Making and Knowing
A minimal edition of BnF Ms Fr 640

Introduction to the Minimal Edition

The digital minimal edition is a course project of the graduate-level digital humanities seminar, “HIST GR8975: What is a Book in the 21st Century? Working With Historical Texts in a Digital Environment” offered by the Department of History at Columbia University as the 2017 History in Action Clinic Course. Students, instructors, TAs from History and Computer Science, and Project Assistants worked collaboratively and creatively to construct this edition, spending the first half of the semester learning the skills–both collaborative and technical–necessary to such a project, and the second half preparing the text by generating a marked up version for Ed, a Jekyll theme for minimal editions developed by Alex Gil and others.

The basic data set for the minimal edition is the working English translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, produced by participants in three successive Summer Text Workshops held by the Making and Knowing Project (2014-16), in which advanced students of French history, language, and art history learned middle French paleography, TEI encoding, and project management skills while generating the transcription and translation of the Fr. 640. While the collaboratively produced French transcription is now quite accurate (as of August 2016), the translation is still a work in progress, and serves as a testament to the difficulties of collective translation. Future Text Workshops will refine and complete the interim translation used in this minimal edition.

The project is thus an integral part of the Making and Knowing Project, and is closely connected to its other research and pedagogical components. The present minimal edition of Fr. 640 has a basic and limited feature set, yet serves as an important prototype for the design of the Project’s final digital critical edition (scheduled for publication in 2019). The organization of the content in this edition corresponds to that in Fr. 640, however, differs in a significant way from the manuscript itself. The manuscript is of course organized by its underlying structure of folded folio sheets of paper into a bound book, each bifolium containing multiple entries positioned under clearly marked titles or headings. The entries–or “recipes”–with their clearly marked titles (which do not, however, always relate precisely to the text that follows!) include diverse contents, including “recipes”–instructions for particular processes (often related to other entries throughout the manuscript); observations on making procedures and craft practitioners or, for example, the prices of various materials; advice about making and materials; and many other aspects of craft procedures, natural materials, and daily life.

Participants in the class decided to rethink the structure of manuscript for the digital age, taking as the basic unit of the manuscript not the folio, but the entry. They have thus divided the text into entries, marking up each entry’s identifier, heading, main blocks of text, marginal additions, and illustrations. As they marked up the text, they converged on a consensus markup schema for the text that included specific elements in each entry, such as, purpose, activity, material, tool, name, profession, unit (of measure), plant, animal, currency, foreign language, material format, place, time, and color. The resulting list of entry titles gives a quickly-grasped snapshot of the manuscript that is responsive to the user’s interests, is electronically searchable, and enables the underlying marked up data (available in the course’s Github repository) to be subjected to interesting user-directed analysis. An offering of such analysis is provided by the “Lists” on the side menu of the edition. A particularly useful feature for the Making and Knowing Project of this prototyping in What is a Book in the 21st Century? has been the rethinking by a new set of individuals unfamiliar with the manuscript, and their sense that the text needed to be reorganized to make it more accessible to the user. The division of the text into entries and the markup elements of purpose and activity thus provide for the readers this immediate insight into the contents of the text.