What Every Medievalist Should Bookmark: Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts

Playing off the popular What Every Medievalist Should Know series, I’ve been thinking about some digital resources that every medievalist should have bookmarked. Larry recently pointed to this one and it definitely belongs on the list.

With the explosion of medieval manuscripts on the web, it was just a matter of time before someone got around to doing this and this site, the Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts, represents a good start. However, more remains to be done for this site to reach its full potential.

It incorporates and catalogues some of my favorite sites, such as the Cologne Cathedral Library and the Library of St Gall, and looks to add more as they become available. Because it catalogues these sites that I use, I do wonder about their interface, their data tagging practices, and its limitations.

Disclaimer: While I am a New Testament Medievalist, I feed my family as a database programmer. I really do understand the complications of building an engine of this sort—trust me, I’ve done it before both for public and private consumption. Criticisms follow, but they are intended to be completely constructive and should not detract from both the promise and need for this site.

Because the site works with my favorite libraries which tend to be both biblical and liturgical, I quickly notice some lacunae and potential conceptualization issues.

  1. Not all of the manuscripts on the identified sites are contained in the catalogue. For instance, only one missal (the Leofric Misal), one Gospel Book (the Bodleian’s Auct. D.2.16), and one gradual appear. There are no antiphoners catalogued. Or sacramentaries. Or lectionaries. From my own personal lists I know that quite a number of all of these appear at the St Gall and Cologne sites. So—this catalogue is a work in progress.
  2. The complex relationship between author, editor, and scribe is not tackled. I saw the name “Notker” as I was browsing authors and started to worry. Notker Balbus is a seminal figure for the study of chant. He’s the author of a treatise on chant and is also responsible for notating some of the best surviving chant manuscripts—which are online at the St Gall site. How, I wondered, would these manuscripts be identified? Would he be listed as the author of these antiphoners and sacramentaries? After all, he didn’t write them or even edit them, but it is crucial that his name be connected with them in some fashion. It turns out, though, that Notker’s name leads to only one manuscript, the one with his treatise in it. The issue of linking him with the sacramentary and antiphoners is side-stepped for the time being.
  3. The site appears to rely on external summaries for title and author data leading to duplicates. That is, it seems that the site catalogues its materials based on however the host site catagorizes them. Thus, when you browse “Titles” you’ll come across duplicates where a title appears in both English and Latin. (I didn’t see any German language duplicates introduced but the potential certainly exists given the available collections.)  “Dupes” are database designers recurrent nightmares. They’re almost inevitable in *any* unscrubbed data set and—we hates them… They appear here in Titles, but also in Authors:  for instance, there are separate entries for “Gregory”, “Gregory I”, and “Gregory the Great”.
  4. The date system is inconsistent. A search for “Provenance equals England” reveals a large potential problem. The first entry has a date of  “c. 1200”, the second has a date of “s. xvi 1/3”. It turns out that the date search box appears as a drop down (good choice!) so that as you type it will attempt to auto-populate and in doing so shows you the available dates in the database. Unfortunately, if you want to see the manuscripts from around 1000 you have to run three searches, one that looks for “10..”, one for “c. 10..” and one for “s. xi…”  The only way to fix this is to build a new date column in the database maximized for searching. My own suggestion would be to leave in the date column they currently have, and to add one that groups manuscripts by general period—then populate the date search drop-down with *that* field rather than the field from the manuscripts’ hosts.
  5. The shelfmark lookup system is clunky. Clicking on “Browse by: Shelfmark” brings up a string of numbers sorted as text. Thus we get “1”, “10”, “100” as the first three entries with no indication of in which library the numbered shelf might exist. Personally, I’d love to see this tweaked by simply doing a join between the location field and the shelfmark field. Whilke it might make this search somewhat reduant with the “Browse by: Location” I think it’d make the Shelfmark system much more user-friendly.

As I consider what’s on the site and what’s not, it seems to me that what I would offer them is more a caution than a critique. Because so much of the liturgical material is not yet up, they have the opportunity to think through exactly how to present it. Me, I think it’d be great to be able to search for “Mixed Gelasian” or “Hadrianum” for sacramentaries/missals but I’m not sure how that would fit into their current conceptualization.

A further issue not yet taken up is the inevitable problem of homiliaries—do you simply lump them under the name of the editor (which is quite necessary to be sure) but do you break out the individual patristic authors as well?

Kvetching aside, this site is definitely one to watch. It’s a great start to a much needed index and I look forward to seeing how they decide to tackling some of the issues ahead of them that makes manuscript study the fascinating and sometimes frustrating field that it is.

Update: I received a very nice email from the head of the project. He assured me that the site is a first draft and that future improvements are indeed in the wings pending further funding.

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