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Out of the archives, onto the Internet
Far removed from the crumbling parchment manuscripts of yore, the medievalist scholars who convened at Stanford Aug. 6-12 seemed more accustomed to guiding a computer mouse than a quill pen.
The seventh meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), hosted by George Brown, ISAS president and Stanford professor of English and chair of the medieval studies program, drew 150 participants from around the world.
While morning sessions covered predictable topics such as artful alliteration, law codes and ornamental metalwork, the afternoon media demonstrations in Sweet Hall's Presentation Palace were a trip through virtual 20th- century monasteries of digitized knowledge.
Instead of poring over 11th-century texts that describe battles between the king of the Geats and the fiendish Grendl, today's students of Beowulf can click on to the British Library's Electronic Beowulf Project and call up a full-color, digitized versions of the literary masterpiece. Thanks to fiber-optic backlighting, it's now possible to see pencil tracings, discolorations, erasures and corrections that had been virtually invisible before.
In another year or two, when the Scribe manuscript viewing environment for Macintosh computers is finally up and running, students will be able to tap into Alexander's letters to Aristotle and scribble notes in the margins of the text or draw circles around individual letters of script that raise questions of interpretation.
"Most of us got onto computers out of sheer necessity," Brown says. "And once you're on the computer, it's pretty easy to take the next step of networking."
In the rush to the World Wide Web, researchers in matters medieval and Anglo-Saxon apparently are leading the scholarly pack.
"We've always been driven," says Georgetown University Professor Deborah Everhart. "In medieval studies you can't just be interested in text. You have to be interested in languages and art history and lots of other disciplines. So adding one more new discipline isn't a problem for us."
Everhart, who did much of the research for her Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford with the help of Brown, has developed, with fellow Georgetown Professor Martin Irvine, a free World Wide Web server for medieval studies called Labyrinth. Since it was established a year ago, Labyrinth has served more than one million files - "coming up behind McDonald's very quickly," Irvine quips - to some 60 different countries.
For providing access to electronic resources in medieval studies throughout the world, Labyrinth already has been rated among the top 5 percent of web resources in an independent survey conducted by Point Communications Corp.
Users who access Labyrinth can tap into the Gregorian chant home page or explore the new Camelot Project in Arthurian studies sponsored by the University of Rochester.
"We've tried to reach out to the professional community and also to anyone else in the world who has an interest in medieval studies," Everhart says. "There's a whole data base of scholarly Arthurian materials, for example, so that someone can translate their 'I read the Mists of Avalon' curiosity into 'wow, here's the real history of the legend.'"
Stanford's Brown, a specialist in Old English and Anglo-Latin who has published on a wide range of medieval topics, says that the isolation that many medievalist scholars feel has fueled the current electronic drive.
"There are a couple of us at Stanford, and one Anglo-Saxonist at Berkeley, but generally speaking we're spread fairly thin across the board," he says. "So we now communicate mostly by email and fax and electronic means."
There's also the problem of getting to the manuscripts that are critical to scholars' study. There are only four manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry, constituting about 30,000 lines of text, and most are housed in England and Italy.
"Those of us working in the United States who are interested in the earliest English culture do not have access to Anglo-Saxon manuscripts," Brown says. "If we didn't have electronic imaging and microfiche, I'd have to go to London to work."
Brown has spent long hours in the British Library, studying manuscripts with ultraviolet and infrared light.
"I don't know how much damage I've done to my genetic makeup by standing in those rooms," he says, "but it is one technique for bringing out the inkstains from low in the membrane and making out letters and words that had been erased."
With the new technology, however, Brown makes fewer trips each year to London.
"With Adobe Photoshop, you can take text, remove some of the background, heighten the foreground and lettering and make out some of the words that were on the edges of the carbonized and charred leaves of parchment," he says of his study with the Electronic Beowulf. "You can also make out what was under the erasures, where letters were scraped off and ink was left on the sub-surface."
The erasures made by scribes working in 11th- century monasteries are intriguing to scholars, for whom a single letter can make a great difference in meaning. In Alexander's letter to Aristotle, for example, there is reference to the stipulation that Alexander's men would only be allowed into the groves where Aristotle lectured if they were "undefiled by. . .?" The word in question could be either "battle" or "women."
By clicking on to the Scribe software, still in development, students can zoom in on the specific letter in question, magnify it several times its original size, and bring out the outlines of the faded ink on the manuscript to show that it is a "u," not an "o" in the Anglo-Saxon spelling.
That proves, say the medievalist scholars who've been working on the project, that Alexander's men had to be "undefiled by women," supporting the Latin rendering of the same passage, which reads "free from sexual contact with women or boys."
As the Electronic Beowulf project continues to digitize all the leading commentaries on Beowulf, in promotion of the British Library's "Initiatives for Access" program to make more of its collections available to the public by the year 2000, Internet hook-ups and hypertext links already are describing the library of the future.
As libraries move toward combining catalog and delivery services, says Electronic Beowulf expert Kevin Kiernan, it promises "the start of something really big, expensive and earth-shattering."
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