Friday, July 27, 2012

A Reflection on Digital Bibles

Title page of 1765 edition of the
Bibliorum sacrorum, Volumen IV,
taken by Brandon W. Hawk (owner)
This past May, I wrote and submitted an essay for the annual ArtStor Travel Awards on the value of digital images to scholarship and teaching. Since the essay wasn't among those selected for the award (the winning essays may be accessed through the above link), I wanted to share it here. Below is a slightly revised version. I view this essay mainly as a reflection on several inter-related issues that I see in my own work, and that I hope to incorporate into my scholarship and teaching in the future. Unfortunately, the ArtStor image group is unavailable outside of my institution, but hopefully these reflections work without them--though I have supplied a few similar images as replacements.* No doubt readers will find resonances in it of things I've discussed in my previous posts.

For many students and scholars, access to the digital is often a prime gateway to approaching premodern topics, and digital resources are a growing demand. One subject that benefits from the integration of digital images is the history of the Bible in Western culture. Indeed, approaching the subject of the Bible is enriched by the digital in allowing not only access to images but also integrated ways of conveying the relevance of the subject matter for contemporary study.

The importance of the digital for the study of the Bible is demonstrated by the accompanying image set, made up of eighteen images on the subject. Of foremost concern in this image set is interdisciplinarity, as the subject encompasses disciplines of religion, art, history, and literature, to name just a few. Encompassing these concerns, this image group is generally arranged both chronologically and thematically, in order to facilitate two perspectives simultaneously. On the one hand, the group is structured upon the history of the book, both the Bible specifically and the topic more generally, from the earliest forms (scrolls and papyri) and manuscripts (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls and Codex Sinaiticus) into the early modern period (printed forms and translations). On the other hand, the group is structured to trace important themes such as biblical textuality (critical editing), illustration (manuscript decorations), scholarship (glossing), printing (from Gutenberg onward), and modern translation (e.g. Coverdale and Tyndale Bibles). Significantly, this image group also emphasizes how we now consider all of these topics alongside current digital media that make these images available.

One productive way of viewing the history of the Bible is through the same type of interactivity, even hyper-visuality, that we continue to face in the digital age. For example, the integration of multiple modes of reading is depicted in many of these images, especially in the integration of multiple texts, illustrations, and glosses. Intersections of the biblical and digital are brought together most powerfully in late medieval glossed pages, represented in this image group by Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Lat. 9, folios 16r and 16v [see a similar substitute, with discussion, here]. The layouts of these pages are deeply hyper-visual: they contain numerous layers of the text, decorated initials, and the proliferation of glosses.* It is further valuable to consider issues surrounding the fact that we gaze upon these pages virtually, mediated by electronic screens, rather than experiencing their materiality.

It is clear that the digital opens up relevant approaches to the Bible in our own society. How we respond to all of these themes is telling, as we wrestle with notions of transcendence from two perspectives--in both cultural venerations of the Bible as well as the transcendence of the digital in our own lives.

* According to ArtStor's terms and policies, I cannot share the image group with those outside my institution's access, nor on an unrestricted website--but the site does allow sharing with private subscribers, so please email me with details if you would like to see the image group as a slideshow.
** I recently (since first writing this essay) read a good study by Lesley Smith, The Glossa Ordinaria: The Making of a Medieval Bible Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2009), which deals with some of these same themes; I have also ordered (through ILL) another recent book that approaches these same issues, David A. Salomon, An Introduction to the Glossa Ordinaria as Medieval Hypertext (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2012).


Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

May I also suggest a previous book by Lesley Smith, Masters of the Sacred Page: Manuscripts of Theology in the Latin West to 1274 (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2001)? The book explores the evolution of medieval theological approaches as seen through the manuscripts produced--the bulk is an examination of individual plates and what they reveal about theological methods and contents.

bwhawk said...

Yes, Smith's Masters of the Page is also a good one. I recently looked through it, but I want to spend more time with it. There are some excellent images in there. I have to admit, though, that I was a little disappointed by the accompanying exposition--I had expected more general discussion (perhaps a chapter or two of prefatory material before the plates) of the issues surrounding early medieval theology and contexts for the manuscripts and their texts, because there aren't many extended discussions of this topic anyway. I also hoped for more images from the early medieval period, since the twelfth century is clearly the focus of the book. Nonetheless, it is a good recommendation.