Digital Editions: Variant Readings and Interpretations

  1. 1. Dino Buzzetti

    Department of Philosophy - Università di Bologna (University of Bologna)

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Textual mobility and fluidity is almost a norm in
various genres of medieval literary production.
Alternative readings in different manuscripts do
not usually confine themselves to mere accidents
of textual reproduction. Sources of this kind suggest on reflection that the traditional goal of assessing the text in the most reliable way, that is
through a critical edition following the classical
rules of philology, could be neither feasible nor
desirable. The very idea of making clear-cut choices based upon collation seems to be neither applicable, nor altogether sound. On the contrary, an
appropriate editorial policy requires that also the
so-called alternatives should be edited as text. A
database representation of the entire textual tradition provides an obvious solution to this problem
and in notable cases a database comprising the
encoded diplomatic transcriptions of all the extant
manuscripts has been actually constructed. A database representation keeps closer to the varied
and diversified nature of medieval textuality and
contributes to its critical analysis in a way that
overcomes the insurmountable limitations of the
printed form of textual representation. Many medieval texts are fluid and dynamic, but as reproduced in a printed book they become fixed and
immutable: the form of representation is forced
upon the form of what is to be represented. A
database representation offers a viable alternative
in cases where the printed model, the classical
model of textual representation is not altogether
The new form of textual representation provided
by a database of transcriptions can be further improved by means of digitized images integrated
into it. A digital image is logical data and is not to
be thought of as a mere physical reproduction of a
manuscript document. A digital image can be processed; it can be linked with transcriptions; it
provides elements for interpretation and analysis.
Therefore, a digital image is to be conceived as a
direct representation of textual content and not as
a substitute for an absent document. In this respect,
it is on a par with a digital transcription, which
needs not replicate a physical document, another
form of textual representation, but can be taken in
itself as a direct form of representation of textual
information. But a digital transcription is a form
of representation of a new kind, and a digital image
just as well. Digitized images and transcriptions
are to be thought of as processable data. And a
processable representation of a text is a form of
textual representation very different from a nonprocessable one. What makes two different forms
of representation a representation of the same text
is their invariance with respect to their information
content. What makes two representations of the
same text two different forms of representation is
their difference with respect to processing and
The fundamental feature of a textual representation in digital form – what makes it essentially different from any other one – is therefore its
liability to processing. And there seems to be more
point in this observation than just stating a platitude. For, in this respect, the very problem of
textual representation in a digital form becomes
the following one: how can a digital representation
of textual information be effectively structured
and processed in view of a specified analytical
purpose? Now, one of the basic purposes of textual
criticism is the analysis of variant readings, an
analysis of the different forms of representation of
the same text. Are they to be conceived as spurious
corruptions, or are they to be conceived as genuine
texts? The problem of analysing textual content
cannot be separated from the problem of analysing
its several representations. But they are different
ones, and how are they to be connected? Is textual
content by itself stable and immutable, so as not
to admit a mobile form of representation, or is it
on the contrary the steady and immodifiable form
of a given form of textual representation, that
forces textual content to be fixed once and for all?
Medieval forms of textuality are often fluid and
dynamic; in this case, the printed form of representation freezes textual mobility, and the form of
representation should not be mistaken for the form
of what is to be represented. On the other hand,
and for the same reason, the dynamic form of a
database representation – a form of representation
that affords a more faithful reproduction of the
varied and diversified expressions of textual fluidity – should not be mistaken for the accomplished
form of its edition. A database in itself is by no
means an edition, and there is a point indeed in
rejecting the idea of an “archive edition”, a sort of
all comprising inventory of any available piece of
textual evidence. A database cannot be conceived
as an edition as long as it is thought of as a sheer
duplicate of its source material.
A database had better be thought of as a structured
logical representation of textual sources, and here
can be found an answer to our problem. A database
is a form of representation, and a representation of
whichever sort neither is, nor can be, just a replicate of its original. The problem is indeed to put
its logical features to a good use. But how, exactly,
can that be done for the sake of producing an
edition? The most plausible answer appears to be
to organize a database as an apparatus. For that
seems to be precisely what makes an edition -- not
just an archive -- out of anything. As it has been
said, representing in database form, with commentary, a textual tradition is already translating encoded textual features into structures. And that could
possibly be done just for the sake of documenting
one or another reconstruction of the text, which is
precisely the purpose an apparatus is created for.
We can then describe the computational problem
we have to face in the following way: (1) what data
structures can we obtain out of digital representations, either in encoded character form or in
bitmapped form, of textual materials; and (2) what
kind of processing procedures do these data structures afford us? Moreover, (3) do these data structures and these processing proceedures meet our
needs, as far as representation and analysis of
textual material is concerned? Finally, it should be
firmly kept in mind that it is from this last requirement that we have to start, for it is from our
research goals, and not vice versa, that we have to
proceed. And it is precisely in this respect that the
computational model now newly implemented
into “kleio” seems to provide an answer.
The treatment of variant readings is a typical problem of overlapping hierarchies. And this problem
is radically tackled within “kleio” at the basic level
of system design. The computational model, data
structures and processing functions, is then able to
conform to the conceptual procedures imposed by
the needs of text critical research. The several
layers or witnesses of a text can be easily mapped
into distinct sequential representations, severally
implying different and mutually overlapping hierarchical representations. But we need to use a data
type “extended string” in order to make all different sequential realizations of textual representation jointly compatible in a unique and consistent nonlinear representation in database form.
A database representation can thus act as a consistent and unifying model of all different sequential
representations of a text, a congruent structure
onto which they can all be mapped simultaneously
and consistently, and from which they can all be
separately derived and individually displayed. By
means of the “extended string” data type it is
possible to reduce to a consistent unity a multiplicity of different and possibly overlapping hierarchical representations, thus meeting the needs of
the editor of a text handed down by a variety of
different sequential representations; or it is possible, vice versa, to derive from a single sequential
representation a multiplicity of different structural
representations, thus serving the purposes of a
scholar approaching the text from more than a
single analytical perspective.
Both the editorial and the interpretative practices
seem to need a computational model of the same
kind, allowing the reduction to unity, or conversely the derivation from unity, of a multiplicity of
structurally different representations. But in the
one case, the case of an edition, we have to start
from a multiplicity of representations of the sequential structure of a particular document witnessing the text and reduce them to a unique structural
representation of a non-sequential kind; whereas
in the other case, the case of textual analysis and
interpretation, we have to derive from a single
sequential representation of textual content, a multiplicity of structural representations of a non-sequential kind. The editor has to care about structural representations, both sequential and
non-sequential, of the documents representing the
text; the interpreter has to care about structural
representations, both sequential and non-sequential, of the textual content represented by a document. It is structure that enables a document to
represent a text, and it is structure that enables a
text to be represented by a document. It is therefore
the structural properties of the digital form of
representation that we have to rely upon in order
to apply appropriate conceptual procedures both
to documents and to texts.
In this respect, the advantages of a digital form of
representation over a printed one are absolutely
clear. A digital representation can easily be structured both in a linear and in a non-linear form and
can more aptly be employed for research purposes
in text representation and analysis. A digital representation, either a transcription or an image, can
improve research considerably if it is used as a
structural form of representation. The reproduction of a document in all its physical properties can
immediately be turned into a structural representation, because it is logical data by itself. The
crucial problem is to organize digital data into data
structures suitable to textual representation and in
implementing processing functions suitable to
textual analysis, a problem that can be solved only
at the level of system design. The application of
the “extended string” data type newly implemented into “kleio” to text critical problems has proved to be a substantial step towards reaching satisfactory solutions. And its application to
problems of analysis and interpretation looks just
as promising on the same grounds.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Bergen

Bergen, Norway

June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

Scott Weingart has print abstract book that needs to be scanned; certain abstracts also available on dh-abstracts github page. (

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (16), ALLC/EADH (23), ACH/ALLC (8)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC