Summary and conclusions
The MGH’s Digital Resources branch demonstrates that we have come a long way from the Archiv der Gesellschaft für Ältere Deutsche Geschichtskunde. Systems of communication have evolved enormously since the 1820s. What they may eventually achieve is not only the construction of a transnational, hyper-connected scholarly community potentially engaged in a collective enterprise of ‘social editing’; the function, use and interpretation of texts — and therefore also of the written sources employed by historians — have been and will increasingly be impacted by these changes.
The historiography which shaped the MGH project at its inception was fundamentally attuned to the sort of data around which its interpretative activity revolved: the written primary source, unearthed in the archive or library, proven to be authentic, attributed to one agent (the author), dated, and critically edited. The natural outcome of this process was the production of a single authoritative text and its display in book format. Now, as Len Scales has written in a recent review: 'It is a sign of interesting times when even the researchers at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica caution readers … against placing undue weight upon the written deposits of the medieval past.'
Many of the questions raised between the 1970s and the 1990s about the sturdy historical edifice erected by the founders of modern historical science (including the Monumentisten) can indeed be addressed in new and more exciting ways in a digital environment. For example, digital scholarly editions help us to do justice to the open, often anonymous transmission of texts typical of the Middle Ages. The digital environment is structurally bound to a textual model inherently based on variation: texts can be accessed from multiple channels and on different devices; they can be easily modified; and, most importantly, digital editions offer the possibility of deliberately displaying texts in multiple versions and formats. Hypertextuality allows the display of different textual variants in a non-hierarchical manner: the relationship between the (supposed) original version and the versions produced through the process of historical transmission can be displayed to the reader on an equal footing. A digital edition is much more capable of representing certain key features of medieval texts: medieval authors were often selecting, arranging and copying portions of existing materials, rather than simply ‘conceiving’ an original textual creation; the textual environment in which they operated was made up of inherently variable copies rather than ‘originals’ or ‘fixed texts’; the social meanings of texts produced by and addressed to specific groups and institutions, and instrumental in the construction of their identity as groups and institutions; the ambiguity and conflictual interests which could be displayed through the continuous acts of appropriation and modification inherent to the process of transmission.
Yet it is still not easy to fathom where the digital age will lead medieval historiography. It might be expedient to conclude on an open question: among medievalists, the impact of digital materials in general, and of digital scholarly editions in particular, is still remarkably low. With regard to the latter, Dot Porter’s surveys, conducted in 2002 and 2011, found (in 2011) that:
The results of my survey bear out the continued usefulness, or at least continued use, of print editions: medievalists are using print editions more than they are using digital editions, and the use of digital editions has not grown over the past nine years, as it has, for example, for digital journals.
A decade later, although a conspicuous number of new editions has continued to appear, their acceptance and actual use, as demonstrated by bibliographic evidence, are still uncertain. Several reasons have been proposed to explain this phenomenon: most prominent, from a user’s perspective, are probably the lack of standardized user interfaces and fixed versions of online resources. The latter makes citability highly problematic. Overall, it might be suggested that rather than the complete replacement of traditional editions that was once predicted, what new technology facilitates is the integration of additional tools and techniques different from those traditionally employed. In a word, new developments in the field are complementary rather than competitive with respect to traditional print data. In the 1980s the stacks of the recently established library of the University of Utrecht history department collapsed under the mighty weight of the MGH folio volumes. In the foreseeable future, libraries will still need to equip themselves with accessible, if sturdier, shelves: the MGH volumes are there to stay.