Electronic Analysis of Medieval Texts: The Case of Raoul de Soissons

Electronic Analysis of Medieval Texts: The Case of Raoul de Soissons

By Ineke Hardy

CH Working Papers (2005)

Introduction: Over the past century, the conception of medieval texts has gradually moved from that of a printed and thus “fixed” document to that of a fluid and essentially oral communication seeking to be understood across the ages in all its multidimensional aspects. The advent of the computer has acted as a sort of catalyst in this process of ontological reappraisal, creating a new form of communication that seems situated half-way between orality and print literacy in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Electronic text analysis still relies on the written text, however: text retrieval software compiles inventories of written symbols (encoded for electronic processing), not sounds. Given the oral nature of the transmission and reception of medieval texts, this limitation represents a serious drawback, and even more so in the case of lyric poetry, which was sung.

In this article (an expanded version of a paper presented to the Southeastern Medieval Association conference held in Knoxville, TN, in October 1999), I propose to demonstrate how the computer can be taught to “hear”, following a method developed in collaboration with Elizabeth Brodovitch, a graduate student at Simon Fraser University. Designed to transform graphemes into units of sound for the purpose of textual analysis, this method allowed us to draw up what we called “phonetic blueprints” of printed texts, with the aim of identifying the presence of anagrams in the songs of the troubadours and trouvres.

I will show how this type of analysis makes it possible to single out songs that “deviate” from the norm established on the basis of the poet’s total output, suggesting the presence of a hidden phonetic “agenda”, and I will follow up on some of the clues thus obtained. The corpus chosen is the work of Raoul de Soissons, a trouvre from Northern France, whose songs were composed around the middle of the 13th century; this choice was governed by the fact that the texts are technically complex and of a high standard, and their number and size appropriate for the purpose of this research project.

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