Last week, I emerged bleary-eyed and victorious from my home office, having completed the first full TEI encoding of the 143 pieces of verse in the fourth section of the Bannatyne Manuscript. Though my back was aching and my eyes were sore, I felt a sense of achievement and satisfaction.
As with so much in academia, this was shortly replaced with a sense of dread and panic about what happens next. The basics are encoded, but what to do with the myriad notes and observations I had clocked up over the three week transcription period? How does one even begin to wrangle?
One of the most formative experiences in my postdoc so far has been my participation in the DHSI Summer Institute 2019, in particular the course ‘Text Encoding Fundamentals and the Application’ led by the excellent team of Lee Zickel, Constance Crompton and Emily Murphy. I have referred back to the course notes countless times in the last year, and the one that really stuck out to me as I began to encode in earnest was a piece of advice from Constance. She advised us to always keep a ‘cookbook’, a running record of the decisions we made and the formulae we adhered to, so that we could look back and understand the process behind our projects. Perhaps the most seismic shift in my scholarship since graduation from my PhD has been the move from a traditionally literary background of focussed thematic questions and orderly, argued rhetoric to the collaborative forum of digital humanities, where more than half of the learning is in the process rather than the output.
I had to laugh, looking at my miniature encoding ‘cookbook’, typed hastily alongside the practical act of encoding. [There is also a written cookbook, in which dwell big picture ideas, tangled spider diagrams and lists of endless things to do, but that is for another day.] The TEI cookbook of my encoding speaks to the endless emergence of questions and peculiarities. Some are simple: ’- Quhair luve is kendlit confortles: classical refs, authorship’ tells me that I need to go back and encode the classical references within this poem, and that authorship is something that needs to be encoded in a different way from the other poems. Some need parsing further, thanks to my preoccupied past self: I think I know what I mean by ’- note corresps?’ but this could yet change.
The most interesting notes recount the patterns that have emerged, and the things I have been able to appreciate in this kind of fine-toothed comb reading of the texts. I used to belong, unwittingly, to the school of thought that derided any indication of a lack of knowledge of your source material, but I am utterly delighted by some of the things that sprang out to me from this process. I tweeted last week about the throwaway line following Alexander Scott’s poem ‘To luve vnluvit it is ane pane’ where the audience discover that Scott’s wife has left him, adding a new and accidentally humorous impact to the poem itself. Some groupings of poems in the fourth section follow distinct patters - the ‘remeid of love’ in particular has a cluster of poems following 4-stanza patterns, which stands out in comparison to the other verses collected.
There is no all-encompassing theoretical landslide in these observations. Our understanding of Older Scots poetry will not, I wager, be altered forever by the recognition of a stylistic tendency in a small grouping of poems, or in recognition of Scott’s domestic woes. To me, however, the value of this insight lies in the texture and depth offered to this anthology, and the constant excitement I feel about the way in which Bannatyne collates these snippets of life, history and art from a period in time from which we can often feel much too removed to respond to in an empathetic way.
As I move into the next stage of encoding and wrangling data into both elements and -ographies, I am looking to the Bannatyne focus group for guidance on some questions of diplomatic numbering and useful apparatus. Their input has, as ever, been incredibly valuable and has helped to mitigate the isolation of a one-person project being conducted in the midst of a pandemic.
For all that this can be a lonely process, I could not have accomplished this part of the encoding without the tenacious and insightful help of my undergraduate honours student, Tiana Kirstein, who worked tirelessly on transcription in the autumn semester in 2019. Tiana has just graduated as Most Outstanding Graduate in Classical and Medieval Renaissance Studies from St Thomas More College here at the University of Saskatchewan. This is richly deserved - congratulations Tiana!