Category Archives: Work on the project

The completion of the transcription stage

Yesterday was a big day at Estoria Towers, even though it almost passed without us noticing. It was the day that the biggest and most time-consuming task of the project was finally completed. For three and a half years we have been working on transcribing the five witnesses of the Estoria de Espanna, and yesterday Enrique pressed save on the transcription of the final folio. Without the transcriptions of these witnesses we would be unable to create our digital edition of the chronicle, which is, of course, the main thing we are aiming to produce in this project. Over the past few years the number of people working on the task of transcription has been considerable – this is truly a group transcription project: the bulk of the task has been carried out by our venerable and untiring research fellows Fiona Maguire and Enrique Jerez, as well as Ricardo Pichel, more recently. Alongside them have been working myself and Christian, Aengus, Nick, Bárbara, Marine, Alicia, a group of hardworking crowdsourcers, and several others who I will not mention here for risk of forgetting someone, but whose names will appear when we publish the edition. For many of us who have worked on preparing the transcriptions this has been a steep learning curve – I know I am not the only person who was introduced to palaeography, XML and the TEI purely to enable me to transcribe for this project. It is also important to remember that the transcriptions we have created are not the definitive version of the text, but rather just another witness, and just like the medieval scribes of Alfonso’s scriptorium and those who have copied, edited or re-touched the witnesses in the past, we are liable to make mistakes, assumptions and in place of slips of the pen, typographical errors. Each transcribed folio has been checked and re-checked, edited and re-edited, but as is the case in all academic research, despite our best efforts, some errors will have slipped through the net and will make it to the final edition. Of course, as a digital edition, once identified, we could always remove these errors, but this brings with it issues of when is enough enough – is enough ever enough? – should we freeze the edition as it was on the day it was published, or should we continue re-touching ad nauseam, for as long as tools, server space and the limits of human effort allow? These are questions for another day – for now let us bask in the satisfaction of having completed something, of having worked together over a number of years to create something that is better than what any of us could have done alone, no matter how long we had worked on it. Not strictly intended to celebrate the final pressing of save, but serendipitous nonetheless, Christian presented us at tea-break yesterday with his first Victoria sponge – and very successful it was too. Basking done, cake consumed, we went back to our desks and carried on with the next tasks of the project, which is where we find ourselves today – cracking back on.

Impact impact impact

If you will excuse the slightly garish title, it is very much a reflection of how things are moving here at Estoria HQ. Alongside the final stages of our electronic edition of the Estoria, we are also heading an exciting initiative to bring the historiography of Alfonso X to the public.

The first arm of our impact project will be a series of exhibitions across Spain. This will be the display of the Estoria de Espanna manuscripts across libraries in Madrid, Santander, Salamanca. Visitors to these exhibits will be able to appreciate the rich manuscript tradition that developed from Alfonso’s history-writing exploits.

In addition to physical exhibitions, we will also be producing a virtual exhibition. In doing so, the public will be able to enjoy the exhibits from the comfort of their own swivel chairs. The virtual exhibit will include a transcription desk, allowing visitors to have go at palaeography and transcription.

Finally, Alfonso X is heading back to school. We will be providing Spanish secondary schools with structured sessions and resource packs, helping young people explore the cultural heritage of the Wise King. Learners will be able to investigate such themes as history of language, social history, gender issues in Medieval Spain, and much more.

We feel that by bringing Alfonso’s work to the public, we will be keeping true to the scholar-king’s project of advancement and education. Who would have guessed that over seven hundred years later, his writings would take the giant leap from vellum to virtual…

Review of the III Annual EDIT Colloquium (Estoria Digital) in Seville, by Enrique Jerez

Reseñar brevemente la celebración en Sevilla la semana pasada de las II Jornadas Internacionales de Historia de la Lengua e Historiografía en combinación con el III Annual EDIT Colloquium (Estoria Digital) exige en especial llamar la atención precisamente sobre la motivación que animó su organización conjunta y que presidió su desarrollo: propiciar la confluencia de enfoques (lingüísticos, literarios, históricos) sobre ese impagable “centro de confluencias” que es el Legado alfonsí. No cabe, por tanto, menos que felicitarse (y felicitar particularmente a sus organizadores) de que, en la edad de la atomización del saber, en un mismo foro se pueda oír hablar, sin apenas solución de continuidad, de la sintaxis del discurso alfonsí, de los entresijos textuales de la Estoria de España y su descendencia, de las atarazanas de Sevilla o de los proyectos de edición digital de los textos regios. En efecto, Alfonso (como dijo Borges de Quevedo) “es toda una literatura”. Y es más todavía, como quedó de nuevo reflejado en el pasado encuentro: es también una lengua, una historia, un arte, una cosmovisión. El desafío en este caso es tratar de vislumbrar el bosque (en la medida de nuestras fuerzas) sin perderse en la aspra e forte selva salvaje de un océano sin orillas. Desde luego, iniciativas como esta van encaminadas a tal fin desde su concepción hasta su ejecución. En este sentido, puede decirse que las jornadas fueron no solamente “sobre Alfonso”, sino propiamente “alfonsíes”: hubo reconocimiento e imitación de los sabios antiguos; hubo atención minuciosa al fenómeno, y hubo altura de miras y horizonte “general e grand”. Solo queda desear que esta y otras posibles aventuras hermanas tengan continuidad en el futuro, lo que, a tenor de lo visto, cabe esperar, pues “por las cosas pasadas” puede uno “saber las venideras”.

III EDiT Colloquium/II Jornadas de Historiografía/Historia de la Lengua

Our third colloquium took place at the Universidad de Sevilla in collaboration with our wonderful colleagues from the Historia15 project between the 23rd and 25th of November 2015. It proved to be a marvellous week of intellectual exchange which will live long in the memory.

Day 1 saw the inauguration in the presence of the Dean of the Faculty and the Head of Department from Sevilla. Special mention went out to the leader of Historia15, Lola Pons, who could not be present and also to our friends and colleagues Marine and Virginie who had been closely affected by the massacres in Paris just 10 days before.

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The opening day focused on history of the language and provided us with in-depth analysis of Alfonsine language from some big hitters, both young and old, in the field. Rafael Cano Aguilar’s plenary began by offering us an overview of the history of studies of the language of the Estoria. This was followed by Marta López Izquierdo’s detailed study of Alfonsine syntax and Javier Rodríguez Molina’s vast and entertaining review of the dialectal variation in Alfonso’s scriptorium.
The day ended with a tour of Sevilla’s iconic cathedral; a high point was Blanca Garrido’s negotiation with the cathedral guards which permitted us all to (briefly) enter the royal chapel and celebrate Alfonso X’s 794th birthday with him (and indeed Fernando III and Beatriz de Suabia).

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Day 2 began with José Luis Montiel taking us back some years to a talk given by Manuel Ariza on the subject of the Cid and historiography, which he brought up to date with more recent research which was followed by Santiago del Rey Quesada’s in-depth study of the processes of textual construction in Alfonso’s works.

The Estoria project’s principal session covered all the bases of the project. First up was Christian on the vision of Muhammad in the Estoria, followed by Enrique’s careful and appropriately contextual account of the foundation of Seville and completed by Ricardo’s outline of his project of a digital edition of the Galician version of the 1289 redaction. A lively debate followed – it seemed as though all of the specialists on historiography had been keeping their powder dry – with Leonardo Funes, Paco Bautista, Manolo Hijano and surprise visitor Marta Lacomba all contributing to a revealing discussion on multiple aspects of Iberian medieval historiography.

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The post-lunch session saw the welcome presence of Jorge Ferro – one of three visitors from Buenos Aires – whose characteristically precise talk on the editorial difficulties facing the editors of the López de Ayala chronicles was bookended by Migel Ángel Pousada’s reflections on the advantages and disadvantages of xml in the edition of the Cantigas de Santa María. A fruitful, if exhausting, day was brought to a close by Peter Robinson’s outline of the possibilities of Textual Communities and a live demonstration of the newly-minted collation tool which will be employed in our project.

The third and final day began with a magisterial analysis of the Atarazanas de Sevilla by Pablo Pérez-Mallaína Bueno, which would have resulted in a mass exodus by all present to have a look at the site themselves had it not been for the following talk; a typically entertaining and intellectually detailed account of a previously-lost document of Juan Manuel by José Manuel Fradejas. A stimulating morning session was rounded off by Felipe Moreira’s ground-breaking exploration of the sources and edition of the versión crítica in the reigns of Urraca I and Alfonso VII.

In similar vein, the next session (again with a historiographical focus) saw Nitzaira Delgado-García, Cristina Moya García and Manolo Hijano Villegas discuss the Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, Diego de Valera and the afterlife of Alfonsine historiography respectively. The post-talk debates ranged from subjects as diverse as the nature of (pre)modern time and detailed questions of textual analysis. Chronicle experts were as one in regarding the discussions as thought-provoking.

The final sessions were introduced by Carmen Moral de Hoyo’s effervescent and incredibly detailed linguistic analysis of dialectal variety in the legislative works of Alfonso and which was matched, in intellectual rigour if not in speed by Kim Bergqvist’s account of Sancho II in post-Alfonsine historiography. The final two papers were also models of their kind: Pablo Saracino, (official photographer of the colloquium whose photos I have added here) gave a philological masterclass on archival research with his detective work on Lorenzo de Padilla and Florián de Ocampo and Leyre Martín Aizpuru, who opened the Oxford colloquium and effectively closed this one demonstrated the methodological effectiveness of which she is a prime example in her account of the alternation between -íe(n) and -ía(n) in Chancellery documents.

Renunirse con los amigos y aprender: along with “A saber” the theme of the colloquium. All present agreed that the intense but fruitful 3 days in Sevilla had fulfilled all expectations. The bar has been set high for Birmingham in December 2016: All are welcome!

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Especial thanks go to the Historia15 team, but above all to the wonderful Blanca Garrido Martín and Jaime González Gómez. The welcome offered by all our colleagues in Sevilla will live long in the memory!

Call for Guest Blog Posts

The Estoria de Espanna Digital Project would like to invite guest blog posts for inclusion on this site. Do you have something interesting to share with us to do with the topic of our project? Are you a crowdsourcer who would like to tell us your thoughts or experiences? Have you researched Alfonso X, his works or the history of his time and you would like to tell us a little about what you have learnt? Perhaps you are planning to give a paper at one of our colloquia, or another conference on a similar theme and you would like to introduce your paper. Or maybe you have already given the paper and you would like to tell us about it, or explain some of the answers to the questions you were asked.

Please send your posts or ideas for posts in English or Spanish to Polly.

We look forward to receiving them and to posting them here!


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Manuscripts as artefacts

As you will have seen from Polly’s post below, lately we have been considering the relationship between the physical text (medieval manuscripts in our case) and the digital output which we are in the process of constructing here at the Estoria Digital.

The immediate response to the question “why keep the manuscript then?” (and I am sure we would all say the same) is that this is not even a question worth addressing. The question should simpy not arise and to engage with it may give the impression that we are entertaining the possibility of more than one answer. There are already enough examples of philistinism in the world. For us, as scholars who are not the owners of our cultural and intellectual wealth but merely the custodians of it so we can pass it on to future generations (amended perhaps, but fundamentally intact), some things are, and should be, sacred. And our manuscript culture, in which I include the physical objects, is one of those things.

To explain why manuscripts have the status of sacred objects (and not just artefacts) is not to engage with the question above. But before doing so, I would like to suggest why I think we are in a moment of rare privilege. For scholar of medieval texts, the possibilities which have emerged in the digital sphere in the last two decades or so are very exciting. I suspect that my imagination is too limited to have any idea where this will all lead, but as an editor of medieval texts, I welcome freedom from the limitations of print. However, in 50 years time perhaps we will have created a medieval experience in multiple dimensions which will replicate the act of medieval reading in a manner to which anyone could have access. And if we can replicate all of these things in whatever format takes over from digital, then why do we need the original object? I therefore find myself in the curious position of celebrating that which could lead to the destruction of what I believe to be the core of my discipline.

Could, but need not. As I said, I think those of us who were trained in pre-digital methods, and who celebrate the possibilities of the future, have a rare moment of opportunity to pass on our knowledge to digital natives so that all that is dear to manuscript culture is preserved and built upon in the new dimension. Which is why my fear that I have contributed to the destruction of something precious is mitigated by the possibilities of embedding in our future, digital, practice, all that was important about our pre-digital methodology and thought.

The answer to the question? Who knows what future technological advances will tell us about manuscripts? (Nothing, of course, if they are destroyed.) But far more important is the knowledge that the manuscript, the physical object, provides a direct and physical link to another human being who many centuries ago sat and left his mark on the very page one can still touch. That direct human connection cannot be replicated and we who are, after all, scholars of the humanities, celebrate that.


Crowdsourcing update – June 2015

It’s Daddy Daycare time here at Duxfield Towers so I can work on a journal article I wrote before Mini Medievalist made her entrance into our lives and I was launched into a world of nappies, night-feeds and more mummy coffee mornings than I care to admit to. I’m back at the dining room table trying to get in the crowdsourcing zone to address the corrections and edits the reviewers asked for, but sitting far closer to the laptop than I could when I wrote the article. Happily, most of the changes needed are on the minor side and the feedback from the two reviewers is serving as a good way of helping me to cast fresh eyes not only on the article, but on how the Estoria project uses crowdsourcing.

The mysteriously named ‘Reviewer 2’ asks why we have not yet made use of strategies involving competition between volunteers. I have mulled this over all week since the reviews arrived in my inbox, mostly whilst washing up, if I’m quite honest. It has led me to consider to what extent there is a feeling of community between volunteers. We have worked hard to ensure that volunteer transcribers feel part of the transcribing team and that it is made clear that their input is valued, because it is valued, and they are as much part of the team as the paid Estoria transcribers, they just form a different branch. We have aimed to create an atmosphere of camaraderie between volunteers and paid staff, but does this extend to camaraderie between volunteers yet? I think the answer is probably no, or if it does, not much.

There are several reasons for this: there are not that many volunteers yet, and their transcribing questions often come directly to their assigned research associate rather than going straight on the bulletin board. Also, the nature of the task of inputting XML tags which must be consistent and parse, means that for a while, any new transcriber, both volunteer and paid, ask questions which require a ‘correct’ answer. It is not until far later in their tagging journeys that they are able to suggest tags which will work within the system. This means that at the moment, crowdsourcers are reliant on the knowledge of paid transcribers, and often the senior academics in the team rather than the graduate students. The upshot of this is that it creates, or maintains, a degree of hierarchy between transcribers which no amount of camaraderie development can break down past a certain stage. And neither should it. Estoria team meetings often involve talking in great (great, great, great) depth about seemingly minuscule changes in tags, in what certain abbreviation marks mean, and how they should be represented in XML, and sometimes it is the case that no-one is right because no-one is wrong, they are just often coming at it from a different angle. (The main thing I have learnt in my two years as a PhD student is that Academics Love a Row. Then they stop rowing and make one another a coffee.) When no-one is right we reach an impasse, defer to the highest in the team to make the decision and then, crucially, all stick to that decision. This is vital in collaborative transcribing tasks. For this reason we cannot lose sight of the hierarchy. Aengus might make the tea or turn up with cakes, but at the end of the day he is the gaffer. It is his name in the biggest letters on the project, and he has spent years earning his stripes. We need a leader to steer the ship, so we need to maintain a degree of hierarchy, whilst ensuring that all team-members feel able to approach every other team-member with questions, comments or suggestions. This is an atmosphere we are working hard to foster at the Estoria project, but the currently small number of active volunteer transcribers means that whilst there is a necessary hierarchy between the chiefs (i.e. the senior academics), the graduate students and the crowdsourcers, at the moment we don’t have quite enough Indians for there to be the level of camaraderie between the volunteers that we would eventually like to see. If there were more crowdsourcers it would be more likely that some of their questions would go straight to the bulletin board rather than to their assigned graduate student, and these questions would then be more likely to be answered by any member of the team, whether that be a research associate, fellow, senior member of the team, or another more-experienced volunteer. This would not remove the hierarchy, but it would change the chiefs:Indians ratio, making volunteers, particularly more experienced volunteers, feel more empowered to answer other volunteers’ questions. In my previous incarnation as I teacher I used to encourage my students to use the following strategy when they had questions rather than immediately sticking their hand in the air: Brain, Book, Buddy, Boss (I cannot take credit for making that up – I stole it from a poster in somebody else’s classroom). If you don’t know the answer (brain), look through your notes (book, or in our case, the Transcription Guidelines). If you can’t find the answer there, ask a buddy. If your classmate doesn’t know, ask the boss. In this story, as the teacher, I was the boss. Ah, how times have changed. In the Estoria project, we often skip the buddy phase and go straight for the boss, which removes the group-work atmosphere we are trying to create. If we had more volunteers there would be more buddies to ask, there would be more people on the bulletin board posting and answering questions, and we could make much further use of this important stage for building the sense of a community of volunteer transcribers.

Another reason why we don’t do competitions between crowdsourcers (yet?) is that our transcription platform doesn’t allow us to do it at the moment. That is not to say that if we wanted to, we couldn’t develop such tools. We could. Or if we couldn’t we could certainly find a friendly computer scientist who could. We haven’t done so yet, however, mostly due to issues of man-power. We don’t want sloppily transcribed, rushed folios. To date our volunteers are pretty good at working accurately, but still, every transcribed folio is moderated, regardless of who transcribed it. We don’t yet have the human resources to moderate transcribed folios at the rate we would need to for users to get the quick feedback they would require for a competition pitting volunteers against each other to work. Folios cannot be moderated mechanically because the computer just can’t do the palaeography well enough yet, so all transcribed folios need to be moderated by humans, and these humans are also trying to write doctoral theses, so the process can be rather slow at times. This removes the instant(-ish) gratification that volunteers who are motivated by competition would get. If the project were to receive further funding more specifically aimed at crowdsourcing we may be able to employ someone whose job is primarily to moderate volunteer transcribed folios, in which case we could develop an Estoria transcription competition.

What we could focus more on is how each transcribed folio works towards a common goal of transcribing various copies of the Estoria de Espanna, perhaps giving a percentage of the task completed by the whole team, and counting how many different transcribers have worked on the task as a whole. This would help to develop a competition with ourselves, rather than between ourselves, as we work together for the common goal. It may also help volunteers to see what a large team they form part of, and that the number of chiefs is far smaller than the number of Indians, even though communication from paid team-members is far more visible than from other crowdsourcers, which can give the impression that the opposite is true. This is something that we certainly could work on, even with current levels of funding and manpower, using the current transcription platform, and that would be beneficial to the project. It is something that many moons ago we had briefly thought about doing, so perhaps Reviewer 2’s comments will give us the push we need to actually bring it to fruition. If it does, it will just go to show how important it is within academia to showcase your research, because the feedback and questions received from reviewers and conference attendees can often be a springboard to improvement, and that can only be a good thing.

Project goings-on

AcWriMo – Weekly Update  #2
After a short pause to allow for our annual colloquium and the necessary preparations (read: crazy couple of days sorting out last minute things) I have managed to Crack On with Academic Writing Month. Finding time for academic writing (I feel that should be capitalised but I will refrain) was more difficult last week than in the previous weeks, as following the colloquium, Christian and I had jetted off to Madrid to run a workshop for postgraduate students of medieval studies at the Universidad Autónoma. However, we still managed to squeeze in a couple of days of work (nudge, nudge, hint, hint, supervisor of ours). I spent time preparing for a book review for a postgraduate journal published here in Birmingham and rewarded myself by drinking my body-weight of Cola Cao. Christian stuck to tea. I proposed spending our entire wages for the workshop on 75 montaditos on everything’s-a-Euro day at 100 montaditos but this was not to be.

Online transcribing course
Prior to the colloquium project team-members worked like billy-o to get the course translated into Spanish. This was met with much praise at the colloquium, which was very flattering and made us feel that our hard work had all been worth it. We have already started to see some really successful usage of the course being put into practice by our merry band of crowdsourcers, and the high quality of many of their transcriptions, including all sorts of complex tagging, shows they have been paying close attention and applying their new knowledge to their work on Textual Communities. We are all really pleased at the reception with which the course has been met, and how it is being used by transcribers.

Colloquium 2.0
Our second annual colloquium took place just under a fortnight ago and was again, successful and enjoyable for all involved. This time we were able to hear papers and presentations by even more speakers than last time and we were finally able to meet and learn about the research of several of our Facebook ‘likers’. It wasn’t all work and no play though, and we made time for a lovely conference dinner and plenty of coffee breaks (read: serious networking opportunities) where everyone was able to mix and discuss anything and everything from Alfonsine punctuation, to apocope in the usage of ‘dizque’ – sorry Marine, I still don’t understand this – to the perils of marking GCSE exams. Or maybe this last one was just me and friend of the project, Dave. Once a teacher…

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Madrid Workshop
The workshop in Madrid was pretty successful, even if we do say so ourselves. A number of professors made the time to welcome us to the university and some even managed to attend part of our workshop where their timetables allowed. This was more than we had expected and we were pleased and flattered that they took the time out to do so. It also meant that Christian’s and my People-We-Have-Met-Off-Of-Our-Bibliographies count went through the roof, what with the colloquium and then the workshop the following week. We found the students who attended the workshop were polite and pleasant, asked the right questions and nodded in the right places – always a bonus. Many also stayed after the end of the session to voluntarily finish line-breaking their assigned folios, showing dedication on their part and betraying just how addictive transcribing can be.

Some of the UAM workshop students busy transcribing. Note the smiles, even three hours in!

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After a day spent in the university library, we spent our final full day in Toledo, doing our best to feel medieval. Not sure if medievals ate tortilla española or drank Fanta Limón, though, to be honest, but to be fair I think the NHS frowns upon the drinking of mead when one is with child.

Christian and project-wannabe Alicia enjoying Toledo:

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This week things should settle down and get back to normal at Estoria Towers. We are even hoping to sneak in a cheeky visit to the German Christmas Market in Birmingham to celebrate having held our second colloquium. We know how to live it up.