Piers Plowman in Space

Last week’s post was about Piers Plowman copying as a temporal phenomenon.  This week’s is about Piers as a spatial phenomenon.

I’m going to post two different images of the same map created in two different programs.  Both are live links to the complete graph that can be explored online as well.

This map is built on GoogleMaps, but the classic maps variety, not the new maps. Currently it is probably easier to build in Google Earth.  In either place, though, regions are easily drawn onto Google’s standard basemap and then saved as KML files.

Piers MSSGMap

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Week 3 Epilogue: The 14th Century Comes to a Close

This is just a quick blog to point out to you a feature of the way the manuscript encoding is unfolding over time.  You may not have noticed, but one of the ways I chose where to start was based on chronology.  

This note marks a temporal break between everything that has been encoded so far, and the rest to come.  That is, we have now encoded all of the surviving Piers Plowman manuscripts from the fourteenth century.
I’d like, then, to pause to make a brief summary of this collection of manuscripts before we charge ahead into the fifteenth century, which will be split into similar temporal categories that are mapped out in our bar graphs from yesterday. 

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Linking CUL Dd.3.13 to the Digital Middle Ages

Don’t worry, this week is going to be much easier, in case you got a little fatigued last week with adding @context to upgrade your JSON to the high-falutin’ JSON-LD.  

In order to make JSON-LD worth our while, we want our data to be linked to other data, preferably data that is already available online. So today’s post is about how to signal within your own data connections to other data in other databases.  
Some of the key databases that are going to come in handy for us include:

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The Manuscript Lifecycle of Piers

In today’s visualization, we have simple a bar graph that helps us to understand the complicated phenomenon of Piers copying over time. The graph below is deceptively simple.


Each of these columns represents* a quarter century of Piers manuscript production according to the extant tradition. It’s true that we have no idea whether or not the remaining manuscripts are representative of Piers copying or even LME copying, but since they are the only evidence we have, we must at least nominally operate on that assumption.

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Data Humanities II: Collectivity, Collaboration and Generosity–or Data Humanitas

So, in yesterday’s blog, I distinctly talked about why what I’m doing is not really a publication. It is, at its most basic, work in progress, which I admit I felt no trepidation whatsoever about airing before I have it “all figured out.”

Perhaps it’s naive optimism, but I’ve had the very good fortune to do my academic coming-of-age under the aegis of scholarly communities and organizations that have been purposeful about collectivity and generosity that made me accept those two tenets as norms.  Realizing that generosity is not necessarily the default for many academics, I feel that it is important for me to pause and acknowledge the debt of gratitude I owe to too many scholars to really name and to several particular organizations that have empowered me to produce the kind of activist scholarship I feel compelled to produce.  Acknowledgements: The Babel Working Group, Material Collective, and (most recently) the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship have all created environments in which I felt welcome to contribute to my field, even as a young scholar. Additionally, I have benefitted immensely from the support and tutelage of excellent advisors, committee members, mentors, and friends as well the institutional, personal, and financial support of my own department.

The collegial environment these organizations and individuals have created has occasionally led me to forget some of the uglier potentials for academic life, and I thank them all the more for their unintentional insulation and willingness to take ecstasy with me.

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Data Humanities I: Data v. Publication

When I started thinking about this post, I was originally not going to mention the impetus that made it so urgent to write this right now.  The truth is, before the project has even gone anywhere at all, I already got my first very nasty comment from a Piers Plowman troll (who knew such things existed!) telling me that I should “seek alternate employment” because I was doing such a bad job of… well…whatever it is she thought I was doing.

The basis for this criticism? The JSON-encoded description of the Z-text manuscript failed to include in the MS contents two works that Rigg and Brewer identify in the MS in their edition of the Z-text.  It only included the contents that are listed in the Bodleian catalogue, which is admittedly a little sketchy in some arenas–a few of which haven’t actually been updated since what appears to be the 18th century when the hand-written descriptions of early collections were first written!! Which is not at all a criticism of the Bodley’s catalogues.  Indeed, I get a great kick out of telling my Victorianist friends that the catalogues for my materials are older than their archives.  In the game of whose-stuff-is-oldest one-ups-man-ship, I usually win.

I fantasized about this post simply being a beautiful and compelling manifesto calling for generosity and collectivity without having to even acknowledge the negative comment that made this a more pressing issue to address than I originally thought.  But then I realized that not to acknowledge the difficulties, failures, and mistakes I make is to undermine the project of radical transparency that I am embarking upon. It also protects this very courageous “Jane Doe” from ever having to feel that perhaps her comments went wide of the mark.  So, without further ado, Ms. Jane Doe, this blog is dedicated to you.  You have inspired a great many productive reflections and it would be disingenuous of me not to give you due credit for that.

Buckle up, folks. I’m going to use the word “radical” a lot here, inspired by other radicals advocating for radicality.

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@context for Trinity College Dublin MS 212

Last week, we went over how to write simple JSON to describe a manuscript object.  It wasn’t a perfect description (in fact, if you noticed, I used the same “name” in two different “name”/value pairs to mean two different things! I used “folios” to refer to how many folios the MS contained and which folios Piers occupied), but it was valid code.

"folios" fail


What I want to talk about this week is how to write descriptions in JSON that are able to be incorporated directly into a linked data framework.  Now, I’m going to talk at more length in a later post on linked data and the basic principles thereof.  To define it in brief, though, I’ll share this definition from W3C:

Linked Data is a way to create a network of standards-based machine interpretable data across different documents and Web sites. 

Today, I simply want to show you how to go from JSON to JSON-LD in a few simple steps that aren’t very much harder than what we did last time.

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Seeing the Body of Piers Plowman with Digital Eyes

Body. Corpus. The material manifestation, the incarnation, even, of the Piers Plowman text in real, fleshy (or pulpy), material objects.

If we think of the corpus of Piers Plowman as inclusive of all its various instantiations and incarnations, how do we think about seeing all of it at once? And moreover, how can we know the specificities of those discrete bodies that contain the poem?  What else might be in those same bodies with Piers ? What other limbs, organs, or members might this body have? What becomes visible if we decide to take the entirety of the manuscript corpus as intrinsic to our definition of what the Piers Plowman corpus–its material and textual body–really is? 

In an effort to try to see what kinds of texts make up this corporeal phenomenon, I attempted to create a single graphic that displays all of the contents of all of the various Piers Plowman manuscripts and their material relation to one another as well as the frequency of their occurrence in the corpus.

The result of that endeavor is this Data Visualization Network created in R with igraph package.



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The Digital-Material Nexus

Or, simply put, what can you possibly learn about a material phenomenon from digital data visualizations? 

There are a number of overly simplistic answers to that question: “Latour!” or the less polite “Haven’t you read Latour?” or the naive optimist’s “lots of stuff!” or the scientific-method-minded mother “You won’t know until you try it, will you?”  But the case I hope to make to you today is not that data visualizations are useful but that they are necessary in order to better comprehend the material phenomenon of manuscript production, particularly for a single text.

Yes, I said it, necessary. Now I could drown you in theory discussing the gap between language and material phenomenon and the insuperability of that gap,* but what I want to discuss instead is a way not to overcome that gap, but to dissolve it entirely by understanding the interconnected way in which matter and form must inevitably work together in the production of knowledge.

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Bodley MS 851

That’s, right, let’s begin with the Z-text.  For a first JSON post we are going to start with one of the earliest manuscripts, and I am going to do nothing but talk about JSON and describe the Z-text manuscript in valid JSON code.

So, to get going, let’s talk for a second about this horrifying acronym, “JSON,” which stands for Java Script Object Notation. JSON  is a simple way to store and send STRUCTURED DATA. It is typically used for allowing a web page to exchange data and messages with the server without the whole page having to refresh or update.  It’s simple, it’s complete, and it doesn’t interfere with your ongoing activity on a page but allows you to see more.  Think about things that pop up when you hover over an object, or a shopping cart that may show what’s in your cart without leaving the page you’re on.

Why JSON for data? Well, we are going to talk more about JSON-LD for linked data in the next blog post, but the simple answer is that it allows us to describe a real world object in code in such a way that the resulting script is BOTH human- and machine-readable.

I swear, it’s not scary at all.  Simple JSON often looks like this:


“name”: “Jane Medievalist”,

“institution”: “Medieval University”

“books”: [

“name”: “The Middle Ages Rock”,

“name”: “You wish you were medieval!”,

“name”: “So you think you can alliterate?”



What is this? Well, it’s a JSON Object, which we know because the whole thing is enclosed in the curly brackets { }. JSON operates on objects which can be as simple and elaborate as you like.  Today, I’m presenting the Z-text manuscript as a SINGLE JSON OBJECT.

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