The Pre-Modern Information Age

Bernardo Hinojosa

Like many young people, Bernardo Hinojosa went to Europe last summer. But rather than backpacking and seeing the sights, Bernardo engaged in a different kind of tourism: he traveled from library to library, looking at medieval manuscripts and documents. As a medievalist in training – he is currently in his fourth year of completing a joint PhD in English and Medieval Studies – Bernardo conducts primary research for his dissertation during the summer, when he is free to travel to Europe and explore various archives. In 2018, he attended the Pontifical Institute in Rome, where he completed a diploma in manuscript studies with the support of the Mellon Foundation and the English Department. The diploma consisted of two master classes. The first was titled “Reading Gothic Manuscripts from the 12th-15th centuries”; the second focused on editing primary texts. Doing this diploma enabled Bernardo not only to learn new scholarly techniques, but also to look at a large number of European manuscripts and scholarly projects that will be relevant to his dissertation research.

Since his undergraduate days as an English major at Columbia, Bernardo has been interested in information: how information is organized; where information appears; what happens to information over time; and how information technologies influence other cultural practices, like writing poetry. His dissertation, titled “The Premodern Database,” explores the development of strategies for managing information over the course of the Middle Ages. He is particularly interested in how those strategies influenced poets writing at the same time. For example, between the 8th and the 15th centuries, medieval manuscripts became much more searchable, thanks to techniques like alphabetization, indexing, and tables of contents, as well as the production of reference works, like dictionaries and concordances. It is easy to forget, from our post-digital perspective, that the book was once a new technology – and like all new technologies, it had bugs to work out. Early manuscripts were assembled in no particular order; as time went on, and new kinds of books came into being – like dictionaries and encyclopedias – writers and scribes began to invent ways to aid readers in navigating texts. Bernardo’s dissertation will explore how these new technologies influenced not only book production, but also vernacular poetry.