Parchment, Paper and Pixels, Maastricht 2nd-3rd February

‘Parchment, Paper and Pixels’, held at the Regionaal Centrum Historisch Limburg (RCHL) in Maastricht was billed as an opportunity to ‘examine possibilities for collaboration between scholars of medieval sources and those in the digital sciences’. As I write this, I am undertaking a long journey back to York, negotiating both national rail services and the Eurostar. So, I thought I would share my experiences – and a few pictures, of course.

The conference organisers chose a wonderful, and appropriate, conference location. The RCHL is located on the site of a former Franciscan monastery, with the monastery incorporated into the building complex. The 1990s adaptation of the historical building has created an atmospheric lecture room in the basement – if you gaze upwards you can peer into the medieval church building.

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Study room in the nave

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Glimpses into the medieval church from the underground auditorium

The conference paraded an array of different interesting talks relating to its central theme. They were heralded by a keynote lecture by Peter Stokes of Kings College London, which surveyed some of the rewards and potential complications of interdisciplinary work. His thought-provoking talk touched on several issues relating to collaboration, including ‘what comprises “interdisciplinary”, as opposed to “multidisciplinary” research?’. One of the most interesting take away points, for me, was that a successful digital humanities project (like his own ‘DigiPal‘) might not employ  cutting edge technology, but the application of the technology might be revolutionary. These seemed to be wise thoughts, when so many of us are tempted to ‘reinvent the wheel’, attempting to develop new technologies instead of, perhaps, spending time on the research questions and design. However, Peter also admitted that it can be tempting to underexplore the technological possibilities – to take the safer, tried and tested, route – in the interests of presenting a finished product to the funding body. In the process of doing this, we might stop short of possible inventions and innovations. The paper was food for thought, and a great way to start the first day.

I was sorry to miss a public lecture by Erik Kwakkel, whose work I admire and follow on Twitter, because it was delivered in Dutch. However, the non-Dutch were treated to a tour of the Basilica of Saint Servatius (Sint Servaas) by a knowledgeable and charismatic guide whose name has escaped me. One highlight was that our guide had the keys to places that are usually off-limits to visitors, such as the Romanesque Emperor’s Hall, with its wall covered in historic graffiti. This was a beautiful interlude to what was otherwise a busy and information-packed schedule. I present some of the highlights below:

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Emperor’s Hall

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Medieval combination lock, from the treasury

The talks that followed the keynote were too extensive and wide-ranging to account for in a short blog post. However, they covered such topics as digital editing of manuscript material; the encoding, digital preservation, representation, and reuse of textual information online; digitising and making available medieval manuscript books and documents; mapping the geographical dissemination of medieval texts; and integrating charter databases into online resources and making this data available open access. The full programme is here.

I came to the conference to present my collaborative work with Stephen Smith (Electronics, University of York) and Márjory Da Costa-Abreu (DIMAp, UFRN, Brazil) entitled: ‘Visualisation and dynamic analysis of medieval writing processes in the context of neurological diseases and disorders’. Perhaps one of the most exciting elements of this presentation was the opportunity to do a live demonstration of our new methodology: a digitising quill to capture the dynamic features of medieval-style writing. As we are currently preparing this work for publication, I will not go into great detail here (you can read it all in print soon!), but I will leave you with a selection of photographs:

The inclusion of a live demonstration introduced a level of unpredictability to the presentation. However, it was worth both the effort and the curiosity that our technology stimulated among the security staff at the Eurostar terminal.

A big thanks to the organisers for a stimulating couple of days of digital discussion!

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