‘Back to the Sources’: The First Steps in (Digital) Projects

During my training I was lucky enough to benefit from some of the most authoritative voices in the field of the Digital Humanities. The most important lesson I learned was that when you want to create a digital project, even before you start, you should explore the digital projects that have been or are being undertaken on the specific topic of your interests, in and beyond your own discipline.

As we would normally do before undertaking any research by assessing the state-of-the-art on a given topic by reviewing the so-far published literature, you should first gather a broad overview of on-going and completed projects. Looking at other people’s projects can help you to better plan your own project, as you may find some similarities in the topics addressed, shared common aims or similar implementation difficulties. This step also prevents you from “reinventing the wheel”, by getting results, which although adequate, have already been achieved by other scholars, perhaps even through less convoluted solutions. The time and energy thus saved can be used to carry out other important steps, such as exploring the source material in-depth, or thinking about the most appropriate digital instrument(s) for answering your research questions. In addition to all of this, going back to a certain point in a project and reconsidering how to improve some of its aspects is more difficult if the project is digital. This is because the initial choices you make often determine taking a very specific path (for example, the encoding of the texts in some mark-up languages) whereby the corrections under development are not always possible and, when they are, they may involve additional time that the project’s timeframe does not allow.

As I discuss in this post, I got more proof of the validity of the practice of doing the first steps of research, be it digital or not, in the initial phase of a project which I presented at this year’s Digital Orientalist Twitter Conference (DOsTC2020). During the conference, I tweeted some observations (which you can read here) on a cycle of ‘Homilies on the Theater’ composed around the beginning of the sixth century by a very interesting Syriac author, Jacob of Serugh (ca. 451-521). From the very beginning of the preliminary phase of the analysis of the sources, the reference edition[1] for these texts (which, at that time, still was what I considered to be my primary source as well as being the only study to date on this topic) proved, in fact, to be extremely questionable and, definitely, not an optimal starting point for the advancement of my research.

At that time, my project’s purpose was very specific and limited to offering a new translation of the homilies into Italian, on the basis of the transcription given in the existing English edition by Moss. Later on, thanks to the favour of a colleague who sent me the images of the manuscript (MS BL Add. 17158), I could consult the base text that Moss used for his edition. I wanted to look at the manuscript as such (albeit in a mediated way) more for personal pleasure and curiosity than anything else. I would never have thought that my interest in the codicological and palaeographic aspects of manuscripts, and in manuscripts as objects too, would have ended up, by pure chance, in a discovery that shuffled the deck. This interest, then, not only led me to reflect again on the need to always check the sources. It also ended up, as I explain below, in the reformulation of the project, which was originally born as a traditional project, within a digital framework.

Until today, Moss’ edition has been considered reliable. Previously, considering also the undisputed fame the author deserves, scholars had never felt the need to question this work. However, when looking at the editor’s introduction, readers only learn that the manuscript’s material support (parchment) is damaged in some points where the ink has faded, but they do not find any remarks about the cause of these damages. As for the text transmitted by the manuscript, the edition gives only some extracts from the text itself. In the introduction Moss explains the rationale of this selection (which is in fact a double selection), but his explanation is rather cryptic.[2] Readers somehow understand that the extracts he published include all the parts of the manuscript which are effectively readable or, at least, most of them, and they can reconstruct how things actually stand only after complex backwards reasoning.

Therefore, if I had only considered the available base, without looking at the manuscript source, I would have not acquired a lot of important information, such as the fact that most of the folios are readable at their centre. The editor discarded many of those parts only because he found their content unnecessary for his purposes. Consequently, the edition does not show a very large part of the texts of the homilies, which extend over twenty-three manuscript folios compared to the six folios reproduced in the edition.

Thus, at one point in my research, I found myself wondering what it actually means ‘to go back to the sources’ when an established text edition is available (i.e., in my case Moss’ edition). I think now I can answer this question by saying that it is not about not trusting your sources, but rather about not trusting them blindly. Sometimes, in fact, the certainty of being able to rely confidently on an edition (fons edita) comes only through an apparently senseless effort of iteration, accomplished through a beneficial ‘ad fontes’ of Erasmian memory.[3] What is sure is that starting over a project is, of course, easier to do in a case like the one I have discussed, where the primary manuscript source through which the text has survived (fons tràdita) is a codex unicum. However, the entire project’s workflow had to be completely changed when I realized that the texts transmitted in the edition were incomplete and they should/could have been integrated – on one hand, without effort where the manuscript does not show any damage; and, on the other hand, by trying to read the text where it is damaged. In this manner, my project will now result into a new edition of Jacob of Serugh’s ‘Homiles on the Theater’.

I will offer an in-depth, future post on the practical aspects entailed by this new digital dimension of the project, by addressing both the issues of the automated acquisition of the extracts already transcribed by Moss and, especially, the manipulation of the manuscript’s digital images in the attempt to enhance the reading of the faded text. In light of what has been said so far, at this point, I would like to anticipate and emphasize that there are existing cutting-edge digital projects to which I can refer and on which I can draw to address the above mentioned issues.

To conclude, the research methodologies underlying the Digital Humanities do not differ much from those of the humanities in general. However, you must remember that, in the field of the Digital Humanities, you must put these methodologies into practice even more rigorously. This will help you to position your (digital) research in unpredictable perspectives, from which you can glimpse a new possible scenario that, sometimes, can offer a small contribution to advancing knowledge.

Cover image: Detail of the digital facsimile edition’s frontispiece of Erasmus of Rotterdam’ ‘De ratione studii, ac legendi interpretandi autores, Libellus aureus’ (Argentina, 1528). Credits: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek – München (Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek), CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.


[1] Cyril Moss, “Jacob of Serugh’s Homilies on the Spectacles of the Theatre”, Le Muséon: Revue d’Études Orientales, v. 48, (1935): 87-112 (reprinted in Jacob of Serugh’s Homilies on the Spectacles of the Theatre. Edited and translated by C. Moss, Analecta Gorgiana Series 496 (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2010); an electronic reproduction of 1935 edition is retrievable in the Brigham Young University Library’s Digital Collections).

[2] Cyril Moss, cit.: 89. “I have not therefore been able to copy out the poems in their entirety, but have merely given extracts from them, choosing for this purpose those portions of the discourse which seemed to yield most positive information about the Greek drama of the period”.

[3] Erasmus of Rotterdam, De ratione studii, ac legendi interpretandi autores, Libellus aureus (Argentina, 1528): 13. “Sed in primis ad fontes ipsos pperandū, id est graecos & antiquos” (Above all, one must hasten to the sources themselves, that is, to the Greeks and ancients).

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