From Quill to Keyboard: Digital Approaches in Medieval History and Historiography

The Donation of Constantine (fresco, 13th century, Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome): Pope Sylvester crowning Constantine and offering him the power to rule the Empire. One of the most indicative instances of collision between the temporal and ecclesiastic offices.

The focus of Efthymis Kokordelis’ project, who joined CCeH in the beginning of February, is the interaction between Medieval History and IT. The project he is running [Digital Approaches in Medieval History and Historiography] is divided in two parts with the first one (current phase) dealing with the adaptation of digital technologies in Medieval History. Taking these results as a basis, the second part will be the systematisation of the sources, leading to new insights in the under-examination period.

Before joining CCeH, Efthymis started his research during his MA Studies in Lund University, Sweden under the title: AUCTORITAS IMPERII: re-thinking Medieval Roman Imperial Authority. With the completion of his work he had developed a new historical understanding to re-approach the Byzantine Imperial Ideology under new terms. Having examined three legal texts of the 8th and 9th centuries (two in Greek and one in Latin), he realised that the Imperial Ideology had developed in a much complicated and multi-dimensional way, that calls for special treatment, if it is to be properly understood. Relating this Imperial Ideology solely with the Emperor’s Office –as has been the case so far- deprives it of its complete meaning since it wasn’t the emperors alone that formed it. The popes and the patriarchs of Constantinople had an active part in the process of its formation. In the medieval Roman Empire, it was a common worldview that only one man was supposed to rule, but who was that one? Around this idea various officia created their own ideologies to justify their ‘right to rule’.

The amount of the related (to the topic) source material is of such a number that can make a corpus created out of it almost dysfunctional, if it is not approached in a way that can uncover its multifold and complex aspects. To make this jump from the ‘conventional’ history-writing towards a new understanding of the textual sources, Efthymis aims to get both a deeper and more analytical view of the written evidence of that time and, in a technical sense, a structured way to deal with the vast number these sources. The main goal was to describe the development of the actual ideology based on the methodological understanding he developed. This led him to transcend his research into digital scholarship, and especially into digital textual interpretation. Hence, during his stay at CCeH, he will investigate the interaction of Digital Humanities and Medieval History and use methods such as text encoding, text mining, and natural language processing. This project will be the foundation upon which his research will develop.

In the preliminary phase of his project, Efthymis digitised and encoded his sources, using the TEI XML standard, and processed them to create a digital viable basic corpus to work with. Then, he experimented upon it using various digital tools (such as AntConc) and ended up in creating a lemmatised corpus, after the application of a Bayesian model built upon the results he had reached after the manual process of his sources.

Moreover, other than his specific research topic, as described above, Efthymis will elaborate on the application of digital technologies in Medieval History and the changes it brings in the framework of history itself. Efthymis emphasizes that, ‘from a theoretical and philosophical point of view, using IT-originating methods opens a window of possibilities for traditional history-writing. However, before going there, the historian needs to be aware of where he stands, step back and try to understand what it means for him to interact with computing methods. This process pushes his limits and brings forth simple, yet fundamental, questions about the very nature of history, objectivity, and the historian’s role. This is apparent when you realise that, now, in the relationship between you and your sources there’re is a third part, your laptop. By now this laptop is not ‘just’ a means of writing thoughts and opinions down, it has become an active sensor in the process of you understanding your sources.