Why Medievalists are Digital?

Sasha Volokh, in response to an interesting post by Garrett on the preponderance of blogging lawyers, writes:

Similarly, when I was first on the Internet about eight years ago and participating in or lurking on various medieval literature listservs, someone posted a theory on why medievalists were more wired than their counterparts who studied Shakespeare, the Romantics, and so on. The theory had to do with how e-mail and posting on listservs — anonymous forwards and the like — was similar to the way writing was treated in the Middle Ages and different from the more modern ideas of the fixed text and the authoritative author. All very interesting, but it was also argued (convincingly, to me) that medievalists are more wired because English departments have fewer medievalists than Shakespeareans (some small schools may have only one), so medievalists are more isolated unless they talk with their own kind on the Internet.

I think that there may be something to the rarity of medievalists as a species inclining us to form online communities, but I also think that the raw materials of our trade—manuscripts, glosses, concordances— may tend to make the web and hypertexts more familiar to us as extensions of our scholarly lives. Much like Garrett’s suggestion that lawyers take to linking because of the emphasis on citations in legal writing, medievalists early on took to hypertexts because glossed manuscripts are hypertextual by nature, as are canon tables. Moreover we took to the digital realm early because digitizng manuscripts allows us to see and to access things we couldn’t before. This is certainly true of my experience as a digital medievalist.

I can also point to other medievalists with a similar affinity for things digital. Read, for instance, this essay by medievalist James I. McNelis, III, on his affinity for the Palm Pilot, in which he equates it to the wax tablets used by earlier scribes.

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