CHWP B.12 Lancashire, "English Renaissance Knowledge Base"

1. A Renaissance Knowledge Base

A Renaissance knowledge base (RKB), designed as a computer-searchable library of kernel electronic texts, is being designed at Toronto to assist in the study of the English Renaissance, a period conventionally beginning with the victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 and ending with the English Commonwealth, the execution of Charles I and the close of the London theatres in the 1640s. RKB serves students of Renaissance drama, literature and history, especially in English studies. This intended audience determines how RKB should be tagged. Unlike a linguistic corpus, for example, RKB need not have morphological, part-of-speech and syntactic tags, but its literary-historical purpose requires all places, names and titles to be encoded. If we think of literary history as a quasi-grammatical system, then people, places and titles are its 'parts of speech', and events and dates are the syntax that binds people, places and titles into sequences. Because a text archive or repository normally includes any texts, whether tagged or not, the phrase "text database" better describes RKB. Databases, after all, are structured and selective.

There are well over 30,000 different works in the Short-Title Catalogue (STC) of printed books from 1475 to 1640, and many more manuscripts surviving from this period, catalogued by major libraries, the Historical Manuscripts Commission and government record offices. Putting even 5% of this material into machine-readable form would be an imposing task, but a much smaller reference collection of seminal books of the period would still go far to advance research.

How will the RKB be used? Students and researchers will be able to do interactive concordances of any word-form, word, group of words, tag, or phrase and so follow a hypertextual trail from one work to others. These citation lists can help a researcher trace the history of a topic, understand word meaning, and determine streams of influence. There will also be stylistic applications of the data, but the main purpose will probably be to gloss or comment on works by major authors.

The RKB kernel[2] consists of the following:

  1. works of major literary authors, such as Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Milton, etc.;[3]
  2. non-literary books, especially prose documents such as scripture (bibles, prayer books, liturgies, etc.), sermons, chronicles, encyclopedias, dictionaries and theological and legal works that embody the thought of the period.
Because the kernel consists of full texts, not samples, the database structure must support an adequate description of early books and manuscripts, especially features such as contractions and brevigraphs, textual variants, and marginalia. The first set of works is heavily figurative, but the second defines or uses the English language less figuratively and so provides an essential background to understand the play on meaning so typical of poetry and drama. Such prose texts, abounding with references to people, places, titles, and events, also form an important part of the RKB kernel.[4]

Among the most important of these prose works are the dictionaries of the period. Because the first English table of words, A table alphabeticall by Robert Cawdrey, appeared only in 1604 and restricted itself to only 2543 hard words, English scholars have to recover contemporary information about word meaning either from definitions appearing within books, or from small glossaries such as Cawdrey's, many of which have been analyzed by Gabriele Stein and the late Jürgen Schäfer (1989). Yet a third source of lexicographical information exists: the bilingual dictionaries that served Englishmen of the Renaissance as reference books in understanding French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and other languages.

I have chosen five such dictionaries for the kernel:

  1. John Palsgrave's Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (French-English; 1530; STC 19166);
  2. The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot (Latin-English; 1538; STC 7659);
  3. Thomas Thomas' Dictionarium linguæ Latinæ et Anglicanæ (Latin-English; 1587; STC 24008);
  4. Randle Cotgrave's A dictionarie of the French and English tongues (French-English; 1611; STC 5830);
  5. John Florio's Italian-English A worlde of wordes (Italian-English; 1611; STC 11098).
There are larger dictionaries than these, such as Thomas Cooper's Latin-English one, and there may be better ones for some purposes, but the five kernel dictionaries all use substantial English sentences in explaining or translating foreign-language terms, influenced contemporary English readers, and contributed much to The Oxford English Dictionary. They are an ideal semantic background for the language of major English authors.

One difficulty that has prevented scholars from using them thoroughly has been their organization. Cotgrave's dictionary entries (though not Palsgrave's) are alphabetically listed by the foreign-language lemma. A text-retrieval program that could search these five books structured as one electronic text database would be able to extract all foreign-language lemmas, and their entries, in the explanations of which a queried English word was employed. Since several of these dictionaries cite and translate foreign-language phrases and proverbial expressions, the database also gives thousands of sentence pairs in which English words are used and translated in context.

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[2] Some of these texts have been deposited in the Oxford Text Archive.

[3] Chadwyck-Healey has promised a full-text collection of 4500 volumes of poetry by major authors up to the 20th century, and publishers such as Oxford University Press have begun a series of electronic texts.

[4] From the scholar's viewpoint, RKB might be characterized principally as the second set because commercial publishers are unlikely to issue those individually. Unlike works by major authors, the reference texts have seldom been published in modern critical editions amenable to optical scanning.