Digital Humanities Hands-On Student Projects

UNIQ+ Project: ‘An A.B.C. for Chyldren’

For the five weeks of our UNIQ+ internship, the text that I have been working to encode is ‘An A.B.C. for Chyldren’, a sixteen-page pamphlet which (ambitiously) aims to teach people to read and write both English and Latin in just six weeks. Although the author of the document is anonymous, we do know that this edition was produced in 1561 and was printed in London by ‘Ihon Kyng’. This little pamphlet stands out from its fellows in Queen’s College Sel.d.81 due to its pedagogical priorities, meaning that it falls outside of the explicitly religious purposes that define the other documents.

With some of the context out of the way, we can now move on to the aims and features of my project. With input from Freya Mugford (UNIQ+ intern) and our supervisors Mary Newman and Sebastian Dows-Miller, it was decided that producing two digital editions of the pamphlet would be the best move. The first would be a highly diplomatic edition of the text, seeking to replicate the original as closely as possible. The aim was to create a resource that could be used by scholars studying the history of the English language and of English education.

With this target audience in mind, I decided to maintain all of the original symbols, abbreviations and characters that could be found in the pamphlet, as well as replicating all of the passages and phrases in Latin that are scattered throughout it. Additionally, all of the hundreds of syllable combinations provided by the author were tagged – a laborious task, but one that will allow scholars to search, filter and analyse them to gain insight into the relationship between spoken and written English in the 16th century. For much the same purpose, Freya also marked and categorised the rhymes that occur in the author’s explanation of spelling and pronunciation, providing some extra searchability and potential for data analysis. 

Encoded syllables

One of the more difficult aspects of the digitisation process was reproducing the layout of the original text while still producing code that would be compatible with the Taylor Editions website. The changing between columns and prose was mimicked using a combination of <div> and <cb> elements. This solution is imperfect because <div> elements are required at the end of every page, meaning that the flow of paragraphs and lines can be interrupted and extra code has to be inserted to highlight where they span more than one page. It does, however, effectively replicate the column format for the digital reader to see.

Despite loyalty to the original text being the main focus of the first digital edition, I also took some steps to clear up the potential uncertainties that stem from the pamphlet’s original budget production. Luckily, as I was carrying out a little bit of research into the background of the pamphlet, I came across a 1570 edition of the same text held at Trinity College Dublin. Where there are misprints and smudges in the Queen’s 1561 version, I included short notes explaining what is contained at the same point in the later edition, supplying the reader with additional contextual information without intrusively modifying the original text. 

An example footnote

The second planned edition of ‘An A.B.C. for Chyldren’ would be a simplified, critical edition. The goal here was to produce a tool that would make the pamphlet more accessible to younger readers, particularly schoolchildren. In the best-case scenario, this might help the text regain some of its educational value in a twenty-first century context or at the very least would help those unfamiliar with Early Modern English get to grips with the oddities of 16th century writing.

Creating such a digital edition required significant changes to the pamphlet: the orthography was reworked, abbreviations were removed, and extra translations for Latin passages were added. We still felt, however, that this would not be sufficient to ensure that pupils could gain something of value from the A.B.C. – the spelling may have been clearer, but much of the language used by the 16th century author would be too archaic or technical to understand. Rather than remove and replace these difficult passages, I chose to add critical footnotes which provide definitions of the words that might trip up schoolchildren. Hopefully, this compromise will ensure both that the text keeps its Tudor character and that it is not beyond the reading capabilities of today’s young readers.

Diplomatic edition
Critical edition

Looking beyond UNIQ+ and to the coming months, I believe that there are still a few additions that could be made to the project. The coding side is largely completed, with the short length of the text and its relatively simple subject matter enabling me to reach the varying goals for the digital editions within the scope of our five-week internship. As for the background and context side of the project though, I think that there is some room for expansion. Blog posts exploring the interaction between the pamphlet and contemporary ideas of education and comparing the differences and similarities between the 1561 and 1570 editions of ‘An A.B.C. for chyldren’ would make for an informative and accessible way to round off work on the newly digitised pamphlet.

The UNIQ+ programme has been a wonderful experience and has given me new skills to play with while also providing real insight into postgraduate teaching and research. I am extremely grateful to all of the staff and students at Oxford who have offered their help and guidance along the way.

Robbie Spiers is one of this year’s interns with the History of the Book. He studied Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge and is hoping to pursue a career in academia in the future.

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