Text items

May 2022. Text items is currently in the beta phase.

The ‘Text items’ module (beta) is an extension to the catalogue of texts. It aims to provide a framework for addressing two concomitant needs that frequently surface during CODECS’s subprojects and other activities:

  • A. the ability on our part to ‘zoom in’: to provide more specific and detailed information about texts and make it available as structured data that plug into the wider database.
  • B. the ability on our part to ‘zoom out’: to give a broad overview of the contents of a text and highlight variations in contents depending on the version of the text under consideration.

In a very general sense, it is especially when we turn to texts that are bulky, multifarious, mutable and complex in growth and transmission that it has become evident CODECS requires better, more granular tools of representation and annotation than the limited format of the catalogue entry can ever offer us. This need is also apparent with minor texts that may be more elusive as they move in and out of larger textual structures such as compilations and prosimetric works, as will be illustrated below.

Zooming in (A)

To make this at least generically possible without going overboard with unmaintainable complexity, the data infrastructure has been extended in a way which allows us to highlight particular items within a text and attribute to them their own sets of data or ‘semantic annotations’. Building on current practices of interlinking data, many of these annotations make connections to relevant resource types in the CODECS ecosystem and if possible, beyond. The principal focus has been on ways of identifying entities that are referred to or evoked within the body of a text, or that can be used to capture certain aspects of stylistics and textuality. Agents, places, lexical items and verse items are some of the more concrete entities you will meet, but there is also room for a wide variety of other subjects, such as types of activity and behaviour, occupations, motifs and themes, concepts, genres, etc., in addition to plain keywords.

Of course, there is no such thing as a natural unit of text for determining the scope of an item. We will have to rely on a combination of established practices of textual division, prevalent ideas about the way in which particular texts are structured, a healthy dose of pragmatism and lessons learned as we proceed. With flexibility comes responsibility. No doubt, this loose, source-based approach comes with many other challenges and limitations. But it also seeks to avoid those commonly associated with the creation of separate inventories of specific types of data that run the risk of becoming their own islands.

Zooming out (B)

Even without the creation of dedicated items, it is possible for project members to produce outlines that describe the general shape of a text. When items do come into play though, it is important that these can be anchored and made locatable within the overall structure. Given the complexity of some texts and the need for different levels of description, not to mention the practical limitations of page size, it has proven useful to ensure that one or multiple ‘context’ pages are created to accommodate items.

Envisaged uses (1)

The clearest benefit of the intended approach for particular texts is the level of detail and specificity that it affords, whenever we require it and time and resources allow it. Once the structure is broken down into smaller chunks, another may lie in possibilities of bringing out intratextual and intertextual connections. Surely, a text like Acallam na senórach, which moves through space, time and narrative modes, cries out for something like a digital roadmap.

Regardless if we look at one text or many, one type of data collection that the system seeks to enable is that of documentary and literary evidence for whatever subject the team of the project decides to sink their teeth in. This can be achieved by coordinating how and what we store and on that basis, by leveraging the power of data queries. To give a more concrete idea, some potential targets of projects that may rely on this framework include:

  • Evidence for practices and perceptions relating to writing and textuality, from the stage of composition through to transmission and adaptation. Sources of interest include medieval tale-lists, early library catalogues and scribal colophons, literary narratives about scribes and scriptoria, bardic grammars, and the kinds of sources discussed by Donnchadh Ó Corráin in “What happened Ireland’s medieval manuscripts?” (Peritia 22–23).
  • Documentary sources for ritual and dramatic performance.
  • Literary traditions such as motifs and themes in pseudo-history and hagiography.
  • Possibly, Celtic counterparts to ‘Fontes Anglo-Aaxonici’, meaning projects focussed on documenting uses of sources and intertextuality.

Envisaged uses (2)

Some issues which have spurred development in the current direction touch on the elasticity of the concept of a text. They relate to the existence of especially minor texts that (a) may not be on our radar because they are short and appear in embedded form, (b) are arguably compositions in their own right, (c) may or may not have independent origins and legacies of transmission and adaptation, and (d) can have afterlives of their own. This is where our module is brought into play: it offers a relatively neutral format that does not necessarily prejudge their exact nature; it can locate the items more firmly within their contexts; and third and not unimportantly, we may get things done quicker.

Perhaps the most obvious example is that of verse items – the term ‘verse’ here being intended in its most neutral sense possible. It is well known that verses can be found scattered, in whole or in part, adapted or intact, across prose narratives and works such as the tracts known as Mittelirische Verslehren. Whether they were specially composed for the occasion or recycled/repurposed from older sources, they deserve to be treated as a single corpus for further examination.

An example of quite a different sort is that of the circulation of narratives rather than of texts per se, even where the prior existence of a single urtext can be safely assumed. What if you vaguely recalled that there was a tragic story about a king’s daughter who died in a river while giving birth to a warrior named Furbaide and you were to look for it in CODECS? You would probably type ‘Furbaide’ into the search box, hit enter, and end up sighing with disappointment. Now versions of the tale are told in Cath Boinde/Ferchuitred Medba, Aided Meidbe, Cóir anmann and redactions of the Dinnshenchas Érenn (Carn Furbaide and Eithne), each of which comes with subtle and not so subtle differences. Because the birth story is only a minor episode in the longer works, especially in Cóir anmann, an extensive compilation of onomastic lore, it is unlikely that catalogue entries for the individual texts will satisfy your curiosity. However, a new entity type called ‘narrative world’ was designed for this purpose, which can be used to store Furbaide’s birth story with its own URI. We can then go on to create items for each version of the episode and link them together through their common denominator, not just Furbaide but the narrative world which he inhabits in this particular episode.

Status

This module is currently in beta and will probably remain so for at least a year (2022–2023), during which time I hope that more active use will lead to new improvements. Note that development of this module is bound up with that of other modules with which it has some form of interaction.

Of course, to make Text Items come alive, it needs to fed data. Data batches from individual texts, portions of which were simply added to test-drive the system, will be released at irregular intervals. The first use to have been published is an overview of the contents in Delw y byd, which also serves as a concordance to the Latin text, the Imago mundi, from which the Middle Welsh text was translated. This overview was prepared by our student intern, Darina Knoops, of Utrecht University in the early part of 2022. The second is the beginning of an overview of Acallam na senórach.

— DG