English MATTERS — SPRING 2010


Digital Humanities:
Illuminating a 14th-Century Poem in a Modern Technological World

Picture of Miceal Vaughan
Míċeál Vaughan

The Johns Hopkins University Press will be releasing a new print edition of the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman in late 2010 or early 2011, along with providing access to a digital and hyperlinked version of the text, a project that has taken Míċeál Vaughan over twenty years to bring to fruition. His plan to update the Knott-Fowler edition of the A-text in the late 1980s blossomed and grew from a straightforward revision of an existing book to a “hybrid” edition that will take advantage of recent advances in digital technology to redefine students’ relationships with Middle English texts. His project has benefited from interdisciplinary and technological collaboration involving scholars from the UW’s Department of English and iSchool, and from other institutions around the country.

Vaughan’s original project was to update the edition of the A-text of Piers published by our late colleague David C. Fowler in 1958. This edition, which posthumously made use of work begun by Thomas A. Knott, was a staple in undergraduate classrooms. “I thought it was the best of the three versions [of Piers] for beginning students of Middle English,” explains Vaughan. “It is the shortest and does not weigh them down with the complex intellectual and ecclesiastical issues added in the B- and C-texts. Since Knott-Fowler was out of print by the early 1980s, it seemed time to undertake an updating of it.”

At the early stages of his work with the manuscripts, Vaughan enlisted the help of various graduate students; one of those students, Gerald Barnett (Ph.D. ’88), created a unique pre-HTML markup system for Vaughan to utilize. “We were working on a way of marking Middle English texts so that distinctive features of their graphic forms could be distinguished, such as the multiple scribal forms of /s/ and /r/, or the odd letter forms, yogh and thorn,” he explains. With the help of the UW’s Royalty Research Fund, he and Clinton Atchley (Ph.D. ’98) digitized the black-and-white microfilm photos of the A-text manuscripts found in the David Fowler archives in the UW Libraries, with an eye toward developing a digital archive of all seventeen of the surviving Piers A-text manuscripts. This project has now been integrated into the international Piers Plowman Electronic Archive (PPEA) project housed at the University of Virginia.

screenshot of electronic Piers

Electronic media have evolved quickly in the last two decades; by 2000, Vaughan’s own earlier marked-up text migrated to HTML, and he was looking forward to further transformation as advances in digital textuality progressed. Vaughan began adapting and amending the project in the hope that it would remain continually viable as a modern classroom edition.

Thanks in large part to a generous grant from the Simpson Center that allowed him the resources and time to redefine how the digitized text should look, behave, and be used, Vaughan was able to bring on board Terry Brooks from the iSchool, who created a new XML editor specific to the dynamic challenges of Piers. “My role in the project was to create a number of parsers to extract Vaughan’s content from the HTML presentation format and create XML documents for the various parts of the poem,” explains Brooks. “Using the XML documents, he is able to present the revised version of Piers as HTML pages, Microsoft Word documents, and so on.” Having the variant texts marked up in a single XML file would allow a number of differing, though related, views of the text to be made available to readers.

The Johns Hopkins printed edition will be teamed with online electronic versions of the A-text, including a transcription with the scribe’s yoghs, thorns, and pre-modern punctuation retained, and a version with fully modernized spelling. In these texts, users will be able to obtain glossary help for difficult words by simply moving their cursors over the words and by clicking on a sidebar for hyperlinked explanatory notes. “I am trying to define a middle ground for classroom learning, one that joins modernized classroom texts with the intense textual scholarship of the PPEA at Virginia,” Vaughan says. “And who can say what the future might hold for this project? Perhaps direct connections with the texts available through the PPEA to the on-line Middle English Dictionary and to other electronic resources of medieval and early modern culture.”

See Vaughan's electronic Piers Plowman project at http://faculty.washington.edu/miceal/PiersA/

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