Tuesday evening and Wednesday were in Edmonton, Alberta which, oddly, is kind of my hometown. I did a couple of lectures and took pictures and dealt with unexpected sorrow. In this fragment we spend some quality time with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, consider whether electronic documents will outlive books or vice versa, and conclude with a conundrum.
Home Town · I was born in Edmonton. My Mom was a native of the city, my Dad a farm boy from just outside; at the time, they were living up North. I’ve only spent a year or two, in aggregate, in Edmonton, but I feel like I know the place, and I still have family there; I had a nice dinner with Uncle Allen, Aunt Sharon, and my cousin Lisa.
We were driving from lecture to lecture and all of a sudden I recognized the street and there was McKernan School where I took Sixth Grade and, a couple of blocks further on, Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Suddenly I was all choked up, staring down the hallway of time. My grandparents, and cousin and best friend of the time, are decades dead; the memories are so intense but so, so far away.
Lecturing · The talks were pretty well pure fun, I got to ride my favourite hobby-horses and there were lots of people there and they seemed interested and wanted to talk more, after. I felt a little uncomfortable that one of the talks was being billed as an “XML Report”, I haven’t done one of those in years, but it turns out that you can talk about pretty well anything under the XML banner these days — I chose language design, syndication, and the Long Tail, and it seemed to hang together.
Cotton Nero A.x. · The event that initially launched the trip was CaSTA, a humanities-computing symposium, and I was invited to be the “respondent” for a wonderful talk, The Challenge of Physicality, by Dr. Murray McGillivray, on The Cotton Nero A.x. Project. Cotton Nero A.x. is a fourteenth-century manuscript which is the only known source for several famous Middle English works, most notably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
That work is online in the original Middle English, but I can’t find a good modern English version on the Net. At home I have a Penguin translation by Brian Stone that tries hard to achieve the Middle-English alliterative and occasionally-rhymed style, and I heartily recommend it, purely for its own sake, to read for pleasure. It’s a wonderfully fanciful and intermittently touching story, and a trip into a world as weird as any sci-fi author could imagine.
In any case, the Cotton Nero manuscript is in the British Library, and there’s only one, and it’s awfully old, and they don’t want people handling it; so Dr. McGillivray and his collaborators have taken on the task of producing a canonical electronic edition, with enough detail and completeness that a scholar should really not need the original. A secondary goal is to arrange that the document, in some form, live as close to forever as practical, though the book must eventually perish.
This is a fascinating problem, combining issues of curatorship, authority, digital photo resolution, and descriptive markup; since pages and verses don’t nest, how do you tag them and stay well-formed? Dr. McGillivray projected images of the book’s 600-year-old pages, the writing bleached and blotched; nostalgia for my sixth-grade year shriveled to nothing.
Responding · I felt honoured, absolutely, to be called on to respond to Prof. McGillivray’s presentation; I shall reproduce two of my own remarks, omitting discussion of photo resolution, overlapping tags, and hapax legomena.
“Those images are wonderful, a voice echoing dimly out of the past, fading and fragile.
“Your axiom is that the electronic edition is destined to outlive the book; yet I’ve held the Black Book of Carmarthen in my hands; it’s 750 years old and the illuminations look like they were painted yesterday. So we have empirical evidence that a book can live for a half-millennium or more. I’m touched by people’s faith that anything electronic can do as well, but so far, there’s not much evidence to support that proposition. So I suggest that after you’ve made your electronic edition, you publish a high-quality printed version, run off lots of them and disseminate them widely.”
Conundrum · Here’s a puzzle: what’s the oldest electronic text? Let’s qualify that a bit, stipulating that the text should be substantial in size and essentially unchanged since first committed to bits. I suggest that when this artifact is identified, a paper version should be produced, to ensure that we don’t lose an important piece of our heritage.