Little Red Riding Hood 2.0 - Part 1

By Lilo Berg

Whether the subject is fairytale research, linguistics or archaeology,
ever more humanities scholars are turning to Digital Humanities methods.
This produces new knowledge, but also opposition.

Illustration from the collection of fairy tales Les Contes de Perrault by Gustave Doré, Paris 1862
Illustration from the collection of
fairy tales Les Contes de Perrault
by Gustave Doré, Paris 1862

“Once upon a time there was a sweet little girl. Everyone who saw her liked her, but most of all her grandmother …” These are the opening words of “Rotkäppchen”, one of the most popular German fairy tales, most commonly known as “Little Red Riding Hood” in English. The first printed version in German was published 200 years ago. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm had heard and recorded the story along with many others that only existed as oral narratives at the time. In 1812, the brothers published their famous “Kinder- und Hausmärchen” (Children’s and Household Tales or Grimm’s Fairy Tales), new editions of which still appear to this day.

But as the Brothers Grimm themselves realised, Germany by no means had a monopoly on fairy tales. There were amazing parallels to be found in folklore narratives from Slavic countries, from Persia, Arabia and India. Motivated by the two philologists, people all over the world in the 19th century started collecting stories. This work produced a treasure trove of more than 2,000 fairy tales, including many that are similar to “Little Red Riding Hood”. Later researchers sorted the wealth of different versions into two main groups: a predominantly European type and a second type that differed from the European in that it did not focus on one girl but on several children. However, sceptical colleagues soon started questioning whether this division was really sound. Had the various types developed independently? Or did they all originate in an original archetype tale?

140 million books have been published to date.

“It’s the old issue of the family tree,” says Göttingen-based Germanist Gerhard Lauer who has done a lot of work on fairy tales. The Brothers Grimm posed the same question themselves, but lacked the over view and appropriate methods to find a satisfactory answer. One method that has generated a particularly original answer was found just recently – of which more anon. It is the product of a new research direction known as Digital Humanities or DH.

This discipline is gradually establishing itself in Germany, and Gerhard Lauer is one of its proponents. He used to conduct humanities research in the classic fashion with a pen and card indexes, but he now almost exclusively uses the computer-assisted tools and methods of the Digital Humanities. “It is now hardly any problem to analyse large amounts of data,” says the Göttingen literature scholar.

Roberto Busa at Yale University in 1956
Roberto Busa at Yale University
in 1956

Photo: see right column under
Roberto Busa

The movement began in the late 1940s when Father Roberto Busa embarked on a major project to produce a 56-volume edition of the works of Thomas Aquinas – with the help of computers. The Italian priest managed to achieve his goal faster than conventional means would have allowed. Germany’s first forays into computer-assisted research were made a few years later by a group headed by Wilhelm Ott at the University of Tübingen. However, the real impetus came in the 1990s with the World Wide Web, e-mail and high-performance computers, facilitated by ever simpler and cheaper internet access.

In the humanities it was the linguists and archaeologists who were the first to recognise the advantages of the new tools. In their disciplines, the digital conservation of texts and objects, and data-analysis are firmly established methods. But Arabic scholars, law scholars, art historians, sociologists, theologians and business information systems scientists, in fact, practically every kind of humanities scholar and social scientist is now getting a taste for it. They are experimenting with e-humanities methods, and some even refer to themselves as Digital Humanists.

18% of all the books ever published have been digitalised.

Largely unnoticed by the public, a huge digital workshop has come into existence in Germany where people scan, measure, save, plan and calculate for all they are worth. In Hamburg, literature scholar Jan Christoph Meister uses his own algorithms to trawl through a large collection of selected stories from the 19th century: He wants to know when the inner life started to play a role in literature. In Trier, mediaeval scholar Claudine Moulin scrutinises her digital treasure trove: It contains 500 of the most beautiful mediaeval manuscripts and is freely available to anyone, 24/7. In Berlin, archaeologist Reinhard Förtsch is in the process of digitally conserving threatened Syrian cultural heritage goods so that they can be restored more easily. In Leipzig, classicist Gregory Crane is considering how he can get more people interested in classical texts and his virtual translation lab. And in Würzburg, Germanist Fotis Jannidis uses computers to record the frequency of “we”, “you”, “they” and other everyday words in novels. As amazing as it may sound, information of this kind is sufficient to tell one novel from another and to ascribe unknown works to their authors.

Jetzt online verfügbar: reich verzierte Handschriften aus dem 11. bis 15. Jahrhundert
Now available online: richly-deco-
rated manuscripts from the 11th
to the 15th centuries

Illustrations: Trier Municipal Library
and Archives

“Germany plays an important role in the global DH scene,” says John Nerbonne. Until recently, the computer linguist and Humboldt Award Research Winner was President of the European Association for Digital Humanities and is one of the movement’s pioneers. In his research at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, he investigates how linguistic habits spread, and the current fate of European dialects. That they are declining comes as no surprise, but the speed with which this is happening is frightening: Nerbonne’s team has been able to show that in Sweden there has been a massive drop in the diversity of dialects in just over one single generation. The linguist greatly values the new opportunities to collaborate across disciplines and around the world and, of course, he uses methods deriving from mathematics and IT. In this way, he and his comparatively small team are able to evaluate enormous amounts of data in a short time. Actually, says John Nerbonne, working on a large scale is one of the main advantages of the Digital Humanities.

published in Humboldt Kosmos 102/2014
Gerhard Lauer
Professor Dr. Gerhard Lauer
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Photo: private

Fairy tales are just one of Gerhard Lauer’s many research themes. But whether the literature scholar is working on Franz Kafka or investigating the effect exciting books have on the brain, he always employs DH methods as well. As the founding director of the Göttingen Centre for Digital Humanities he and other institutions in the region have created the requisite infrastructure. For a number of years, young researchers from all over the world have homed in on Göttingen for the Digital Humanities Summer School, which takes place in August. What is it that attracts these junior researchers? “It’s a new departure, the long-overdue modernisation of the humanities,“ says the Professor of German, who took part in the Humboldt Foundation’s TransCoop Programme from 2006 to 2009.

Pater Roberto Busa
Father Roberto Busa
IItalian theologian (1913–2011)
Photo: see below

The Italian Jesuit Roberto Busa is considered the founding father of Digital Humanities. He was one of the first to recognise that computers could do more than just process numbers. In the late 1940s, he embarked on the monumental task of cataloguing all eleven million words in the works of the Doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas. Busa turned for help to Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM. That help was forthcoming and led to the publication of the 56-volume “Index Thomisticus” in 1980. The Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) awards the Roberto Busa Prize in memory of their pioneering forefather.

The images of Father Roberto Busa (above and left) are kindly made available under a Creative Commons CC -BY-NC license by permission of CIRCSE Research Centre, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy. For further information, or to request permission for reuse, please contact Marco Passarotti, on marco.passarotti(at)

Claudine Moulin
Professor Dr Claudine Moulin
Trier University
Photo: private

The 500 or so mediaeval manuscripts from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Matthias in Trier were scattered around many different locations. In the virtual scriptorium at Trier Center for Digital Humanities they are now gathered together and can be accessed by researchers at any time and in any place. Founded In 1998, Germany’s oldest centre of excellence in the Digital Humanities lies in the deep west of the Republic. This was where “The Digital Grimm” was produced, a digital edition of the famous “Deutsches Wörterbuch” (German Dictionary), interlinked with other dictionaries. Since 2003, the centre in Trier has been headed by Luxembourg-born Professor of German and Humboldt Host, Claudine Moulin, who is convinced that “Digital Humanities are the future of the humanities.”

John Nerbonne
Professor Dr John Nerbonne
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Photo: Elmer Spaargaren

Digital methods have something to offer nearly all subjects, says computer linguist and Humboldt Research Award Winner John Nerbonne. There are a few exceptions, in his opinion, such as sub-areas of image analysis due to the enormity of technical problems. In law, on the other hand, there will be a veritable Digital Humanities boom, the language researcher with Irish-American roots predicts. He has been working on computer-assisted methods for years and knows their potential and limits like no other. „Humanities scholars don‘t need to be afraid of being overrun by technology,“ says Nerbonne. „They know the relevant research questions and only they give meaning to Digital Humanities.“