MEDIEVAL BOOKS THAT SURVIVE today have been through a lot. Some have had the good fortune to spend centuries protected by people who care. Others have been singed by fire, mottled by mold, or eaten by insects. Some have been annotated by thoughtful readers; others have been treated as scrap paper. Some have been dismantled for sale as fragments or cut up to extract illustrations. Still others have suffered from repairs, like stiff glue, that inadvertently caused further harm. Less invasive forms of preservation have also left their marks, such as cataloguers penciling in shelf marks (call numbers) or conservators flattening out pages to produce more consistent digital photographs. Surviving books have thus been shaped by many intentions and accidents over the centuries. Today, all these factors contribute to the meaning of texts and the materials that preserve them. In this book, I tell the story of one such book—from its textual origins in twelfth-century England to its twenty-first-century diffusion across the internet. This trajectory has been propelled by a succession of technologies—from paper manufacture to printing to computers. In the process, literary history, too, became a cultural technology.
The book in question currently lies on a metal shelf in a vault at Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where it is known simply as “MS 80.” This shelf mark is stamped in crisp gold characters on the spine. Inside, the text tells how Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus Christ, used a cup from the Last Supper to collect some of Christ’s blood and later brought this Holy Grail from Jerusalem to Britain. After the colonization and Christianization of Britain, the story continues with the birth of the magical Merlin and the reign of the legendary King Arthur. MS 80 ends in the midst of Arthur’s first year as king, but the narrative arc continues in other books with the amorous adventures of Lancelot, the quest for the Holy Grail by various Arthurian knights, and ultimately the collapse of Arthur’s kingdom and his uncertain death. These stories are still famous, having been told and retold across medieval Europe and eventually throughout the world. They are still being repeated in many languages and in nearly every popular media. This popularity has made King Arthur and the Holy Grail widely recognized symbols in many different contexts.
Among the many medieval texts about Arthur, MS 80 is unique. It was created, moreover, in unlikely circumstances: in the early fifteenth century, a craftsman of the London fur trade, Henry Lovelich, translated archaic French prose into more than fifty thousand lines of English rhyming couplets. The book was meant to be illustrated but remained incomplete and possibly unread for a number of years. MS 80 may be obscure, but six centuries later it isn’t hard to find if you know where to look. I first found it as a graduate student while combing through Robert Ackerman’s Index of the Arthurian Names in Middle English (1952c). I was looking for texts that mention King Arthur’s sword Excalibur and was struck by one text that used a French word as the sword’s name, Trenchefust (cut wood) (Ackerman 1952c, 232). This detail sent me searching for the edition, where I learned that the author was a “skinner and citizen of London” and that there was a manuscript in Cambridge (Kock 1904–32). I wasn’t sure if I’d ever visit Cambridge, but I knew how to find the library’s address thanks to a required course in bibliography (Williams 1985). I took note of Corpus Christi College just in case. Several years later, I had my first chance to travel to Europe for academic conferences, and, somewhat on a lark, I decided to try to see MS 80. The library didn’t yet have a website or email, so I pulled out the paper folder with the postal address and sent off a letter requesting an appointment. It seemed almost miraculous to receive an affirmative reply a few weeks later. Librarian Gillian Cannell had reserved one of the four seats at Parker Library for me on August 8 and 9, 1996.
I was a careful researcher, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw in Cambridge—a large, beautiful paper manuscript designed for extensive illustration. Throughout the book, periodic blank spaces had been left for drawings that should have been completed after the text was written. Questions flooded my mind: What was supposed to appear in the blanks? Who had designed the format? Which episodes had been selected as worthy of illustration? Who had paid for this unique book, and why wasn’t it finished? How had it ended up at Corpus Christi College? The library’s catalogue didn’t answer any of these questions nor any of the others I developed later: Which French sources had Lovelich used? How did the guild context affect his translation strategies? The manuscript, despite being incomplete, had attracted some readers over the years, and some had written notes in the margins. They were hard to decipher at a glance: some seemed like commentary, others merely pointed to a line or two, and some had nothing to do with the text at all. How many annotators were there? What had they written and why? Further research revealed that twentieth-century literary historians had deemed the text wholly uninteresting: how had this fascinating book become a boring text?
By the end of my first day in Cambridge, I already had more questions than I could possibly answer even if I stayed for several weeks. I was therefore delighted to learn that I could purchase a microfilm of MS 80. Thus, even before I left the reading room, modern technologies were revising my relationship with the manuscript and my approach to literary history. Similarly, back in the United States, the process of procuring a printed check in British pounds brought me into relations with the international banking system that I now see as an integral part of manuscript preservation. When the microfilm finally arrived, I headed straight to the university library to find a microfilm machine and continue studying MS 80’s illustration patterns and annotations—all the features not well documented in the editions (Furnivall 1874–78; Kock 1904–32). Over the next several years, I stayed engaged with MS 80 through the microfilm, using it regularly as I developed research connecting Lovelich’s text to literary history in fifteenth-century London (Warren 2007, 2008). A presentation about MS 80 eventually helped me land a new job at Dartmouth College—a location that came to play a pivotal role in the stories I now have to tell about MS 80. At the time, though, my research was headed in other directions (Warren 2011). I wasn’t sure how much more I had to say about Lovelich or his book.
Then, late in 2009, an email arrived from a Dartmouth librarian, Francis X. Oscadal, announcing a one-month trial subscription to Parker Library on the Web. Could it really be that MS 80 was now just a click away? My curiosity renewed, I copied as many digital images as I could, unsure if the library would pay the $3,500 annual subscription fee (Harrassowitz 2009). Before long, the library did subscribe, and I settled in to continue my research. In 2012, I returned to Cambridge to discuss born-digital research projects under way with Parker Library on the Web (Gillespie and Horobin 2015). There, in the newly renovated reading room, I started to see digital images as more than a convenience. Just as the manuscripts had been moved into a new vault for better protection, the website required attention and updating to remain accessible. The digital images and their associated data were more fragile in some ways than the oldest book in the vault. The website was a new material object that had become part of book history.
My journey to digital studies was sealed in 2015 when I first read about the idea of “digital vellum” (Lepore 2015). This term is a metaphor that refers to a digital preservation system as durable as the refined animal skin used for many medieval books—some more than a thousand years old and counting (vellum serves here, and throughout this book, as a generic synonym for parchment). The rapid pace of digital obsolescence is old news by now: new operating systems won’t run on hardware more than just a few years old; old file formats won’t open in new software. As a result, digital objects disappear on a regular basis. “Digital vellum” would provide a solution to this problem of digital preservation. Until that solution is invented, we operate in what has been called the “digital Dark Ages”—another medieval metaphor. This term correlates information depravation with the state of Europe after the Roman Empire. The rhetorical “Dark Ages” serves as a shorthand for ignorance, social chaos, economic failure, and all bad things that should be left behind. In digital discourse, then, medieval metaphors point to both the problem of preservation (a looming “Dark Ages”) and the solution (a “vellum” that will rescue precious objects). This solution, however, remains elusive, a “holy grail” as it turns out. These three medieval metaphors bring the internet to the heart of manuscript studies and literary history in the twenty-first century. And they make medieval studies integral to understanding the deep histories of modern computing.
This book about MS 80, then, is about more than another book. It’s about how we research now. It’s about how digital infrastructure is changing the nature of books, even very old books. In retrospect, my path to MS 80 was laid out by modern infrastructures long before I reached Cambridge in 1996: a university in California founded at the latter end of North American colonization, an index gathering words from editions produced in their own nationalist circumstances, communication systems transporting people and paper around the world. Information tools had shaped both my curiosity and my ignorance: at first, I could only know what others had already found important. Working backward through layers of infrastructure, I found that the specificity of MS 80 was often essential: a book containing an English text about the Holy Grail and King Arthur attracted certain kinds of attention; it promised certain kinds of value to collectors, editors, and readers. At other times, MS 80 is somewhat incidental to this story: it has been produced, collected, recorded, classified, preserved, accessed, edited, and copied in the same ways as many other books. MS 80’s trajectory exemplifies how books persist through time as part of complex economies that continually shape and reshape their meaning. Their existence on a shelf and their distribution online rest on a bedrock of capital accumulation via global imperialism. As I followed MS 80’s movements across these many platforms, the platforms themselves came into focus as meaning makers. Throughout this book, I will argue that literary history is coauthored by the technology platforms that produce and preserve texts.
The primary platform is Parker Library itself. MS 80 exists today because it was collected by Matthew Parker (1504–75)—the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, charged by Queen Elizabeth I to find proof of England’s independence from the Roman Catholic Church. A well-practiced antiquarian and collector, Parker searched far and wide for materials. Among the many manuscripts that he and his associates consulted, MS 80 was among the hundreds selected for Parker’s personal collection. In 1574, Parker bequeathed most of his books to Corpus Christi College, where he had been Master (1544–53). He provided detailed instructions for the collection’s preservation, establishing a library that became a “national heritage treasure” (“Parker Library” 2019). The collection’s fame has endured for five centuries. Its celebrity justified the construction of a new state-of-the-art vault in 2006 and a multiyear project to photograph the medieval manuscripts for a digital platform. To produce Parker Library on the Web, Corpus Christi College partnered with Stanford University—a move facilitated by the twists and turns of the global market for European cultural heritage. The project received significant financing from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—a major source of grant funding for scholarly infrastructure in the humanities, among other cultural priorities. The first Parker Library on the Web opened in 2009 to great acclaim (Parker 1.0); in January 2018, the platform relaunched as a free resource with an entirely new format, garnering even more public attention (Parker 2.0). MS 80 thus owes its digital visibility not to its literary reputation but to its perhaps accidental arrival in Parker’s hands in the sixteenth century.
Parker’s collection is famous in part because it is full of celebrities—manuscripts of remarkable beauty, age, or both. Christopher De Hamel—former Parker Librarian—fully embraces the celebrity metaphor in Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. He compares encounters with famous manuscripts to interviews with famous people, complete with all the emotions of anticipation, awe, and sometimes disappointment when reality fails to match reputation. He notes that some books are harder to meet than “the Pope or the President of the United States” (De Hamel 2016, 1–2). On my first visit to Parker Library, I certainly felt the anticipation and awe that De Hamel describes. I had expected my request to be denied. I felt even more special when I found out that the library had only four seats. And then there was the pleasure of finding a book designed for illustration, something no one seemed to have studied. But I would also like to resist the starstruck approach that leads De Hamel to focus on “celebrated manuscripts” that are “dazzlingly illuminated” and that lend their “glamor” to their readers, to the envy of those studying “more modest books” (De Hamel 2016, 4). MS 80 is generally considered one of those lesser lights. Yet, as De Hamel also notes, “The life of every manuscript, like that of every person, is different, and all have stories to divulge” (De Hamel 2016, 3). In the following chapters, I take this premise to heart, delving into the vagaries of celebrity across the centuries as stars rise and fall according to cultural changes, find second and third careers, and gather new entourages that rebrand their reputation.
The rhetoric of celebrity has not diminished with digitization. Although the internet has been heralded as a democratizing force, various forms of elitism and restriction persist. Even digital resources that are open access have often had to rely on the glamour of celebrity to garner the funding that brought them into existence. In medieval studies, the expense of production labor has often meant promoting already canonized texts and already famous books (Prescott and Hughes 2018). In English studies, digital projects have leveraged the most famous medieval authors—Geoffrey Chaucer first and foremost—to draw attention and resources to new styles of digital research (e.g., Mooney, Horobin, and Stubbs 2011; Minnis 2012). Parker Library, too, has traded on its most dazzling documents to promote fundraising efforts for the collection as a whole. Until quite recently, the library’s website celebrated the collection as “a jewel in the Corpus crown” (“Parker Library” 2018)—a royalist image that defines value with exclusivity. These kinds of approaches have indeed helped maintain valuable cultural heritage and generated important new research. The expansion of access to digital images has undeniably transformed scholarship, teaching, and public access to cultural heritage in many positive ways. At the same time, digitization has left the literary canon largely intact—along with the nationalist values that built the canon. Meanwhile, projects that promise “newer and better” technologies reinforce ideas about progress that are equally indebted to nationalist legacies. The very vocabulary of digital technology obscures the realities of infrastructure: “home” pages make novelty seem familiar, while the “cloud” covers the cables that make electronic display possible. The interactions among books, texts, software, hardware, aesthetics, and capitalism have become so complex that they are harder and harder to grasp.
What is a medievalist—or anyone—to do in the face of these tensions? How can literary history account for this complex inheritance? Throughout this book, I give several answers by investigating long histories of preservation and access. These histories of one text in one book expose institutional and infrastructural drivers of aesthetic value, capital investment, and editorial labor that also shape many other texts and books. My analysis encompasses vast interconnected networks in order to catch infrastructure in the act of turning fiction into facts, text into poetry, documents into art, and speculation into scholarship. As Whitney Trettien has put it: “Only in acknowledging and historicizing how media technologies remediate, disseminate, and store scholarship in the humanities and its subject matter can we begin to rework these networked technologies in ways that challenge a hegemonic, market-driven notion of what contemporary techne is, or could be” (Trettien 2018, 56). The value of a text or book is not as a fixed commodity but a fluctuating index of social and technological forces. MS 80, on its own, might have been left to rot. As part of Parker’s collection, it was swept up in the political and aesthetic legacy of the library itself, which now extends to the internet.
By focusing intently on one object in its many forms, my multimedia history of MS 80 seeks to grasp how the knowledge economy operates over time. Medieval literature is only a small part of the traffic in knowledge, but it is revelatory because it takes so many different forms—manuscripts, printed books, microfilms, born-digital media. The Arthurian narrative in MS 80 is distinctly revelatory for similar reasons: a unique version of a much-told story, it illustrates the many ways in which texts are preserved and valued—translation, adaptation, annotation, genre classification, cataloguing, editing. The origins of the grail myth, moreover, are shrouded in mystery, lending the story a sense of timelessness even as each transmission takes a specific form at a specific time. Arthurian literature is itself a platform that has hosted a myriad of values across the centuries. The Holy Grail and King Arthur have a “celebrity” that exceeds any particular version of their story: they are recognizable on their own, even wildly out of context. They are part of the broader appropriation of the “medieval” as a projection of modern ideals and prejudices. Some of those projections are quite specifically about technology. By connecting medieval metaphors in computing with medieval books reproduced on computers, I open the study of books toward the study of the infrastructures that sustain books—as objects, on shelves, in communities.
MS 80 is, all by itself, the very definition of an “unfinished book,” in the phrase of Alexandra Gillespie and Deirdre Lynch (2021). The section titles of their new history of the book pose the questions that I answer in various ways in the following chapters: What is a book? Where is a book? When is a book? These questions align with an infrastructural approach to book history: the answers are not single or fixed but infinitely variable. One task, then, of literary history is to answer these questions with many stories about how texts and books endure—from collecting to cataloguing to editing to financing. Integrating literary history with infrastructure studies expands the relevant “plot points” in these stories. For MS 80, I’ve organized my answers in chapters with overlapping chronologies rather than as a single progression from manuscript to print to digital. Today, each technology informs the others. I argue that there is no getting around the digital knowledge economy, even while holding the manuscript in the Parker Library reading room.
This introduction lays out my framework for understanding MS 80 across the centuries—from its French sources to its creation in London and eventually to its diffusion over the internet. I look first to the history of computing and digital preservation since the 1960s, when the internet and the first graphical interfaces were being developed. Since that time, medieval metaphors have been part of how technologists convey their goals and aspirations. Drawing on the established popularity of Arthurian images, what I call “tech medievalism” extends the deep web of storytelling that also produced MS 80. The aura of legendary prestige that animated the design of MS 80 has also animated and distributed the value of new technologies. This story culminates when Vint Cerf—coinventor of the protocols that power the internet—draws medieval manuscripts into the “digital Dark Ages” to illustrate the durable properties of “digital vellum.” Here, book history and digital infrastructure fuse, both literally and figuratively. This fusion broadens the very idea of “book” to include properties shared by computers and the internet. This expansive notion of book history has reached new levels of refinement as manuscript scholars have turned to the digital and media scholars have turned to the material. From this framework, I draw out six stories about MS 80, each a distinct approach to reading and accessing books. Together, these six chapters integrate the social functions of literature with the political functions of technology. MS 80 serves as a catalyst for an approach to literary history that accounts for preservation and access alongside production and aesthetics.
The story of MS 80 on the internet begins with the history of computing itself—specifically, with the medieval metaphors that stretch from the first graphical interface to the most recent preservation protocols. Tech medievalism rests on popular stereotypes about the European Middle Ages as either a depraved time ended by modernity or an idealized time that modernity should recover. This duality makes medieval metaphors particularly useful for technologists, since it positions invention as a comprehensive solution to past and future problems. In tech medievalism, medieval means “outdated,” even as certain medieval icons align with futuristic perfection. On the positive side of this calculus, the “Holy Grail” is among the most recognizable tools. The phrase—with or without the holy—can be found everywhere, from casual conversation to specialized academic publications across many fields. It readily invokes goals that are highly desirable yet possibly unattainable. Technologists will go to truly astonishing lengths to devise GRAIL acronyms: Graphical Reality Augmentation Interface Language, Graphics and Imaging Laboratory, GALEN Representation and Integration Language, Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, Gene Relationships across Implicated Loci, Gene Recognition and Analysis Internet Link, and General Real-time Adaptable Indoor Localization (Google search, October 2018). By aligning complex science with the grail’s simplified message of perfection, these acronyms smooth the way for public acceptance of new ideas. Time and again, “grail” has proven an irresistible image for heroic innovation. This phenomenon makes MS 80 part of the long transmission of Arthurian legend from the “Dark Ages” to the “digital Dark Ages.”
In medieval literature, the Holy Grail is a sorting technology: it separates the ignorant and impure from the genuine Christian knight. The sacred object, famously, can be found only by one pure knight, Galahad. His reward is full knowledge of divine secrets. A few other knights achieve partial glimpses, but the mass of collaborators who set out on the quest either die or return to Camelot defeated. They never find the grail because it hides itself from them. In computing, then, grail metaphors shore up the romantic idea that invention is driven by individual geniuses endowed with innate superiority, with the mass of collaborators consigned to defeat even before they begin. The inventors themselves can become objects of desire: notably, Steve Jobs—the legendary founder of Apple—has been described as a “holy grail,” that is, a unique and irreplaceable genius who attracts questers (Bayers 2013; Palmer 2015). This ideology occludes computing practices that value communitarian and democratic networking, such as those documented by Joy Lisi Rankin in A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) or Charlton McIlwain in Black Software (2020). The cult of individualism has also erased the contributions of the human “computers,” often women, who contributed both intellectual and physical labor to major scientific achievements, such as the Black women mathematicians profiled by Margot Lee Shetterly in Hidden Figures (2016). Computing innovations of the 1960s, moreover, profited from what Lisa Nakamura (2014) has called the “racialization of early electronic manufacture” on the lands of the Navajo Nation. Grail metaphors, like interface itself, mask these operations of power.
The first technology grail was the interface to one of the first personal computers. In the 1960s, researchers at the RAND Corporation—with funding from the US Department of Defense—developed the first working prototype of a tablet with a stylus. And they called their interface GRAIL: Graphical Input Language. The explicit purpose was to “shield” the user from “systems functions”—that is, the raw code running machine processes (Ellis, Heafner, and Sibley 1969, v). Instead of programming the machine directly, the GRAIL interface made computing more like handwriting directly on a page: the user “constructs and manipulates the display contents directly and naturally without the need to instruct an intermediary (the machine)” (Ellis, Heafner, and Sibley 1969, 3). The graphics become a new kind of intermediary that obscures the mechanisms of machine processing. What better image than the grail to convey the ineffable, elusive fusion of thought, representation, and code? The grail metaphor mystifies computing—and defines computing as a mystification. With the GRAIL project, digital interface entered the world as a medieval metaphor that taught users not to ask too many questions about machines or their makers.
The GRAIL interface crystallizes two enduring aspects of digital infrastructure: metaphor as a device and singular solutions as an ideology. Metaphors influence how people define problems and develop answers. In the 1990s at Apple—where the graphical user interface came to commercial fruition—metaphor itself was once called the “holy grail” of design: good metaphors guide users subliminally whereas bad ones create confusion (Erickson 1990, 65). Metaphors rely on users’ ability to transfer a familiar idea to a new context; if the existing associations and the new ones are mismatched, the transfer fails. Computers in general are “metaphor machines” (Chun 2011, 55–66), since their internal processes are invisible to the human eye: layers, desktops, files, and clouds are all metaphors for electronic functions. The metaphors condition how people relate to computers and networks (Blanchette 2011; Emerson 2014; Hu 2015). Among recent digital grails, the “GraalVM” software by Oracle (another mystifying metaphor) takes mystical abstraction to a new level: the software distances users from direct instructions by creating a virtual environment where several programming languages can be used simultaneously; a plugin, “Galaaz,” even translates so that programmers only have to know one language (https://graalvm.org; https://github.com/rbotafogo/galaaz). With GraalVM, the whole environment becomes an interface where differences are reduced to a single solution. This style of reduction again links the grail to interfaces that direct users away from knowledge about system infrastructure.
All the technologies that sustain MS 80’s multimedia history have been associated with the Holy Grail at some point. The first technology of mass photographic copying, microfilm, was developed commercially by Eugene Power, founder of University Microfilms, Inc. (UMI)—the ultimate source for some of today’s most significant digital resources on ProQuest, such as “Dissertations and Theses” and “Early English Books Online” (EEBO). Power attributed his idea for “editions of one” printed from microfilm rolls to a 1931 meeting with John Marshall, secretary of the Medieval Academy of America, and Robert Binkley, chair of the Joint Committee on Materials for Research of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Social Science Research Council (1930–40). Binkley went on to envision the “scholar’s workstation,” a personalized machine of interactive microfilm (1934)—the predecessor to the more famous Memex described by Vannevar Bush (Bush 1945; Cady 1990, 377). When Power later recalled Binkley’s 1931 presentation, he described “the concept of somehow being able to produce copies of academic material in small quantities or one at a time, on demand” as his “personal holy grail” (Power 1990, 16). Here, the grail represents profitable academic publishing—small quantities for specialized audiences, essential to a healthy knowledge economy but elusive under industrial capitalism.
Today, MS 80 is also a digital artifact reproduced on Parker Library on the Web. It is thus subject to all the challenges of digital preservation amid ever-changing software and hardware. Unlike microfilm, which is estimated to last five hundred years, digital objects expire within a decade or so if not migrated, updated, or otherwise transformed. Durable solutions to digital preservation remain elusive. Librarian Margaret Hedstrom (1999) has argued that instead of one, comprehensive solution, libraries should adopt multiple strategies for different types of materials: “the search for the Holy Grail of digital archiving is premature, unrealistic, and possibly counter-productive.” Even now, digital archivist William Kilbride notes that intervening in “document life cycles” remains “the holy grail among archivists and records managers—alluring but always just out of reach” (Kilbride 2016, 416). It seems almost inevitable, then, that someone would ask, “Is the Cloud the Holy Grail for long-term image storage?” (Shipton 2015). Most recently, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies cast “linked open data”—the principle behind the protocols that drive Parker 2.0—as “the holy grail of the digital humanities” (“Hooking Up” 2019). That is, the mass linking of resources through interoperable standards remains a highly desirable yet elusive goal for digital research in the humanities. Across digital discourse, the grail conveys the idea of a complete solution to multifaceted problems.
In medieval texts, the Holy Grail first appears at Camelot, where King Arthur holds court. Like the Holy Grail, Camelot serves as a romanticized symbol of perfection, associated with social harmony and good governance. In 1990, it became the symbol of a new file format—now known as PDF (Portable Document Format). The file specification was first described by Adobe Systems cofounder John Warnock as “The Camelot Project” (Warnock 1990; Gitelman 2014a, 123). This metaphor expressed the technical function of gathering a document’s specifications into one, sovereign place so that it could be reprinted with the same format on any printer. Recent commentators have embellished the idea by connecting the PDF’s capacity to “view-and-print-anywhere” to Camelot’s magical capacity to appear anywhere—a mythical city with no fixed geographical location (Willinsky, Garnett, and Wong 2012). The PDF facilitates “editions of one” beyond Power’s wildest dreams. Power and Warnock both faced technical challenges with the reproduction of documents. And both turned to colloquial Arthurianism to make their solutions feel like magic. Today, PDF-enabled print-on-demand publishing is itself regularly described as the “holy grail” of profitable workflow (Google search results for “grail print-on-demand,” May 2020). The allure of Arthurian magic keeps generating promises that technology will solve every problem.
The counterpoint to these aspirational images comes from the “digital Dark Ages,” which invokes the ignorance and social chaos that might ensue from the loss of digital information. The first to medievalize digital preservation seems to have been librarian Terry Kuny in “A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information” (1997). Under this provocative title, Kuny developed an extended metaphor that began with medieval Christian monks as analogues for modern librarians: both are faithful guardians of knowledge, preserving and distributing books (Kuny 1997, 1). This image incorporates another neomedieval preservation trope—monks as the first copyists. In the 1960s, the head of the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress, Lester Born, aligned the “wonders of the medieval scriptoria” with those of the microfilm lab (Born 1960, 348). Around the same time, a journalist for Business Week celebrated Eugene Power of UMI by describing his microfilm business as “a modern version of a medieval monastery” with “monkish work cells” (cited in Power 1990, 233). UMI was later sold to Xerox, which in the 1970s marketed the photocopy machine as a major advance on monks’ copying techniques (Foys 2018). Recent work in media studies also evokes monks as the first copyists (Mattern 2017, xiii; Smithies 2017, 10–11). While medieval Christian monks certainly do belong to the long history of media production, they are hardly the first copyists: their persistent image in preservation discourse is yet another component of tech medievalism that draws on reductive stereotypes.
According to Kuny, librarians in the 1990s were already working in the “digital Dark Ages”; their collections were gradually being destroyed by various “barbarians” such as intractable quantities of information, rapid obsolescence of storage media, the proliferation of complex formats, financial constraints, restrictions on intellectual property, and commodified information (Kuny 1997, 2–4). To defend against these incursions, Kuny proposed several tactics: standardization, migration, limiting the scope of what gets saved, keeping nonelectronic formats, managing intellectual property rights, and collaborating (1997, 6–7). These strategies recognize the limits of digital materials: “Digital collections facilitate access, but do not facilitate preservation. Being digital means being ephemeral” (1997, 10). Nonetheless, librarians could ensure at least partial transmission with carefully crafted preservation plans: “The traces of information that we are able to save from our digital vellum will be valuable sources of information to the future” (1997, 10). With vellum as the metaphor for durable digital storage, Kuny completes the medieval image. Kuny was hardly the first to identify the challenges of digital preservation (Cloonan 1993; Rothenberg 1995; Conway 1996). But his pithy formulation—archived in a well-preserved networked repository—has indelibly linked data loss to a neomedieval future.
The “digital Dark Ages” are simultaneously a fact of the past (many things have already been lost), a condition of the present (new things are lost every day), and a projected future event (when more things will have been lost). The phrase gained popular traction following a 1998 conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, “Time & Bits: Managing Digital Continuity” (MacLean and Davis 1998). The Getty partnered with the Long Now Foundation (LNF), founded by Danny Hillis and Stewart Brand in 1996 to counteract tendencies toward short-term thinking—exemplified at the time by the so-called “Y2K problem” of computers not designed for dates beyond 1999. LNF is preparing for the “Y10K problem” of the year 9999. Hillis and Brand are both eclectic serial entrepreneurs—with Hillis best known for inventing parallel computing and Brand for embodying the convergence of “counterculture and cyberculture” (Turner 2006; Lambert 2005, 39–45; “Danny Hillis” 2019). In the wake of the Getty conference, they both used the phrase “digital Dark Ages” to refer to the period “from the widespread use of the computer up till the time we’ve solved this problem [of preservation]” (MacLean and Davis 1998, 33, 42). Brand quoted Hillis in a book chapter, “Ending the Digital Dark Age” (Brand 1999a), and in a Library Journal article, “Escaping the Digital Dark Age” (Brand 1999b). These titles reveal Brand’s optimistic focus on solutions. Not surprisingly, he had earlier expressed his view of the positive impacts of computing as a “renaissance” (Brand 1987, 252). Almost predictably, Getty conference participants also invoked monk copyists (MacLean and Davis 1998, 25, 37). Once preservation is framed in “dark age” terms, the metaphor extends to frame an entire ideology of progress.
Another Getty conference participant, Brewster Kahle, amplified the “digital Dark Ages” on a digital preservation project launched around the same time: the Internet Archive (Kahle 1997; Lyman and Kahle 1998). The phrase, attributed to Hillis, was featured on the Internet Archive’s “About” page from the time the site went public in 2001 until February 2017: “Without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures. And paradoxically, with the explosion of the Internet, we live in what Danny Hillis has referred to as our ‘digital dark age’” (“About the Archive” 2001–17; cited in Chun 2008, 168; De Kosnik 2016, 46–51). Kahle’s imagination of digital preservation was further fed by the loss and preservation of ancient manuscripts. In fact, the first word of his article announcing the Internet Archive is manuscripts—referring to the ones that burned in the ancient library of Alexandria (Kahle 1997, 82). The article appeared as part of a special report in Scientific American on “civilizing” the internet. Another contribution held up the famous, partly burnt, manuscript containing the Old English Beowulf as an example of how digital imaging could rescue damaged texts (Lesk 1997; Kiernan 1991). In both these examples, the destruction of manuscripts points to the scale of loss that awaits digital culture.
Since the 1990s, the “digital Dark Ages” has continued to designate the fragility of digital materials. The phrase has been consecrated as a synonym for data loss by dedicated pages on the Library and Information Science Wiki (“Digital Dark Ages” 2005) and Wikipedia (“Digital Dark Age” 2006). One frequently cited loss concerns a project inspired by a medieval book—the 1086 census of Britain known as the Domesday Book, a collection of records for taxation. To celebrate the nine-hundredth anniversary in 1986, the British Broadcasting Company created a massive digital snapshot of Britain. The BBC adopted the latest laser disc technology—with the result that fifteen years later the content was largely inaccessible because disc readers were no longer widely available. The technical failure of the BBC Digital Domesday has been widely reported as a “digital Dark Ages” event; it remains a cautionary example for scholars, librarians, businesses, and the general public of how unstable digital storage really is (O’Donnell 2004; Harvey and Weatherburn 2018, 120–21). Over the last twenty years, Digital Domesday has gone through several recoveries, migrations, and relapses into the dark. The latest public website was taken down as recently as June 2018 (Finney 1986–2006; “BBC Domesday Project” 2018). News reports about Digital Domesday frequently convey the significance of the “digital Dark Ages” with the heart-tugging example of future grandchildren deprived of today’s family photos. Manuscript photos—and other digital resources—risk the same fate unless they receive regular care.
Preservation is a matter not only of technology but economics (Kilbride 2016, 414). Here, too, the “digital Dark Ages” provide the metaphor. In fact, the very first reference to the phrase indexed on Google.com is a 1996 article about the global political economy in Wired magazine (whose editor, Kevin Kelly, also attended the Getty conference). In this article, David Kline characterizes increasing global inequality as the dark side of the digital: “How do we ensure that the future does not become a wonderland of opportunity for the minority among us who are affluent, mobile, and highly educated and, at the same time, a digital dark age for the majority of citizens—the poor, the non-college-educated—who are not?” (Kline 1996). Kline concludes that governments, far from obsolete, are sorely needed to safeguard social and economic health by ensuring a stable digital infrastructure. This formulation of the “digital Dark Ages” makes time a state of being that is unevenly distributed across the world. The “Dark Ages” happen anywhere that lacks technology—whether in the past, like the 1970s (Plotnikoff 1997), or the present, like rural areas without high-speed internet access (Fildes et al. 2018). The “Dark Ages” also threaten wherever digital property might be damaged (Ja 2015; Schmitt 2018). As the internet has become infrastructure, lack of secure access both reflects and creates other forms of inequality. This global dynamic includes historical archives and scholarly resources, as institutional wealth also shapes what gets published and who can access it.
And once a problem is defined in medieval terms, the solution becomes a “renaissance.” The starkest formulation may be the European Union’s official definition of digital strategy, entitled The New Renaissance: “Our goal is to ensure that Europe experiences a digital Renaissance instead of entering into a digital Dark Age”; all stakeholders must “take up their responsibilities in order to ensure that Europe’s citizens and economy fully benefit from the potential of bringing Europe’s cultural heritage online” (Niggemann, Decker, and Lévy 2011, 12). This goal requires coordinated public and private funding across numerous institutions. It suggests that economic benefit will be one criterion for bringing materials online. The corpus of digitized materials—including medieval manuscripts—constitutes a new “canon” of items deemed worthy of investment. Even as this corpus grows, online availability will always be limited by selections that reflect a host of technical, social, and financial arrangements. The digital capitalism of cultural heritage conjoins public service and profit. These arrangements illustrate the flip side of Brand’s famous quote about free information, rarely cited in full: “Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient” (Brand 1987, 202). In cultural heritage, the calculation of value has many dimensions, from aesthetics to nationalism to tourism. With the profitable future framed in historic metaphors, the economy depends on not looking too closely at history.
Parker Library on the Web and MS 80 exemplify all these “digital Dark Age” issues. In the 1990s, medieval manuscripts headed online along with everything else. By 1996, when curators at Parker Library first considered digitizing the manuscript collection (CCCA, Box 5), numerous other projects were already under way at other institutions (replies to Warren 2018b). The British Library opened its first website in 1993 with an image of the Magna Carta, which was soon joined by images from the Beowulf manuscript (Prescott 1998). Concerns about how to maintain these new artifacts emerged gradually, as the earliest projects started to break. When Parker Library on the Web opened in 2009, sustainability was addressed in part by the subscription fee. Ten years later, when the site migrated to a new interface with open access, preservation costs were absorbed in new infrastructure arrangements at Stanford Libraries. The transformation of Parker 1.0 into Parker 2.0, however, brought significant changes to the manuscript descriptions and other features. These changes have rewritten the pathways of discovery for historical data. The effects are profound yet fleeting: Parker 1.0 lasted ten years, and Parker 2.0 lasted three (version 2.1 was released in March 2021). Each new iteration can expose how digital infrastructures affect knowledge systems. Parker 1.0 is now evidence of an important historical moment in the practice of medieval studies, library science, and internet publishing. It reveals the current arrangements to be arrangements—not natural, inevitable, or “better” but rather the temporary products of complex interactions among communities, protocols, machines, and capital. These arrangements are not obstacles to overcome but infrastructures to understand. In a very real sense, they are writing the future of medieval studies.