“All experts agree that is impossible to tell the difference between male and female scribes.” (Kwakkel, and Thompson, 2008)
Overall, little is known about the women who copied manuscripts. Scholars have argued, rightfully, that female and male scribes worked on the same texts, using similar scripts. But, unless they signed their work or used other clues, such as pronouns, it is commonly admitted that distinguishing men and women is impossible. What if this endeavour was achievable?
In my dissertation, I aim to recover the history of female scribes during the later Middle Ages by looking at their production and ways to identify them. To pursue this scholarship, I will draw on methods from history, art history alongside the digital humanities. My dissertation will build on the research agenda that I have developed over my time as Assistant Researcher at Louvre Abu Dhabi. With Dr. David Wrisley (New York University Abu Dhabi), we developed the “Paris Bible Project”, which examines machine reading abbreviations using handwritten text recognition (HTR) to understand if the spelling and abbreviation of words in manuscripts can be added to the list of scribal habits and distinctive features for localization or dating purposes. Our results showed that, indeed, they can be used as a way to create scribal profiles. This methodology, developed at the intersection of medieval studies and digital humanities, can be used for other prolific traditions in any language but could also be refined to highlight differences between male and female scribes, creating new profiles for women.
Using pre-existing work, particularly the influential one of Alison Beach about female scribes in Germany, I wish to use automatically transcribed texts with HTR and techniques such as stylometry, principal component analysis and other computational analysis to find patterns and create specific female scribal profiles. Starting with convents’ collections, which have unfortunately been understudied to this date (Beach, 2004; Cyrus 2009; Sigmon, 2011), I hope to identify new manuscripts that can be attributed to women in libraries and archives collections, to understand not only who produced manuscripts but the context and reasons behind such production. Ultimately, I also wish to explore to what extent women collaborated with men to write and illuminate manuscripts.