PALAEOGRAPHY HAS OFTEN been considered, both by its practitioners and its critics, as something of an art, relying on the expertise of a small number of experienced scholars whose decision-making processes may be difficult or impossible to explain. As David Ganz notes, the consequence of this is that palaeographers are ‘all too often regarded as repositories of authoritative dogma’. Any such system for the transfer of knowledge depends, of course, on a combination of respect and trust, and should either of these waver, there is the potential for the relationship to be resented or to break down. Albert Derolez calls attention to this, observing that the discipline is in crisis due to a lack of transparency:
when an extremely experienced palaeographer declares that a given manuscript was written in Northern France in the first half of the thirteenth century, but fails to indicate the criteria on which this statement is based, he may be a perfect connoisseur, but he is not being an effective teacher. What is more, he unconsciously contributes to the present-day crisis of palaeography as a discipline.
One response to the perception of dependence on a few highly-skilled practitioners has been the development of computer-based methods of palaeography. However, the attendant problem with many such approaches is that they exchange the authority of the palaeographer for the authority of the computer, or so-called ‘black box’. In the hypothetical extreme, operators feed vast quantities of data into a computer and receive ‘answers’ but with little understanding of how these results were achieved, how to interpret them, or whether it is possible to refine the output. Although the reality is more nuanced than this, palaeographers grounded in traditional methodologies have sometimes been reluctant to accept findings from computer-based research even when the advantages of quantitative and statistical approaches seem clear.
With these issues in mind, the project team of the Digital Resource and Database for Palaeography, Manuscripts and Diplomatic (DigiPal) set out to offer a visible and replicable methodology to allow people to explore palaeographical data and to communicate their evidence and accompanying argument to a wider audience. Addressing the needs of both expert palaeographers and those with less specialised teaching and research interests in manuscript studies, DigiPal provides a web-based framework for annotating digital images, interrogating the data, and ordering and presenting the results.