During the last semester, I have taught an undergraduate course (Übung) at the Universität Tübingen together with my great colleague Johanna Jebe. The aim of the course was to introduce students to the study of medieval history in general and the study of medieval manuscripts in particular. In this post, I will try to give some insights into the structure of the course, our ideas behind it, and its final result.

Supernatural communication

A shortage of history courses, or even courses in medieval history, is not a problem that we have to deal with in Tübingen. For that reason, it can sometimes be difficult to get enough student interested in the subject you’re planning to teach. We figured that a course dealing with exorcism might be appealing, just because it is mostly unknown and also a bit scary. In addition, it also covered many of the ideas they probably already had about the Middle Ages; a time where people were convinced that demons existed and were prone to all kinds of superstitious beliefs. By framing exorcism as ‘supernatural communication’ we were able to make the scope of the course a bit broader and also include things such as the cult of saints, liturgy and even medicine.

The course was divided into three parts. The first part was meant to introduce the students to our central theme in general terms. We had three classes during which we discussed the Lebens- and Denkwelten of medieval people and the role supernatural communication played in their lives. Here we talked about the boundaries between the natural and supernatural, but also peasants navigating everyday life alongside treacherous saints and demons.1 The last of the three classes we used to discuss the use of the terms superstitio or Aberglauben and how these are rhetorical devices used to this day. The students seemed to find this part of the course difficult, as most texts were long, often in English and confronted them with things that were completely new to them. We more or less expected as much and therefore decided to switch it up for the second part.

Manuscript studies and digital editions

Besides introducing the study of medieval history, an Übung is meant to learn you something new and bring it into practice (hence the name). In this case, we decided that this would be the study of manuscripts and basic digital editorial techniques (XML and TEI).2 The second part of the course consisted of classes on palaeography, codicology and digital editing, after which we examined three short snippets of text. Each snippet represented some form of supernatural communication (an exorcism, blessing and charm) in Latin that the students had to transcribe, translate and encode in teams.

This part of the course was a lot of fun, as we were working with actual source material, but also difficult due to the widely varying prior knowledge that students had. Everyone can basically attend an Übung, which means that you have students who can read Latin without any issues but also those who have never seen any written Latin in their life. We tried to compensate for this by mixing up the teams for every assignment, which worked fine in most instances but not everyone was equally excited about the different assignments.

For the introduction to digital editing, I prepared two blog posts which explained the basics of TEI-Publisher and provided some kind of reference work for encoding. Both were quite useful because we didn’t have to go over everything in class. The students could practice at home first, making a small change to an existing XML file, and we could continue from there in class. In my experience, it made working with XML a lot less intimidating for those who have never seen or worked with a code editor (see below).

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Joint project: website and edition

The last leg of the course was putting together all the material from the previous two parts. We figured that it would be fun to present some of the material that was produced during the course on a website, which would otherwise end up in some cloud storage folder and never be looked at again. Additionally, as Übungen don’t require a grade (they only require a pass or a fail), the website project made it easier to assess the students’ participation as well.

In a series of classes, students were asked to write short texts about the Lebens- and Denkwelten and superstitio we had discussed at the beginning, using literature we read during the course but also adding new material themselves, again with the purpose of practising such skills. The texts were integrated into a website that I built. At the same time, we corrected the transcriptions and translations for them to use in the edition. The code the students produced was merged (for the most part) by one of them who was doing a master’s in digital humanities. He integrated the transcriptions and translations into the edition as well. In the end, this saved me a lot of time. The final project is found here and consists of a website (hosted by me) and an edition (kindly hosted by the Universität Tübingen).

Due to my work on the Salomon project, I was able to salvage a lot of parts of that project and save again a lot of time. I don’t think it would have been possible otherwise, as teaching comes on top of my normal workload. Regardless, it was a great experience to teach this group of students and I would certainly do it again!

If you’re interested, I wrote about the Salomon project and making an edition using TEI-Publisher in more detail on this blog.

  1. References to useful literature you can find on the website at the end of each category. ↩︎

  2. To let all students work simoutaneously on their tiny ’editions’, I ran a Docker image with TEI-Publisher that held individual files for each student which they could access using their login details. At first I wanted to let them run Docker on their own machines and then use oXygen XML Editor, but this didn’t work out because the database used for TEI-Publisher doesn’t run on ARM processors (i.e. new Macbooks). In the end, this was the easiest and best solution. ↩︎