Programming Paleography: Erik Kwakkel’s Turning Over A New Leaf

First off, my apologies on the long hiatus. I’ve been settling in to life on this side of the ocean, and will hopefully get back to regular posting soon.

Today’s post is on what I think is one of the most exciting projects in medieval studies right now.

This past spring I was lucky enough to hear the lecture Erik Kwakkel gave at Toronto’s Pontificate Institute of Medieval Studies on his new project, Turning Over A New Leaf. The project as a whole, according to Dr. Kwakkel’s website,

studies the new type of manuscript that emerged around 1100, commonly called “pre-gothic,” including all its codicological and paleographical features. These features will be assessed against the historical backdrop of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance

Their research focuses on how innovation in book-making technology relates to societal change. The project itself is something to watch, but what I’m really excited about is their methodology: they have shown that computer analysis can be used to date manuscripts as accurately, if not more so, than by hand.

They are basing their project on a database of 250 manuscripts from the Catalogues des Manuscrits Datés which can be dated to the period between 1075 and 1225, along with 50 additional manuscripts that can be dated to that period but were not included in the original catalogue. The researchers have assigned values to particular paleographical features, for example an open “a”, and are using a computer program to search for patterns among manuscripts that contain similar sets of values – and therefore similar features.

So far the project has been yielding great results. They’ve shown that they can sometimes date manuscripts more accurately than through human analysis, and that computer analysis can take advantage of patterns that are not easily visible to the human eye: for example, that when one scribe drastically changes the look of his script, the underlying features of the way he writes his letters remain the same.

This project is incredibly exciting in showing what technology can offer to a field that is generally very traditional, and still based very highly on human instinct. It also demonstrates that it is, in fact, possible and beneficial to use quantitative approaches in the humanities, as long as this is done in the right way.

The project should be producing several publications and monographs over the next few years, along with, I believe, the eventual publication of their database. For now, have a look at their website.

[Update: I just realized that the first link was pointing to Dr. Kwakkel’s personal page rather than the project page: fixed now.]

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One Response to Programming Paleography: Erik Kwakkel’s Turning Over A New Leaf

  1. Pingback: New Manuscript Fragments at Rolduc Abbey | Things Medieval

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