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Paper: Medical Case Studies on Renaissance Melancholy: Online Publication Project

Suciu, Radu, Université Paris-Diderot France , risuciu@gmail.com


This paper presents the intermediary results of our ongoing research project at the Université Paris-Diderot as part of a post-doctoral bursary awarded by the Mayor of Paris’s Research in Paris 2010 program. The project aims at combining traditional research methods (research, annotation and publication of early modern texts and documents) with open source tools and standards (Omeka, Zotero, TEI), with the goal of publishing an online encyclopedia of case studies on medicine and melancholy in the late Renaissance.

Historical Background

The principal research question asked is: how did the Renaissance physician position himself in relation to his patient, and how does he attempt to document his ‘clinical’ experiences in writing? The case histories of those suffering from melancholy are instrumental in understanding this issue: tormented by various hallucinations and deliria, the melancholy see what is not there and live in a world of strange delusion, variously believing that they have no head, or are made of brick, or of butter, and so forth. The patient who famously believed his body to have been transformed into butter feared even approaching the oven (an awkward situation since his line of work was in baking bread), while yet another was convinced he was missing one leg, bitten off by an imaginary crocodile. Cases such as these are at the heart of our research: we have examined not only early modern medical documents, but also many important collections of commonplace books in our search for case studies, patient descriptions, medical observations, and so-called ‘curative epistles’.

Online Publication of the Research Materials

Rather than a traditional publication in print, the results are being progressively published online with the aid of a number of open source tools. The principal aims of this paper are to present the various preparatory research stages, the choices made in implementing the digital methods and tools, and finally to reflect on the evolution of the project in the years to come.

Methods and Tools: TEI Transcription, Omeka, Zotero Integration

This project uses the TEI recommendations for the transcription and the encoding of early modern medical texts. The TEI has been demonstrated to be the most comprehensive way of transcribing rich, complex texts by a number of major projects See for example the ongoing Transcribe Bentham: A Participatory Initiative. Available at: http://www.transcribe-bentham.da.ulcc.ac.uk/td/Transcribe_Bentham [Accessed October 4, 2010].. TEI documents are then stored in an online database that uses and adapts the open source CMS Omeka Omeka is a project of the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University. Available at: http://omeka.org/about/ [Accessed March 10, 2011]., now a standard tool for the creation of online repositories of documents and virtual exhibitions. We shall present the way in which we have used and adapted Omeka’s plugins and themes. We shall also discuss the metadata structuring choices we have made. Since this is handled directly by Omeka, it facilitates the creation of an OAI repository, which can be made directly accessible to data-harvesters See the forthcoming ‘Isidore’ developed by the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS): ISIDORE - Accès aux données et services numériques de SHS. Available at: http://www.rechercheisidore.fr/ [Accessed March 10, 2011]. and eases integration with research management applications such as Zotero.

Conclusion: Putting the University Database on Virtual Exhibition

The textual documents transcribed and added via the Omeka database are to be accompanied by critical annotations, literary transpositions or references and by a collection of images or an index of commonplaces. The website, unlike a scholarly publication, will be more easily accessible and reach a wider audience, while the database, making use of Web 2.0 technologies, will function as a virtual exhibition, an online ‘cabinet of curiosities’, allowing readers to interact with, comment on and contribute to the published materials. With this in mind, the ultimate aim of this digital humanities project is to generate a broader interest in early modern research and history by focusing on melancholy, a subject that has never ceased to influence and inform disciplines from medicine to literature.

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