Defining ‘Europe’ in Medieval European Geographical Discourse

Project Blog

The creation of a digital database

One of the more visual results of the research done in the Defining Europe project is a manuscript database containing as many manuscripts as possible of Honorius Augustodunensis’ Imago Mundi and its translations into the vernacular. This database will contain a corpus of over 350 manuscripts containing this text and show how this text has been spread through Medieval Europe. Especially the vernacular versions are numerous with translations into French, Anglo-Norman, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, Old Norse, German and English. Presenting this large corpus into a single database proves quite a challenge. We have to decide carefully what information we want the database to convey, and how we want to present it. This immediately leads to the question what we would consider the use of the database. We want our database to be both a tool for future researchers interested in the Imago Mundi tradition and a way of presenting the results of the Defining Europe project. In the digital database we want to illustrate the widespread tradition of the Imago Mundi, among others by including as many manuscripts as we can find; show what parts of the text they contain; when they have been created; where they have been created; and furthermore if and how they have travelled through the hands of different owners. Understandably, this requires a lot of information.

To acquire this information we will make use of previously published research containing manuscripts lists of the Imago Mundi and its translations. For example, Valerie Flint’s edition of the Imago Mundi from 1983 and Sarah Centili’s PhD dissertation from 2005 are great sources of information and will be acknowledge properly in our database. In order to expand and elaborate on the corpus of manuscripts found in secondary publications, we will be greatly dependent on digital databases that are already in existence. Due to digital library catalogues and the increasing digital availability of paper catalogues, much of the required information can be accessed with ease. Moreover, the current trend of digitizing the manuscripts themselves makes the primary sources easily available as well. Since library catalogues generally speaking present a brief overview of a collection, they should preferably be used side by side with the manuscripts rather than on their own. The digital accessibility of many manuscripts provided us with the opportunity to actively acquire additional information on the manuscripts without having to physically visit each library.

However, while the digital search process is significantly faster than carefully leafing through paper catalogues, the digital searchability has its own limitations. Searching a digital catalogue forces the researcher to actively chose what to search for. Much like in a regular library catalogue, search terms can be the title of the text or its author. However, elements such as a title and the name of the author which a modern audience considers indispensable for any text, are not so common and standard for the Middle Ages. As will be visible in our digital database, in most of the manuscripts we found no author is mentioned and if he is, it is not always Honorius Augustodunensis. Among others, Imago Mundi is attributed to Bede, Isidore of Seville and Anselmus. Moreover, even if a title or the author’s name is present, the spelling of these varies greatly. For example, the text of Imago Mundi can be called just that, but is also given the title Imagine Mundi, and since the ‘i’ is interchangeable with a ‘y’ Ymago Mundi and Ymagine Mundi appear as well. Because most databases do not take variations in spelling into account, searching for all these variations separately is necessary. Anticipating all possible variants can be difficult. The lack of standardized spelling in medieval manuscripts is an element that is less compatible with digital search engines and which proves a problem of which users need to be aware.

While we are trying with all our might to avoid it, our database will most likely suffer from some of these same issues. Standardizing over 350 manuscript descriptions is never easy, especially as the corpus continues to grow. However, while not necessarily easily searchable, the inconsistencies in medieval manuscripts themselves are a characteristic that defines them. In these variations we find the adaptability and transference of the Imago Mundi. What these variations show is how this texts is alive and the tradition with all its adaptations is something which the Defining Europe project in general and the digital database in particular is trying to convey.

Select Bibliography

Sarah Centili, ‘La tradition manuscrite de l’Image du monde: Fortune et diffusion d’une encyclopédie du xiiie siècle’ (unpublished thesis, Paris: École des chartes, 2005).

Valerie I. J. Flint, Honorius Augustodunensis of Regensburg, in: Authors of the Middle Ages. Historical and Religious Writers of the Latin West 2, 5-6. (Aldershot 1995) 95-183.

Valerie I. J. Flint, ‘Honorius Augustodunensis. ‘Imago mundi’’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyen âge 57 (1982) 7-153.

Post by Kiki Calis