Building a Website for Medieval Artefacts — What did I Learn?

This year we decided as a class to undergo the exciting task of putting on our very own manuscript exhibition in the display cases of the History Department. During out discussions, I was struck by the fact that our hard work would only be on display for a short time. If we could make this exhibition permanent, we could show off our work for years to come. But the university space is limited and could not accommodate such an exhibition. However, building a website to house this exhibition promised longevity. Therefore, myself and the other members of the website team came together and began work on Medieval Ottawa, a companion to the exhibition.

Our first task was to chose a platform. After experimenting with Omeka, WordPress, and we decided that WordPress, with the various plugins it offers through our student hosting package, would give us the desired layout and usability. Our main concern was whether the platform we chose could host the high quality images necessary for our audience, who would need to see the fine details of the objects.  Omeka had this ability, but ultimately lacked the functionality we wanted for future students and researchers. lacked open-source options, and was therefore less student-friendly. WordPress was the Goldilocks of the bunch, perfect for students with its open-source usability and it is capable of hosting high resolution images.

Once this was decided our team member Callum began researching how to incorporate IIIF framework or Mirador viewer into WordPress. As we have written in a previous blog post, this proved difficult to accomplish without direct access to the university’s server and this task was ultimately abandoned. Nevertheless we were still able to host our high resolution images and implement a zoom function despite the drawback.

Matt was tasked with filming interviews for the website and these were uploaded to the Medieval Book Youtube account to be embedded into the WordPress website. You can watch the videos here. We also made use of the University’s Media Commons recording rooms to record Shamus McCoy reading the Latin transcriptions of the objects in our exhibition. We felt this would be beneficial for the seeing impaired and would offer an auditory way to engage with these medieval works, which we so often understand as solely visual objects. You can hear these recording under the “transcription” tab for nearly all of the folia in our exhibition.

We wanted to ensure that the research on our manuscripts were preserved long after the exhibition was taken down, so we set up a Metadata tab on each of the folia pages on the website. This is an organised collection of the information each student in the course gathered for their respective folia in the Fall term. This process was the longest: the information was first gathered, reviewed, reviewed again, organised, standardised, and finally reviewed again before it was imputed into the website. This was to ensure that researchers and students could easily access the data for these objects. Having correct (to the best of our knowledge) information on display was extremely important to our team, and we encourage researchers to comment and correct the data if possible.

The time and effort that went into creating this website was immense. The website team at times found ourselves working for 8+ hours in the History Department’s Digital Humanities room. I cannot thank my team enough for their hard work and patience in seeing our vision to the end. Throughout this process I learned many valuable lessons, I will name a few here. I learned how to lead a team by setting attainable tasks, providing assistance and encouragement, and ultimately doing whatever I could to ensure we all reached our end goal. I also learned the art of delegation. So often in my undergrad I found myself carrying the load of a group project because I was afraid to let go of tasks I deemed to important to not handle myself. This year I learnt to trust in the strengths of my teammates by allowing them to take on the tasks that I would normally attempt to do myself. This was an invaluable lesson that I will surely carry with me. When we set out to build a website, I did not realised that on top of gaining experience in website building and digital humanities I would also learn some of the most important skills for a student to take away from university: how to not only work but thrive within a team.


Manuscripts on Display: Student Engagement with the Physical Book

When our class discussed creating an exhibition for Carleton’s “lost” manuscript fragments, we were confronted by the question of audience. Who would be interested in visiting our display? What knowledge do they bring with them and what knowledge do we want them to take away?
As university students who are enthusiastic about the medieval past, our aim was to delight but we hoped to entice visitors to learn more. Thus, the exhibition team set about choosing the most beautifully decorated, shimmering and detailed fragments, those with illuminations that would excite— from exceptionally brilliant flora and fauna to the most haunting portraits of executions and angels.

Early in this process, I had the opportunity to put our fragments and manuscript books on display for the students of a second year course on Medieval Europe. This was to be a one-time exhibit and students were tasked with providing post-workshop feedback. This was a unique opportunity to understand what students take away from engaging with physical codices and fragments.

Of course, as the coordinator I had preconceptions about student’s expectations and knowledge of the Middle Ages. In fact, we had spent multiple sessions together discussing medievalisms: popular beliefs about the middle ages, with the likes of Robin Hood, King Arthur, and the notorious Black Death appearing as distinctive features of the period. Moreover, most of the student’s assignments required the examination and analysis of source documents. These were often transcriptions and translations (often translations of translations) into modern English. With many steps removing the student from the physical document, it is beneficial for them to engage with these documents as physical items— What better way to understand the physicality of these documents then through not only seeing them through glass but engaging with them!

In consultation with Marc Saurette (Department of History; Medieval and Early Modern Studies) and Llyod Keane (Archives and Rare Book Coordinator) I began pulling sources from the shelves, keeping in mind to demonstrate both the beauty and the dynamic culture of the medieval past. Beginning with medievalisms, we pulled from the shelves of Carleton’s Archives and Research Collections (ARC) an early modern version of Caxton’s edition of Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur which features the original Middle English spelling. I included Gerard’s Herball (a herbology handbook originally published 1597) so that students could amuse themselves reading this vernacular text. This was a particular hit among the class, not only because they could read and sound out the early English, but because this allowed them to find both extinct and fantastical plants. One astute student mentioned they were intrigued to find post-columbian exchange items (such as potatoes) in the book.

Throughout the course we discussed the rise of notaries and universities during the Middle Ages. To provide a sense of what these documents may have looked like, I included both charters held in ARC (letters on the topic of the King’s rents) and a student copy of the Commentary on Pope Gregory IX’s Decretals. One charter is a chirograph, a document written in duplicate on a single parchment with the words “chirographum” in the center and then cut through to later establish the authenticity, the other a common deed accompanied by a broken red wax seal. A student who plans to study law spent a good portion of time with the chirograph; another student found the notes on Decretals compellingly relatable to our modern methods of learning through notetaking.

However, it seemed the majority of students were less concerned with the content of the documents themselves and far more interested by their physical aspects. The amount of time and labour taken to create a manuscript book, the use of animal skins for parchment, and even the process by which monks would learn to become scribes fascinated them above all. To be able to touch the rough and wrinkled vellum, see the gold leaf illuminations in person, and to smell the scent of an old tome whirling up as you turn the massive pages were recurring mentions among the student’s responses. They connected these physical objects to the historical work they had been doing throughout the year, writing that this experience was invaluable to them for the opportunity to have a glimpse into the past. For some, it provided an understanding of the immense reverence that medieval people could give to manuscripts books.

I would say that from what I found, students were indeed drawn to medievalisms but were very interested in the physicality of the medieval book. Not only were they drawn to the beautifully illuminated works, they found charm in the rough and crinkly parchment of these well-worn codices. I hope this brief exhibition as well as the exhibition in Carleton’s History Department, Carleton’s Lost Manuscripts, inspires future codicological pursuits!

Thanks for reading!

Avoiding the Tower of Babel: Week 19 Discussion Reflection

The author of Genesis chapter 11 lays out the story of the tower of Babel: Mankind, in their pride, built a great tower reaching the heavens. God was not pleased with their actions and so He   “confused their language so they would not understand each other”. As a result the tower never got completed since there was no common language anymore. An interesting story about pride and an explanation for the development of language. But imagine if there was a universal language, a standardized form with the potential for adaptability,  think about what we could accomplish.

The potential universality of Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and its contribution to preventing a scholarship that cannot be collaborative due to the hindrance of language or formatting is an impressive ideal to seek after. The TEI enables greater accessibility and greater movability through the use of tools such as schemas(TEI lingo) or the development of new a schema especially when the source material is unique, since not every source can be standardized. TEI allows and encourages building off existing tool sets and relying on other scholarship rather than reinventing the wheel and doing redundant work. Furthermore, it attempts not to compromise what the text is and or what it will become in the future.

During our in class discussion around TEI in week 14, I asked the question “to what extent can TEI accurately represent a source in a digitized form- what is lost through digitization”? Now, this might be an old and antiquated question but is important to consider and Professor Saurette offered an answer. To summarize his words, the TEI’s purpose is not to create an all immersive experience to replicate, or replace, the physicality and materiality of a source but rather the TEI is focused on creating an online version of the key components of the source. Digitization is not used as a replacement but rather a supplement to the real deal, and even with all the immersive technology, all the sound scaping and the appeal to the senses, there is no way to do away with tangibility. When I was younger I went into Action Packed Comics in Kingston looking for MTG card singles  and I heard a gentleman ask the owner if he thought online comic books would put him out of business. A legitimate question and one that intrigued me. The answer replied with confidence: “It’ll never happen. People love the feeling, the smell and physically owning a comic book and nothing can replace that- the nostalgia is what people pay for more than the stories”. A sentiment that can be applied to DH but I digress and realize this blog post is a buck shot as opposed to a slug.

The point I am making is that the TEI is a great initiative and opens up the possibility of greater accessibility and collaboration between scholars. Professor Shawn Hawkins stated that if he attempted to Encode all of the Roman poet Catullus’ poems and the accompanying commentary, that awkwardly occupies the margins caging the poems, it would take him a lifetime of work but through collaboration he can focus on the finer points of interest. It’s incredible to think about the completion of our final project and how collaborative the journey has been- anyone of us would be hard-pressed to do the work we’ve done all on our own. But as a community of scholars, a class, we began building on the foundation of skills, laid by Professor Saurette, that we developed in first semester and now, in second semester, we’ve built a tower, a mighty Digital Tower… let’s hope we didn’t offend any jealous gods along the way.


The Visage of Vellum

Oral interviews and pursuing an individual’s story through the mode of videography has become a passion of mine during my undergraduate degree. In my third year I had opportunity to work with Professor John Walsh in a historical practicum course during which myself, and another student, performed oral interviews with long-time members of the Alpine Club of Canada. Being able to engage with people on a personal level, with all the emotional navigation that accompanies it, allowed me to encounter a history that was not merely held in books or journals but in people’s lived experiences, in their visages. Seeing a person’s face change and hearing their vocal inflections when they are leading their mind through the memory palace of their experiences is truly something to behold and makes history much more alive than, dare I say it, a book. For the final project in HIST 4006 A I had the opportunity to yet again sit down with individuals, this time peers of mine, and flush out their experiences handling Medieval manuscripts.

Lyn Abrams notes that oral history is more than just asking a question and getting an answer but that the interview is, “a give and take, collaborative and often cooperative, involving information-sharing and autobiographical reminiscence, facts and feeling.” (1) Abrams principle of fluid dialogue and a built relationship between the interviewee and interviewer was something that I applied to each interview I conducted for this project. Before the interview would begin I reminded the interviewee that it would be very informal and not to worry about answering all the questions I had; I wanted the interviews to be as organic as possible and not push an agenda filled with assumptions. As I interviewed my peers a golden thread slowly began to emerge from the great tapestry of interwoven encounters: the experience of physically handling the manuscripts. Each one expressed their surprise of being allowed to handle a 500 year old, in some cases older, manuscript. They talked about being able to feel the parchment, the gesso from the illuminations, and utilizing new skills to determine provenance and genre. The more the interviews carried the more my peers noted the uniqueness of their experiences within Digitizing Medieval Manuscripts.

Part of the reason I thought it would be a wonderful idea that the project website host videos was to not only showcase the work done by students, but also to allow the students to curate their own experiences and by doing so put a face to these manuscripts, a face filled with experiences of its own. These interviews were also a great time of self-reflection to wrestle with the reality that we were not only enabling greater accessibility to these manuscripts through curating an exhibition, online and analogue, but also that we had become “producers of knowledge” (To borrow Professor Saurette’s words). It is my hope, and that of my peers, that our scholarship throughout this project will enable other Carleton students to grasp the potential available to them while studying in University and hopefully spur them onto to become contributors and collaborators of these manuscripts in future projects. That they will weave their experiences into the tapestry of academia and stand back and marvel at their accomplishments, just as we have ours, and say “There is more to be done”.


  • Abrams, Lyn. Oral History Theory. 2nd ed, New York: Routledge, 2016, p. 21.


Post Exhibit Reflection

The final week (half week?) of school has arrived – my absolute final week of undergraduate studies is almost over and to be honest, time really does fly by. It definitely does not feel like four years have flown by.
Last week, we launched our medieval manuscript exhibit that our entire class has been working on the whole semester. It was such a success! The exhibit team did such an amazing job at creating everything, it honestly looks like a professional exhibit. The team leader of the exhibit team, Veronica, put her heart and soul into this exhibit and it really showed – it really is a fantastic exhibit. The exhibit is currently on display on the 4th floor of Paterson Hall at Carleton University, so if you’re by chance reading this or in Ottawa, go see it! If not, go check out our website Medieval Ottawa! The website team did an exemplary job adding in all the information on the medieval manuscripts that were chosen for the exhibit. On each manuscript there is even a sound clip that allows the viewer to hear what the manuscript sounds like in medieval Latin!
My job for the exhibit was the social media team (or the publicity team), along with my fellow team member, Paige. Our job was to basically give publicity for the exhibit by creating an Instagram where we posted “sneak peaks” of the medieval manuscripts we had chosen. We also created flyers and posters for the exhibit, which were placed around campus. Even though the project is technically over, I would like to keep up with the Instagram until our professor decides he wants to take it over or give it to his next class.
This exhibit process was an amazing experience; it was almost like receiving a behind-the-scenes look at how exhibits in museums are actually created. A lot of thought and editing goes into those tiny blurbs you see in museums! It was also a cool experience to deal with the social media aspect of it as well; for such a new account we quickly escalated to 168 followers and were receiving interactions from cities such as Paris, Rome, and New York! Our latest photo gathered as many 800 interactions, meaning around 800 people viewed the photo (now if only everything single one of those people had liked the photo!).
Nothing could have been as organized if it had not been kept in line by our project manager Trina – she did an amazing job as well! She has a knack for organization and she was luckily there to remind everyone of their duties – and to update our project board on Trello, to which I hope she has forgiven me for taking forever to update it.
This was a fantastic semester and I am sad that it is ending, but I feel so accomplished with everything that we have done as class. Everyone did such a great job!