Modernizing History: The Impact of Publishing Digital Facsimiles of Medieval Manuscripts

The collection of physical artifacts and texts from which history is constructed becomes smaller over time as objects are lost to destruction or decay. It only makes sense, then, that efforts have been taken to preserve these objects and make them, or at least digital copies of these objects, untouchable by time. Digital facsimiles of numerous medieval manuscripts have been made in an effort to preserve them and make them more accessible. Facsimiles, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are “an exact copy,”[1] and digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, then, present the original object exactly as it appears and in its entirety. Medieval manuscripts hold so much more information in them besides the words inscribed on the parchment, and even though it seems like the next logical step is to digitize them,—in an effort to preserve them, make them more accessible, and to protect the physical manuscript from being handled too often—one must consider how this inevitable digitization impacts the interpretation of the manuscripts themselves. The manuscripts are viewed through a modern lens that takes the objects out of their original context and moves them into the more modern setting of the internet. In publishing digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, an entirely new resource is created for researchers, and this new resource, no matter how true to the original it appears to be, removes the viewer a step from the physical autograph or witness copy and negatively impacts their ability to interpret the object in its entirety. Finally, in publishing digital facsimiles as an online resource, it is possible that mistakes in labelling, categorization, and other digitally added information could misrepresent the facsimile. The interpretation and analysis of medieval manuscripts, particularly by students, ultimately suffers as a result of publishing digital facsimiles. Physical manuscripts provide imperative contextual and historical information that outweighs the unlimited accessibility and online tools that digital facsimiles offer.

Physical medieval manuscripts reveal so much more than just the stories they share. Every manuscript—whether autograph copies or witnesses that were copied by monks in monasteries—reveals something about the unique person who transcribed the words onto the parchment and the world in which they lived. Jasmine Elizabeth Burns states quite plainly that “[w]ithout evidence of the ‘medieval condition’ the reading of the object as a whole is altered.”[2] Without viewing the product of their labour as they once did—in person, feeling the weight of the parchment and hearing the pages turn—an entire layer of the experience is removed, and as a result, the interpretation of the manuscript suffers. Students consulting digital facsimiles, for example, are learning about these historical objects without actually getting the important contextualizing information that they would get from seeing the physical manuscript. While it is convenient and even necessary to have digital facsimiles of manuscripts that can be consulted if needed, the digital facsimile removes most of what Burns refers to as the “medieval condition” which is essential for a well-rounded and thorough interpretation of the object, particularly for students and aspiring historians. Burns also notes that


Markings such as fingerprints and dirt reveal habits of wear and use, and at the same time display how medieval people interacted with their manuscripts. A close study of the object reveals not only the manuscript’s previous use, but also significant information regarding its origin and details of its physical construction.[3]


While digital facsimiles would certainly capture some evidence of use and wear, there is only so much that can be seen in an online image. This contextual evidence is just as important as the words on the pages of the manuscript and is therefore necessary in understanding the manuscript in its entirety. Sarah Werner suggests that even the way manuscripts and early modern texts are viewed online, one side of one folio at a time versus an open spread, for example, could impact the way modern audiences interpret the text.[4] This is another reason why digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts are problematic: the viewers of online copies are restricted by how the manuscript has been photographed and uploaded by the institution and they are subject to a specific experience of that object based on what is provided for them.  With access to the physical manuscript, viewers would be able to engage with the manuscript in a traditional way and would not be limited to one specific experience or interpretation like they would be with a digital experience and the extra layer of mediation that comes with it.

Digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts create a unique, yet troublingly modern, way of looking at the past. Digital facsimiles are an entirely new copy/edition of the manuscript and are published in a completely different format than the original. As a result of this new technology, the reader/viewer is removed one step from the past that they have set out to investigate and are forced to look at the object through a potentially altered, mediated and modern lens. Heather Bamford et. al. suggests that “[w]e can bring manuscripts and fragments distanced by time and geography together with a click (or two), we have the technology to rebuild and visualize, to undo some of the ravages of time.”[5] While digital facsimiles do allow unlimited access to and comparing capabilities for medieval manuscripts, they are viewed through a modern lens, and one through which the object was not meant to be viewed at the time of its creation. Burns states that “[a]t some point in the digitization process, colors and details are altered in the final image.”[6] These alterations, no matter how minor, can skew the researchers’ findings, and takes away from the experience of viewing these medieval manuscripts. With digital facsimiles of manuscripts, then, there are questions of colour accuracy, [7] scale, texture, and other details that cannot be seen either because they are too small or are in an area that is not visible in the images provided. What is gained in accessibly is not worth what is lost contextually through the both lens of the camera, the modern, mediated experience of remotely accessing online images,[8] or the exposure to potential mistakes/alterations that could be introduced into the published facsimile.

Another negative aspect of digital facsimiles is the potential for human error that can occur when digitizing the content. The potential for error when organizing the pages, adding external content, categorizing, labelling, etc., is considerable, especially when an alternative option is to look at the unaltered physical object. Werner says of digital facsimiles that


Libraries tend to be good about identifying what is imaged, but other providers can be much more sketchy. It’s nice if there’s a title and an author, but does it give the correct imprint? If the work exists in multiple editions, does it state which one this is? Do you trust that metadata?[9]


Werner highlights some of the potential errors that could be introduced when digital facsimiles are made available by libraries and other institutions. Incorrect information, among other errors, is detrimental to anyone using that resource and can significantly impact how the digital facsimile is received, interpreted, and consulted. Werner also notes that intentionality on the part of the publisher/provider of the content is also important when consulting digital facsimiles, and how this intentionality impacts not only what the reader/observer sees, but how it is presented to them and whether the information presented can be trusted.[10] This adds another factor that mediates and controls the experience of the viewer. It is particularly problematic for students who might not know how to judge whether a digital facsimile is legitimate, or how to navigate the external content provided. Not only might errors be introduced when publishing this content in a digital format, but users have the option to “download, save, tweet, extract metadata, mark up with computer languages, rearrange the images or repurpose in new settings”[11] and as a result have the opportunity themselves to further change the way the manuscript is meant to be read, and subsequently interpreted.

Although the preservation of medieval manuscripts is extremely important, and easily done with modern technology, the new copy that is created when a digital facsimile is published negatively impacts the interpretation and analysis of the objects themselves. Although digitization has been a huge part of the last few decades and is the clear next step when considering the fragility and rarity of medieval manuscripts, the accuracy and context of the physical manuscript cannot be conveyed in the same way as looking at the physical object. A distance is created between the person consulting the material and the historical context of the manuscript they are studying, and this divide has the potential to significantly impact the interpretation of the object. The researcher, when consulting digital facsimiles, has no option but to view the object through a modern lens, due to the modern technology through which they are viewing the object, and this modern lens creates a mediated and controlled experience. Finally, since digital facsimiles are copies of the originals, and published online in a different format, it is possible that errors could be introduced and could, as a result, cause misinterpretations and confusion. Although it is practical and useful (and inevitable) to have digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts available and accessible to a wide range of people, the transition from handcrafted manuscripts to digital facsimiles has a negative overall impact, particularly on students who are learning how to interpret these objects. Unless the physical manuscript is consulted first and contextualized, digital facsimiles, when used as the primary resource, have a negative impact on textual and physical interpretation because a significant amount of information is lost when published in this new format.



[1] “Facsimile,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, last modified December 2, 2019,

[2] Jasmine Elizabeth Burns, “Digital Facsimiles and the Modern Viewer,” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 33, (Fall 2014): 159.

[3] Burns, “Digital Facsimiles,” 149-150.

[4] “Talking about early digital facsimiles with Sarah Werner,” Ransom Center Magazine, published January 31, 2018

[5] Heather Bamford, and Emily C. Francomano, “On Digital-Medieval Manuscript Culture: A Tentative Manifesto,” Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures 7, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 32.

[6] Burns, “Digital Facsimiles,” 166.

[7] Ransom Center Magazine, “Talking about early digital facsimiles.”

[8] Burns, “Digital Facsimiles,” 157.

[9] Ransom Center Magazine, “Talking about early digital facsimiles.”

[10] “book history questions and digital facsimiles,” Wynkn de Worde, accessed December 7, 2019.

[11] Sarah Werner, “Digital First Folios,” in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare’s First Folio, ed. E. Smith, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 171.


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