Wouldn’t it be great if there was a website where you could search all texts and textual objects produced in the medieval period for a given geographical area? Where you don’t need to know anything about the location of your targeted text? Where quality wouldn’t be sacrificed to comprehensiveness? To curb your reverie, that website hasn’t been created yet, but there are some that come close. Some more than others. One of them hosts the digital humanities project “Manuscripts Online: Written Culture 1000-1500”. This is a collaborative project between the universities of Sheffield, Leicester, Birmingham, York, Glasgow and Queen’s University Belfast – an ambitious endeavour at not only providing access to and easy, free search of the textual world of the Middle Ages in Britain (at least between 1000 and 1500), but also to stimulate interest and collaboration by allowing users to annotate the material with their thoughts and comments. The website is able to search through 21 online resources at once, texts, manuscripts, maps, images, etc, and to produce results that would otherwise require a lot of browsing and searching on multiple websites and databases.
According to the website, the current covered resources are:
The Auchinleck Manuscript
British History Online
British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
British Literary Manuscripts Online, Medieval and Renaissance
Cause Papers in the Diocesan Courts of the Archbishopric of York, 1300-1858
Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership
Geographies of Orthodoxy: Mapping Pseudo-Bonaventuran Lives of Christ, 1350-1550
Imagining History: Perspectives on late medieval vernacular historiography
Late Medieval English Scribes
Linguistic Geographies: The Gough Map of Great Britain
Manuscripts of the West Midlands
Middle English Dictionary
The Middle English Grammar Corpus (MEG-C)
Middle English Texts Series
The Norman Blake Editions of the Canterbury Tales
Parker on the Web
Production and Use of English Manuscripts: 1060-1220
The Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse
The National Archives
An disappointing omission from this list is The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources which has become an essential toolof any scholar working on Latin texts from medieval Britain. Another is the online body of chancery and government documents as well as legal material (too large to list) without which the study of medieval Britain book written culture becomes impossible.
The Institute of Historical Research in London has published a useful review of this project, assessing its usability and usefulness, strengths and weaknesses. Having played with it a little myself, I can confirm the reviewer’s conclusions: the website is nice, but there are limitations that take away from that élan which develops at first sight.