New research project to lay foundations for next generation of Old and Middle English scholarship

Posted on: 15 September 2022

A new interdisciplinary project, which will facilitate the next generation of research in Old and Middle English, has received funding from the Irish Research Council (IRC) under the COALESCE programme.

Image from The Book of St Albans, Trinity College Dublin

Alban, sentenced to death, is dragged out of the Roman city of Verulamium in chains, a pagan citizen pushing him and saying (in English) ‘Ga Ga ure castrisse foa’, “Go, go, enemy of our city’. From the Book of St Albans (Dublin, Trinity College, MS. 177, fol. 36r), produced between 1230 and 1260.

Entitled ‘Searobend: Linked Metadata for English-Language Texts, 1000-1300’, the project will use techniques from computer science to link fifteen major resources for the study of English texts from the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300).

The two-year research project based at the School of English and SFI ADAPT Centre will shed fresh light on how many of these precious manuscripts and texts survive from this period and what proportion are available digitally. This will considerably enhance the utility of these resources for scholars and will facilitate the next generation of research on this formative period of literary, linguistic and cultural history.

A public engagement strand of the project aimed at schoolchildren, undergraduates and community groups will assist non-specialists to access the available texts and public domain translations.

Commenting on the announcement Principal Investigator of the Searobend project Mark Faulkner, Ussher Assistant Professor in Medieval Literature, School of English, said:

“This funding will have major impacts for both experts and the public. It will help scholars visualise just how much English writing survives from the period between 1000 and 1300, and it will make these works infinitely more accessible to the public, who, thanks to the digitisation of manuscripts by Trinity and other institutions, can access them more easily than ever before.”

“By using linked data technologies from Computer Science, we can quickly join together, compare, enrich and present important information about these texts and manuscripts that at present are very difficult to find. This international collaboration will help Ireland fulfil a number of goals regarding access to cultural heritage under the National Development Plan and UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Declan O’Sullivan, Professor in Computer Science and Principal Investigator at the SFI ADAPT centre in the School of Computer Science and Statistics, added:

“The Searobend project provides a unique and exciting opportunity for us to deploy and develop cutting edge research in the Linked Data area of computer science in collaboration with our Humanities colleagues. The complexity and scale of the metadata involved provides unique challenges that we are eager to address”.

More about the Searobend project:

The Middle Ages saw a considerable quantity of writing in English, with perhaps five million words surviving from the eleventh century alone. Much of this material is available online, but at present it requires considerable expertise to know where. Nor is it clear what is not available digitally. Indeed, scholars do not at present have a firm grasp of how much English was written in many centuries or regions.

The Searobend project – which takes its name from an Old English word meaning ‘clever linkage’ – will use techniques from computer science to link fifteen major resources for the study of English texts from the High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300), making much clearer how much survives and what proportion of this is available digitally, considerably enhancing the utility of these resources for scholars and facilitating the next generation of research on this formative period of literary, linguistic and cultural history.

It will also bring significant benefits for non-specialists approaching the medieval period, including schoolchildren, undergraduates and community groups, by reducing the sometimes confusing variety of names by which some works are known and providing basic information about each, including links to public domain translations. The project will thereby give users enthused by the rich array of recently digitised medieval manuscripts a ready way into what the texts they contain actually say, facilitating those users to engage more deeply with these manuscripts.

It will thus address Irish and international challenges around the facilitation of public access to national library collections, the safeguarding of our textual heritage and our understanding of cultural diversity, providing a blueprint for future text-focused pre-modern projects to address these challenges.

Searobend is one of 21 research projects to receive a total investment of €4.9 million under the IRC’s COALESCE programme awards. This is the fourth cycle of COALESCE, which funds excellent research addressing national and European-global challenges across a number of strands.

The IRC funds a strand unique in the Irish research funding landscape in supporting interdisciplinary projects led by an AHSS (Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences) researcher working in collaboration with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) researcher to address national or global societal challenges. A full list of the successful projects announced by the IRC today can be found here.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Dr Louise Callinan, Director of the Irish Research Council, said:

“The aims of the COALESCE programme strongly align with the commitments in Impact 2030, Ireland’s Research and Innovation Strategy, to drive interdisciplinary research underpinned by research excellence to maximise the impact on the grand challenges we face. We are delighted that through our continued partnerships with different Government departments and agencies we are able to support collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects that respond to current priorities and policy needs.”

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