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Digitising the Exeter Book

Digitising the Exeter Book

Between start-of-year meetings with supervisors, the arrival of the freshers, and the rush to finalize conference paper proposals, it’s been a busy first few weeks back in Exeter. In the midst of all of this, though, I’ve also had one amazing opportunity that really deserves a blog post all to itself. I’ve mentioned before on this blog how wonderful my supervisory team are, in terms of both their interest in my research and their eagerness to involve postgraduate students in the broader life of the Department here at Exeter. In this case, it was my second supervisor who offered me the opportunity, and it was one that I simply couldn’t turn down: ‘Edward, would you like to come along and watch the digitisation of the Exeter Book?’

Perhaps a little explanation is in order here. The Exeter Book is remarkable, even by the standards of medieval manuscripts: it’s one of only four codices containing Anglo-Saxon poetry to have survived to the present day, and as such is of great interest to scholars of both the history of the English language and to Old English culture more generally. It’s held by the Cathedral Library and Archives here in Exeter, but until now has not been digitised, with only the 1930s facsimile edition being available to scholars. A full digitisation of a manuscript can never replace an in-situ visit to the original, of course, but it is nevertheless an invaluable resource, making features such as page layout, scribal decisions and illuminations visible to scholars from around the world. Institutions such as the British Library have led the way in the task of digitising their collections, often through named projects such as the Polonsky England and France Project for pre-1200 material, while a quick glance at a database such as the Digital Medieval Manuscripts App demonstrates that smaller libraries around the world are following suit. Even more excitingly, a huge amount of fascinating work is being done that draws on the availability of high-resolution digital images: DigiPal and the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, to name but a few such projects, are doing work that simply wouldn’t have been possible twenty years ago.

But where does the Exeter Book fit into all this? As it happens, one of my supervisors has a long-standing research project based around bringing medieval manuscripts out of dusty archives and Special Collections reading rooms and into the public sphere. As one of the most iconic manuscripts in the world, the Exeter Book plays a key role in Emma Cayley’s Exeter Manuscripts Project, which has been running since 2012 and which has been attracting an immense amount of media interest. This week, it was finally time for a moment that Emma herself had been waiting for since 2012: the first full digitisation of the Exeter Book, opening it up for exploration both from specialists and from the broader public.[1] Being the lovely supervisor that she is, she invited me along to watch.

I’ve been using digitsed manuscripts in some form or another for a few years now, but until yesterday I’d never been able to observe a digitisation actually being carried out. Thankfully, the staff at the Cathedral Archives and the University’s own Digital Humanities team were extremely welcoming, and even allowed us to take a few photos to provide some insight into how the process works. This image offers a snapshot of the entire process: the manuscript is placed in a cradle and held in place with delicate tools before an image is captured of it, checked against the existing facsimile, and given a folio number.

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It might seem surprising, in a world where the technology and the hardware to scan documents is ubiquitous, that the method employed in digitisation should be so low-tech. On a fundamental level, after all, the team are just taking a photo of the manuscript with a camera, then turning a page and repeating the process again. You can just see the camera in this photo, in fact: it’s mounted on top of the frame, above the beam lights. In reality, of course, this ‘back-to-basics’ approach has some serious conservation science behind it: harsh light such as that used in photocopiers could do lasting damage to the delicate pigments in the ink, as well as reflecting off any illuminations and thus ruining the image output.

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There’s another benefit, though, to using a (very high-resolution!) camera to undertake the digitisation: it allows for a great deal more control over the lighting conditions than a scanner could ever provide. The team were actually doing three ‘passes’ of the manuscript, each taken at a different exposure level; viewers of the images online will therefore be able to choose a setting for each page, potentially revealing information (such as erasures) that might only be visible in low or high light. The device nearest to me in the picture above is an extension of this idea a similar purpose: it’s called a ‘raking light‘, and is particularly useful for revealing subtle features such as dry-point decoration and ruling. The team found a good example of this early on in the process, when the raking light revealed a representation of what we believe to be the head of an angel. Whether or not this dry-point was intended to be colored in at a later moment, the fact that it was undertaken in the first place offers a valuable insight into the mindsets of both the Exeter Book’s scribes and its later users.

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As you can probably tell, watching the magic of digitisation happen was nothing short of inspiring; this was an amazing experience, and it would be unthinkable to end this blog post without thanking a few people. Emma Cayley (on Twitter here) deserves a huge amount of credit for all the work that she’s put into this project, as do her colleagues, Elaine Treharne at Stanford and Johanna Green in Glasgow. The Digital Humanities team at the University of Exeter, headed by Gary Stringer, were kind enough to allow us to barge in and take photos, all while managing to retain their trademark composure and skill in the work that they do; and, of course, the Cathedral’s own Library and Archives staff made the whole project possible by acting as custodians of this wonderful fragment of le patrimoine. I hope this blog post has whetted your appetite for the digitisation to appear, which will happen in due course; I’ll be sure to keep readers of this blog up to date with any future developments.

For now, though, I must venture back into the world of Anglo-Norman didacticism; thankfully, I’m in good company, surrounded by scholars and enthusiasts described so accurately by one poem in the Exeter Book as ‘boceras / weorþað wisfæste‘. ‘Scholars / becoming fast in wisdom’, indeed.


[1] Edit: I have since been informed that there was in fact a previous digitisation of the Exeter Book, in the form of Bernard J. Muir’s DVD-ROM produced in 2006. ‘Fast in wisdom’, indeed! Since then, of course, the technology to publish and to share the digitisations has evolved considerably, and the high-resolution images taken over the past week will represent a significant development in our ability to study the Exeter Book as a complete manuscript. 

A tale of two conferences, II: Researching and Publishing the Medieval Now (York)

A tale of two conferences, II: Researching and Publishing the Medieval Now (York)

As I mentioned in my most recent post, the start of July was something of a blur for me, as I spent much of my time in conference mode. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, being in ‘conference mode’ tends to involve me bobbing up and down in my seat, enraptured by my fellow medievalists’ wonderful presentations and panels.) Last week’s post saw me sharing some particularly juicy pickings from the enormous International Medieval Congress in Leeds, a four-day smorgasbord of panels, networking and roundtables. This week, though, we’re dialling back on the intensity somewhat, and looking at a conference I attended in York the following day; a conference that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Leeds.

Okay, so that last sentence was just an excuse to get a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reference in there. There’s a nugget of truth hidden within the painfully-obvious reference, though: while both Leeds and York would be described as ‘medieval conferences’, the two events did feel very different to one another, and each demonstrated in its own way how conferences really are shaped by the people who organise them. This was particularly on show in the York conference, ‘Researching and Publishing the Medieval Now’, as it, unlike Leeds, was organised around the work of one individual. #MedievalNow, as I took to calling it on Twitter, was a one-day event that served as a  collective ‘thank-you’ from medievalists up and down the country to Caroline Palmer. Caroline has worked for 25 years at my favourite medievalist publishing house, Boydell & Brewer, as a commissioning editor and editorial director, and as such, she holds a special place in many medievalists’ hearts as the first port of call for book proposals, proofreaders, and a great deal more besides. I myself only met Caroline recently, when she was on the panel for a bursary competition; while my application was ultimately unsuccessful, I was struck by her generosity in seeking me out afterwards and encouraging me to reapply in future years. She is, though, a real luminary in the medieval studies scene, so with that in mind, and given the stellar programme, it really was a no-brainer for me to hop on the train from Leeds to York and extend my summer conference trip by a further day.

In many ways, #MedievalNow reminded me strongly of the postgraduate conferences on which I’d cut my medievalist teeth. The one-day nature of the event, coupled with the genuinely ‘collegiate’ and slightly festive mood amongst the attendees, left the presentations feeling both accessible and incisive. The attendance list read like a ‘who’s-who’ of medievalists: I was particularly excited to meet Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, whose Festschrift I was able to snap up at a massive discount. Jocelyn is a Big Deal™ in Anglo-Norman studies, and in recent years has played a central role in the renewal of scholarship surrounding the precise nature of what she terms ‘the French of England’. I also had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Tyler, a York early-medievalist who’s been doing some wonderful work exploding the myth that English ‘died’ after 1066 and arguing instead that language contact, rather than conflict, was the key influence on post-Conquest speech and writing. As far as I’m aware, I didn’t embarrass myself in front of either of those luminaries in my field, although knowing my luck one of them will probably comment on this post telling me that I left my phone behind or something.

The bread and butter of any conference, of course, is the papers themselves, and York certainly didn’t disappoint. The day was split into three sessions: “literatures and histories”, whose contributions were loosely based around the relationship between publishing and scholarship; “material cultures”, which offered a series of more “hands-on” case studies in how to interpret medieval texts and manuscripts; and a plenary discussion informed by Caroline Palmer’s own work in publishing. Of particular interest to me was Jane Taylor‘s presentation, as Jane is my ‘grand-supervisor’ by virtue of having had one of my current supervisors as a PhD student! Jane’s presentation was a masterclass in both how to present and what to present: building her talk around a single sixteenth-century publisher, she took what might appear to be a dry subject (his indexing practices) and used it to draw out a range of fascinating conclusions and further questions. Over the course of the day, I posted a series of ‘catch-up Tweets’ based on my own notes under the hashtag #MedievalNow; if you’re curious, I’d encourage you to peruse the hashtag and enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling that only 140-character summaries of medieval conferences can provide.

Jane certainly wasn’t the only presenter ‘on form’, though – the day was characterised by presenters of all disciplines and interests reaching out across traditional subject boundaries and offering insights as to how we might work in a genuinely interdisciplinary way. Appropriately enough, Sarah Kay began the day with a plea for us all to come together under the banner of ‘medieval studies’, rather than hiding away in our individual departments of French, English, or History; she certainly struck a chord, as interdisciplinarity was on show across all the panels. If #MedievalNow’s presentations were anything to go by, ‘medieval studies’ as an idea certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon – which, of course, makes it a very, very exciting time indeed to be a postgraduate student.

A tale of two conferences, I: the International Medieval Congress (Leeds)

A tale of two conferences, I: the International Medieval Congress (Leeds)

I’m writing this on the train back from York after a week of what I’ve been calling (rather awkwardly) ‘medieval fun-times’. It’s been a very busy few days for many people in the world of medieval studies: the early summer period, after undergraduates have gone home, is peak conference season, and this year was no exception. In fact, French medievalists got something of a rough deal this year, as the International Medieval Congress overlapped significantly with the Society for French Studies’ annual conference. I can only imagine that quite a few French medievalists were on the early train from Durham to Leeds on at least one occasion during the week.

For my part, my involvement this year was solely with the IMC, having responded to the late call for papers and sneaked myself into Session 1541, ‘Science at Court: Poesis‘. Unfortunately, the actual audience for my paper turned out to be fairly small: we’d been given the infamous ‘graveyard shift’ of 9am on Thursday morning, which sounds like a pleasant slot until you realise that the IMC disco had taken place the night before. I do feel for the organiser of the panel, the wonderful Tekla Bude: panellists and moderators outnumbered audience members, even accounting for the fact that one panellist simply didn’t show up. In any case, though, I hope that my presentation was of use to the panel; as ever, producing a conference presentation to an interested, but potentially non-specialist audience was a wonderful way of ensuring that I myself was confident in my conclusions and capable of communicating them concisely. I was speaking about a single work, namely the Kalender, a short treatise on calendar and the computus produced in 1256 by one Rauf de Lenham. If you’re interested, I actually recorded my presentation, so please do feel free to take a look at the video below. (The handout that I reference on several occasions is available here.)

All in all, I feel as if the presentation went well; the discussion afterwards (not included in the video, I’m afraid) was particularly productive. It’s worth underlining, though, that the IMC itself was very much a learning experience for me: as the IMC was my first ‘non-PG’ conference, it was very strange to find myself presenting alongside established academics as well as fellow postgrads. The IMC is a very different beast to anything I’d experienced before, not least because of its sheer scale: with over 2,000 delegates, it’s far larger than, say, the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference or Approaching the Medieval. This of course translates into an immense variety of sessions, and therefore difficult decisions had to be made about which sessions to attend and which (regrettably) to sacrifice. There was always a choice to be made; at no point could I confidently say that session no. x was the only session that would be relevant to my research interests. I like to think, of course, that this is the reason why my talk was comparatively poorly-attended, and that the audience size of three was nothing at all to do with the fact that I was talking about the form and function of thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman calendrical treatises.

The scale of the conference did also pose some additional problems for me: as a self-confessed introvert and ‘Aspie‘, I felt somewhat overwhelmed at first, and frequently had to make time for myself, a decision that led to me missing a couple of very promising-sounding evening panels. The disco was an immediate no-no, although I will admit that I would have liked to have had the opportunity to ‘watch your bibliography boogie’.  In writing this, I’m reminded of my good friend Debbie White’s wonderful blog post on surviving academic conferences as an introvert; I’d certainly echo her advice, as well as adding that free access to the University Library (thanks, IMC!) can be exceptionally helpful in having somewhere quiet to go when you need it.

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Also of use in de-stressing: opportunities to play circular chess, with period rules! (I lost.)

This isn’t another ‘Asperger’s blog post’, though, and at its heart a conference is defined not by the libraries it’s near, but by the panels that you attend. The approximate format of most panels at the IMC will be familiar to many of us who work in the humanities: 90-minute panels, with each speaker given 20 minutes and a 30-minute Q&A slot afterwards. I was lucky enough to attend some exceptional papers during my time at the IMC, many of which were given by fellow postgrads whose enthusiasm shone through. If you’d like to have a peek, I was busily (semi-)live-tweeting most of the panels I sat in on (more on that in a couple of weeks!); I’d particularly recommend The IMC did also, though, look beyond the traditional three-paper-panel setup, and embraced a broader range of formats, particularly during the evening sessions. Two roundtable discussions stood out for me: the first was on the topic of ‘chronology, temporality and otherness’ and proved to be an excellent way to bring together specialists in a whole range of different disciplines within ‘medieval studies’. It was very refreshing, as a ‘literature person’ who works in a Medieval Studies cluster largely dominated by historians, to be reminded of how we can talk to each other in a productive and mutually enriching way.

The second roundtable discussion, held on the Wednesday night, was organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship on the topic of gender and harassment in the academy. It perhaps goes without saying that my attendance at the roundtable was as an ally, rather than as a victim: women in universities, as the discussion made abundantly clear, are subject to an enormous range of aggressions and challenges that stem in no small part from the very structure of academia itself. (For instance, there’s been a great deal of discussion recently on the topic of ’emotional labour’, the burden of which disproportionately falls on women.) The participants at the roundtable were forthright and open in their discussion of some issues which I, as a middle-class, male participant, had never even crossed my mind: doesn’t having a ‘harassment policy’ imply a normalisation, even an acceptance, of harassment? Why is childcare so under-discussed at academic conferences? What about breastfeeding mothers? How should trigger-warnings, the subject of so much derision by people who (like me) have never really been ‘triggered’, be used?

Leaving Leeds on Thursday night, then, I certainly felt as if I had developed as a medievalist, both in terms of what I know and how I’ve come to know it. My conference experience was very positive indeed – after all, I did literally ‘buy the T-shirt’ – and it was enriched still further by the spirited discussion on the nature of the conference itself, encouraged so ably by the IMC committee. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the kind of methodological contributions championed by the SMFS and by the informal #disIMC meet up; after all, it’s important to think not not just about the conclusions we reach in medieval studies, but also the methods we employ in order to reach them.

Next week, I’ll be talking about an altogether different conference experience – a one-day, and much smaller, symposium held on Friday 7th July in York. Stay tuned!

This guy wrote a blog post about Asperger’s. What happened next will shock you!

This guy wrote a blog post about Asperger’s. What happened next will shock you!

Well, that was unexpected. I published my last blog post right before leaving for a rowing training camp, and had somewhat-intermittent internet access for the following 24 hours; in light of this, my latest check of the blog stats gave me a bit of a shock.

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All I can really say is thank you — no, thank you mille fois — to everyone who read the post, engaged with it, and (in many cases) left some lovely responses, both public and private. I really appreciate you all taking the time to read this one dude’s little post.

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Quite a few people shared it on Twitter, from good friends of mine to — in one particularly salient reminder of how fortunate I am here at Exeter — my own supervisor.

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I was even contacted by one of the University of Cambridge’s disability mentors, asking whether he could share it with his own mentees.

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One of the most pleasant messages I received, though, was from @Girl_by_the_Aga, a.k.a. Laura James. Laura is the author of Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World, which was published earlier this year by Bluebird, a new imprint from Pan Macmillan specialising in ‘books for life’.

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Short as it may be, Laura’s message meant an awful lot, particularly since her book has been instrumental in encouraging me to think more about Asperger’s and ideas of ‘neurodiversity’: without her writing, I doubt that I would have published that last post, hastily-written as it was. As I was writing, I had recently finished Odd Girl Out, which had proved to be a fairly quick read, yet no less powerful for all its brevity. The fundamental ‘arc’ behind Odd Girl Out is autobiographical, charting how Laura comes to terms with a very late diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but at several points she also presents snapshots of the mind of herself as a younger woman. Set against the reflective, considered narration offered by a woman in her forties, these vignettes stand out through their much more direct tone. It was often in these moments where I identified most strongly with Laura, as a younger version of herself recounted her problems at school with both charming naïvety and a frankness that was, at times, somewhat disarming.

When I am on my own with grown-ups I am called a chatterbox, but when I am at school I am called quiet. I am a quiet chatterbox. Sometimes I say this in my head. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. I like that there are lots of T sounds and if you say the words really quickly in your head they sound like a train and sometimes in my head I add choo choo at the end. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Choo choo. (p. 46)

After school I go home with Alison and that is OK. I like Alison’s house and I especially like her bedroom because it is always very tidy without her even trying. I get muddled in my bedroom, so it is always messy and this makes me feel confused about where things are. I like things to be lined up neatly. All my toys are in a line in my room, but sometimes I am not very good at putting my clothes away, so they are on the floor and I get into trouble for this. (pp. 49-50)

As someone whose room plays host to an intriguing combination of perfectly-organised books and clothes are scattered everywhere as if a bomb had just hit them, I can certainly relate to child Laura. These moments of intense empathy were not uniquely the preserve of Laura’s younger self, though: the lucidity with which ‘grown-up’ Laura would later analyse her younger self’s thought patterns and actions frequently left me identifying very strongly with this other late-diagnosed ‘Aspie’.

I wanted so much to be part of that and, although I did sometimes get invited along, I was never quite in the middle of a group. I was always on the edge, always getting it slightly wrong, never quite feeling part of things. I drifted in and out. (p. 59)

These clear-sighted examinations of how high-functioning autism affects people of all ages are frequently accompanied by soundbites from authorities on the subject, as Laura shows her research ‘iceberg’ by drawing on interviews with figures such as Tony Atwood and Sarah Wild. Her comments on two areas that autistic people often find difficult, empathy and energy, were particularly insightful:

There’s much talk about autism and empathy. One school of thought is that autistic people do not feel it. I am easily confused by abstract concepts such as empathy. I cannot put myself in someone else’s shoes, but II am probably one of the most compassionate people you are likely to meet. My compassion, though, comes in the form of practical support. (pp. 98-9)

Tony Atwood summed it up well for me: ‘People with Asperger’s or autism spend a huge amount of mental energy each day coping with socialising, anxiety, change, sensory sensitivity, daily living skills and so on. So they’re actually expending more mental energy. Think of it as an energy bank account. (pp. 188-89)

The main narrative itself spans just over a year of Laura’s life, taking us from her diagnosis in August 2015 to her reflections on Christmas Eve the following year. In that time, she takes us through a series of momentous geopolitical shifts that we are still coming to terms with – Brexit, the election of Trump – but alongside all this, we are never quite allowed to forget that this is Laura’s world, and Laura’s story. After sharing early experiences with therapy and the publication of a newspaper interview on her Asperger’s, the final four months of Laura’s book are dominated by family matters, as her children prepare to leave for university. The finality of this departure, coupled several months later with the shock of having them home for Christmas, leads her to reflect on how she has changed as a person in the year since her diagnosis. Her initial aims for therapy after she received her diagnosis – ‘I want to stop being so confused by the world […] I want it all to be easier’ (p. 55) – fall away, as she realises that being diagnosed with Asperger’s was never going to be a silver bullet. Instead, she comes to see knowledge of her condition as a skill in itself, and as something that she can draw on:

‘Do you feel more real now?’, Tim says.

In many ways I do. It’s as if I have come full circle. Initially, I thought my diagnosis was the end of the story, that once I was given that knowledge it would be my happy-ever-after moment. I would know myself and my problems would magically disappear.

What came after was almost the opposite.

‘I think I do,’ I say, yawning and rubbing my eyes. ‘I’ve sort of learned to know myself.’ (p. 226)

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If only … or perhaps not!

Laura expertly puts into words a facet of Asperger’s that can be difficult to explain: namely, that it does not function as a sort of ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card. Instead, it’s an explanation: Asperger’s gives me a way of  understanding why it is that I have to process logically things that seem to come naturally to others, and how it can be possible for me to have an immaculate book collection whilst simultaneously keeping my clothes in a heap on the floor. Working in broad-brush strokes such as these as well as in fine detail, Laura’s book offers both a powerful insight into the mind of an ‘Aspie’. For those of us with first-hand experience of autism, it also, perhaps ironically, provides plenty of moments for empathy; in this respect, Odd Girl Out emphatically proves its own point.

There are, of course, many other facets to Laura’s book. Of particular note here is Laura’s marrying of two under-represented perspectives within the autism community: neither late-diagnosed individuals nor women fit the typical ‘model’ of autism that is exists in the popular imagination: ‘Rain MainThe Curious IncidentThe Rosie Project.’ (p. 10) Her comments on women and girls with autism, and on the difficulties faced by many female ‘Aspies’ in dealing with the ‘higher expectation of social engagement and empathy’ (p. 33), are some of the most arresting and insightful details in the whole book, alongside her suggestion later in the work that a common solution is to ‘copy their neurotypical peers’ (p. 155). They have certainly left me keen to explore further the experience of women and autism, especially in light of the polemic surrounding the ‘extreme male brain’ theory. I must confess to relative ignorance on this matter, but hopefully my own research in this area will clarify this question for me.

Perhaps the single standout point from Odd Girl Out, however, is one that is inherently intersectional in nature. Laura is an unflinching advocate of ‘neurodiversity’, having come to the realisation that her brain is simply ‘differently wired’ (p. 8) and that, crucially, this is something to be celebrated. Chapter 10 of her book contains a wonderfully-written excursus on the root causes of autism and the true nature of what is known as the ‘autism spectrum’. The whole piece deserves to be read in full, but one phrase in particular stood out for its relentless optimism and (to be honest) sheer quotability:

Autistic people bring so much to the world. We are scientists and artists, writers and doctors. We are gardeners and primary school teachers. Council workers and cleaners. But more than this, we are human with the same hopes and fears and dreams and desires as everyone else. (p. 145)

In a way, this quote seems like the single best way to end this blog post, which, at just over 1600 words, is already rather longer than usual. I certainly don’t intend for Anglo-Normantics to become a blog about Asperger’s, but in the wake of the inspiration that Laura’s book offers, let’s just say it’s highly likely that I will return to the topic of Asperger’s at some point, particularly in the context of PhD study. In any context, though, I would thoroughly recommend Odd Girl Out to all those looking to deepen their understanding of an often-misunderstood condition: it is a beautifully-written work that attests both to the bravery of its author and to the value of contributions such as hers to society at large.

Oh, and it also contains the phrase ‘intellectual orgasm’. You’ll have to read the book to find out where, though.

Laura James, Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World is published by Bluebird Books. £16.99.

My experience with Asperger’s: studying, socialising, and starting to speak up

My experience with Asperger’s: studying, socialising, and starting to speak up

‘Second-term syndrome’ has been something of a hot topic in the PGR office of late. Several of us first-year students have found that after the active and productive first term in research, the long months after January have hit us with something of a sucker punch. Even as the key research questions surrounding your project start to crystallise, new kinds of task rear their heads. For one fellow PGR student, the challenge has been starting her ‘proper’ research after a term spent writing a literature review; for me, whose ‘literature review’ is baked into the thesis itself rather than existing as a standalone chapter, the difficulty has been buried in the methodological mayhem of investigating ‘historical background’ after years spent honing my skills in literature research.

The ‘context chapter’ is, though, a topic for another blog post. Instead, I’d like to return to my proverbial roots with this slightly shorter piece, which will be based around an altogether different challenge that the second term has held in store for me. While I’ve been in Exeter since September, it wasn’t until January this year that I started to make full use of the University’s resources to help with … well, something that I’ve never actually blogged about before.

I have Asperger’s. Unlike most people aware that they have the condition, the majority of whom are diagnosed before they reach their teens, I discovered this very late: aged 22, to be precise. A medical professionial suggested that I get myself ‘checked out’ after identifying certain traits in me — social impairments, sensory sensitivites, and so on — but it was still something of a shock to discover, after navigating through school, university and living abroad, that another ‘label’ had been waiting around the corner. The irony in all this is that the label in question, Asperger’s Syndrome (also called Asperger Syndrome, or just Asperger’s), technically doesn’t exist any more: in the fifth and latest volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders, the core manual for mental health professionals worldwide, the term was subsumed into the broader category of ‘Autism spectrum disorders’. Asperger’s as a term still has some social currency, thanks in no small part to (somewhat problematic) news reports about Vladimir Putin’s alleged experience with the condition and articles analysing people as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Luna Lovegood. One of the main reasons that I use ‘Asperger’s’, though, is that it has a rather more specific meaning than its more catch-all alternative, one which broadly correlates with what has been described as ‘high-functioning autism’. The DSM-IV, which still made use of ‘Asperger’s’ as a defining term and using which which I was diagnosed, used to offer three diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s: ‘qualitative impairments in social interaction’; ‘restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour or interests’; and ‘qualitative impairment in verbal and non-verbal communications.’ In practice, this means that while I can comfortably carry out day-to-day activities and make a good show of ‘integrating’ with others, I often have to process mentally what seems to come intuitively to others. As a consequence, I’m not immune to the occasional faux pas in social situations, and my rather intense and all-consuming interests in certain things and repetitive behaviour patterns can lead to me coming across as more than a little ‘different’ after a while. Quite apart from the obviously deleterious social effects that can ensue from being perceived as ‘weird’, people with Asperger’s will often analyse previous conversations, sometimes to a remarkable degree, in the hope of discovering some kind of pattern that seems to come so naturally to everyone else.

I started looking for support through the University after needing to move home rather suddenly and unexpectedly, a situation that was motivated in part by some side-effects of Asperger’s. Aware that the University offered specialist mentoring in this area, I made the necessary appointments, and am really happy to be able to say that I’m glad I did. To cut a long story short, the mentoring has been brilliant in helping me with some of the more practical, day-to-day aspects of university life, which often get ‘lost’ in the all-consuming rush from one task to the next that my Asperger’s seems to leave me doing. Alongside this, I’ve started being a little more open about Asperger’s, in the hope that it will help the people that I see regularly to understand precisely why I might not ‘get’ certain jokes or react in a certain way. I certainly don’t want to use Asperger’s as an excuse, but rather as an explanation: I’m not defined by Asperger’s, and am not in any way a ‘failure’ in terms of social interaction, but I am, in some way, ‘wired differently’, and as a consequence won’t get everything right all of the time.

In this respect, I’m very lucky to have two wonderful supervisors, both of whom are aware of my Asperger’s as well as understanding some of the advantages that it can bring to PhD-level study. In the wake of a tricky period for PhD applications last year, one very good friend of mine wrote me a lovely and supportive email in which, despite being unaware of the fact that I had Asperger’s, she identified several common traits in autistic individuals that can prove very useful in postgraduate study. She was, of course, right: an eye for detail, skills in data organisation, and stamina for work have all been invaluable since I started here at Exeter. Outside work, though, I remained nervous about talking to my friends about it, scared of alienating them. That started to change when, having been asked to run a quiz during a coach journey in a ‘University Challenge’ style, I decided to test the waters somewhat by preparing an exploratory question.

First identified by the Austrian psychologist of the same name in 1944, which form of high-functioning autism is typically defined by patients displaying impairments in social function and repetitive patterns of behaviour? In popular culture, it has also come to be associated with characters such as Sheldon Cooper and Christopher Boone, protagonist of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Unfortunately, no-one got the question right first time. They did, however, ask for the answer, and it was their reaction that helped me to decide to be a little bit more open. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect: something about maths, maybe? Big Bang Theory jokes? To my surprise, I got neither. Instead, a friend replied, entirely unprompted: ‘Oh, yeah – I had a friend with that. He got 100% in his English A-Level.’ This kind of ‘special interest’ is indeed a common characteristic in people with Asperger’s, with one recent memoir on the subject describing it, somewhat counter-intuitively’ as a ‘refresher’ that ‘gives a sense of emotional enjoyment’. That memoir, if you can indulge me for another week on this topic, will be the subject of my next post, as I offer some distinctly half-baked thoughts on Laura James’ recently-published Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World. For now, though, I’m still thinking back to that coach journey, as I get ready about to start another one to a rowing training camp. I do need to thank the person who offered that response; I’m still not sure if she realises how lovely that was to hear.

Cover image: a tiny (7cm) German-to-Serbo-Croat dictionary, found in the Oxford branch of Oxfam bookshop. I’m not saying that my interest in books and specifically referencing is indicative of Asperger’s; I’m just heavily implying it.

Digitisation, archive.org, and ways of reading

Digitisation, archive.org, and ways of reading

It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to any readers of this blog that I spend quite a large amount of my time thinking about books. These ‘books’ can take many forms, from manuscripts produced in the twelfth century to the latest works of criticism, but one of the most significant recent development in the books that I study has been the gradual decoupling of the ‘book’ from any notion of physicality. It’s hardly noteworthy to say this, but books, as we interact with them every day, often have ‘pages’ only insofar as the word ‘web’ is attached to the front of them.

Many university libraries, recognising the eminent advantages of digital resources, have adopted a ‘digital-first’ acquisitions policy. In practice, this usually means locating the resource in the university library’s (online) catalogue, entering your Single Sign-On (or equivalent) password, then hastily being redirected to the website of the publisher in question, where you’ll be able to view the book. A brief exploration of the various publishers’ websites at this point demonstrates that the publishers have chosen from a wide variety of display options: some opt to display the online ‘book’ in a form closely resembling that of the printed original, complete with a two-page view and page layout that is identical to the hard copy, whereas others integrate the text of the work onto a single web-page, with the only hint that the work was physically published being occasional (p. 56) bracketed numbers appearing between words. This decision on the part of publishers obviously has a significant impact on how we cite sources: while it’s common practice to give a reference to the hard-copy original, even if you only consulted an online edition, this becomes much more difficult when there is almost no indication of page references. Happily, many publishers offer the ‘halfway option’ of allowing you to download (at least part of) the text in question as a PDF file. The prevalence of file attachment ‘paperclips’ in my EndNote library should go some way towards demonstrating how liberal I am when it comes to this particular approach.

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Guilty as charged.

But for medievalists, ‘digital texts’ doesn’t just refer to freshly-minted works put online alongside, or to replace, their dusty paper counterparts. One of the biggest paradigm shifts in manuscript studies has been the shift towards the digitisation of ancient and medieval manuscripts: on the British Library’s site alone, around 2,000 individual works have been put online and are available to view, for free, to anyone with an internet connection. Incidentally, the BL’s image viewer, like those of Oxford and Cambridge‘s University Libraries, defaults to a single-page view, itself raising interesting questions about whether this represents a different experience to that of having a physical work open to two facing pages.

Enormous amounts of (digital) ink have been used in discussing the relative ‘usefulness’ of digitising manuscripts, and many of the comments and concerns raised mirror those found in the debate around digitised textbooks and course materials. Digitising a work certainly does make it more accessible, but does it discourage surface reading and push us towards an appreciation of spectacle over substance? Are there aspects of a book, particularly of a manuscript, that simply cannot be appreciated in an IIIF manifest or a downloaded PDF? What about digitisation projects that go beyond merely making copies of the original, such as one of my PhD supervisors’ Exeter Manuscripts Project[1]

These are questions that I really don’t have the qualifications to attempt to answer, although I would invite thoughts in comments below. ‘Old-school’ digitisation, to use what might be a rather oxymoronic term, has been useful to me, though, with respect to one particular resource. The resource in question is the Internet Archive, a monumental initiative – ‘website’ would surely be too narrow a word – that aims to create a publicly accessible record of a vast swathe of internet and printed material. The initiative is probably best known today for the Wayback Machine, which has been quietly ‘crawling’ web pages since the late 1990s in an attempt to allow us today to view a web page as it appeared on a given date in history; one can, for instance, view the BBC News website from 1998 or the Magic: the Gathering homepage, circa 2005. Particularly useful to me has been a different project coming under the same umbrella: their text digitisation initiative. Much like Google Books, this project aims to produce digital copies of out-of-copyright works, although the default viewer is a stitched-together, two-pages-at-a-time  simulation of individual scans. Whenever I need to consult a nineteenth-century work of scholarship on twelfth-century computistical texts, I know with some certainty that the Internet Archive will have my back. There is one caveat here, though: whereas the seventeenth-century pamphlets being digitised by Google may well serve as a historian’s primary resources, this sort of material is (for my purposes) resolutely secondary.

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Sorted.

One side-effect of these overlapping digital initiatives has been the creation of a slightly odd ‘lacuna’ in availability, broadly speaking, for anything published between 1910 (when copyright starts being an issue) and 1990 (when digitisation started becoming a Thing). In other words, ‘old’ materials, including many of my primary sources and some early secondary ones, are available digitally, as are ‘new’ materials, but many items that sit in the awkward space between these two dates are still only available in printed form. It’s easy to distinguish between the digital ‘reading experiences’ for new texts and the experience for ‘old’ texts and ‘originals’: newer ‘digital’ texts have fully-searchable text files and bespoke websites, whereas older ‘digitised’ ones will often be hosted on a much broader platform (such as the Internet Archive) and be high-resolution images rather than PDFs. I do sometimes wonder whether this is having an impact on how I judge and classify the large amount of Victorian scholarship I interact with. So, my question for today pertains to a specific aspect of digitisation: does viewing a work through a website such as archive.org encourage us to read it differently, or else (in the case of criticism produced ‘pre-lacuna’) to see it as belonging to the same ‘world of production’ as the manuscripts they purport to criticise?  How has digitisation affected our work patterns more broadly?

Answers on a postcard, please. The best commenter wins their very own IIIF manifest.


It seems prudent – and not just because I’m meeting with her this week! – to mention at this point a recent contribution on this topic by Emma Cayley, the supervisor in question. Writing in the latest issue of the Modern Languages Open journal, she lays bare her own love of both her own ‘paper-sifting, archive-wading, parchment-venerating’ upbringing and, alongside this, her interest in ‘digital editions’ that do things which mere PDF copies of books cannot. (pp. 12-13).

Header image: an extract from the TEI encoding project I’m currently working on as part of the Values of French project at KCL. This, incidentally, is an example of a ‘digitisation-plus’ project, aiming to open up the text in question, the Histoire ancienne jusqu’à César, in new ways by using the power of XML.