradle. The light then bounces off the ceiling and onto the gold leaf, as seen in the below right photograph.

St John’s College, MS 61, fol. 9r

Once the issue of lighting the gold leaf was resolved, MS 61 was a dream to work with. For an 800-year-old manuscript, it was incredibly easy to handle. Written on high quality vellum, it was sturdy, its pages turned easily, and its modern binding meant that it was happy to open to the 120° angle of the cradle. As with the other books I’ve worked with so far, MS 61 was placed onto the cradle – it opened easily, and was handled with the usual care I handle the Special Collections items, but it didn’t need any extra support while out.

As I moved through the manuscript, I was struck by the incredible illuminations throughout it. Even after centuries, it is in a stunning condition, almost as if it had been made yesterday. In order to accommodate the manuscript, I moved the cradle left and right, and up and down, as needed, so that it was resting comfortably on the cradle. Above everything else, the preservation of whatever book I am working with is paramount to the project. Luckily, MS 61 didn’t require any extra support, or prove difficult at all.

The social media response to MS 61 being digitized was astounding, but also hardly surprising. MS 61 is one of the most beautiful and treasured items in our collection, and a lot of people have been excited to see it online. Not only is it a privilege to work with such stunning and rare books in my role, but knowing that the Digitization Project is facilitating research and introducing people to our collection online makes it all the more rewarding.

If you would like to see more of our collection, please visit our Digital Library, where you can read more about our collection, and see what has already been made available to view online. If you would like to read more about MS 61, take a look at this Book of the Month blog post here.

New Book: Medieval Sex Lives

(Guest blog by Elizabeth Eva Leach)


Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 308 preserves and re-copies the lyrics of over 500 songs, ranging from those written in the late twelfth century, to those composed only a few years before the manuscript was copied in the early fourteenth. Its lack of both musical notation and authorial attribution make it relatively unusual among Old French songbooks. Its arrangement by genre instead invites an investigation of the relationship between a long tradition of sung courtly lyric and the real lives of the people who enjoyed it, in particular their emotional, intimate, sexual lives, something for which little direct evidence exists.

Medieval Sex Lives

Using the other main inclusion in the original plan for Douce 308, Jacques Bretel’s poetic account of a tournament, The Tournament at ChauvencyMedieval Sex Lives argues that song offered musical practices which provided fertile means of propagating and enabling various sexual scripts.

With a focus on parts of Douce 308 not yet treated in detail elsewhere, Medieval Sex Lives offers an account of the manuscript’s contents, its importance, and likely social milieu, with ample musical and poetic analysis. In the process it offers new ways of understanding Marian songs and sottes chansons, as well as arguing for a broadening of our understanding of the medieval pastourelle, both as a genre and as an imaginative prop. Ultimately, Medieval Sex Lives presents a provocative speculative hypothesis about courtly song in the early fourteenth century as a social force, focusing on its ability to model, instill, inspire, and support sexual behaviours, real and imaginary.

Three ideas in the book

  • The idea that medieval people consumed cultural products (in this case, songs) that fed and moulded their sexual imaginations;
  • The idea that an unnotated songbook might be very noisy with the sounds of sex and tournaments;
  • The idea that minority sexual practices (queer sexualities and paraphilias of various kinds) were present in the distant past.

What inspired me to write the book?

This book arose from two different but related questions. First, I wondered why the sung lyric tradition of Western Europe that is generally called “courtly” love had such a long and successful history. Second, I wanted to know why the unnotated songbook, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce had bothered to preserve and re-copy the lyrics of over 500 such songs, ranging from those written in the late twelfth century, to those composed only a few years before the manuscript was copied in the early fourteenth. The lack of musical notation, which was never planned for its songs, makes this manuscript unusual among Old French songbooks. Nonetheless, curating nearly 150 years of this long-lived tradition was clearly important to the patrons, compilers, owners, and users of this manuscript: but why?

How will this book make a difference in my field of study? In what way is my argument a controversial or one that will shake up preconceived ideas?

Overall, the book challenges the idea that medieval song has nothing (or little) to do with the real lives of its audiences. Ch2’s proposal of love songs as sexual scripts is a controversial use of sociological theory to treat medieval literature. In Ch3 it offers a new way of approaching the sotte chanson (‘silly song’) as something not merely humorous or satirical, but as a potentially serious erotic possibility. Ch4 treats The Tournament at Chauvency from the perspective of sound studies. And Ch5 offers a controversial reading of the medieval pastourelle that firstly expands the definition of the genre to include songs rarely considered as pastourelles (but collected by Douce 308 as such), and secondly makes a difficult argument about some of them as offering fantasies of sexual domination and rape that might have appealed (and been useful) to some audience members, specifically women and queer people.

The Trouble with Prefixes

Consummatum est, inclinato capite tradidit spiritum.
‘”It is accomplished”, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

(Homiliae XL in euangelia, homily 37.9, Gregory the Great)

These were the last words of bishop Cassius of Narnia as recorded in Bodleian Library, MS. Laud Misc. 429. The manuscript contains Homiliae XL in euangelia by Gregory the Great (see Bodleian online). Cassius of course quoted from the Bible, Jesus’ last words according to John 19.30. The quotation appears at the end of folio 149v which also contains two scratched glosses in the upper margin, barely visible to the naked eye: ‘[…] braht’ and ‘upbraht’. At first glance, the glosses and the quote have no obvious connection. They stand on opposite sides of the folio (fig. 1) and, semantically, the two similar glosses do not seem to relate to any Latin on the page. It was only when the glosses were captured in a detailed image with the Selene scanner of the ARCHiOx project (ARCHiOx: research and development in imaging) that it was possible to learn more about their origin and meaning.

Fig. 1: Folio 149v of MS. Laud. Misc. 429 (Oxford, Bodleian Library). The position of the scratched glosses is marked in red, the quote by Cassius of Narnia is marked in green.

With the Selene scanner, a clear image of the 3D surface of the object can be created. This is particularly useful for scratched glosses, translations and comments not written with a pen but impressed into the parchment with a stylus. Scratched glosses can usually only be seen by shining a torch onto the parchment at a very shallow angle. But with the new recording system the glosses can be made visible within the context of ink glosses and the main text. Corrections in the main text also become much clearer. Suddenly a sequence of short horizontal scratches become visible, showing where the scribe erased ink with a small knife (fig. 2), apparently to adjust word endings and punctuation. Furthermore, there are longer, finer lines crossing the page that stem from preparing the parchment.

Fig. 2: 3D‑render of the scratches on folio 149v recorded with the Selene scanner. In the top margin, the lexical scratched glosses are visible. On the bottom of the picture are scratches which stem from text erasures.

In the recording, the lexical scratched glosses on folio 149v are clearly visible, except for the first letters. They read (1) ‘[…] braht’ and (2) ‘upbraht’. The words appear right next to each other but are divided by a clear gap. These are not the only lexical glosses in the manuscript. Throughout the text, there are Latin and Old High German glosses, for example the Old High German word ‘agaleizor’ in the right margin of folio 159r and the Latin ‘lapidem’, a few lines below and interlinear (see the digitised manuscript and Hofmann 1963, p. 144). As for the glosses on folio 149v, the second half of the words gives clues as to their language. ‘‑braht’ is the past participle of the Old High German verb ‘bringan’ (see AWB 1,1384), with the basic meaning ‘to bring’ (or in case of the participle, ‘brought’). The first part of the words should therefore be a prepositional prefix which modifies the basic verb. The first part of gloss (2), ‘up’, is known as a prefix – but not in Old High German. The Old High German equivalent of the word is ‘ûf’, with the ‘‑p’ undergoing the Second Consonant Shift (up > uf). That the gloss still has the ‘‑p’ shows that it must belong to a language which did not go through this sound change. To explain this mix of linguistic features, it is necessary to consider the history of the manuscript.

MS. Laud Misc. 429 was written in a German writing centre, possibly Fulda, at the beginning of the ninth century (Bischoff & Hofmann 1952, p. 58; Mairhofer 2014, p. 680). It was in Würzburg from the fifteenth century at the latest and was given to the Bodleian in 1637 (Mairhofer 2014, p. 680). However, it is not unlikely that the manuscript came to Würzburg much earlier because of the intertwined history of the two monasteries. In the eighth century, Saint Boniface and his missionaries came from England and founded several monasteries, including the Würzburg cathedral chapter and Fulda as part of its diocese (Bischoff & Hofmann 1952, p. 5). As they were closely related, the monasteries frequently exchanged manuscripts in the eighth and ninth centuries, or would order manuscripts from each other’s scriptoria (see Bischoff & Hofmann 1952, pp. 142, 168). Fulda was therefore subject to the same Anglo-Saxon influence that has been widely researched for the Würzburg monastery. Anglo-Saxon traces can be seen palaeographically and linguistically in the manuscripts created during that time (Bischoff & Hofmann 1952, pp. 5ff.; Hofmann 1963, pp. 33–4). Written long after Saint Boniface’s death, when the main impact of the Anglo-Saxon mission had already waned, MS. Laud Misc. 429 still shows signs of Anglo-Saxon script (‘Symptome dafür sind die leicht spachtelförmigen Oberlängen, die mit dreieckigem Ansatz beginnenden, tiefgespaltenen r der rcc-Ligatur.’, Bischoff & Hofmann 1952, p. 58). Ties between early medieval scriptoria of the Würzburg diocese and Anglo-Saxon writing tradition remained strong over the centuries and MS. Laud Misc. 429 is evidence for that.

Fig. 3: Close‑up of gloss (2) ‘upbraht’.

On a different note, there is another, though rather minor possibility for the origin of the scratched glosses. Apparently, there have been exchanges between the Low German and East Franconian region since the Old Saxon Heliand was written under consideration of texts which stem originally from Fulda (Schubert 2013, p. 213). Linguistically, the scratched glosses are acceptable Old Saxon forms. Old Saxon did not undergo the second consonant shift, hence the ‘up‑’, and ‘braht’ is the past participle of ‘brengian’, the Old Saxon equivalent of Old High German ‘bringan’ (Gallée 1993, §408). Even though there is no evidence of an Old Saxon verb ‘upp‑brengian’, ‘upp‑’ is known as verbal prefix (Tiefenbach 2010, p. 431). It is similar with the possible prefixes of gloss (1) which will be considered later. Arguably, these could be two Old Saxon hapax legomena (words which are only evidenced once), however, connections between the scriptorium of Fulda and Old Saxon scribes are hardly documented. On the other hand, the link to Anglo‑Saxon writing is not only supported by other manuscripts from Fulda and by the palaeographical characteristics of the script of MS. Laud Misc. 429 but also matches the linguistic evidence seen in gloss (2): ‘up’ (fig. 3) can very well be an Old English form (predecessor of modern English ‘up’) and the combination of an Old English prefix with an Old High German verb stem is a typical result of Anglo-Saxon influence in German writing centres. Since none of the ink glosses show Old English features (see Hofmann 1963, pp. 114–5) it could be that ink and scratched glosses stem from different scribes who followed different writing traditions.

Fig. 4: Close‑up of gloss (1) ‘[…] braht’. The prefix could be read as ‘hu’, but note the difference between the first letter and the penultimate letter ‘h’.

The prefix of gloss (1) is not as easy to decipher. The first letter could be an ‘h’, even though it looks quite different from the ‘h’ in the second half of the word (fig. 4). The latter has a very round curve, while the former shows a sharp bend. And neither in Old English nor Old High German is ‘hu’ a documented verbal prefix.

Fig. 5: Prefix of gloss (1) ‘[…] braht’ with the possible reading ‘zu’ in comparison with the ‘z’ in an ink gloss on fol. 159r (image was rotated to align the letters).

Another possible reading is palaeographically less clear but would make sense lexically: ‘zu’. The lines of the first letter could be a crooked ‘z’ (compare the ‘z’ of ‘agaleizor’ on folio 159r), which, to be fair, would miss some strokes (fig. 5). But an Old High German prefix ‘zu‑’ (or ‘zuo‑’) is indeed recorded in combination with ‘bringan’ (AWB 1,1405; the Old English equivalent would be ‘tó‑’, see Bosworth‑Toller online). Both readings assume that the second part of the prefix is a ‘u’. However, the curves of the letters in ‘braht‑’ are very round and those of the potential ‘u’ are not. Because scratched glosses had to be scratched into the parchment with a stylus which was not a very reliable writing instrument, letter shapes could be distorted (Glaser & Nievergelt 2009, p. 207). Differences between the letters within a gloss could therefore happen and could have a number of reasons. The gap after the prefix, for example, could mean that the scribe paused and then held the stylus differently. But it is curious that the letters of the second part are all very neatly rounded and the first ones are not.

Fig. 6: Prefix of gloss (1) ‘[…] braht’ The image on the right shows the same prefix with mark‑up that illustrates the possible reading ‘vul’, excluding the strokes that connect the letters.

A reading which would take the sharp bends of the beginning a bit more into account would be ‘vul’. Just as in gloss (2), this prefix would be Old English, the Old High German equivalent being ‘fol’. Old English ‘full’ is recorded as a verbal prefix (e.g. ‘fullbétan’, Bosworth-Toller online) and the Old High German variant even exists in combination with ‘bringan’ (‘fol(la)bringan’, AWB 3,1049). However, this reading would assume a ‘v’ with an ascender and an ‘l’ which is missing one (fig. 6). Just as ‘zu braht’, it is palaeographically odd but seems lexically sensible.

The meaning of gloss (1) can be narrowed down by semantically interpreting gloss (2). Both glosses end in ‘braht’ which suggests that they relate to each other. Double glosses are often either synonymous and were meant to provide the reader with lexical variants, or they give alternative semantic interpretations of the lemma. This could be achieved by altering the prefix of a verb. Old English ‘up’ and ‘bringan’ together can have the meaning ‘bring it to pass’, in which ‘up’ is ‘marking effectual action’ (see Bosworth-Toller online; here as an adverb related to a verb, but also recorded as a prefix). In Old High German, only one instance is known in which ‘uf’ appears together with ‘bringan’, in the Muspilli: ‘die pringent sia sar uf in himilo rihi’ (Steinmeyer 1916, p. 66; see AWB 1,1391), and here it means ‘to take (someone) up (to somewhere)’. The form ‘upbraht’ is a past participle. Assuming that the gloss copies the grammatical form of its Latin lemma to translate it in context, it could correspond to Latin consummatum from the aforementioned bible quote. The Latin would fit the possible meaning ‘bring it to pass’, or rather ‘brought to pass’. Their position in relation to each other is rather unusual as they are at opposite ends of the page – glosses are mostly in direct proximity to the word they translate. However, the word summarises the whole tale of Cassius who awaited his death for years after hearing a vision from one of his priests. His last word, ‘accomplished’, could relate not only to his death but also to the long period of waiting. Glossing it on top of the page is similar to a headline.

In this regard, gloss (1) can be expected to have a similar meaning. Of the three presented readings, ‘hu braht’ is the least fitting one. The adverb exists only in Old English and is the predecessor of modern English ‘how’. It references the quality of a verb (Bosworth-Toller online) which does not fit very well in this context. The second variant, ‘zu braht’, works better. The Old High German verb ‘zuobringan’ can have the meaning ‘to bring about’ (AWB 1,1405) – even though the according Old English prefix does not match (‘a prefix denoting separation, division’, Bosworth-Toller online). And finally, the last reading ‘vul braht’ is semantically closest to ‘upbraht’. Old High German ‘fol(la)bringan’ means ‘to finish something, to accomplish something’ (AWB 3,1049). Old English ‘ful’ is a verbal prefix which ‘denotes the fulness, completeness or perfection of the meaning of the word with which it is joined’ (Bosworth-Toller online). Judging from these interpretations, the two glosses could have been designed to give lexical variants which are broadly synonymous for the Latin lemma.

Fig. 7: Profiles of the scratches of gloss (1) on the left and gloss (2) on the right as recorded with the Selene scanner. The line in the glosses marks where the profile was measured.

Again, the ARCHiOx recording reveals more information about the motivation behind the double glosses. Measuring the depth and width of the scratches of the two glosses in the 3D-image shows that their profiles do not match (fig. 7). That means that it is very likely that they were not written in one go. Either the scribe, the writing instrument or the date of writing changed, or possibly all three at once. Whatever the reason for the changing profile was, there was most definitely an interruption between writing the two glosses. Maybe one of the glosses seemed unsufficient to a glossator to translate the lemma, maybe someone working with the text wanted to give a variant of the translation – or maybe a later reader had the same problems in identifying the first gloss as I had and decided to add a more legible translation. With the help of the ARCHiOx recordings, it is possible to gain much more information about a fascinating linguistic phenomenon. The detailed images can paint a clearer picture of how people in the Middle Ages worked with texts. In the case of MS. Laud Misc. 429, the glosses can not only be linked to a rich history of language exchange, but we now have proof that that the manuscript was the subject of work processes that are much closer to today’s way of studying than one would think.

Image credit

Fig. 1: Bodleian Library (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 429, digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/afcff8df-3047-4b21-8279-67f27c114424/, accessed 1 September 2023), with mark‑up by the author

Figs. 2–4: John Barrett, ARCHiOx

Fig. 5: left: John Barrett, ARCHiOx; right: Bodleian Library (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Laud Misc. 429, digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/afcff8df-3047-4b21-8279-67f27c114424/, accessed 1 September 2023), rotated detail by the author

Fig. 6: John Barrett, ARCHiOx, with mark‑up by the author on the right image

Fig. 7: John Barrett, ARCHiOx


AWB = Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch. Auf Grund der von Elias v. Steinmeyer hinterlassenen Sammlungen im Auftrag der Sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig. Bearbeitet und herausgegeben von Elisabeth Karg-Gasterstädt und Theodor Frings. Leipzig 1952-2015ff., http://awb.saw-leipzig.de/cgi/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=AWB (accessed 1 September 2023).

Bischoff, B. & Hofmann, J. (1952): Libri Sancti Kyliani. Die Würzburger Schreibschule und die Dombibliothek im VIII. und IX. Jahrhundert. Würzburg: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Bodleian online = A catalogue of Western manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries and selected Oxford colleges, medieval.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/catalog/manuscript_7230 (accessed 1 September 2023).

Bosworth-Toller online = Joseph Bosworth, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, edited by Thomas Northcote Toller, Christ Sean, and Ondřej Tichy. Prague: Faculty of Arts, Charles University, 2014. https://bosworthtoller.com (accessed 1 September 2023)

Gallée, J.H. (1993): Altsächsische Grammatik. 3rd ed. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Glaser, E. & Nievergelt, A. (2009): ‘Griffelglossen’, in Bergmann, R. & Stricker, S.: Die althochdeutsche und altsächsische Glossographie. Ein Handbuch. Vol. 1. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter, 202–229.

Haubrichs, W. (2013): ‘Volkssprachige (theodiske) Schriftlichkeit in Fulda (8.–11. Jh.)’, in Schubert, M.: Schreiborte des deutschen Mittelalters. Skriptorien – Werke – Mäzene. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 196–215.

Hofmann, J. (1963): ‘Altenglische und althochdeutsche Glossen aus Würzburg und dem weiteren angelsächsischen Missionsgebiet’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (Halle) 85, 27–131.

Mairhofer, D. (2014): Medieval Manuscripts from Würzburg in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: A Descriptive Catalogue. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Steinmeyer, E. (1916): Die kleineren althochdeutschen Sprachdenkmäler. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung.

Tiefenbach, H. (2010): Altsächsisches Handwörterbuch. Berlin/New York: De Gruyter.

Blogging Your Medieval Research

Over the past ten years, OMS has become one of the largest communities of medievalists worldwide. There is a phenomenal breadth and diversity of research taking place at Oxford, and a wide range of exciting creative practice and public engagement activities. This year at OMS, we are hoping to feature one blog post each week to highlight the range of work going on, and to draw attention to the range of work that goes on here.

This week we are starting with a blog post on blogging, and public engagement. There are tips here from Tuija Ainonen and from TORCH on how to best use the blog format as a medievalist. Particularly if you have signed up to write a blog post for us, please see below!

Reaching out with Medieval Manuscripts:

(Tuija Ainonen) 

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija AinonenAndrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Tips for translating your research to a lay audience:

● The blog text should be written in an easily readable style, but do not underestimate your readership. Abstract concepts can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, so consider using analogies and word pictures to explain yourself.
● Please make sure your writing is not bogged down with complicated jargon. Provide definitions or a glossary for technical terms if you can’t avoid them. Avoid complex grammatical structures where possible.
● Express your ideas in the active voice, and phrase your sentences positively rather than negatively.
● The aims and objectives of your research should be clearly signalled so that the reader can understand the impact and uses of your work.
● Give concrete everyday examples wherever possible and clearly define your timescales.
● Put your research in context and explain which gap your research is filling. How does this study/event/podcast/conference fit into the bigger picture? Why is it needed? What will it be used for?
● Do not be afraid of using bullet points, diagrams or images to get your point across. All images should be accompanied by alt text however (a brief description of the image or diagram).
● Use the first person: Do not be afraid of writing in first person. A blog post is different from an academic article. It is important to engage your reader, and one way to do this is to craft a story. Do not be afraid of sounding immodest. For example, if you have discovered something new and exciting in the archives, tell us! “I made this discovery”. Remember, text that is essentially autobiographical but that avoids first person does not necessarily sound humble, but rather impersonal. You want your reader to connect with the people, places, and discoveries in your story.
● Personal touches: Nothing lightens up a blog post quite so much as a personal touch, such as an anecdote from your event, or a wry comment on your research aspirations. Think about including comments from other sources.

Conference ‘Articulation of Silence from a Gendered Perspective’

The Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures (https://cmtc.queens.ox.ac.uk) will host the international conference ‘Articulation of Silence from a Gendered Perspective’ on the 26th, 27th, and 28th of September.

The main objective of this conference is to investigate the articulation of silence in text and manuscript cultures in different premodern traditions (https://mtc-journal.org/index.php/mtc) (Greece, Medieval Europe, China, Japan, Korea, India, ancient Egypt and the Middle East), from a (global?) gendered perspective. We define here ‘silence’ as an expression of the act of the non-articulation in texts and manuscripts of different genres and written on different kinds of material carriers, and invite papers that ‘unmute the muted’ or ‘hear the unheard’. By adopting a gendered perspective in the study of silence, we encourage scholars to be attentive to the silence of both individuals and groups that belong to the non-dominant social, political, and intellectual class in their respective cultures. The conference aims to bring together a diverse group of speakers, including both junior researchers and experienced scholars, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, with the goal of fostering a lively interdisciplinary debate on the topic.

The conference will take place in the Lucina Ho Room of the China Centre from 9.30am to 5pm on the 26th, from 10am to 7pm on the 27th, and from 9am to 1pm on the 28th.

Conference ‘Articulation of Silence from a Gendered Perspective’
University Oxford, China Centre, Dickson Poon Building, Canterbury Rd, Oxford OX2 6LU September 26
th–28th 2023

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Silencing of the voices of ‘the others’ as expressed in the texts
  • Female strategies to control the male narrative and male voices, and vice-versa
  • Strategies of the texts in prioritising the male over the female voices
  • Cases of disregard or disrespect of female and other voices, turning them into silence
  • The materiality of voicing gendered silence
  • The material contexts of gendered silence
  • Reception strategies of dealing with queer voices in manuscriptsThe conference aims to bring together a diverse group of speakers, including both junior researchers and experienced scholars, coming from different disciplinary backgrounds, with the goal of fostering a lively interdisciplinary debate on the topic.Our aim is that the papers presented at the conference will be published in the 2025 spring volume of the journal Manuscript and Text Cultures.Organizers: Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford), Lisa Indraccolo (Tallinn University), Stefka G. Eriksen (University of Oslo)


9:30 –10:00 OPENING SPEECHES AND INTRODUCTION (Meyer/Eriksen/Indraccolo)

10:00 –10:15: COFFEE BREAK

10:15–12:00 FIRST SESSION: SILENCE AND THE BODY Chair: Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford)

Stefka G. Eriksen (University of Oslo)

“Women Controlling the Narrative in Old Norse Culture: Silencing the Male Voice and Obstructing the Male Gaze”

Andreas Serafim (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun)
“Making silence speak: Body behaviour and kinaidia in ancient literature”

12:00 –14:00 LUNCH BREAK

14:00–15:45 SECOND SESSION: SILENCE AND MATERIAL CULTURE Chair: Stefka G. Eriksen (University of Oslo)

Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford)
“She is spoken for: self-presentation and presenting female selves in ancient Egyptian temple statues”

Vincent Debiais (EHESS Paris)
“Gendered Silence & Gendered Images in the Latin West”

15:45–16:15: COFFEE BREAK 16:15: 17:00 ROUND-UP DAY 1

10:00–11:45 THIRD SESSION: SILENCE AND THE AUTHORIAL SELF Chair: Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford)

Elsa Kueppers (Ruhr University Bochum)
“Beyond the Inner Room: Records of (Imagined) Journeys by Chosŏn Korean Women”

Julia Rüthemann (EHESS, Paris)
“Female silence and authorship in late medieval courtly first-person narratives”

11:45–14:00 LUNCH BREAK

14:00–15:45 FOURTH SESSION: SILENCE, LITERARY CULTURE AND THE CANON Chair: Lisa Indraccolo (Tallinn University)

Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford)
“You are (not) muted: gendered power structures of silence in the Shī manuscripts of Ānhuī University”

Jennifer Guest (University of Oxford)
“Silence in the Pillow Book: the power of missing texts in the early medieval Japanese court”

15:45–16:15: COFFEE BREAK

16:15 –17:45 FIFTH SESSION: SILENCE AND TRANSGRESSION Chair: Stefka G. Eriksen (University of Oslo)

Lisa Indraccolo (Tallinn University)
“Girls Gone Bad – ‘Evil women’ and the gendered use of silence as a control tool in early China”

Kate Crosby (University of Oxford)

“Unheard, unseen and central: the long shadow cast modern Theravada by early struggles with female agency”

17:45-19:00 ROUND-UP DAY 2

9:00–10:45 SIXTH SESSION: SILENCE AND DISOBEDIENCE/DISSENT Chair: Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford)

Thomas Crone (IKGF Erlangen–Nürnberg)
“Silence as a Sign of (Male) Powerlessness? The Case of the Western Han Manuscript Wang Ji 妄稽 (Ms. Baseless)”

10:45–11:15 COFFEE BREAK



Stefka G. Eriksen (University of Oslo)

Women Controlling the Narrative in Old Norse Culture: Silencing the Male Voice and Obstructing the Male Gaze

A popular motive in medieval literature encompasses the meeting between a woman and a man, when, for various reasons, the woman either demands of the man that he does not tell anyone about her (she controls his voice/ demands silence of him), or she does not allow him to see her (she controls his gaze/ makes him non-seeing). This motive gets realized in a number of Old Norse translations too from the middle of the thirteenth century, such as some of the short stories of the Strengleikar-collection (based on lais of Marie de France), or Old Norse translations of romances by Chrétien de Troyes and Partalopi saga (based on Partonopeu de Blois). In this paper, I will investigate how the topic of female control of the male voice and gaze is adapted to the Old Norse cultural context, by comparing the Old Norse translations to their European sources and to other indigenous Old Norse texts containing similar motives. A secondary main question in this investigation will be whether speaking/ non-speaking and seeing/ non-seeing may be seen as parallel affordances or handicaps in medieval culture and whether they were related to gender differently.

Andreas Serafim (Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun)

“Making silence speak: Body behaviour and kinaidia in ancient literature”

This paper puts forward the argument that kinaidia, roughly referring to passive homosexuality and effeminate deportment, is reflected in nonverbal and inarticulate body markers that most succinctly describe self, what one does (akin to the theories of S. de Beauvoir) to be. The purpose of the paper is threefold: first, to explore passages that have been largely underexamined in scholarship (e.g. Archilochus fr. 327 and 328 which are notable in presenting a kinaidos as having the embodied and moral markers of a bad prostitute); second, to exploit textual (Book of Physiognomy, 4th century AD) and non-textual sources (the Kroisos Kouros and the discus- thrower by the sculptor Myron) to present a physiognomic vignette of the hoplite, which stands in sharp contrast to that of a kinaidos, as argued in Aeschines 2.150-151; and third, to substantiate the claims that involuntary and unconscious bodily reactions indicate kinaidic identity. Diogenes Laertius 7.173 and Dio Chrysostom 33.53-54 make, specifically, the case that sneezing reveals kinaidia because of uncontrolled embodied performance, especially regarding sound, gesticulation, and stature. The silent human body has its own ways to speak volumes about the sex and gender of individuals.

Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford)

“She is spoken for: self-presentation and presenting female selves in ancient Egyptian temple statues”

She is gracious. She is hospitable. She is grieving. And, most usually, she is silent. These are conventional characterisations of elite women in Egypt’s New Kingdom and early Third Intermediate Period (ca. 1539 – 715 BCE) as incorporated into the monumental display of their male relatives or, very rarely, into their own separate memorials. This paper explores the implications of such self-fashioning, particularly through temple statues and the voices that are occasionally ascribed to women on them. Although these representations in image and text were almost certainly designed and composed by men, in itself deepening women’s silence, they may offer ways to reconsider the material, performative presence of some (statue) individuals in temple environments. This is especially the case in the early first millennium BCE when possibilities for independent female self-presentations were expanding.

Vincent Debiais (EHESS Paris)

“Gendered Silence & Gendered Images in the Latin West”

Art from the Western Middle Ages has transformed silence into images. This visual singularity, which transfers something that cannot be heard into something that can be seen, is linked to the fact that silence, in the context of the Christian culture of asceticism and prayer, is both a social practice of speech control and a theoretical principle allowing the revelation and expression of realities that escape verbal language. These figures of silence in medieval art use color, geometry, or ornament, but they are also embodied in human figures who describe the experience of silence or participate in its regulation, especially within the monastery. In this paper focusing on images produced in monastic context in the Latin West between the 9th and 14th centuries, we will try to show that the gender of painted or sculpted figures denotes certain properties or qualities of silence and that they seek to make them resonate with the social environments to which they are intended. We will thus question the possible specificities of the silence of the monk and the nun, and the way in which it was put into image, analyzing the distortions, incongruities and theological or practical discourses produced on the gender of silence during the Middle Ages.

Elsa Kueppers (Ruhr University Bochum)

Beyond the Inner Room: Records of (Imagined) Journeys by Chosŏn Korean Women

This presentation explores the nexus of travel and writing, illustrating how these components constituted a transcending of boundaries—both spatial and societal—for elite women during the later Chosŏn Dynasty (16th-19th c.). Facing increasing societal restrictions rooted in the Confucian state ideology, these women were relegated to a secluded life within the “inner room” (kyujung 閨中), emblematic of the private sphere. However, there is evidence that many of these women yearned to venture beyond these confines, as vividly reflected in their records of imagined and actual journeys. As autonomous continuations of their journeys, the written accounts inscribe the women’s unique lived experiences with heightened significance and submit them into the literary space traditionally reserved for men. This makes them a testimony to a twofold trespassing: first, leaving the confines of the private sphere, and second, breaking silence by articulating these experiences in literature. Examining the self-narratives of Hŏ Nansŏrhŏn, Nam Ŭiyudang, and Kim Kŭmwŏn, the presentation seeks to illuminate how these authors maintained the delicate balance between the societal expectations for female silence and seclusion and the authentic expression of their voices.

Julia Rüthemann (EHESS, Paris)

“Female silence and authorship in late medieval courtly first-person narratives”

In late medieval first-person narratives about love, a text group spread throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, it is usually a male author-narrator who tells his love experience with a young woman, authorizing him as lover and as author. His beloved appears as silenced love object out of reach with a symbolic value as in the Roman de la Rose (13th century) or – even if she functions as a co-creater of the text (as in the Roman de la Poire, 13th century) ‒ as textual projection ofthe male author. Moreover, at times, the beloved is super-posed with the allegory of love, being a mediating abstract principle that inspires the author to create poetry rather than a human person with her own voice. First, the paper aims to examine the link between female silence, allegory and authorship in love narratives by broadening the perspective on underlying medieval conceptions about language. The paper will then discuss the case of Christine de Pizan (1365-ca. 1430), a female author writing in French. When adopting the first-person stance and writing about love, it becomes obvious that she grapples with the function attributed to the female in courtly first-person narratives. She develops several creative strategies to be in the position of a female author: distancing herself from courting and stressing her role of the widow while telling the love stories of others or speaking from the position of allegory while breaking it open. When it comes to telling a love experience, not everyone is able to say “I” and be an author, or not in the same way ‒ depending on gender.

Dirk Meyer (University of Oxford)

“You are (not) muted: gendered power structures of silence in the Shī manuscripts of Ānhuī University”

A most common phrase of the years 2020/2021 was ‘you are muted’ (or: ‘you are on mute’), followed closely by ‘unmute yourself’. The two sentences display an intriguing power structure, one where the muted finds themselves in a subordinate position to the unmuted, but nonetheless, one where the muted does have the power, within limits, to unmute themselves. Many songs of the Shī 詩 (Songs) of the States (guó 國) in China of antiquity present a similar power dynamic. Often this dynamic is gendered. More so in the Ānhuī University Manuscripts (Ān Dà Shī) of the fourth century BC than in the Máo recension of the Western Hàn (202 BC–AD 9), we find an overbearing male narrative voice which is leaving little or no room for the female to articulate a response. But the female experience generally finds a way to re-frame the often- objectifying male gaze, which then affords power to the female to take the initiative. In this article, we analyse the strategies taken in some Shī-songs of the Ān Dà Shī to reframe the male perspective, so the female experience comes to voice even if the female persona of the song remains ‘muted’.

Jennifer Guest (University of Oxford)

“Silence in the Pillow Book: the power of missing texts in the early medieval Japanese court”

The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi), an eclectic collection of lists and personal anecdotes by the Heian lady-in-waiting Sei Shōnagon (active c. 1000CE), has often been read in terms of its presumed silences. At one level, there is its refusal to give voice to tragedy: its central figure is Shōnagon’s patron, Empress Teishi, who was ultimately sidelined by rivals and died young — but against the backdrop of a literary culture that usually elevated poignant and melancholy themes,Shōnagon wrote nothing directly about Teishi’s sad fate or the decline of her court salon. At other levels, there are the gaps Shōnagon leaves in her depiction of court life, and her use of strategic silence as a storytelling technique, with many anecdotes centred on a missing poem or allusion. This talk explores another intersecting set of silences: the recurring concern with lost or unvoiced texts that runs throughout the Pillow Book, connecting stories about memory, loyalty, and the social uses of literary knowledge. In linking these various layers of silence, I will consider how both the absence and the silent presence of certain texts can be related to the author’s position as a woman, and specifically a lady-in-waiting, suggesting how the experience and performance of texts was gendered in the Heian court, and what creative possibilities this allowed.

Lisa Indraccolo (Tallinn University)

“Girls Gone Bad – ‘Evil women’ and the gendered use of silence as a control tool in early China”

Collection of stories of virtuous types, including women, often with a strong moralizing undertone, are a rather flourishing literary genre in China since ancient times (Kinney 2014). Filial daughters, deferential wives, devoted daughters-in-law, wise and attentive mothers: these are the roles prescribed for women in early China (ca. 6th cent. B.C.–2nd cent. A.D.) that they are required to embrace and in which they are expected to thrive at different stages of their lives, setting an example for future generations (Holmgren 1981; Nylan 2002). However, there is another side to this coin. Intellectually gifted, witty, shrewd and unconventional figures of unapologetically deviant, “problematic” women are also present in the literature (Fracasso 2005). As consequence for breaking social boundaries and conventions, they are typically silenced and presented in a bad light, accused of being promiscuous and corrupting men who have the disgrace of crossing their paths (Hinsch 2012). Often – but not invariably – deprived of a voice of their own, in the received literature they are blamed and condemned without appeal – a case in point being for instance the famous dialogue between Confucius and Lady Nánzi 南子 reported in the Confucian Analects (Lúnyǔ 論語) (Milburn 2010), the content of which remains shrouded in mystery. However, despite being silenced, some of these charismatic figures still play a fundamental role in the intellectual and literary landscape of the period. Also, certain sources are deliberately ambiguous, or at least somewhat less critical, when describing these “evil women,” some of whom are actual historical figures, and even allow the possibility for them to speak up for themselves. Through the analysis of selected cases of “evil women” drawn from pre-imperial and early imperial received sources, the present paper explores the ideological, moralizing and rhetorical use of silence to control women’s behaviour in early China.

Kate Crosby (University of Oxford)

“Unheard, unseen and central: the long shadow cast over modern Theravada by early struggles with female agency”

The attitudes towards women voiced in the early Buddhist canon are inconsistent. Sure, they are capable of enlightenment. Yet after the Buddha reluctantly allows women to become nuns, he then declares that their inclusion will wreak havoc, halving like a disease the lifespan of the religion that he has spent years designing to ensure its longevity. Sure, lust is an unwholesome mental state, a problem in the beholder not the beheld. Yet the monastic-centric texts at the same time convey women as dangerous temptresses ‘even when dying’. This paper provides some examples of how this background continues to set the tone in Theravada practice, and how it has obscured for both practitioners and scholars, the centrality of female agency, both actual and symbolic, in traditional Theravada literary and meditation practices.

Thomas Crone (IKGF Erlangen–Nürnberg)
“Silence as a Sign of (Male) Powerlessness? The Case of the Western Han Manuscript 
Wang Ji

妄稽 (Ms. Baseless)”

Wang Ji is a Western Han (202–9 BCE) narrative poem obtained by Peking University in 2009, along with several other looted bamboo manuscripts. The text depicts the eponymous and explicitly fictional wife Wang Ji (literally, “Baseless” or “Unattested”) and her jealousy of the concubine/secondary wife/female slave (qie 妾) Yu Shi 虞士. Although the poem caters to the notion common at the time that women should only express dissent and criticism if it was for the benefit of their male counterparts, a closer look reveals that the domestic hierarchies and role distribution displayed by the narrative of the Wang Ji poem draw a significantly different picture. As I will argue in my paper, the silence of Wang Ji’s in-laws and husband towards her initially polite and later increasingly violent forms of protest indicates an intellectual helplessness and social powerlessness that rarely surfaces in traditionally transmitted texts from the same period. Compared to many traditional narratives, in which marriages and domestic life are generally characterized by female loyalty and obedience, Wang Ji represents an odd and provocative counter-example, highlighting the potentially adversarial nature of gender relations during the early Han era.

‘Nolumus mutare…’: further reflections

Tuesday 21 February, 5:00pm 

South School, Examination Schools 

This concluding lecture reflects on the problems and possibilities of comparative legal history before moving on to the differences and similarities in patterns of England, France, and north Italy in the period c.1160-1270.

All are welcome.

Link to their page here.

‘Secreted in the interstices of procedure’: actions, ideas, and legal change

Tuesday 14 February, 5:00pm 

South School, Examination Schools 

This lecture explores the ways in which deliberate legal change came to have unintended effects, especially on substantive law. It considers the interplay of legal learning, legal reasoning, and legal change. In so doing, it ponders Sir Henry Maine’s view of substantive law being secreted in the interstices of procedure.

All are welcome.

Link to their page here.

Old Frisian Summer School

Old Frisian: a gem within the Old Germanic languages

9-16 July 2023, University of Oxford, St Edmund Hall

Link to their page here. For anybody interested, watch a lecture by the organiser Dr Johanneke Sytsema johanneke.sytsema@ling-phil.ox.ac.uk:

Introductory Lecture as part of the series Topics in German Historical Linguistics

What is the OFSS about?

Students will learn about Old Frisian language, text corpus, culture and history in the context of Old Germanic languages. Linguistic comparisons will be drawn between Old Frisian and the other (West) Germanic languages. Settlement history of Frisians in Britain, Old Frisian Law and Literature and Old Frisian manuscripts will be discussed in lectures. Library visits will focus on the Old Frisian manuscripts in Oxford. The OFSS will close with a social day in Oxford. The OFSS is about learning to read Old Frisian and to place Old Frisian in a wider linguistic, literary and historical context.

Who is the summer school for?

The summer school is aimed at students, PhD candidates and early career researchers with an interest in (Old) Germanic languages who want to familiarise themselves with Old Frisian.

What will the day programme look like?

There will be two lectures in the mornings and a translation workshop or library visit in the afternoons. The programme will cover the Old Frisian grammar in lectures by experts in the field and in translation workshops. Students will read Old Frisian texts in the afternoon workshops with help of modern handbooks and learn about the Old Frisian text corpus

By the end of the week, students should be able to translate a medium level Old Frisian text with the help of handbooks and have gained a good level of knowledge of the place and importance of Old Frisian within the Old Germanic language family

A visit to the Bodleian Library will enable students to view the Old Frisian manuscripts that are kept at Oxford.

Blog about the 2019 OFSS http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2019/09/25/the-first-oxford-groningen-old-frisian-summer-school/

And video report https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIkV2PkKf48 (by Fardau Visser)

Confirmed speakers:

  • Prof Andreas Deutsch, Deutsches Rechtswörterbuch, Heidelberg
  • Dr Peter-Alexander Kerkhof, Frisian Academy, Ljouwert/Leeuwarden
  • Prof Simon Horobin, University of Oxford
  • Dr Rafael Pascual, University of Oxford
  • Mr Hilbert Vinkenoog (YouTube channel History with Hilbert)
  • Mr Anne Popkema MA, Groningen University
  • Dr Johanneke Sytsema, University of Oxford

What does it cost?

  • In person fees: £350 (Early bird rate £300 if booked by May 1st)
  • Hybrid fees: £150.00

Fees for in person attendance will include

  • Tuition and workshops
  • Study materials
  • Coffee/tea
  • Daily 3-course lunch
  • Saturday social activities
  • Library visits
  • Conference dinner

Hybrid fees will include access to all streamed lectures and electronic access to the grammar and dictionary during the week.


Participants can book accommodation in student halls belonging to St Edmund Hall (email address susan.mccarthy@seh.ox.ac.uk first come first served) or find accommodation in another college in Oxford via https://www.universityrooms.com/

For further information about the Summer School please contact: oldfrisian@ling-phil.ox.ac.uk (for all interested) or ofss@rug.nl (for students of Groningen University)

Deadline for registration:

  • 1st May for early birds – (in-person)
  • 31st May for in-person participation
  • 15th June for online attendance.


Please complete the application form and payment details will be sent to you by email.

Registration QR code

Travel and Venue

Heathrow Airport is most convenient for Oxford. The Airline Bus Service to Oxford is frequent and cost-effective.

Directions from the train station

Most lectures and workshops will be held at St Edmund Hall. Information about travel to St Edmund Hall can be found here.

The Emergence of the Medieval Graphosphere at the Dark Archives Conferences

  • Stephen Pink and Anthony John Lappin
This article adapts the Introduction to Dark Archives Volume I: Voyages into the Medieval Unread and Unreadable. Medium Ævum Monographs N.S. 43 (Oxford, 2022). Available in print and digitally at https://aevum.space/NS43

‘Nel suo profondo ‘In its depth I saw
vidi che s’interna, legato contained, bound with
con amore in un love in one volume,
volume, cio che per what is scattered as scraps
‘l’universo si squaderna’ through the universe.

Dante, Paradiso,

AS WE ORGANISED THE FIRST DARK ARCHIVES CONFERENCE IN 2019 on the praxis of digitisation and its impact on medieval studies worldwide, little did we think that we would be arranging its sequels during a worldwide pandemic, with medievalists struggling for access to archives and libraries, even those which had previously been anything but dark. And so this volume, born of the pre-coronal world, in gathering together articles from papers delivered at the first event, forms a composite with those that followed, which were celebrated virtually and have been published as an on-line record of papers delivered, discussions round-tabled, and blogs subsequently posted.[2] The development of Dark Archives into a hybrid, inseparably digital and physical, reflects the broader transformation of medieval studies and indeed our whole world: the digital substitutes which became necessary to living during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have not only persisted afterwards but begun, in often unsettling ways, to blend with the old existence into something new (as in our part inhabitation of the now-omnipresent Zoom).[3] Clearly, we now dwell in a ‘Metaverse’ (as Neal Stephenson first termed it, and in the full intended sense of its latest proponents)[4] – an inseparably digital and physical life with novel and still emergent properties, often as exotic as those of Jorge Luis Borges’ Orbis Tertius or ‘Third World’.[5]

As one journey therefore halted – the archives became inaccessible (literally dark, in most cases) in ways unknown since the birth of medieval studies – another began. Yet on reflection, this journey has been less one of actual praxis than of acknowledging an existing fact: a vast area of medieval studies has predominately been conducted within a Metaverse for more than a decade, the beneficiary (or victim, some would argue) of inexorable and massive increases in the digitised representations of physical sources, primary and secondary. The present time, in annis coronae, has therefore sharpened our awareness of the issues involved in the first Dark Archives conference rather than supplanted them. Our primary concerns, which structured the conference and the present volume, centred around our knowledge of the written heritage (subsumed under the heading of the ‘Graphosphere’); its digital records (‘metadata’) alongside the huge challenge of harvesting, structuring and curating them; and the nature of the future scholarship that may resultantly emerge.

Mapping the Medieval Graphosphere

The medieval ‘Graphosphere’, as we define it, is itself one such emergent Metaverse object – the totality of what was inked, traced, daubed, carved, and scratched in the medieval Old World, from (somewhat arbitrarily) the end of antiquity in the West to its gradual adoption of movable-type printing in the fifteenth century; and, further, the infinitesimal survival of those scripta into the present; (other names suggest themselves, such as Michael G. Sargent’s Pleroma (πλήρωμα or ‘Fullness’), of the medieval written tradition).[6] Barely grazed by scholarship, to grasp this totality has for centuries been the province of ecstatic vision, theory, fantasy, and horror, but only in the last decade or two, of scientific quest.[7] Hugely lagging the parallel process for printed books, itself largely unaccomplished,[8] we feel ourselves at the equivalent stage of the Age of Discoveries, of multiple missions into the previously unknown, that broadly capped what we ourselves term the Medieval. The reference to the Portuguese expansion is not simply mad self-aggrandisement (brought on by Zoom over-exposure). It captures on the one hand how soaringly the Graphosphere dwarfs our existing working map in extent, and whose proper charting will, we suspect, marginalise the latter as far as the circumnavigators did the Mappa Mundi; on the other, the great energies we witnessed at Dark Archives being marshalled to this end. Examples included: the unprecedentedly large Polonsky Foundation-funded scanning projects to digitally re-unite bodies of manuscripts dispersed since the medieval period, represented for us by the Polonsky Greek Manuscripts Project;[9] Sarah Savant’s presentation on the KITAB digitisation project,[10] which had by around 2020 produced a database of 1.5 billion words of eighth- to fifteenth-century C.E. written Arabic; and the project of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library to digitally preserve handwritten artefacts from across the globe.[11] Quantifying what is still extant in France’s incredibly rich libraries and archives is the topic of Anastasia Shapovalova’s paper, which describes the Biblissima project in which she is herself involved, as a tool for exploring this rich cultural reserve.

However, in seeking to even grasp the Graphosphere’s vastness our terrestrial analogy falters (while cosmological ones beckon), for it must also encompass what has been lost – a body of ‘dark matter’, literally unreadable, itself in turn dwarfing the extant (read or unread).[12] The ambition to sketch and eventually restore this lacuna was highlighted at Dark Archives by Beyond2022, with its aim to reconstruct as fully as possible the centuries of material destroyed in the 1922 fire at Ireland’s Public Record Office; Krista Murchison’s similar efforts for manuscripts destroyed in the Second World War;[13] Joanna Tucker’s presentation, ‘Survival and Loss: working with documents from medieval Scotland’, where monastic cartularies are excavated for information of lost documents, but disappeared monasteries are also queried for their lost cartularies; and our extended Dark Archives 20 round-table debate on ‘Loss and Dispersal’, chaired by Elizabeth Solopova.[14] Nor can one speak of the ‘lost’ as a constant, since it grew unevenly throughout the medieval period and continues to do so, if not at the past’s calamitous rates.[15]

If one had to identify an inaugural journey of the Graphosphere era, it would be Eltjo Buringh’s Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database (2011).[16] By applying statistics to a small database of manuscript records, Buringh inferred outline numbers, with more detailed breakdowns, for the Latin West’s total production from the sixth to the fifteenth centuries – c. 11mn whole manuscripts of which c. 0.75mn remain (albeit with major caveats to the definition of ‘manuscript’), part of a more loosely estimated c. 3mn surviving manuscripts, produced as far afield as Ethiopia and India, from the first to nineteenth centuries.[17] This was a marked development upon previous estimations[18] in its combined method, scale, and sheer ambition – an Erastothenes, Buringh longed to calculate the entirety of Old World medieval manuscript production, but was hampered by the time’s limited techniques and (above all) data. Yet both the need and practicality of an interrogable, navigable model of the Graphosphere along these lines has become clearer with each annual flood of fresh data. Therefore we were delighted that Eltjo Buringh contributed the opening Keynote to the first Dark Archives conference, and the first chapter of this Proceedings, with a re-consideration of his methods in the context of lost codices in England and Scotland. It was remarkable to see the influence of his work in a range of other research presented at Dark Archives, including the flowering science of manuscript statistics.[19]

What has also become clearer is that any credible Graphosphere model must embrace not only all geographic areas of production, but all kinds of written artefact – from manuscript fragments (whose enormous scope for reconstructing the medieval was the subject of Lisa Fagin Davis’ Dark Archives 20 keynote, and other presentations),[20] and writings neither on parchment nor paper such as graffiti,[21] to artefacts generally ignored as being ‘written’ at all (despite clearly possessing a laden semantic freight for their original users). Two articles therefore explore the cast and the carved: Rosário Morujão describes the progress made in cataloguing, describing, analysing (from pictographic and chemical points of view) and preserving medieval Portuguese seals (‘Dark Seals in Portuguese Archives’);[22]and John Hines offers a discussion of the origin and importance of runic inscriptions throughout northern Europe, ending with a particularly illuminating case-study of a runic fragment and its attached object (‘The Dark Sides of the Runes’).[23] Materiality is here crucially important in the study of the written object, or the object with writing upon or within it.[24]The evident thing-ness of the wax seal, or bridle-bit runically inscribed, encourages us to consider it ‘in the round’, and so both description and photographic representation have been spurred to capture its 3D accents — such three-dimensional represen­tations are already arriving for manuscripts, providing a depth to the otherwise flattened page and the physical volume of the codex. At the same time, excessive pursuit the perfect simulacrum (in the manner of the facsimiles produced with remarkable exactitude by Ediciones Siloé)[25]can draw us away from the inherent properties and possibilities of digitisation itself, not least that of simply preserving the physical aspects of manuscripts whose very existence, like both the libraries and the archivists that preserve them, is threatened.

We concluded our Mapping the Medieval Graphosphere session by turning to a third indispensable element of its dark matter, neither completely unknown nor destroyed: those things about which we know but which remain unread or unrated, dark in the archives because they remain unopened. Clearly, some of this neglect is due to difficulties of access, a point brought out by Paul Dryburgh – and sometimes that difficulty is purposeful (see the frustrations of Roger Martínez Davila in certain religious repositories in Spain, and Anna Dorofeeva’s presentation on medieval ciphers);[26] but another aspect, as Monika Opalińska’s article shows in its unpicking of vernacular English translations of the Pater noster, is due to unquestioning reliance on the assumptions of previous scholarship, and in the West a nineteenth- and twentieth-century system of values for the evaluation of its texts – religious texts have suffered particularly from this tendency to marginalize cultural production.[27] To that inheritance of distortions in western materials we must add its working archives of non-European writings, often the outcome of entirely arbitrary choices in the colonial era as to what should be sent home – a distortion which the Arcadia fund is correcting through its drive to digitally scan and preserve texts situated in areas from sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia.[28] We were also honoured to welcome the literary historian Yating Zhang, via Zoom, from Shaanxi, for an eye-opening history of the reception of medieval English texts in China, a perspective completely new to most scholars of medieval Europe who dwell on the continent itself or in North America.[29]

 Liberation from the assumptions of our education (and that of our supervisors) may be the first great and necessary outcome of mapping the Graphosphere. By opening ever more doors and windows into the archive’s darkness, allowing an ever fuller picture to be drawn, we expect so much of what went before (previously taken as the totality of the archive), to be confirmed as a somewhat arbitrary wandering through a fraction. Then we can truly grapple with what has survived and been lost, and fundamentally redraw mental maps of the Middle Ages whose shaky outlines were laid down in the late fifteenth century, or the Victorian age, or the period between the World Wars. Thus in one way, we stand like Henry the Navigator, the recipients of ever-increasing snippets of information that will supplement the metaphorical significance of the Orbis terrarum maps beloved of the illuminators of the Beatus manuscripts or the fillers-in of the mappae mundi; and in another, we peer like the seventeenth-century scientist Nicolaus Steno at a new historical geology, with the hope of now understanding its sediments and how they were laid down, in place of former explanations of self-serving etiologies.

Detail from The Vision of St. Benedict (Giovanni del Biondo, 14th Century).[30] This depiction of Benedict’s vision of ‘the whole world … as if gathered together’ stands out in the tradition for accentuating the spherical aspect of the Orbis terrarum, and thus (somewhat contradictorily) that a portion is obscured from Benedict’s as well as our direct view.[31]

Endless deserts, oceans & mountains: the Metadata Crisis

At both Dark Archives 19 and 20 we necessarily turned from the theoretical survey of the Graphosphere to the central practical challenge we must solve before we can even begin to own its territory – the ‘Metadata Crisis’, as our second keynote of Dark Archives19, Will Noel, put it.[32] This crisis has been acutely one of scarcity of digital information, and the variable quality of much of what there is. Our physical written heritage remains overwhelmingly unscanned in a usable fashion, let alone described, most of all because of the prohibitive expense of doing so, limiting even the best-funded scanning initiatives to strategic selections of a few thousand folio pages.[33] We were pleased to welcome some of the major funders of these initiative for an insight into their motivations, represented by Marc Polonsky of the Polonsky Foundation, Maja Kominko and Simon Chaplin of Arcadia Fund, and Daniel Reid of the Whiting Foundation.[34] The 2019 Notre Dame fire reminded us of the pricelessness for their own sake of digital records of our vulnerable medieval heritage, quite besides that of data extraction – and until recently, indeed, one would have to question the latter motivation. By even an optimistic guess of numbers of people currently capable of reading a handwritten medieval text (and the rosiest forecasts for training more) it might take millennia to transcribe them all.[35]

To our initial rescue, ex machina, may come automated Optical Character Recognition (OCR), or for medieval manuscripts more precisely, Optical Handwriting Recognition (OHR). Previously a collection of techniques only achieving useful (if far from total) accuracy with uniform post-Gutenberg printed type, Achim Rabus’ article demonstrates the huge progress, as well as limits, of the Transkribus project in machine reading the vastly greater complexity and variability of medieval handwriting.[36] Dark Archives was also privileged to hear Verónica Romero, from the Universidad Politécnica of Valencia, speaking on their own OHR successes; Vincent Christlein who presented his own work on algorithm-driven identification of scribes, dating of hands and the recognition of document types, and Estelle Guéville and David Joseph Wrisley on advances in machine-reading manuscript abbreviations.[37] Roger Martínez Davila’s article in this volume approaches the same problem with a truly impressive alternative: the harnessing of the general public, and its interest in its own heritage, to transcribe documents via Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS) with high accuracy – in this case, the archives of multi-confessional medieval Iberia; [38] a similar approach but with more specific goals was the La Sfera transcription competition described for us by two of its organisers, Laura Morreale and Ben Albritton.[39] Effective not only in transcrib-ing texts beyond the competence of current OHR, the results of such crowd-sourced endeavours can also be used in turn to train yet more accurate OHR models. Indeed, with the advent of ever more powerful forms of machine-learning, the latest of which teach themselves without human re-training, it seems only a matter of time before machines deliver a huge new archive of materials that medieval studies will then be obliged to incorporate within itself.[40]

However, exactly such progress in automation is hastening what we believe to be the crux of the metadata crisis: not the scarcity but the potential endlessness of information about a physical written artefact that might be digitally captured and represented. Throughout Dark Archives, the related debates on what the digital can, cannot or can only capture of the physical have often seemed at root metaphysical (and emotively so, amplified by the unique stresses of the pandemic). At the Dark Archives 20 panel, ‘The Whole Book?’, chaired by Lisa Fagin Davis, and its associated papers there emerged on the one hand a palpable excitement that we now possessed a new object of study, inseparably material artefact and digital repres-entation, generated by their constant interplay (see, for example, the presentation of Lena Vosding, Natascha Domeisen, Luise Morawetz, and Carolin Gluchowski).[41] On the other there was great discomfort at the huge potential damage of equating digitised information, no matter how plentiful, with the ipsissima res of each unique medieval manuscript. Indeed, it was argued, the futile quest for digital verisimilitude of the physical should be abandoned, so that the digital may be re-evaluated on its own terms.[42] Yet, before our eyes, such debates are fast being sidelined by the onrush of data now being generated, with manuscript folio images alone now numbering in the millions. Its sheer range and quantity was on display at Dark Archives, from Vincent Christlein and Daniel Stromer’s digital unwrapping of fragile rolls of text using tomography, and Alexander J. Zawacki and Helen Davies’ related recovery of palimpsested text via spectrography, to Sarah Fiddyment’s capturing of the DNA and other biological markers left on codices – the very ‘writing of life’, of huge significance to a range of historical enquiries beyond codicology itself.[43]

It is this tsunami of unprocessed information that threatens to define our Metadata Crisis as one of ‘superabundance’, as Elaine Treharne termed it in her Dark Archives 20/20 keynote. In fact, this superabundance is welcomed by Treharne and others as a transform-ing catalyst to scholarship, premised upon automated machine-categorisation evolving to carve out navigable pathways for human scholarly explorers. The power of such algorithms to classify manuscript images was already on display in her collaborator Ben Albritton’s presentation (in this case, by isolating illuminated initials); techniques promising to knit our digital records, regardless of the fragmentation of metadata and physical sources, into a massive, open and online ‘Future Archive’ (these issues and more explored in the eponymous panel chaired by Suzanne Paul).[44] We also saw how other medieval data scientists are working to lend such images at least a metadata skeleton, as witnessed by Andrew Hankinson’s presentation on the crucial International Image Inter-operability Framework (IIIF) protocols in which major scanning initiatives are now encoded.[45] Likewise, Debra Cashion’s article here presented (‘Selva Oscura: in and out of a dark archive’) demonstrated the great use to researchers of the attachment of provisional meta-data to digitised images.[46] Yet without rapid advances, ex machina, of the kind anticipated by Treharne to structure, interrogate, and interpret the data – a recurrent demand of our contributors – we are faced with what Zawacki and Davies term a ‘new kind of dark archive … a “digital palimpsest”’.[47]

Moreover, as William Mattingly’s Dark Archives 21 presentation at UnEdition soberingly brings home, the very likelihood that independent self-teaching AI will complete the scanning of our archive without human input threatens us not only with a vast further body of data, but one which we may not immediately, fully (or ever) comprehend, or trust.[48] As of 2022, such a scenario seems closer than ever with the astonishing progress and apparent creativity shown by machine interpretation of humanity’s cultural heritage, along with indifference to our distinctions between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, as demonstrated by services such as Dall-E and ChatGPT.[49]

Thus, the lesson of our current struggle with metadata may be that setting out to know the medieval Graphosphere in any exhaustive, enumerative sense will achieve the very opposite, for its emerging territories and cruxes have the endlessness of a Mandelbrot fractal; as one kind of Terra Incognita disappears, a vaster one takes its place. We have (perhaps comfortingly) come full circle. Yet, what should our goals be, if that of complete discovery is futile?

New worlds of medieval scholarship

Among major grounds for optimism is that medievalists are already constructing the worlds of scholarship that a realised Graphosphere might make possible – moreover these are evolutions, not supersessions, of existing scholarly techniques. One such field was demonstrated by Mark Faulkner, whose ‘Corpus Philology, Big Dating and Bottom-Up Periodisation’ brings that most traditional of disciplines, philology, into fruitful commerce with the developments in corpus linguistics over the last decades. As the title suggests, he imagines the scope of a fully realised digital corpus of medieval textual materials to uncover vernacular linguistic features previously un-systematised, or even simply ignored, in older surveys on which we have relied. We may thereby transform, from ‘the bottom up’, our placement of ‘the composition of texts in time and space’.[50] This approach indicates how medieval ‘Big Data’ may rebuild the entire foundation of assumptions upon which current medieval scholarship rests, as was on display throughout Dark Archives and specifically debated at our Dark Archives 20 Round-Table debate, ‘The Future of Scholarship’, chaired by Peter Frankopan.[51]

Perhaps the most often articulated ambition in the Dark Archives events was to liberate the scholarly presentations of texts from the constraints of the static two-dimensional page and dominant single-manuscript edition. Thus William G. Sargent’s article invokes William Gibson’s three-dimensional ‘Cyberspace’ (an inspiration for the ‘Metaverse’): a realm of free mental movement to be contrasted with the crabbed world of our physical existence. In Cyberspace, Sargent suggests, we might finally experience the fullness of manuscript traditions – each represented as an independent ‘arcology’ with its dizzyingly complex networks of variances, distributions, sequence of recensions, and links to other such arcologies. Thereby we might dispel the ‘obfuscation’ of fixed print snapshots.[52] We were able to follow up this vision of the future Edition – or of the ‘UnEdition’, as Laura Morreale and Ben Albritton termed it, at an eponymous Dark Archives 20/21 event chaired by Paolo Trovato.[53] Presentations ranged from that of Wouter Haverals and Mike Kestemont on ‘UnEditing the Herne Corpus’, via a massively ‘hyperdiplomatic’, rapidly updateable and interactive digital edition of that monastery’s entire library, through to Anthony Bale’s evocation of the breathtaking permutations of John Mandeville’s Travels as its own manuscripts voyaged through Europe’s vernaculars – its true tale (inaccessible to rescensionist quests for an originary exemplar) one of constant re-fashioning in its medieval audiences’ imaginations.[54]

However, UnEdition also made clear that a truly useful repres-entation of this complexity still belongs to a more advanced ludic future age (except, that is, via the royal road of narrative description demonstrated by Bale himself). One route ahead was signalled by the Digital Editions Live workshop co-hosted by Dark Archives in 2021 (with Oxford Medieval Studies, and OCTET, the Oxford Centre for Textual Editing and Theory), reflecting on the digital editions recently crafted by Oxford medievalist students, based upon the protocols of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).[55] Perhaps the event’s greatest lesson in this regard was that scholarly discernment, including traditional rescensionist editing skills, will be  more important than ever in crafting useful scholarship from the vast amounts of data now available. Another lesson was the pressing need (as in humanities tout court), for a proactive digital pedagogy to gradually incorporate these new skills, even as digital technology itself constantly evolves. Perhaps the most novel aspect of Digital Editions Live was the augmentation of each presentation with a ‘live-feed’ consultation, from the Bodleian, of the physical original, an art brought to perfection by Andrew Dunning (so dramatically present did the three-dimensional physical artefact feel that one convenor nearly shouted when a student’s desktop cup of coffee appeared side-by-side with ‘her’ manuscript on the screen)!

Digital Editions Live is also the latest of our learning experiences in crafting the Dark Archives series itself, which now ranges from the workshops of 2019 (which covered skills from spectrography, and the scanning of seals on a budget, to crowdsourcing transcriptions) to the organising of subsequent events online in and after lockdown.[56] Freed from the constraints of physical space and (in many ways) time, and to involve a truly global audience, we arranged for Dark Archives 20 presentations to be entirely pre-recorded, pre-captioned (by computer, sometimes amusingly) and released several days ahead of the scheduled live panels, with all participants encouraged to digest them beforehand. This front-loaded approach allowed us to concentrate the live events themselves (also computer live-captioned) in the early afternoon to early evening GMT, maximising the active attendance of many hundreds from as far afield as the US West Coast and China. Alongside the Zoom events we ran a separate online text forum (on ‘Discord’) allowing discussion of themes at any time. Behind the scenes the event was kept going by shifts of unseen but vital online moderators, from Oxford Medieval Studies, the University of Fribourg, and the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs). This born-digital approach also greatly facilitated the creation of a comprehensive digital archive of the event’s metadata (to fuel future discussion, events and scholarship (see https://darkarchiv.es). Yet among the most impressive achievements were those ‘outreach’ events that took place between the main sessions: the ‘Blogging with Manuscripts’ Presentations and Prize (also awarded via Zoom) associated with the #PolonskyGerman Project;[57] and, finally, ‘Singing Together. Apart’, an extraordinary Zoom Compline in the evening (GMT) of the second day, which united in perfect synchrony singers physically dispersed across many locations (from St Edmund Hall’s crypt to the Church of St Barnabas Church in Jericho) together with all of the people who digitally attended from around the world.[58]


Throughout our discussions at Dark Archives has run a quandary, explicitly or in the background — what truly is a digital repres-entation of a material thing; what truly are the two taken together? Far from being esoteric, in the last few years we have recognised it to be an existential issue, for it has convulsed all our lives, and as yet we have no answers. To explore it more broadly, we invited Luciano Floridi to present a Dark Archives keynote, to which he very graciously agreed.[59] However, his planned article became another casualty of the times, as he became wholly involved in advising on various privacy issues regarding the UK Government’s ‘world-beating’ COVID-19 app that would potentially allow an efficient track-and-trace operation to be launched, thereby saving countless lives. Professor Floridi’s contribution to the philosophy of information has been so important that we sought another philosopher who might be able to give an overview of Floridi’s thought and its implications for digital humanities – in particular Floridi’s situating the historical archive at the heart of human life via the digital, as encapsulated in his conception of hyperhistory (our dependence upon the digital, and our incessant creation of digital traces).[60]

Whatever our future digital representation of the medieval world, already clear is that it will not be the nightmare of Borges’ Tlön. Rather, it is the medieval world in ways that we have never before experienced it, part of its physical existence as inseparably and magically as Dante’s vision in Paradiso of the pages scattered throughout the universe, beheld re-bound ‘in one simple light’.[61] Our manner of marvelling at this has taken the form of articles — such as those here — and blogs and presentations —such as those found on our website—followed by questions and the search for answers, the discussions of roundtables, all of which have deepened our knowledge of the written universe beyond us. We hope that the volume you hold in your hands, or your eyes scan on a screen, will mark the beginning of numerous exploratory paths for you into this newly revealed world.


We must thank everyone who has made the Dark Archives series thus far possible, including our presenters, panelists and chairs, and all those who kept things running behind the scenes: Pablo Acosta-García, Tuija Ainonen, Benjamin L. Albritton, Anthony Bale, Graham Barrett, Zoe Bartliff, Josephine Bewerunge, Elizabeth Biggs, Mary Boyle, Stewart J. Brookes, Scott Bruce, Eltjo Buringh, Toby Burrows, Daron Burrows, Debra Cashion, Matthew Champion, Simon Chaplin, Vincent Christlein, Sophie Clayton, Ralph Cleminson, Julia Craig-McFeely, Robin Darwall-Smith, Helen Davies, Karen Demond, Matteo di Franco, Maria do Rosário Morujão, Natascha Domeisen, Anna Dorofeeva, Sebastian Dows-Miller, Paul Dryburgh, Andrew Dunning, Sara Elis-Nilsson, Lisa Fagin Davis, Mark Faulkner, Gustavo Fernández Riva, Sarah Fiddyment, Chris Fletcher, Molly Ford, Alex Franklin, Peter Frankopan, Carolin Gluchowski, Emma Goodwin, Estelle Guéville, Andrew Hankinson, Wouter Haverals, Carrie Heusinkveld, Sam Heywood, John Hines, Matthew Holford, Kyle Ann Huskin, Folgert Karsdorp, Martin Kauffmann, Mike Kestemont, Ben Kiessling, Lynn Killgallon, David King, Maja Kominko, Pavlina Kulagina, Henrike Lähnemann, Franziska Lallinger, Andres Laubinger, Caroline Lehnert, Molly Lewis, James Louis Smith, Roger Louis Martinez-Davila, William Mattingly, John McEwan, Genevieve McNutt, Luise Morawetz, Laura Morreale, Krista Murchison, Eva Neufeind, Mary Newman, Will Noel, Monika Opalińska, Richard Ovenden, Nigel F. Palmer, Suzanne Paul, Luca Polidoro, Marc Polonsky, Dot Porter, Ellie Pridgeon, Adrien Quéret-Podesta, Achim Rabus, Henry Ravenhall, Daniel Reid, Tom Revell, Shannon Ritchey, Jane Roberts, Natasha Romanova, Verónica Romero, Anastasija Ropa, Edgar Rops, Miri Rubin, David Rundle, Rebeca Sanmartin Bastida, Michael G. Sargent, Sarah Savant, Daniel Sawyer, Marlene Schilling, Carolin Schreiber, Anastasia Shapovalova, Elizabeth Solopova, Lesley Smith, Emma Stanford, Alyssa Steiner, Columba Stewart, Jo Story, Justin Stover, Daniel Stromer, Jane H.M. Taylor, Keri Thomas, Samuel Thrope, Elaine Treharne, Paolo Trovato, Joanna Tucker, Cornelis van Lit, Stacie Vos, Lena Vosding, Julia Walworth, Michelle R. Warren, Teresa Webber, Thomas White, Pip Willcox, Lois Williams, Damon Wischik, Christopher Wright, David Joseph Wrisley, Ulrike Wuttke, Alexander Zawacki, and Yating Zhang. Finally, we must thank our sponsors, sine qua non: Medium Ævum, Oxford Medieval Studies, the Bodleian Library, and the Oxford English Faculty which freely and graciously provided our venue for the first physical conference in 2019.

Stephen Pink
 Anthony John Lappin

[1]   English translation indebted to many others, most recently Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy 3: Paradiso, trans. Robin Kirkpatrick. (London, 2007).

[2]   See https://darkarchiv.es for the details of the successive events of 2019-21.

[3]   As Elaine Treharne pointed out in her wide-ranging keynote on the relation between the material and the digital at Dark Archives 20/20 (DA20), ‘Seeing and Being Seen: manuscripts and their digital viewers‘, one reason that prolonged Zoom use has felt so draining to many is that ‘your eyes and ears take on … the entire responsibility of the in-person meeting’.

[4]   Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (New York, 1992), passim. Although the term is clearly a conflation of ‘universe’ and ‘meta’, the latter is susceptible to a range of interpretation: in OED, as ‘beyond, above, at a higher level’, certainly, but most relevant to the IT industry’s current ambitions to create an indispensable hybrid reality for humanity, as ‘denoting change, transformation, permutation, or substitution’. In 2021, reflecting such ambitions, Facebook Inc. renamed itself ‘Meta’.

[5]    The ‘third world’ is a new existence forged, in Borges’ ficción, from the leakage into ours of the impossibly fantastic qualities of the world of Tlön; Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, Sur 68 (1940), 36-46.

[6]   On πλήρωμα, see ‘Birth of the UnEdition’, part of the Dark Archives 20/21 (DA20-21) series of events; on its theological connotations, see for example Jn. 1.16. We have drawn the general idea of a ‘Graphosphere’ from Simon Franklin’s The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 2019), and less directly from Régis Debray’s division of human signage into the ‘logosphere’, ‘graphosphere’ and ‘videosphere’ eras (see Régis Debray, trans. Eric Rauth. ‘Three Ages of Looking’. Critical Inquiry 21.3 (1995), 529-55. Our consideration of the medieval Graphosphere broadly ends where Franklin’s begins, chronologically at least, at the rise of movable-type printing in Europe; however, all boundary definitions commonly attaching to ‘the medieval’, itself hugely problematic, await reconsideration through a proper survey of the Graphosphere itself.

[7]   For example Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII.85-88, quoted above; Karl Popper’s ‘Three Worlds’ classification (e.g. Karl Popper, ‘Three Worlds: The Tanner Lecture on Human Values Delivered at the University of Michigan, April 7, 1978‘, 144, 162-63); and Borges’ ‘Del rigor en la ciencia’ (Los anales de Buenos Aires 1.3 (1946), 53), following Lewis Carroll (Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, London/New York, 1893, 169), in which human hubris creates a one-to-one scale map of the world, overlaid upon the world itself, with Babelian outcomes.

[8]   In October 2019, Google Books reported that it had scanned more than 40 million printed volumes, in 400 languages, out of its earlier estimated total of c. 130mn (Lee Haimin. ‘15 years of Google Books’. (blog post, 2019); Leonid Taycher, ‘Books of the World, Stand up and be Counted! All
129,864,880 of you
’ (blog post, 2010)).

[9]   Christopher Wright and Matteo di Franco spoke on the Polonsky Foundation Greek Manuscripts project, ‘From isolation to integration: making Greek manuscripts readable’ (DA19). One might point to the ambitious projects to digitize the manuscript holdings of the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (Marenliese Holscher and Katharina Mähler, ‘Ready for the Big Show: how manuscripts are prepared for digitization’, covering the Polonsky Foundation’s project, ‘Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands’) which has had subsequent knock-on effects such as the digitisation of the 127 manuscripts in the Staats- und Universitäts Bibliothek of Bremen between 2020-21, funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.

[10]  Sarah Savant, ‘Finding Meaning in 1.5 Billion Words of Arabic: the KITAB project and its aims’ (DA19).

[11] Columba Stewart, ‘Showing the Medieval and Early Modern World as it Actually Was: the expansion of the work of HMML (the Hill Museum & Library) beyond monastic libraries in Europe to global preservation of handwritten heritage’ (DA20).

[12] On ‘dark matter’, cosmic and written, see further Michael G. Sargent, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight: the obfuscation of manuscript evidence in the modern critical edition’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 315-35 (315).

[13]  Krista Murchison’s ‘Righting and Rewriting History: recovering and analyzing manuscript archives destroyed during World War II’ (NWO Project Database) will reach its completion in 2023. For her paper to Dark Archives 20/20, see Murchison 2020b.

[14]   Solopova 2020.

[15]  Further DA19 conference papers were given by Jo Story (‘Insular Manuscripts: how many and what next?’; Ralph Cleminson (‘Non leguntur: shedding light on Slavonic sources’; Adrien Quéret Podesta (‘Textual Ghosts in the Oldest Central European historiography’); Daniel Sawyer (‘At Knowledge’s Edge: lost materials’), Gustavo Fernández Riva (‘Network Analysis of Manuscripts’).

[16]  Eltjo Buringh, Medieval Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database (Leiden, 2011).

[17]  Buringh, Medieval Manuscript Production, esp. 16-17, 99, 232, 259-63. For example, Anastasija Ropa, and Edgar Rops’ DA20 presentation on ‘The Elusive Archives of Medieval Livonia’, whose independent existence ceased relatively early.

[18]  See, for example, Iter italicum (Kristeller 1967-92; 2006) and the Medieval Libraries of Great Britain database.

[19]  See also Mike Kestemont & Folgert Karsdorp, ‘Estimating the Loss of Medieval Literature with an Unseen Species Model from Ecodiversity’, DA20 Presentation, which adopts an ‘unseen species model’ used in calculating eco-diversity.

[20]   All at DA20: Lisa Fagin Davis (chair), ‘The Whole Book?’ ; Karen Desmond: ‘Fragments and Reconstructions: the written traces of polyphonic liturgical music in medieval Worcester and beyond‘ ; Sara Elis-Nilsson, ‘Using Manuscript Fragments to Map Lived Religion: the case of the cults of saints in medieval Sweden’.

[21]  See Matthew J. Champion’s DA20 presentation: ‘A Sea of Lost Words: the medieval graffiti inscriptions of England’s parish churches’.

[22]  See Dark Archives Vol. I,, 125-44. Seals were also the topic approached at DA19 by John McEwan, ‘Reflectance Transformation Imaging and Medieval Seals’.

[23]   See Dark Archives Vol. I,, 97-124.

[24]  Further engagement with materiality was found through the DA19 contributions of Henrike Lähnemann (‘Nun’s Dust’); David King (‘The Corpus vitrearum medii aevi’), Ellie Pridgeon (‘The Writing on the Wall: medieval painted inscriptions’), and Sarah Fiddyment (‘Manuscript Palaeo-proteomics’).

[25]  http://siloe.es. Most recently engaged by the Beinecke Library to produce a facsimile edition of the Voynich manuscript, which retails at around eight thousand euro.

[26]  Paul Dryburgh, ‘Peering into an Impenetrable Gloom and the “Tyranny” of Digital by Design: the future of medieval collections at The National Archives (UK)?’ (DA19); Lisa Fagin Davis (chair), ‘The Whole Book?’ (DA20); Anna Dorofeeva, ‘Book Ciphers and the Medieval Unreadable’ (DA20);

[27]  See below, 145-67. Further DA19 papers on this theme were offered by Mathew Holford (‘The Least Studied Manuscripts in the Bodleian’) and David Rundle’s characteristically provocative think-piece (‘The Unbearable Lightness of the Archive’).

[28]  At DA20, Miri Rubin, Columba Stewart, Cornelis van Lit, and Maja Kominko engaged in an extended debate on ‘Inaccessibility and Bias’, chaired by Michael G. Sargent. See also the debate chaired by Suzanne Paul on ‘The Future Archive’; Stacie Vos, ‘The Dark Archive and the Silent Book: histories of access’; and Genevieve McNutt, ‘Inaccessible and Inconvenient Archives at the Turn of the Century’.

[29]  Yating Zhang, ‘Digitalization and Practicalities of Medieval English Studies in China’ (DA20).

[30]  The original is in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

[31]   Gregory the Great, Dialogi, II, 35.

[32]   Will Noel, ‘Through a Screen Darkly: the Metadata Crisis and the authority of the digital image’. Further, at DA19, Toby Burrows (‘Aggregating Provenance Metadata to Reveal the Histories of Medieval Manuscripts’) showed how metadata can be used to good effect.

[33]  Marc Polonsky discussed the various strategies adopted by the Polonsky foundation in his address, ‘Digitisation of Cultural Heritage: a funder’s perspective’ (DA19). Ben Kiessling, ‘The Limits to Digitization’ (DA19) sounded a warning note over some of these processes.

[34]   ‘Discussion: Funders’ Perspectives’, DA20 Round-table debate, chaired by Peter Frankopan.

[35]   Samuel Thrope, ‘The Curator in the Machine’ (DA20) discussed the difficulties of balancing accessibility with the reading experience in making public the digitized Arabic manuscripts of the National Library of Israel.

[36]  Achim Rabus, ‘Training Generic Models of Handwritten Text Recognition using Transkribus: opportunities & pitfalls’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 183-208.

[37]  Verónica Romero, ‘Interactive-Predictive Transcription and Probabilistic Text Indexing for Handwritten Image Collections’ (DA19); Vincent Christlein, ‘Scribal Identification and Document Classification’ (DA19); Estelle Guéville & David Joseph Wrisley. ‘Rethinking the Abbreviation: questions and challenges of machine reading medieval scripta’ (DA20).

[38]  Roger L. Martínez-Dávila, ‘The Space Between: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Spain. MOOCS, citizen science, and digital manuscript collections’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 209-51.

[39]  Laura Morreale and Ben Albritton. ‘Community, Collaboration, and the UnEdition’ (DA20/21).

[40]   See Demis Hassabis’ 2019 presentation at MIT on the ground-breaking AlphaGo Zero and ‘The Power of Self-Learning Systems’; Mattingly, ‘Leveraging the UnEdition’ (DA20/21).

[41]   Fagin Davis (chair), ‘The Whole Book?’ (DA20); Luise Morawetz, Natascha Domeisen, Carolin Gluchowski & Lena Vosding, ‘Blast from the Past and Back to the Future: manuscripts and digitisation’ (DA20). See further discussion of this phenomenon in Lapo Lappin, ‘The Beautiful Glitch: human and machine in Luciano Floridi’s philosophy of information’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 337-55 (esp. 345-46).

[42]   Stewart Brookes, ‘The Book, the Whole Book, and Nothing But the… Digital Surrogate’. Treharne, ‘Seeing and Been Seen‘ (DA20).

[43]   Sarah Fiddyment, ‘Reading the Invisible: can biocodicology help interpret the history of a manuscript?’ (DA20).

[44]  Treharne, ‘Seeing and Been Seen‘ (DA20) ; Benjamin L. Albritton, ‘Found Within: discovery and complex objects’ (DA20); Paul (chair), ‘The Future Archive’ (DA20).

[45]  Andrew Hankinson, ‘Discovery through Data: how IIIF shines a light into the dark archive’ (DA19); Albritton, ‘Found Within‘ (DA20).

[46]  Dark Archives Vol. I, 265-78.

[47]  Alexander J. Zawacki and Helen Davies, ‘Digital Archives and Damaged Texts: capturing, processing, and sharing multispectral image data’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 253-67 (267).

[48]  Mattingly, ‘Leveraging the UnEdition’ (DA20/21).

[49] DALL E 2 (https://openai.com/dall-e-2/); ChatGPT (https://chat.Openai.com/).

[50]  See Dark Archives Vol. I, 280-308. See also Scott Bruce’s DA20 presentation, ‘The Lost Patriarchs Project: discovering Greek patristics in the medieval Latin tradition’.

[51]  Peter Frankopan (chair), ‘The Future of Scholarship’ (DA20).

[52]  See Sargent, ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 315-35, quoting William Gibson’s Neuromancer (New York, 1984); Count Zero (New York, 1987); Mona Lisa Overdrive (New York, 1989).

[53]  Paolo Trovato (chair), ‘Birth of the UnEdition‘ (DA20/21).

[54]  Mike Kestemont & Wouter Haverals, ‘UnEditing the Unspoken: hyperdiplomatic digital editions of the remarkable vernacular manuscript collection of the Herne Charterhouse (ca. 1350-1400)’ (DA20).

Bale, Anthony 2021. ‘Towards an Un-edition of Sir John Mandeville’ (DA20/21).

[55]  Digital Editions Live (DA20/21).

[56]  All at DA19: Verónica Romero, ‘Hands-on Workshop on Assistive Technologies to Access the contents of handwritten text manuscripts’; John McEwan, ‘Imaging Seals on a Budget’; Roger Louis Martinez-Davila, ‘Crowdsourcing Manuscript Transcriptions: opportunities and challenges using MOOCs, social media, and emerging platforms’; Alexander Zawacki and Helen Davies, ‘Multispectral Imaging: technologies, techniques, and teaching’.

[57] Henrike Lähnemann et al., ‘#PolonskyGerman #BloggingMSS Presentations’ (DA20).

[58]  St. Edmund Hall Choir & friends, ‘Compline from the Crypt’ (DA20).

[59]  Luciano Floridi, ‘Semantic Capital: its nature and value’ DA19.

[60]  Lappin, ‘The Beautiful Glitch’, Dark Archives Vol. I, 331-48.

[61] Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII.85-90.