digital and virtual - objects, practices, reflections
An expert meeting on 24 October 2023 (hybrid). Organised by project B02 „Virtuelles Mittelalter“: Helen Bittner, Christian Bunnenberg, Lena Ciochon, Juliet Diekkämper, Suzette van Haaren, Johanna Laubrock and Klaus Oschema
With digital media at our fingertips (quite literally), the European Middle Ages are only one click away. Today’s digital spaces allow us to approach, experience, and sometimes even immerse ourselves into reconstructions of the medieval past—whether scientifically or in popular culture. These digital landscapes reshape our perception of history, prompting a revaluation of historiographical and pedagogical approaches to the Middle Ages. And where the digital finds its physical limits, the virtual Middle Ages continue, transcending technology and creating a realm in imagination as much as in reality. Critically, we must navigate the digital’s impact on our understanding of the Middle Ages. How do the Middle Ages extend into our virtual worlds, and how does this affect how the past is created?
In this workshop medievalists, digitisation experts, museum professionals, didactic specialists, and librarians convene to explore digital and virtual developments in discourse about the Middle Ages. The experts provide video presentations beforehand. During the day of the workshop, they discuss both the practical implementation and theoretical discourse, aiming to redefine digital medievalism and reconsider how knowledge about the Middle Ages is created, formed, and communicated.
9:45-11:15 – Session 1: “Recreating the medieval”
Moderator: Lena Ciochon
Mareike Antepoth and Erik Beck, Wewelsburg Castle around 1500 – a digital model
The nowadays Wewelsburg castle was built between 1603 and 1609. Its triangular shape is based on the topographic setting and the former mediaeval buildings. In 2019 the Kreis Paderborn decided on constructing a digital twin of Wewelsburg Castle, a so-called Building Information Model (BIM). This BIM will be used by different departments of the Kreis Paderborn, for example the Bauamt or the Firefighters. For us, located at the Kulturamt, our museum director Kirsten John-Stucke, had the opportunity to take the lead in the project. We are able to use the BIM for our purposes: for the education of the visitors about the history of the castle. Beside others, one outcome are different models of the castle during 900 years of its existence. We will be able to present a vision of the Mediaeval castle, the changes in 1609, the partial destruction in 1815, the changes 1925 and the massive modification during the use by the SS 1934–1945. The mediaeval model is composed of archaeological traces, mediaeval written sources, investigations of the remaining mediaeval parts in the modern castle and the BIM. All in all, we created a vision, but explicitly reconstructed what we could clearly locate and prove. Many parts of Wewelsburg castle, which are not visible anymore, were virtually reconstructed as transparent patterns. All in all our goal wasn’t a hyper realistic reconstruction, but to try to give the visitors an evidence based vision of the mediaeval castle. Visitors can use a monitor and navigate themselves through Wewelsburg castle via touch gestures. This model will be displayed in our museum in 2024, but is at the moment present in our special exhibition “1123: Die Wewelsburg im Mittelalter”.
Julian Heller (Nusec GmbH) and Ralf Mahytka, XR-Technology and medieval artifacts– a chance to immerge into a medieval world, taking the next step form visualizing into an exciting experience
Nusec is a company which provides XR-Technology for industrial application. We define XR-Technology as Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality Applications. The range of hardware needed to run the software may vary from a modern smartphone to a high-end PC in regard to the customers’ needs. With XR technologies it is possible to go beyond a digital reconstruction, for example with CAD and augment it into the real environment, making there constructed object experienceable and not just a visual picture. If needed, it is possible to fully immerge with Virtual Reality into a scenario where the objects can be experienced and interacted within the reconstructed origin. Furthermore, the right application of XR-Technology may have an impact on the younger generations interest for history and archaeology by making it easier to access. The applications can be designed in a way where information’s are provided with a high gamification factor, thus learning curves are flattened and education is not just provided frontal but within an enjoyable experience. In a recent project with the City of Höxter and Mr. Mahytka (City Archaeologist) we were able to combine archeologic accuracy and XR technology to create an AR-Experience based on scientific data provided by ground penetrating radar, excavations, reconstructions, and archaeological findings. This can be found within the Archaeological Park of the Landesgartenschau in Höxter onsite the area of the deserted City of Corvey. The combination of XR-Technology and an image recognition AI made it possible to create AR-Structures on Top of their historic fundaments and to find and identify buried artifacts to collect them within a virtual library, where the fragment and the object is shown as 3D model.
Silke Schwandt, Interactive Knowledge Graphs for Historical Research: Appropriating Knowledge about the Middle Ages in VR
While virtual reality is increasingly gaining popularity and users in the entertainment industry, the medium is still rarely used in contexts of historical research and the humanities. The simulation of historical times seems to be particularly problematic – and this has long been discussed in the context of digital games. Our contribution is a plea for the utilisation of the virtual space of experience in the context of historical exploration and historiographical research, renouncing prefabricated images of history. In doing so, we refer directly to the questions of how knowledge about the past can be created in immersive, virtual spaces. The tool we present sees itself as a performative, immersive portal that offers access to data about historical knowledge with which users can interactively create past atmospheres and narratives. The virtual environment is intended to facilitate users’ immersion in a historiographical atmosphere in the manner of archives and libraries; the specific knowledge graph is then designed by the users themselves. Through the participatory “playful research process”, the construction mechanisms of historical narratives and the “immersive fallacy” of medially transported historical images always remain transparent.
11:30-13:00 — Session 2: “Virtual didactics”
Sanne Frequin, #MedievalMe, Serious Fun with the Middle Ages
MedievalMe is an engaging serious game designed for secondary school students, aged 15 to 18. In this game they conduct their own scientific research on a mysterious medieval manuscript, Jacob van Maerlants Der Naturen Bloeme (KB KA 16, ca. 1350).Through the implementation of virtual reality (VR) technology, the manuscript is brought to life within the game. By integrating heritage into the classroom, MedievalMe allows students to directly interact with a medieval artifact. The game is web-based and free, encouraging accessibility for all participants. It can be played on mobile devices. The main objective of MedievalMe is to encourage students to learn more about medieval art and to highlight the significance of interdisciplinary approaches. Students from various disciplines, including science, history, and language sciences, collaborate to solve the challenges presented in the game. Overall, MedievalMe provides an immersive and collaborative platform that merges education, heritage, and scientific research, captivating students and promoting their research skills in an interactive and engaging manner.
Elena Lewers, Divinginto 1465? – A didactic perspective on the Middle Ages in virtual reality
In contrast to the unchangeable past, the media that are supposed to make the past accessible to the respective present are constantly changing. In recent years, it is increasingly digital media such as films, games and virtual reality that are influencing our understanding of the past enormously. Since the past is no longer accessible to the senses, it is supposed to become “alive” and “experienceable” again via digital media. Various technical, aesthetic, and narrative strategies are used to focus on “experiencing” the past. The Middle Ages are also a popular reference for these formats, e.g. in the form of games or digital reconstructions of medieval towns and/or buildings. VR applications can be found in the private sector, but also in the tourism sector (e.g. museums). However, since these narratives do not transport the Middle Ages themselves, but a partial reconstruction of them, the question arises as to which Middle Ages are actually (not) being presented in virtual reality. The presumption is that we are not dealing with the Middle Ages themselves, but with a fictional – virtual? – Middle Ages that is being formed in the present. For historical education, this raises the question of what knowledge about the Middle Ages is transported via virtual reality and how it influences the historical consciousness of groups and individuals. Because of the assumed immersive nature of the medium, the question of how VR affects recipients must be explored. Based on examples, the lecture will show how images of the Middle Ages are constructed with the medium of virtual reality. It will also open up perspectives on how this can be used in history education. Because if VR cannot be used to learn what it was like back then, what can be done instead?
Adam Regiewicz, The cathedral as a figure of polymedia school education
The cathedral as an architectural structure in medieval times was not simply a sacred building, but had, as George Duby convinces us, a profound symbolic meaning relating to Christian theology. In addition to the implicit theological dimension, the cathedral clearly hierarchised the medieval community, marking a place both earthly and heavenly. Finally, the cathedral was the ‘bible pauperum’. Because of the iconographic elements it contained, it allowed the illiterate to engage with the sacred liturgy and the Church’s teaching by being moved aesthetically or emotionally. Cognition leading to a deepening of faith was therefore preceded by affect, by beauty, by experience. The parallel between the cathedral as ‘bible pauperum’ and the contemporary multimedia digital space is so well described (see Jay David Bolter) that it needs no further explanation. However, in view of the above recognition, it is worth asking ourselves about the contemporary shape of education. The figure of the cathedral, with its properties, corresponds to todays transcultural and polysemiotic conception of the transmission of meaning and thus of education. It is therefore a matter of analysing the attitudes occupied by the man in the cathedral (tourist, flâneur, barbarian, guide, detective, explorer, believer, usher) in order to become aware of how to navigate the digital space in the school space with young people today. The same is true for participation in online media. The question remains, however, whether the school takes advantage of this variability and dynamism. The cathedral, in its architectural singularity, allows itself to be read in motion, requiring the user to be active, to act, to endeavour: on both a kinetic and intellectual level. It also offers a transmedia narrative, broken up between different types of messages, giving the impression of being somewhat fragmented at the level of reading, but through a very clear foundation of a theological nature that at the same time gives meaning to everything inside it, from its structure, composition, and facade throws. This is both a direction and a goal that must be taken into account when designing a model for the transmission of knowledge - education.
14:00-15:30 — Session 3: “Reading digital manuscripts”
Moderator: Klaus Oschema
Hannah Busch, AI and Medieval Studies: Just Another Computational Turn?
The mass digitization of medieval manuscripts over the past twenty plus years as well as the establishment of standards that enable access beyond institutional or project related boundaries have contributed to reach a critical mass that allows to experiment with the Deep Machine Learning for the study of handwritten sources. Parallel to this development, computation of images is becoming more powerful, and—more importantly—affordable. With the possibility to apply Artificial Intelligence within the study of historical written objects we are currently witnessing a computational turn in the field of palaeography: From a computational/digital palaeography to fully automated processes of an “Artificial Paleography”.1 On the basis of my own research in the field of medieval Latin palaeography I want to invite to discuss the digital turn in palaeography and codicology. How does it change the way we study (digitized) medieval manuscripts? Do the opportunities outweigh the risks of automatized methods? Can AI help us to prevent digitized collections from gathering dusty just like their analogue siblings?
1 See Kestemont, Mike, et al. “Artificial Paleography: Computational Approaches to Identifying Script Types in Medieval Manuscripts.” Speculum, vol.92, no. S1, Oct. 2017, pp. 86–109, doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/694112.
Alberto Campagnolo, Unlocking the Multilayered Complexity of Historical Books: Advancements in Digitization towards Distant Reading Beyond Content Features
Historical books, encompassing manuscripts and printed works, possess intricate and functional qualities that hold invaluable information about their production, usage, and content within their structures and materials. However, conventional digitization efforts often fail to fully capture or preserve the historical clues and traces present in these objects, hindering the study of their materiality characteristics through digital means. Fortunately, alternative perspectives and advanced digitization techniques have emerged, capable of capturing a wealth of information from original book objects also using affordable hardware and accessible software that most institutions can employ. Nonetheless, integrating these techniques into standard digitization frameworks can present challenges. Additionally, modelling and metadata activities offer a simplified lens to record specific characteristics, enabling powerful data analytics and visualization endeavours. To address the multilayered and intricate nature of book objects, a piecemeal and multimodal approach can be employed for digitization, integrating them into increasingly sophisticated digital representations. In this presentation, we will explore the current state of the art in digitization techniques and present exciting possibilities for distant reading of books, extending beyond their textual content.
Lisa Fagin Davis, Old Books, New Technologies: Medieval Manuscript Fragments and IIIF
Medieval manuscripts undertake long and difficult journeys to get from there and then to here and now. Fragmentology concerns itself with the study of manuscripts that have only barely survived the journey, arriving in pieces. As fragmentologists, we interrogate when and how and why the codex was fragmented, investigate the contents and history of a given fragment or set of fragments, and work to rebuild the fragmented codex in the digital realm. By leveraging IIIF and linked open data in this work, scholars are able to avoid siloing images, simplify data modelling, embrace digital sustainability, and create digital objects with leaf-level and manuscript-level metadata. This model can be profitably applied to other fields and methodologies.
Tobias Hodel, Epistemologies of the Digital Medieval
The study of theMiddle Ages is currently being severely altered by the use of digital tools and methods, enabling scholars to delve deeper into the riches of medieval times.The talk explores the epistemologies that underpin these digital Middle Ages, focusing on the practices of digitization and digital presentation of medieval source material. Countless medieval manuscripts, documents, and artifacts, have been made available in a new, digital form, rendering them accessible to researchers and the general public. This process of digitization involves not only the conversion of physical objects into digital formats but also the application of metadata, annotations, and structured data, which in turn shape how scholars engage with the material. Furthermore, the epistemological implications of digitization extend beyond the mere preservation and accessibility of medieval sources. Using digital tools allows for new modes of analysis, including automated processes based on natural language processing and large language modeling. However, these processes rely on annotated data and underlying schemas rooted in specific epistemological and ontological frameworks that need careful discussions. The talk calls for a discussion on the epistemological foundations of textual analysis through annotation in the digital medieval context. By critically examining schemas and models we strive to better understand how knowledge is constructed and shaped in and through digitization processes.
16:00-17:30 — Session 4: “Hands-on the digital”
Moderator: Suzette van Haaren
Christina Lechtermann, (No) Pageturner
Digital copies of medieval manuscripts and/or early prints require completely different ways of handling compared to the book. They encounter hands and eyes in a different way and allow for different forms of access and manipulation. My presentation is dedicated to the gesture of turning the page and to the handling of page, double page and layer and the medieval book as a three-dimensional object. The different affordances and modes of use associated with the book and its digital and the virtual equivalents will be discussed.
Dot Porter, Planning an Exhibit of Movement
Books were made to move, but usually - in both virtual and physical gallery spaces - movement is lost. In gallery exhibitions, books are trapped under glass, only one opening visible at a time, and traditional digitization reflects this artificial stillness. In the last quarter of 2024, I will be curating an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania provisionally entitled “The Movement of Books.” The theme of the exhibit is how books move - how they move through space and time, but also how they move around themselves. Movement is integral to the use of books – you can’t read a book without moving it! The theme “The Movement of Books” creates a challenge to the curator: how to curate an exhibit about movement when the very concept of movement is anathema to a gallery space. Currently I plan to include video, augmented and virtual reality, and low-quality facsimiles of selected objects in the collection in order to both show how books move, and to point out the artificial stillness of the traditional gallery exhibit. For my contribution to ‘Middle Ages: digital and virtual – objects, practices, reflections’, I will talk about the importance of movement for books and other textual objects and provide details about my plan for the exhibit.
Astrid Smith, Tackling Tackets: A look at digitizing bundles of late-medieval documents
Digitizing materials from the Middle Ages often presents unique opportunities for innovation and customization, as they involve so many different formats, structures, and substrates. The digital images online may or may not give clues as to the physical and mental work that went into their creation, but they are through their very existence an amalgam of form, thought, substance, history, work, time, and technology. This talk will provide a walk-through of the digital imaging of a particular batch of materials, from a large medieval manuscript digitization project, that posed significant physical challenges, and the methods that were used to ensure useful and communicative digital aspects. During a physical assessment of these late-medieval tacketed bundles of documents, it was immediately apparent that it would be necessary to design and build a custom contraption for safe handling during imaging, which was sketched out and then constructed collaboratively with conservation technicians. The digitization process was taxing – cracking knees, aching backs, and strained eyes – but the resulting images of the materials are stunning and will hopefully prove useful to scholars and researchers. How will end users perceive the objects behind the images and the digital interface they are viewing? The talk will end with a reflection on how these, and other digital medieval objects, relate to their physical counterparts, and what opportunities await.
Bridget Whearty, Why do we digitize? The case for queer and trans digital manuscripts
Experiments with digital imaging of medieval manuscripts have been occurring for approximately 50 years. Mass digitization and online access has become standard over the last quarter century. Now what? What do we do with the millions of digital manuscripts images we have today? And, perhaps most pressingly, who are digital manuscripts for? I propose that what we have digitized can be a vital tool for the recovery of LGBTQ+ literature and history, and a radical expansion of the queer and trans medieval canon. In this talk, I discuss my new project “Always Here: A Queer+Trans Global Medieval Sourcebook.” I emphasize, especially, the centrality of digital medieval manuscripts images in this resource, and argue for the urgent need to create accessible entry points to the vast material evidence of the medieval past—now, in the face of rising levels of intolerance and violence against LGBTQ people and our cis-het allies.
17:30-18:00 Wrap up by Gerhard Lubich