Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and Early Medieval Studies in the Late age of Print, Part 2

This blog post is a continuation of a book review on Martin Foys’ monograph Virtually Anglo-Saxon: Old Media, New Media, and the Late Age of Print.” Part 1 can be found here.

Chapter 3, “Hypertextile: Closure and the Missing End of the Bayeux Tapestry,” closely reads and charts a reception history of the Bayeux Tapestry, emphasizing the hyperstructure of the Tapestry: a tapestry that tells a story of space and time as much as an event; its diachronic and alinear ontology suggests it resists our modern notions of beginning and end. These notions, strongly brought on by the long number of print editions of the Bayeux Tapestry, seem to anticipate beginnings and ends that are not attested to as strongly in the fabric itself. Like Foys’ chapter on Anselm, the Tapestry in its hyperreal state becomes a hypertext: a text about its own structure and ‘missing linkages’ or “sequential navigation yet nonlinear” (101-2); a text about a text. The Tapestry offers inconclusivity, and by doing so becomes a story not about William the Conqueror’s coronation alone, but more importantly, about the medium of production itself. This, like Anselm’s work, becomes a story about medium rather than a story about narrative. Questions of unity and closure surface as Foys surveys the Tapestry’s curatorial history and its editions in print after a codicological description, finally offering New Historicist, postmodern, and poststructural readings that help us in “understanding the medieval as digital” (109). Foys carefully offers a nuanced solution for viewing the Tapestry: in ever-changing and molding forms in a digital edition (stemming from his doctoral work).

In Chapter 4, “The Virtual Reality of the Anglo-Saxon Mappamundi,” we receive a mélange of similar explanations for seeing the medieval as digital once more with maps, only with a distinct connection to Virtual Reality (VR). Drawing again on the notion of hypperreality and hypertext, Foys first introduces and explains Anglo-Saxons’ national, theological and ontological worldview through the map in MS Cotton Tiberius B.V, fol. 56v, or, the Cotton Map. Like VR, “maps [of this kind] present a mosaic, alinear experience, much like digital expression” (133) and offer quite the challenge for modern readers. Aptly, Boys takes pains to explain that the Cotton Map presents competing narratives of geographic versus representational desire, two realities that must be viewed simultaneously. Foys walks the reader through some very bizarre place names on the map in accordance to Old Testament history with other cartographic sources medieval map makers often used, and here used as well (including Orosius and traditions from Ptolemy). All in all, like VR, the Cotton Map and others represent hybrid hyperreality that “cannot be pinpointed in the tangible world” (118), as they are, like video games or and Oculus Rift, “not wholly in the computer or in the mind of the user…we move in environments of our own making.”

Foys’ last chapter, Chapter 5, “Cyberspace, Sculpture, and the Revision of Medieval Space,” reminded me of hearing Daniel Paul O’Donnel‘s talk at NC State University on The Visionary Cross, an international project aimed at creating a digital edition of the Ruthwell Cross and others linked to texts and artifacts of the “Cult of the Cross”: “the Ruthwell and Bewcastle standing stone crosses, the Brussels Reliquary Cross and the “Vercelli Book” copy of the “Dream of the Rood” and “Elene” poems.” In short, O’Donnel and his team took high resolution images of the Ruthwell Cross for the three-dimensional component of the overall project. In Chapter 5, Foys shows us that the Nunburnholme Cross needs this same treatment because of its layered and varying artistic history, a history that scant print editions cannot represent. Digital space is “rhizomic” and can offer variant constructions of the cross in multiple forms. For Foys, “one might design a “chronobar” for a sliding scale of construction, one that begins with a Roman column and ends with a church wall” (187). In this way, the artifact can adequately receive a capturing of its complex history.

In Foys’ “Epilogue: For All Practical Purposes: Medieval Studies in a New Media Age,” he rightly acknowledges that his monograph points out the interiorized and insular methodologies print has given us when capturing medieval expression, while also participating in that same activity of linear progression. He offers a short survey of the most innovative and interesting examples of projects in Anglo-Saxon studies that attempt Level Four Information, or Foucualt’s heterotopia–including Patrick O’Connor’s 1990 Beowulf Workstation , Keirnan’s Electronic Beowulf, Frantzen’s 1992 Seafarer, and Fontes Anglo-Saxonici, to name a few. More importantly, Foys poses the question of “how do we go from here?” To answer this, he looks oddly to remediation: Computers and Medieval Data Processing (CAMDAP)’s work was at its outset much like the production of incunabula in how they closely mimicked manuscripts. He reviews TEI standards, takes from Landow’s “Hyper / Text / Theory,” among other theorists of the “docuverse” and other projects for archival merit such as the Middle English Dictionary (and since then, projects like the Old English Dictionary Online and Piers Plowman archive, to name even more). In a significant way, Foys presents a new look in real ways to how we can not just extend what we do, but in how we can invent.

To be continued in Part 3: “Not to “Extend”, but to “Invent”: My Explorations in Working on the Aelfric Scriptorium.”