Before the invention of the printing press, literary works like Piers Plowman, the great rival to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, had to be copied out by hand. As each manuscript was painstakingly written out by a culturally and linguistically diverse set of scribes, variations on the texts and their illustrations naturally occurred. Combined with signs of use throughout the centuries, like margin notations, each surviving document itself becomes a new text, which can be analyzed on multiple levels.
Enter LMU English Professor Stephen Shepherd, who is collaborating with the University of Virginia on the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive project. This project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will transcribe the many versions of the poem Piers Plowman which was written by William Langland over 600 years ago. Shepherd is working on a particularly dynamic example which “…has full sets of pictures in the margins; pictures which, as I am continuing to discover through this project, make symbolic cross references to other works in the owners’ collection—it's unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Currently, Shepherd and his graduate assistant have scanned the original text of their version of the manuscript and are in the process of translating it into an electronic text format that will be accessed on the Internet. Within the text format, information such as eraser marks, highlighted words, and overlap between words and graphics are marked so that the intricacies of the text's production and use may be explored. Once the transcription is finished, digital copies of both the manuscript (in the form of high-resloution images) and the manuscript’s text (in the form of a full searchable e-text) will be connected with other versions being transcribed at the University of Virginia via an online database.
This project was started by Dr. Hoyt Duggan of the University of Virginia in 1994 with the aim to “recover from medieval manuscripts a near complete view of the medieval poem and produce definitive versions of the 'archaeological layers' of its composition and use, while making access to all existing manuscripts available in digital format,” according to Professor Shepherd.
For more information, please see The Piers Plowman Electronic Archive home page