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The Digital Middle Ages: An Introduction

The Digital Middle Ages: An Introduction

By David J. Birnbaum, Sheila Bonde, and Mike Kestemont

Speculum, Volume 92, Number 51, 2017

Opening folio of the Hengwrt manuscript

Introduction: In the decades following the onset of the Index Thomisticus project, medievalists were often early adopters of the digital, and continue to play an important role in the development of a broader field, which came to be called digital humanities. This field took other forms and names during its emergence and subsequent development: humanities computing, humanist informatics, literary and linguistic computing, digital resources in the humanities, eHumanities, and others.

These competing alternatives, among which “humanities computing” had long been dominant, have only recently made place for the newly canonical term “digital humanities,” which today is rarely contested. “Digital humanities” is generally meant to refer to a broader field than “humanities computing.” Whereas the latter is restricted to the application of computers in humanities scholarship and had narrower technical goals, the former also incorporates a “humanities of the digital,” including the study (potentially via traditional means) of digitally created sources, such as art and literature.

DH is therefore profoundly multidisciplinary and attracts contributions from scholars and scientists both within and outside the humanities and the humanistic social sciences. Digital humanists have taken care to define themselves in an inclusive rather than exclusive manner. As a result, the term “digital humanities” connotes a greater sense of integration than the diversity of approaches that are sheltered within the “big tent” of DH and that are also reflected in the contents of this supplement.


Thus, while the definition of DH has been the subject of dedicated anthologies, countless panel discussions, and even entire websites (http://whatisdigitalhumanities.com), a better question may be whether there still exist nondigital humanists today, since most scholars at least to some extent rely on computational aids, however basic, such as online search engines or word processors. Even the “original” objects of our research are most often mediated by the printed or online text or the slide or digital image. The difference between the digital humanities and their less digital counterpart has become more a matter of degree than of kind.

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