Medievalists and the Scholarly Digital Edition
By Dot Porter
Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing, Volume 34 (2013)
Introduction: In 1971, the Sixth Conference on Medieval Studies was graced with its first digital-themed items in the program. The Congress was first held in 1962 as “Medieval Originality: A Conference on Medieval Studies,” and up until 1971 it had been held biennially. There were a total of eight digital-themed papers in 1971. Those papers were spread amongst three sessions, one of which was the descriptively named “The Medievalist and the Computer” and included contributions with such titles as “A Computer Analysis of Medieval Music” and “A Statistical Examination of Theme as a Style Determiner in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” That the first digital-themed papers did not appear in the conference programs until 1971, and that those papers that did appear focused on statistical analysis rather than on textual editing, should not be surprising if one remembers that in the 1970s and into the early 1980s, scholarly computing (indeed, all computing at a university) would have been done through a mainframe and would have been intermediated by a dedicated computing staff.
The first paper to focus on editing in an overtly computer-oriented way does not appear in the program until 1974, at the Ninth Conference on Medieval Studies. It was called “Manuscripta et machinae: Computers and Textual Editing” and was presented in a session on “Computer Projects, I.” Although the title is ambiguous, most likely the paper focused on using the computer to create an edition that the presenter expected to be printed and delivered as a published codex, rather than published and delivered on a computer. Scholars lacked personal computers or other digital interfaces for interacting with electronically created texts. Through the 1970s, 1980s, and into early 1990s, paper was the interface for electronically created texts.
Reading through the titles of papers and sessions at the Congress through the 1980s, we find the same thing: digital-oriented papers, sessions, and workshops on editing on a computer focus on issues such as statistical analysis as it relates to textual editing, and later, as desktop computers became more widely available, on the selection of word processors, desktop publishing software, fonts, and the like. Not until 1992 do we find the first digital-oriented paper presented to the Congress that describes an edition definitely intended to be published and delivered on a computer: “A New Critical-Diplomatic Edition of Piers Plowman B in Hypertext,” by Hoyt Duggan at the University of Virginia. Duggan would go on to found the Society for Early English and Norse Electronic Texts (SEENET), one of the first and best-known publishers of digital editions on CD-ROM in the 1990s and into the first decade of the twenty-first century.