Formulaic Language and Meaning-Making: Medieval English Diplomatics and Modern Ontology Development

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:50 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4B (Colorado Convention Center)
Robin Sutherland-Harris, University of Toronto
Kasandra Castle, University of Toronto
The current enthusiasm for Digital Humanities has resulted in an abundance of online text repositories and digital editions, many of which rely on some form of mark-up to tag significant information and to create relationships between individual texts. However, the nature and use of the norms (or ontologies) governing the application of mark-up has not attracted much scholarly attention, despite the fact that they are the conceptual underpinnings that define meaningful information in many projects. This paper considers the ontology governing mark-up used at the DEEDS (Documents of Early England Data Set) Project at the University of Toronto, a repository of over 30 000 medieval Latin charters. We examine the way ontologies shift as they come into contact with different kinds of texts. In particular, we consider changes in legal formulae occurring in the charter production of the diocese of Worcester before and after the Norman Conquest in 1066. That Anglo-Saxon diplomatic practice differed from that of Norman and Angevin England is not a new observation, but the nuances of the differences are still being studied. Some formulae common in the later period do not exist before the conquest, simply by virtue of having evolved alongside administrative and legal practices in later centuries. We have found shifts that are much more telling, revealing differences in diplomatic form and charter function on both sides of 1066. As we use the tools afforded by the DEEDS database to examine the way that diplomatic phrasing shifted even within the context of a single legal formula, we also engage with the question of ontology development at DEEDS and in digital humanities more broadly, looking here at one example of how the conceptual underpinnings of digitised text repositories shift over time, an observation that makes clear the value of transparency and accessibility regarding such norms.