The Visionary Cross: An Experiment in the Multimedia Edition

  1. 1. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

    University of Lethbridge

  2. 2. Catherine Karkov

    University of Leeds

  3. 3. James Graham

    University of Lethbridge

  4. 4. Wendy Osborn

    University of Lethbridge

  5. 5. Roberto Rosselli Del Turco

    Università  degli studi di Torino

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A reservation I should wish to express is that customarily
levelled at digital projects, which is that while the technology
(brilliantly, beautifully, wonderfully) enables and indeed
encourages the presentation of multiple points of view, so
putting the burden of interpretation onto the individual reader,
there is a concomitant loss of genuine decision-making by
those claiming to be responsible for the work as a whole...
Editors should edit: will they?
Our epigraph comes from the report of an external assessor
to the original funding application for our project. We
cite it because it represents a common question asked of the
Digital Humanities by traditional scholars: “Can it be as
significant as it is pretty?”
For editors of text-based digital projects, the answer is
increasingly clear. The last decade has seen the development
of a relatively solid consensus as to basic technological and
generic expectations (see O'Donnell 2004 for a summary). Best
practice now expects that text-based digital projects will be
encoded using XML, preferably TEI. It assumes they will
contain an archive with transcriptions and full colour facsimiles
of primary sources; that some means will be provided for
comparing variant readings; and that users will be able to test
editorial assumptions by comparing or constructing alternative
editorial texts. While there is some debate as to whether
text-based projects have yet lived up to their original promise
(Robinson 2005), there can be little doubt they are beginning
to be recognised as important works of scholarship in their own
For developers of projects that depend heavily on multimedia
or collaborative technologies, however, the answer to this
question is far less clear. While open standards exist for the
encoding of image, moving pictures, and sound, there is little
agreement as to how these are to be presented to the end user:
unlike text-based projects, multi- and mixed media projects
still commonly rely on proprietary software or specific operating
systems (e.g. Foys 2002, Reed-Kline 2000; British Library
Board, n.d.). And while many digital projects propose using
collaborative technology in their design, there is as yet no
agreement on the fundamental issue of how such collaboration
can function in a research culture based on peer review and the
preservation of authorial integrity. A number of exemplary
projects are beginning to show how such technologies can be
applied in specific contexts or to solve specific research
problems (e.g. Ó Croinin et al. [n.d.], Toth et al. [n.d.]). But
we are still far from agreeing as to how they can be used more
generally to support day-to-day research by working humanities
The Visionary Cross project addresses this problem by treating
it as a research question. Our goal is to produce a mixed-media
and extensible edition of a key group of Anglo-Saxon artefacts
associated with the “Visionary Cross” tradition in Anglo-Saxon
England: the eighth-century Ruthwell and Bewcastle standing
stone crosses, the tenth-century Vercelli Book dream of the
Rood poem, and the eleventh century Brussels Reliquary Cross
(for this tradition, see Ó Carragáin 2005).
These objects include some of the best known and most studied
of the period. The Ruthwell Cross is a 17 foot high stone cross
erected near a former Roman military site in Dumfriesshire
Scotland. It is perhaps best known to Anglo-Saxonists for a
runic inscription that may be the oldest known record of an
Anglo-Saxon vernacular poem, versions of which can be found
in the tenth-century Vercelli Book and eleventh-century
Brussels Cross (see Ó Carragáin 2005, 58-60; O'Donnell 1996,
287-288, for bibliography).
The Brussels Cross is a reliquary that once contained a fragment
from the supposed True Cross. It is built on an oak core that
was covered with precious metal and jewels and perhaps a
crucifixion (stolen sometime before 1793; see Van Ypersele
de Strihou 2000; Webster 1984; Ó Carragáin 2005). Gilt silver
decoration on the cross’s back and side bands bearing a
vernacular inscription have survived. On the centre of the back
of the cross is a depiction of the Agnus Dei; symbols of the
four evangelists are found at the terminals. An Old English
inscription around the edge quotes from a version of the same
poem found on the Ruthwell Cross and in the Vercelli Book.
A second inscription explains that the cross was made by two brothers in memory of a third. On the back we are told the name
of the artist responsible for its manufacture.
The Bewcastle Cross is a standing stone cross found, like the
Ruthwell Cross, at a former Roman military site. Approximately
the same size as Ruthwell and belonging perhaps to the same
artistic school, the severely weathered Bewcastle Cross still
stands in its original location (see Bailey and Cramp 1988). It
has the remains of a sundial on its side and may have been
painted and decorated with other metalwork or glass
attachments. The west face is carved with three figural panels,
of which two also appear on Ruthwell. The east side of the
cross is decorated with a continuous vinescroll similar to
Ruthwell; its north and south sides are carved with panels of
interlace, geometric, and foliate ornament. The lowest panel
on the west face shows a falconer wearing secular dress. This
usually is understood to represent the deceased man
commemorated in a now largely illegible runic inscription.
The Vercelli Book Dream of the Rood poem ties the members
of this collection together (ed. Swanton 1996). The Dream
poem describes an encounter with an object that is at once and
alternately a tree, a beacon (a word used to describe the Cross
on the Bewcastle Cross), a sign, and a cross sometimes covered
with blood, and sometimes covered (as in Brussels) with gold
and jewels. It ends with the Cross instructing the dreamer to
tell what he or she has seen and with the dreamer reciting an
expression of devotion and commemoration. The Dream is one
of only about 25 poems and poetic fragments known to have
survived the Anglo-Saxon period in more than one copy
(O'Donnell 1996; see also Orton 2000). If the runic carving on
Ruthwell is coeval with the rest of the monument, then the
poem has a textual history that is longer and more
geographically and linguistically diverse than almost any
vernacular poem in the period. The citation of a couplet from
the text on Brussels, moreover, suggests that it occupied a very
significant place in the vernacular literary imagination: the only
other known example of a similar verse citation in the period
is from the translation of the Psalter.
Together, these objects form a cultural matrix whose members
are associated along a number of textual, art historical,
liturgical, and archaeological planes. The goal of this project
is to use new technology to study these objects and their
relationships in ways impossible in print—or even in person.
Just as a textual edition improves upon witnesses by
contributing an interpretive apparatus, so to our edition will
improve on readers' knowledge of this matrix by placing it in
a hypermedia apparatus that will assist in its interpretation.
The value of this approach is perhaps most obvious in the case
of the crosses, which can be understood as multimedia objects
in their own right. In all three cases, the monuments gain
meaning from the interaction of text, image, and context. The
stone crosses appear to have been “read” by walking around in
a direction determined by their geographical orientation and
the order of the Liturgy. The Brussels cross—depending on
one's view of the object's original function—would likely have
been seen by contemporary audiences either as an altar piece
or carried in procession (On this spatial aspect see especially
Ó Carragáin 2005).
The new technologies also allow us to ask new questions about
the objects relationships with each other. Had an Anglo-Saxon
observer been lucky enough to see all four in a single lifetime
(an impossible proposition given their temporal and geographic
distribution), he or she would have understood them both as
individual works of art and as part of a larger web of cultural
traditions and references extending along various textual, art
historical, and generic planes. By taking advantage of
hypermedia's strength in the representation of arbitrary
connections, we as editors can now represent these connections
to modern scholars in a way that translates and augments the
original artefacts—in our edition, linking becomes a type of
hypermedia collation. In our edition, scholars will be able to
both to study the individual objects as objects in their own right
and follow the connections among them. In doing so they will
have access both to a collection unavailable to any single
Anglo-Saxon observer and the benefit of immediate access to
the best of recent criticism and centuries of secondary
By using recent developments in collaborative technologies,
finally, we hope this project—like the cultural knowledge it
attempts to capture and represents—will be open to
augmentation as our knowledge develops. By using standoff
markup, we intend to allow developers and users to anticipate
connections to other objects in the matrix or discover new
connections among existing objects in much the same way
contributors to the Wikipedia can predict the existence of
articles that have yet to be written or contribute “stubs” for
subsequent elaboration while retaining intellectual ownership
of their contributions (see Ore 2004 for a discussion of
collaborative editing; O'Donnell 2006 discusses some strengths
and weaknesses of the model for scholars).
If multimedia projects are going to answer our reviewer's
question, they must learn to do more than simply display—they
must also learn to edit. This paper discusses the approaches we
are and will be taking to this important problem in developing
a complex multimedia “edition” of a cultural matrix.
British Library. Turning the Pages. n.d.. <
tml> Foys, Martin K., ed. The Bayeux Tapestry. Leicester: Scholarly
Digital Editions, 2003.
Ó Carragáin, Éamonn. Ritual and the Rood: Liturgical Images
and the Old English Poems of the Dream of the Rood Tradition.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.
Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, et al. "Profilometry of Medieval Irish Stone
Monuments." Foundations of Irish culture AD 600-850. n.d..
Ore, Espen E. "Monkey Business - or What is an Edition?"
Literary & Linguistic Computing 19.1 (2004).
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. "Manuscript Variation in Multiple
Recension Old English Poetic Texts: The Technical Problem
and Poetical Art." PhD Thesis. Yale University, 1996.
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. "The Doomsday Machine, or, ‘If You
Build it, Will They Still Come Ten Years from Now?’." Heroic
Age 7 (2004). <
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. "O Captain! My Captain! Using
Technology to Guide Readers through an Electronic Edition."
Heroic Age 8 (2005b). <
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. "Why Should I Write for your Wiki?"
Working Paper 1. Readex Community Academic Advisor
Board. 2006.
Reed Kline, Naomi, ed. A Wheel of Memory: The Hereford
Mappamundi. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press,
Robinson, Peter. "Current Issues in Making Digital Editions of
Medieval Texts—or, Do Electronic Scholarly Editions Have a
Future?" Digital Medievalist 1.1 (2005). <http://www.di>
Swanton, Michael James. "The Dream of the Rood." Old and
Middle English Texts. Exeter: University of Exeter, 1996.
Toth, Michael B., et al. The Archimedes Palimpsest. n.d.. <ht
Van Ypersele de Strihou, Anne. Le Trésor de la Cathédrale
des Saints Michel et Gudule à Bruxelles. Brussels: Cathedral,
Webster, Leslie. "The Brussels Cross." The Golden Age of
Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066. Ed. Janet Backhouse, D. H. Turner
and Leslie Webster. London: British Museum, 1984.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None