Reconstructing and Performing Texts Digitally

By Samuel Rowe

Traduttore, traditore, goes the Italian saying. [1] Modern scholarship often seeks accuracy, the original of something: historical ‘truth’. Performing a text in an ancient language to bring us closer to the past falls within this desire – but the realities of reconstucting historical texts are often more complicated.

The idea of reconstructing historical texts through performance is older than it might seem. In the 1960s, Hans Ørberg gave a reading of his Latin-language book Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata in classical pronunciation. The fictional text was meant to serve as a crash-course in the language, and was close to the classical reconstruction. However, Ørberg also took creative liberties, avoiding the complexities of Latin vowel length, and was sometimes betrayed by his native Danish. After his reading from Lingua Latina, Ørberg moved on to excerpts from authentic classical texts: an attempt to access to the audiovisual past through careful reconstruction which may be of even greater interest to historians.

In recent years, academic reconstructions of historical texts have increasingly found a home on digital media. The medieval and renaissance reconstructions of Catalan composer Jordi Savall, for example, can be found on Youtube. Particular attention is often given in these reconstructions to how words should be sung and with what phonology, usually assisted by scholarly works such as Tim McGee’s Singing Early Music. Another composer, Vincent Dumestre, has worked in tandem with thespians (Théâtre de l’incrédule) who themselves have reconstructed Baroque declamation to give near-authentic performances of early modern French plays, most notably Le Bourgeois Imaginaire. David and Ben Crystal, similarly, have elaborated an oral reconstruction for Shakespeare’s plays, although they simplify the texts to a single London lect due to various constraints. [2] Another performer of note is Benjamin Bagby, part of some of these musical consorts, but also in his own right the only person to have memorised a third of Béowulf, in Old English, and performed it on a lyre to a live audience (available digitally). Few have gone as far as Bagby or the Théâtre in reconstructing actual gestural performance and tone.

Modern YouTubers, usually with some sort of training or academic degree in linguistics, have also come to the centre stage as people’s viewing habits change and new generations seek educational content online. One might think of ScorpioMartianus, Simon Roper and A. Z. Foreman, who focus on accurate reconstructions of medieval and modern European languages. For Asian and African linguistics, there’s also MinervaScientia, who produces more speculative content across fascinating array of videos.

Reconstructing performance and phonology comes with limits and pitfalls, however. By its very nature, choices, interpretations and even guesses must be made, as the evidence is rarely as specific as it would need to be to be completely accurate. Some major issues include the fact that we lack a standardised (or often, any) way of indicating what sounds written texts represent. We have no audio recordings from before Thomas Edison’s 1877 phonograph cylinder, and gestures and declamation were typically transmitted orally and rarely recorded in texts. This lack of date makes reconstructions tentative and performance difficult. Linguistic reconstruction also involves making choices around unsolved debates, such as the precise value of the Anglo-Saxon sound represented in writing by ⟨ea⟩. [3]

Finally comes the issue which the Crystals ran into – the hyperspecificity of context. Reading Jean Valjean’s voice ‘authentically’ in Les Misérables, for example, would require playing the part of a lower-class Briard who spent two decades in a southern French prison and is now impersonating an upper-class northerner. These three criteria would all influence his dialect and be required to create authenticity. Indeed, dialects are incredibly specific to periods, places, idiosyncrasies and individual, personal development. Alfred Dreyfus, as a middle-aged, middle-class Alsatian in 1912, would inevitably have spoken differently to an upper-class Parisian child twenty years prior. This makes phonological reconstruction much harder than other forms of reconstructed performance. Other forms, however, provide their own difficulties: how can one sing the Song of Roland when none of the music has survived? The accompanying melodies would have to be completely invented.

In short, reconstructing and performing historical texts is one of the many ways historians and the public alike can experience the past in a new way, including digitally. It allows us to empathise with the past and our sources. It is difficult to do so in any true authentic way – in regards to phonology and intonation, but also body language. However, it is worth doing as a legitimate way to transport us to the past – a means of empathising more with the people we study and their audiovisual world that goes beyond the few surviving texts. Done carefully, it can appeal to audiences in academia and the general public more than historical fiction or re-enactment – which typically employ a greater number of sacrifices to accuracy for the sake of entertainment when they reconsruct historical lives and culture.


[1] ‘The translator is a traitor’, or, literally, ‘Translator, traitor’.

[2] A lect or sociolect is a manner of speaking tied to a particular social or cultural group. For London in the 16th century, there were 3-4 specific ones largely tied to class-related factors.

[3] Enclosing letters in angle brackets is the standard way linguists represent graphemes (units of speech represented in writing).


Further Reading

  • Dustagheer, Sarah, Oliver Jones and Eleanor Rycroft, ‘(Re)constructed Spaces for Early Modern Drama: Research in Practice’, Shakespeare Bulletin 35 (2017), 173–185.
  • Farah Karim-Cooper, The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
  • Fox, Anthony, ‘Phonological Reconstruction’, in The Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology, eds. Patrick Honeybone and Joseph Salmons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1–26.
  • Krasukhin, Konstantin G., ‘Methods in reconstruction’, in Handbook of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Linguistics, vol. 1, eds. Jared Klein, Brian Joseph, Matthias Fritz and Mark Wenthe (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 15–20.
  • Mason, Joseph W., ‘Performing medieval song’, TORCH (11/07/2019). [www.torch.ox.ac.uk/article/performing-medieval-song].
  • McGee, Timothy J., Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 2004).
  • Smith, James K., ‘Contemporary performances of medieval mystery plays: The effect of mentalities on performance’, Master’s Thesis, University of Arizona (2014).

Image credits:

Free to use under Wikimedia Commons, accessible at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fc/Actor_with_a_mask%2C_red-figure_pottery%2C_Taranto%2C_350-340_BC%2C_Klas05.jpg/1024px-Actor_with_a_mask%2C_red-figure_pottery%2C_Taranto%2C_350-340_BC%2C_Klas05.jpg


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