Even with in-person commencement activities canceled, the staff at the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH) is gearing up to celebrate Princeton’s undergraduate class of 2020.
From May 4 to May 22 (5 pm), CDH is accepting nominations for the Center for Digital Humanities Senior Thesis Prize, which recognizes work that substantially engages with or contributes to the field of digital humanities. Departments are invited to nominate up to two seniors for the award. More information about the award is available here.
Last year’s prize went to Michael Tummarello ’19, who earned a degree in English with a certificate in Applications of Computing. In his thesis, “Rebuilding The Ruin: Reconstructing the Lost Lines of an Old English Elegy,” Tummarello uses an algorithm to predict the content of a destroyed section of text in The Ruin, an Old English poem about the collapse of a once-bustling city.
Tummarello opens his thesis by orienting readers to the Old English language and to the Exeter Book, the manuscript that contains the only extant copy of the elegy. As Tummarello explains, the final fourteen leaves of the Exeter Book were likely damaged by the flames of a fallen torch, obscuring parts of The Ruin and other poems and riddles in the manuscript and creating a centuries-old mystery.
Tummarello proceeds by transcribing and translating The Ruin, adding footnotes that engage with the complexities of the text and the richness of its Old English language. The close reading that follows grapples with what Tummarello calls the “three distinct time settings” of the poem, as the poet describes the city in its days of prosperity, during its collapse, and years after its destruction.
Bright were the city’s halls, many the bath-houses,
sublime the gable-treasures, great the throng-din,
many the mead-halls filled with human joys,
until fate the inexorable changed that.
The slain fell widely, days of pestilence came...
From Tummarello's free translation of The Ruin
Chapters 2 and 3 turn to the project’s central question: whether digital tools can help us reconstruct the missing parts of the text, shedding light on the poem. In Chapter 2, Tummarello details how he applies a Markov model to predict a damaged section of The Ruin. In Chapter 4, he evaluates the possible “solutions” produced by the algorithm, using his knowledge of Old English grammar and alliteration to provide a (very) educated guess about the content of the destroyed section.
He closes by considering the promise and pitfalls of his methodology, offering observations that resonate with those of us who do the work of digital humanities:
“Even though a great deal of traditional literary work was still required in the end, the algorithm helped in a meaningful way. Of course, it hardly bears mentioning that the reverse is also true: the algorithm alone would have been of little help had I no critical literary understanding of The Ruin or no sense of Old English. My reconstruction was only made possible by the combination of the two disciplines….”
We are excited to read work by this year’s seniors!
Note: Homepage carousel image of the Exeter Book is from the University of Arizona Library Special Collections.