The “Edition”

Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.
Electronic editions allow us to explore texts in new ways. The OSEO is only one example of how technology can re-animate scholarly work.

Kenneth Price, author of the article “Electronic Scholarly Editions”, states that with new developments in electronic editing we may have to ability to view all versions, or editions, of certain texts side by side (Price, 2012). This would allow scholars to compare and contrast the various editions of a particular text and essentially to engage closer with the text itself.

As a student studying Medieval to Renaissance literature the many editions available of Sir Gowther, a moderately short, anonymous Middle English romance, caught my attention. Often cited as an adaptation of the late twelfth century French poem Robert the Devil, Robert le Diable, it tells the story of the life of Sir Gowther from birth to death.

The tale of Sir Gowther can be found in two manuscripts dating from the late-fifteenth century; that of the British Library Royal MS 17.B.43 and also the National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. The romance in both manuscripts is composed of twelve-line, tale rhyme stanzas; however both versions of Sir Gowther differ from one another slightly (Laskaya and Salisbury, 1995).

The British Library Royal manuscript, which scholars highlight was perhaps intended for a more sophisticated and refined audience, excludes the passage where the hero Sir Gowther, prior to his conversion from a barbaric individual to a saint-like figure, commits a repugnant crime where he, along with his comrades, sexually assaults and loots a nun’s convent and subsequently burns the convent to the ground. Laskaya and Salisbury note that the manuscript found in the National Library of Scotland is told in “a more vigorous and decidedly more explicit manner” (Laskaya and Salisbury, 1995).

The two manuscripts of Sir Gowther are not the only editions available of the text however, but rather because it is a Middle English romance it has been subject to numerous translations and interpretations. One such translation to modern English by English Professor George W. Tuma from San Francisco State University and independent scholar Dinah Hazell is available to read online.

XML or extensible markup language, the acid-free paper of the digital age, allows editors to determine which part of the text is important or of major interest by tagging or labelling the specific area of interest of a text with something known as a markup. Not only can editors mark the structural features of the manuscript, for example where there are line breaks and stanzas, but they can include extra information about the society of the time and their culture and, if known, the author (Price, 2012).

By creating an electronic edition of each version of the tale of Sir Gowther scholars would be able to mark up where the differences in both manuscripts lie. They would have the ability to include information about the people and culture of the late-fifteenth century and perhaps suggest why the manuscripts differ slightly in their re-telling of the tale.

By creating an electronic edition of each version of the text hyperreadng, defined by James Sosnoski as “reader-directed, screen-based, computer-assisted reading”, can take place (Sosnoski,1999). While Sosnoski criticises hyperreading for distancing the reader from the text, I, like Katherine Hayles, believe that hyperreading allows us to understand a text more in-depth by giving us the ability to focus on specific terms, keywords and areas of the text that are of relevance to a specific individual’s research. This is particularly useful when various editions of a text are available. One has the ability to search for the key areas of the text that differ slightly without having to repeatedly re-read the text closely as a whole just by filtering a specific word or phrase.


Laskaya, A. Salisbury, E. The Middle English Breton Lays. University of Rochester Archive. Medieval Institute Publications. 1995. Web. 19 December 2012.

Price, K. “Electronic Scholarly Editions”. A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Blackwell DTD, 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.

Sosnoski, J. J. “Hyperreaders and Their Reading Engines”, Passions, Politics and 21st Century Technologies. 1999: 161-177. Web. 24 January 2013.

Digital Resources

How we research now!!!

In an open-ended survey and subsequent virtual panel discussion Gibbs and Owen, authors of Building Better Digital Humanities Tools, posed questions to historians asking how digital resources have altered the ways in which they conduct their research. The historians who took part highlighted that ease of access, due to the extensive range of information available in the many databases on the web, has meant that their research can be conducted much quicker compared to ten or twenty years ago when various trips to the library had to be made. The historians also reported that search engines such as Google and other resources such as Google Books allow them to find key terms and distinctive quotations relevant to their research that they would otherwise spend days, if not weeks, manually searching for in the past (Gibbs and Owen,2012).

Leary, author of the article “Googling the Victorians”, suggests that for years scholarly discoveries had consisted of manuscripts that had previously gone unnoticed turning up in somebody’s attic or in the drawer of an old desk. The adventures undertaken by today’s scholars however, he states, are more likely to occur in front of a computer screen. There has been a profound shift in our relationship with texts in that our relationship with these texts is now “mediated by digital technology”. Like the historians surveyed by Gibbs and Owen, Victorianists are also utilising digital resources such as Google and Google Books in order to find key terms or to locate various characters in unbelievably vast amounts of text (Leary, 2005).

Google Books, launched in 2004, has scanned and archived approximately twelve million books encompassing many fields of research including history, literature and philosophy. Scholars have stated that digital humanities has and will continue to benefit from this digital resource as humanities researchers and computer scientists over the past few years have combined forces, allowing researchers to ask and answer questions that ten years ago would have been deemed inconceivable (Swift, 2010).

However, although there has been major investment in digital humanities tools in the past few years in order to move beyond Google and Google Books, most of these tools have remained unused. Owen and Gibbs highlight that in the 2005 Summit on Digital Tools at the University of Virginia it was found that roughly six percent of scholars use other digital resources or more complex digital tools when conducting their research and the remaining ninety four percent continue to rely on more readily available information (Gibbs and Owen, 2012).

Thus, it is apparent that digital humanities tools need to be created with ease of use in mind and to aid more traditional ways of researching information rather than trying to create new ways of exploring data. Gibbs and Owen also state that information needs to be easily accessible and visible to the researcher straight away as scholars are unwilling to remain on a site if they have to delve into vast amounts of data and dig deep to find what it is they are looking for (Gibbs and Owen, 2012).

It is clear that there is an extensive amount of information available online; however it is also clear that the digital humanities tools are not being utilised to the best of their ability. Thus, it is important that scholars are made aware of the existence of these tools and are also well-informed on how to use them.

Digital resources are changing digital humanities allowing scholars to analyse, visualise and think about what it is they are researching in a variety of new ways. Scholars now have the ability to engage more closely with the text and can accomplish more in a few weeks than previous scholars could have only dreamed of achieving in a few months or even years.


Gibbs, F. Owens, T. “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools: Toward broader audiences and user-centered designs”, Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2012. Web. 2 April 2013.

Leary, P. “Googling the Victorians”, Journal of Victorian Culture. 2005. Web. 2 April 2013.

Swift, M. “Google Books may advance humanities research, scholars say”, 2010. Web. 1 April 2013.

Sir Gowther – Would it have shocked the audience?

This paper focuses on Sir Gowther in relation to Gowther’s heroic career and also discusses to what extent the Middle English romance corresponds with the expectations of romance that may be held by an audience. I argue that while Sir Gowther centres on the hero’s education and quest for identity it is surprising in that it alters the conventional Middle English romance tale of chivalric adventure, where the main protagonist is typically a questing knight, into a story of a hero, born a half-devil, who is transformed into a saintly figure by miraculous conversion.

Transformation from devil to saint-like figure

Sir Gowther is a moderately short, anonymous Middle English romance. Often cited as an adaptation of the late twelfth century French poem Robert the Devil, Robert le Diable, it tells the story of the life of Sir Gowther from birth to death.  Sir Gowther can be found in two manuscripts dating from the late-fifteenth century; that of the National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.3.1. and also the British Library Royal MS 17.B.43. In both manuscripts the romance is composed of twelve-line, tail rhyme stanzas; however both versions of Sir Gowther differ slightly from one another (Laskaya and Salisbury, 1995).

The British Library Royal manuscript, as it was perhaps meant for a more refined and cultured audience, fails to include the passage where the hero, prior to his conversion, along with his comrades commit a repugnant crime where they rape and loot a convent of nuns and subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  The manuscript found in the National Library of Scotland however, Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) state, is told in “a more vigorous and decidedly more explicit manner”.

Gowther’s heroic career corresponds with an audience’s expectation of medieval romance in that Sir Gowther, like many other romances, focuses on the hero’s education and quest for identity. Gowther’s heroic career begins when he sets out on a pursuit of moral recovery, a quest that centres on the sophisticated conversion from evil to good. However, Gowther’s struggles are much greater than those of the usual medieval romance protagonist (Richmond, 1975). I believe that Gowther cannot be characterised as a typical knight who embarks on a quest to perform a prescribed deed nor can he be depicted as a fallible human being who must reach the self-awareness and understanding that leads to transcendence. Gowther is the embodiment of evil as he is of demonic paternity, he is begotten by a “fowle fend” (4) and is described as “Marylyng’s halfe bruder” (98). The Minstrel’s invocation is much more specific than would have been expected by a medieval audience. The Minstrel asks God to “Shilde us from the fowle fende/ That is about mannys sowle to shende/ All tymes of the yere!” (4-6)

The relevance of the prayer becomes apparent when Gowther’s diabolical early life and unfathomable acts of violence are revealed. As an infant Gowther is responsible for the death of nine wet-nurses whom he suckles to death and as a young man he wilfully terrorises people, particularly those of religious orders. He and his comrades commit heinous crimes including the rape and looting of a convent of nuns where they subsequently burn the convent to the ground.  Gowther is depicted as the anti-Christ, beating down men and women of God. However, not only is he a figure of the anti-Christ but he is also anti-knight by harming those who, as a knight, he should be protecting. An old earl asks:

Syr, why dose thu soo?

We howpe thu come never of Cryston stryn,

Bot art sum fendys son, we weyn,

That werkus hus this woo.

Thu dose never gud, bot ey tho ylle –

We hope thu be full syb tho deyll. (207-211)

The accusation of demonic paternity leads Gowther to have a confrontation with his mother who confesses all to her son at the point of his sword. Gowther has however been christened (107) and on learning that his father was a Devil his immediate response is to pray and desire penance for his evil wrongdoing. Gowther states “Y wyll to Rome to tho apostyll, /

That he mey schryfe me and asoyll” (250-251).

Often medieval romances were associated with quests concerning religious faith and it is clear that this tail-line romance is representative of the crisis of the Christian soul in the Middle Ages where people were of the belief that the souls of those who committed sin and did not confess their immoral behaviour, and subsequently repent, would end up in hell (Johnston, 2011). Gowther embarks on his journey alone to receive absolution for his sins from the Pope. To secure his Christian identity he will undertake a quest to find his real father. Is he a son of the Devil? Is he a son of God? Gowther is granted an audience with the Pope and is given his penance:

Wherser thu travellys, be northe or soth,

Thu eyt no meyt bot that thu revus of howndus mothe

Cum thy body within;

Ne no worde speke for evyll ne gud,

Or thu reyde tokyn have fro God,

That forgyfyn is thi syn. (295-300)

Gowther’s wild appearance and violent actions, according to Lasayak and Salisbury (1995), are associated with the familiar tradition of wild folks depicted quite often in the margins of medieval romance. Gowther’s previous behaviour as a violent anti-Christ becomes a metaphor for sin and his pursuit for his true identity could perhaps be viewed a metaphor for the Christian sinner’s quest for salvation through repentance.

Hopkins (1990) argues that Sir Gowther is a penitential romance and Gowther, once ignorant of his wrongdoing, becomes conscious of his sins having learned the truth of his paternity. It is Gowther’s remorse and guilt surrounding the violent acts he previously committed that lead him to repent and through penance he is brought closer to God. In the castle of the Emperor of Almayn, according to Cooper (2004), Gowther undergoes an extreme form of penance. He takes food only brought to him by dogs and he, like the Emperor’s daughter, becomes mute.

The Emperor of Germany’s daughter attracts the attention of a Sultan and when the Emperor refuses to allow the Sultan to marry his daughter a war is waged between them. When the Castle is besieged by Saracen invaders the former son of the Devil becomes a defender of Christianity. Gowther has now clearly become an agent of God and prays to Him for the accoutrements of a knight – a shield, a horse and armour- so that he can fight. Every day Gowther’s prayers are miraculously answered. For three days he battles, invincibly, alongside the Emperor’s army. He appears first as a black knight, then a red knight and on the final day a white knight which Laskaya and Salisbury (1995) note is perhaps a representation of Gowther’s purification process. Even in the midst of triumph Gowther tirelessly repents for his sins:

He had no thoght bot of is syn,

And how he myght is soule wyn

To tho blys that God con hym by. (538-540)

No worde speyke, withowt wene,

For dowtte of Godus wreke;

If all he hongurt, noght he dyd eytte

Bot what he myght fro tho howndus geyt;

He dyd as tho Pwope con hym teche. (608-612)

What is surprising and would perhaps shock a medieval audience about Sir Gowther is the sheer magnitude of the hero’s transformation from the figure of the anti-Christ, who committed atrocious acts of violence, to an exemplary Christian knight. From infancy and prior to his conversion, Gowther carries out his father’s will, his true father the Devil, acting monstrous and diabolical while showing no remorse for those around him. However, his devotion to his religion and willingness to repent for his sins are rewarded. After appearing to be dead having fallen from her tower, the Emperor’s daughter’s body becomes a locus of a miraculous event. She speaks; her first words are from God to Gowther:

“My lord of heyvon gretys the well,

And forgyffeus the thi syn yche a dell,

And grantys the tho blys;

And byddus the speyke on hardely,

Eyte and drynke and make mery;

Thu schallt be won of His.”

(lines 661-666)

The Pope observes that the conditions for Gowther’s redemption have been recognised and thus Gowther is liberated from his place beneath the table and the silent prison that was his body. There is a change also in Gowther’s paternity. He is no longer a son of the Devil but is now a son of God. The Pope states “Now art thu Goddus chyld; /The thar not dowt tho warlocke wyld, /Ther waryd mot He bee” (673-75).

The transformation from a child of the Devil to a child of God only increases Gowther’s sanctity and he continues to pursue a life of good. Having once been the cause of all destruction Gowther turns his attention to building abbeys. His charity is endless and even in death he continues to do good as miracles take place where he is buried. I argue that Gowther’s conversion from a Devil to a saint-like figure, or an actual saint as expressed solely in the Royal manuscript, could be an exaggerated portrayal of Christian belief in Redemption.

It is apparent that Gowther’s career resembles that of Lancelot or Guy to an extent and the tale in its most basic form corresponds with an audience’s expectation of romance; the hero begins a quest trying to establish a new, or in search of his true, identity. However it is Gowther’s paternity that makes the hero’s transformation so astonishing. He begins his life as a barbaric, violent and callous individual, a replicate of his father, carrying out the Devil’s work. The transition from such a beastly creature that conducts the work of the Devil to a saint-like figure that carries out the will of God is astounding and would probably have shocked an audience familiar with traditional medieval romance.


Cooper, H.  The English Romance in Time, Oxford University Press. 2004. Print.

Hopkins,  A. The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romances. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1990. Print.

Johnston, R.A.  All Things Medieval: An Encyclopedia of the Medieval World, Greenwood Press. 2011. Print.

Laskaya, A. Salisbury, E. The Middle English Breton Lays. University of Rochester Archive.

Medieval Institute Publications. 1995. Web. December, 2012.

Richmond, V. B.  The Popularity of Middle English Romance. Bowling Green University Popular Press, US. 1975. Print.

The Fable of Arachne

The Fable of Arachne

The Fable of Arachne, also known as Las Hilanderas or The Spinners, is a famous oil painting by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. It was painted circa 1656 for King Philip IV’s huntsman, Don Pedro de Arce (Moffitt, 1985).  Velazquez’s painting, now located in Museo del Prado, the Spanish national art museum, has been described as one of Velazquez’s most enigmatic and, in recent years, one of his most admired paintings (Potter and Stapleford, 1987).  The Fable of Arachne or The Spinners, however, has been subject to many interpretations and this paper aims to both examine and discuss Velazquez’s use of classical sources in his mysterious painting.

Traditionally, it was thought that Velazquez painting The Fable of Arachne portrayed female weavers in the tapestry workshop of Santa Isabel. However, in 1948, Diego Angula observed that the iconography depicted the fable of Arachne described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses (Byatt, 1999). Fernando Checa suggests that the painting establishes a “realist” foreground as it poses similarities to some of Velazquez’s other works from Seville (Checa, 2008). This paper, however, argues that both the foreground and the background of Velazquez’s enigmatic painting represent the beginning and the end of Ovid’s classical tale.  It could be suggested that Checa perhaps makes his assertion, that the foreground depicts reality, as some features of The Fable of Arachne’s foreground recall certain aspects of the bodegones Velazquez had previously painted. According to Johnathan Brown however, Velazquez’ painting does represent two different scenes from the classical myth of Arachne described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses (Brown, 1986). Moffitt agrees with Brown’s assertion, suggesting that Arachne, a humble craftswoman and Minerva, the mighty goddess, appear both in the foreground and the background of Velazquez’s painting, their presence representing the beginning and the near end of the classical tale told by Ovid (Moffitt, 1989).

In classical mythology Arachne is portrayed as a young Lydian girl who is immensely skilled in the art of weaving. Arachne, however, is boastful of her skill and claims that her talent surpasses that of the goddess Minerva, the Roman incarnation of Pallas Athena, the goddess of arts and crafts (Moffitt, 1989).  In Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the self-confident Arachne boldly challenges the mighty goddess to a competition in order to show her ability to weave like a goddess. However, by weaving tapestries showing the gods in a negative light Arachne audaciously insults Minerva. One tapestry in particular depicting the rape of Europa, portraying the god Jupiter with a mortal woman, greatly insults Minerva. (Brown, 1986).  When the contest between the goddess and Arachne comes to an end it is proven that the young Lydian girl’s claims were not false and Arachne truly can weave like a goddess. Minerva’s tapestry is rivalled by that of the young Lydian girl’s and it is for Arachne’s arrogant hubris and Minerva’s jealousy of the exceptional quality of Arachne’s finished work that the young Lydian girl is subsequently turned into a spider (Liveley, 2010)

Velazquez’ painting The Fable of Arachne, however, is unique, in that it eschews the conclusion of the classical tale when the transformation of Arachne occurs (Moffitt, 1989). Instead, the foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts the scene before the weaving contest has begun and in the background of his painting Velazquez represents the end of the contest when, according to Brown, the skills of both Minerva and Arachne are declared of equal merit (Brown, 1986). In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the goddess Minerva takes the shape of an elderly woman. Minerva speaks to Arachne in disguise in order to get her to take back the impudent words she has spoken against the goddess. However Arachne is stubborn and proud and refuses to retract what she has said. Minerva then relinquishes her disguise and reveals her true identity. Arachne, however, is not fearful of the goddess and thus a weaving contest begins between the two (Liveley, 2010). The foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts a tapestry workshop in which there are five women who are plainly dressed and barefoot. It may be argued that the mighty goddess Minerva is the woman with the distaff positioned to the left.  As in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the mighty goddess is dressed in disguise as an elderly woman, while the young Lydian girl, Arachne, is positioned to the right of the painting with her back to the viewer (Checa, 2008).

One can assume that the young girl sitting to the right of the foreground of Velazquez’s painting is in fact Arachne as Velazquez uses a well-known classical symbol associated with the young Lydian girl. The young spinner’s back is to the viewer however, Velazquez has painted the yarn that she is holding in her hands similar to that of a spider’s web entwined around her fingers. Arachne is often depicted in art and classical mythology with a web held in her hands, not only to symbolize the fact that she was highly skilful in the art of weaving but also because of the nature of the punishment inflicted upon her by the goddess Minerva following the weaving contest (Impelluso and Zuffi, 2003). Arachne, as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, attempted to hang herself following the competition, and Minerva, taking pity on her, transformed the young girl into a spider so that she could continue weaving (Jones, 2007). Perhaps less recognizable in the foreground of Velazquez painting however, is the presence of the goddess herself. It has been suggested that the woman to the left of the foreground sitting at the distaff may be the goddess Minerva in disguise, as the old woman’s leg looks plump and youthful (Martindale, 1990). This argument coincides with Ovid’s myth suggesting that Minerva is disguised as an elderly lady and the contest has not yet begun. The foreground of Velazquez’s painting depicts the scene directly before Minerva abandons her false facade and competes with Arachne in a weaving contest.

In the classical myth, described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, it is Minerva’s jealousy, following the completion of Arachne’s tapestry, which leads her to transform the young Lydian girl into a spider. Thus the background of Velazquez’s The Fable of Arachne, which portrays the scene directly before Arachne is transformed, can be viewed as the most important section of the painting when discussing Velazquez’s use of classical sources. It is important to note however, before examining the background, that the dimensions of the original painting, according to Potter and Stapleford, were 169cm high by 250cm wide and four extra strips of canvas were added at a much later date which increase the scale of  Velazquez’s painting (Potter and Stapleford, 1987). It is possible, that the canvas may have been damaged during the fire which took place at the Alcázar, the royal palace in Seville, in the year 1734 and as a result it was restored with extra pieces of canvas added. Johnathon Brown argues that the distortions of the scale of the painting diminish the importance of the background which, when discussing Velazquez’s use of the classical myth, is the focus of the entire painting (Brown, 1986). By removing the four added strips one strengthens the centripetal pull toward the background which portrays the classical myth (Potter and Stapleford, 1987).

In contrast to the dark or sublunary foreground, a brightly lit alcove, illuminated by sunlight streaming in from the upper left hand corner of the canvas, comprises the background of Velazquez’s enigmatic painting (Moffitt, 1985).

In the brightly lit alcove five women stand before a tapestry which almost completely covers the far wall. One of the women is pointing to the tapestry while another, wearing a helmet and breastplate, raises her arm in front of her. The scene that Velazquez has chosen to represent is that of the end of the contest between Arachne and Minerva (Brown, 1986). Arachne points to her completed tapestry while Minerva raises her hand in order to transform the disobedient Lydian girl into a spider (Checa, 2008). It is apparent that it is in fact Minerva in the background of the painting as Velazquez portrays the mighty goddess, as she is often depicted in art and classical mythology, wearing a helmet, shield and breastplate. Another indication that it is in fact Minerva in Velazquez’s painting is the presence of the owl which can be seen flying above her. The owl often accompanies Minerva, goddess of wisdom, arts and crafts in Roman mythology, as the owl itself is the symbol of wisdom. Arachne, standing to the right of Minerva, is also depicted as she often would be in art and classical mythology. Her arms are outstretched towards her tapestry as the young, boastful girl can now proudly display her faultless work (Impelluso and Zuffi, 2003).

In Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the skilful young Lydian girl, Arachne, created tapestries which depicted the many immoral acts carried out by the unscrupulous gods. Her tapestries portrayed the gods in a negative light, shown were scenes of deception and also the rape of humans. The goddess Minerva, however, created tapestries highlighting the majesty of the gods and how the gods always have human interest at heart. However, the smaller scenes situated in the corners of Minerva’s tapestries depicted the punishment of ill-behaved mortals by the gods, subsequently highlighting human inferiority (Roman, 2010). One of the tapestries created by Arachne illustrated the rape of Europa (Checa, 2008). In Velazquez’s The Fable of Arachne the tapestry hanging on the far wall of the brightly lit alcove situated in the background of the painting is a copy of a work by the Italian artist Titian which depicts the classical myth of the rape of Europa by Jupiter; it is essentially a painting within a painting. The Rape of Europa, originally painted by the 16th Century Italian artist Titian, portrays the deception and abduction of Europa by the god Jupiter. Disguised as a bull, Jupiter tricked Europa into climbing onto his back and she was subsequently abducted by him (Jones, 2007). According to Johnathan Brown, Velazquez’s insertion of Titian’s painting is highly significant in the context of classical myth of Arachne and Minerva (Brown, 1986).

Titian is described as one of the greatest Venetian artists of the 16th Century and in the year 1590 art theorist Giovanni Lomazzo declared him to be the sun amidst small stars, stating that he was not only the greatest artist in Italy but that he rivalled all the painters of the world (Kuiper, 2009). Velazquez, by inserting a quotation of Titian’s famous work as Arachne’s finished tapestry, equates Titian with the remarkably skilled Lydian girl. Also, as Arachne had the ability to weave like a goddess, Velazquez is perhaps suggesting that Titian could paint like a god (Brown, 1986). It is Titian’s painting presented as Arachne’s tapestry which rivals that of the goddess Minerva’s divine creation, thus Velazquez places Titian upon a godlike pedestal. However, it has been suggested that Velazquez, by inserting Titian’s famous work into his own painting, seeks to surpass the renowned Renaissance artist in his ability (Brown, 1986). Perhaps Velazquez is proposing that although Titian has the ability to outdo the gods, Velazquez himself has the ability to exceed Titian in his artistic skill. Jan Baptists Bedaux states that the classical myth of the dispute between Arachne and Minerva, which Velazquez depicts in his painting, is the archetypal tale of artistic rivalry. He suggests that the myth provides us with an exemplary lesson about a person who although very learned in their art will soon be followed by another who will excel the first artist in their abilities (Bedaux, 1992). Therefore it seems that while Minerva was challenged by Arachne so too is the “divine” Titian being challenged by Velazquez. Thus the painting itself could be viewed as an allegory for the progress of art; an interpretation previously made by Perez de Moya in his Filoso fia Secreta in the year1584 (Moffitt, 1989). However, this is only one interpretation of Velazquez’s mysterious painting amidst many.

The main purpose of this paper was to both highlight and examine Velazquez’s use of classical sources in his enigmatic painting The Fable of Arachne. It is clear that Velazquez’s work has been the subject of numerous analyses and interpretations. However, whether Velazquez intended the foreground of The Fable of Arachne to represent reality or not, it is certain that the background of his painting is an effective and an almost accurate depiction of the near end of the myth of Arachne and Minerva described by Ovid in Book VI of his Metamorphoses. Velazquez’s has carefully painted the main subjects of the myth as they are often portrayed successfully drawing from Greek and Roman literature and art. One thing that is certain about The Fable of Arachne is that the classical influences evident in Velazquez’s truly puzzling and mysterious painting will, in the future, be subject to furthermore analysis.


Bedaux, J. B. (1992) “Velázquez’s “Fable of Arachne” (“Las Hilanderas”): A Continuing Story”, Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 21, No. 4, [online] Available at:, Accessed: April, 2012.

Brown, J. Velazquez: Painter and Courtier, Yale University press, 1986. Print.

Byatt, A.S. (1999) “Arachne”, The Threepenny Review No.78, [online] Available at:, Accessed: April, 2012.

Checa, F. Velazquez: The Complete Paintings, Publisher: Abrams, 2008. Print.

Impellusso, L. Zuffi, S. Gods and Heroes in Art, Getty Publications, 2003. Print.

Jones, P. V. Reading Ovid: Stories from the Metamorphoses, Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Kuiper, K. The 100 Most Influential Painters & Sculptors of the Renaissance, Rosen Education Service, 2009. Print.

Liveley, G.  Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’: A Reader’s Guide, Continuum, 2010. Print.

Martindale, C. Ovid Renewed: Ovidian Influences on Literature and Art from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.

Moffittt, J. F. (1985) “Painting, music and poetry in Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas”, Journal of Art History Vol. 54, Iss. 2, [online] Available at: /doi/abs/10.1080/00233608508604076 1985, Accessed: April, 2012.

Moffittt, J. F. (1989) “The “Euhemeristic” Mythologies of Velázquez”, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 10, No. 19, [online] Available at:, Accessed: April, 2012.

Potter, J. Stapleford, R. (1987) “Velázquez’ “Las Hilanderas””, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 8, No. 15, [online] Available at:, Accessed: April, 2012.

Roman, L. Roman, M. Encyclopaedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Facts on File, 2010. Print.

Do we own our own data?

My personal project is based on Social Media, the information we provide social networking sites on a daily basis and how this information is being used or will be used in the future. Bill Cheswick’s image above is representative of the scale of networks created by Social Media. Just think of the immeasurable amount of information being shared!!!

In 1993 Oscar Gandy coined the term ‘panoptic sort’ in order to assign a name to the complex structure of the collection of data about groups and individuals and the subsequent discrimination which follows on the basis of this data (Gandy, 1993). The data collected is generated from people’s everyday lives as employees, consumers and citizens. This information is then used to organise and control the individual’s or the group’s access to both the services and goods that define our modern capitalist economy (Schermer, 2007). While Gandy, however, confines his portrayal of the workings of the ‘panoptic sort’ to the area of the free market economy, it is quite clear that it can equally be applied to what I will call “website surveillance”.

When you search for a particular item or service within Google, advertising for that item or service will subsequently appear on your screen. The adverts that follow us around the web are in fact linked to the various things that we search for and the information that we submit on a daily basis. Data is continuously being collected. However the data collected is not limited to the search itself, but rather, websites gather as much personal information as they can about every individual user.  According to Lawrence Lessig over ninety percent of commercial websites collect personal information about their users. This data is then categorised and used by these websites in various ways (Lessig, 2009).

Jaron Lanier, the American computer scientist and writer of You are Not a Gadget states that on social networking sites such as Facebook, “life is turned into database” (Lanier, 2011). In a BBC interview conducted with Lanier in 2011 he argued that there are in fact two kinds of data collected by these social networking websites. The data we know about includes all visible information available on our social networking profiles. However, there is an immeasurable amount of data collected about us that we do not even realise we are providing.

Max Schrem, an Austrian law student, argues that Facebook is of the belief that once information is written and posted to their social networking site it is in fact theirs to do with as they please (Schrem, 2012). After requesting that Facebook send him all the information about him stored on the company’s database he received a twelve hundred page document which was essentially all the information that they had acquired  about him since 2008 when he first joined the social networking site. The information, Schrem concluded, was in violation of European laws regarding privacy. However, the company has yet to change the way in which it collects its users’ data. It is apparent that the vast majority of people remain unperturbed even though many of us do acknowledge the fact that search engines such as Google and social networking sites like Facebook can track and spy on their users.

According to IBM, the International Business Machines Corporation, the majority of the information that is available in the world today has been created in the past couple of years following the explosive popularity of smartphones and sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Websites, as I have previously explained, gather information about their users, however add to this the growth of e-commerce, GPS signal information, digital images and videos, and it is clear that there is much more data available about us than we had previously imagined.

In recent years however the notion of “Big data” has sparked worry amongst various people about infringements on privacy. “Big data” is a term used by those who occupy the information technology circles. The term refers to the vast amount of information that is stored on the web, possibly indefinitely. The worry lies in the fact that this data is now being accessed by researchers and is becoming an invaluable asset to companies. To put it simply, companies have the ability to grow their businesses with access to this information by learning how to understand their customers’ behaviour, by contacting them in real-time via Twitter to ensure satisfaction and to learn about their customers’ preferences for future reference. One may question where the line between what is public and what is be private should be drawn and also whether  the use of “Big data” will benefit us or whether it could be deemed the next Big Brother.

The video below by IBM shows how “Big data” could be used in order to predict demands for a video game.

Jaron Lanier argues that the data which is deemed valuable is the data that the user has no access to and quite often does not know about. He states that it is this data which is used by companies such as Facebook (Lanier, 2011), Twitter and Google in order to sell access to you to third parties, the so-called advertisers. The main problem with this is that users do not in fact own any of this data and their private information essentially becomes public property.

I argue, however, that the problem surrounding the idea of “Big data” is not in the gathering of the information itself but the potential that is there for a person with bad intentions to abuse and misuse it. The notion that what we are exposed to online could be tailored to each individual’s preferences and interests is one that I find both unusual and unnecessary from the point of view of a consumer, however I can appreciate the value it holds for businesses and other various companies alike. If individuals are given access to the control of their own data while allowing important relevant data to flow freely then it could potentially be a great innovation. Who will apply these restrictions however and how will they be policed?

All things considered it is clear that we should always be mindful of our internet footprint and be wary of the way we portray ourselves online. Always remember that what goes online, stays online…FOREVER!!!



Gandy, Oscar. The Panoptic Sort: Political Economy of Personal Information. Westview Press Inc. 1993. Print.

Lanier, Jaron. You are Not a Gadget, Vintage: Reprint Edition. 2011. Print.

Lessig, Lawrence. Code: Version 2.0, Version 2, Basic Books. 2009. Print.

Schermer, Bart W. Software Agents, Surveillance, and the Right to Privacy: A Legislative Framework for Agent-enabled Surveillance, Amsterdam University Press. 2007. Print.

Online Sources: Videos

Lanier, Jaron. “What ‘Bugs’ me about Facebook.” 6 December 2011. Web. 19 March 2013.

Schrem, Max. “Max Schrems (AT) – Europe versus Facebook.” March 10 2012. Web. 24 February 2012.



The Strawsonian Theory of Moral Responsibility

This post will discuss Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility. It will highlight how the theory has been challenged and then argue how the Strawsonian theory is underdeveloped and not as coherent as it initially seems.

Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility outlined in “Freedom and Resentment”, focuses on the fact that he associated moral responsibility with the deployment of “reactive attitudes” and also that he articulated a specific approach in which determinism and moral responsibility could be compatible.

Strawson sets out to reconcile the on-going dispute between incompatibilists, referred to as “pessimists”, who hold a merit-based view of responsibility and compatibilists, referred to as “optimists”, who hold a consequential view of responsibility. According to Strawson both of these views are misguided and in order to find out what is missing from both accounts we need to radically change our philosophical approach. This is what Strawson refers to as the “naturalistic turn”. Strawson takes a more in depth look into what actually happens when we hold a person morally responsible and turns away from theoretical concerns about the analysis of “responsibility” and “freedom”. His methodology depends more on a descriptive account of human moral psychology and less on theoretical analysis (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson attempts to shed new light on the debate by suggesting that there are certain “reactive attitudes” that are an essential part of the “framework” of life. He argues that responsibility should in fact be understood in terms of these reactive attitudes and their associated practises rather than assuming that holding a person responsible for his or her actions rests upon a theoretical judgement of their being responsible. Reactive attitudes, Strawson states, are not susceptible to reason or rational judgement but rather are based on observation and the subsequent feelings or attitudes which follow that observation. He maintains that the reactive attitudes are merely a natural part of life and hold a vital role in the interpersonal nature of our way of life (Strawson, 1962).

The attitudes expressed in holding persons morally responsible, according to Strawson, are of a wide variety and derive from our participation in personal relationships. Some examples of these attitudes include resentment, anger, disgust, gratitude, happiness and guilt. Strawson’s compatibilism is merit-based compatibilism in which reactive attitudes are based on the perception of a person’s good will. The purpose of these attitudes, Strawson argues, is to highlight how much we care, or how much it matters to us whether the actions of others reflect, on the one hand, attitudes of good will or affection towards us or, on the other hand, malevolence or contempt (Strawson, 1962).

Thus, these attitudes can be described as participant reactive attitudes as they are considered the natural reactions of persons to the perception of another person’s will; be it good will, ill-will or indifference. Also because they are conveyed from the position of a person who engages in interpersonal relationships and who regards those to be held responsible as a participant in such relationships also. The reactive attitudes that each person has are constitutive to it even being a personal relationship (Strawson, 1962).

Although Strawson emphasises the importance of the reactive attitudes in the application of moral responsibility, he states that there are some instances where the reactive attitudes can be modified or suspended.

Firstly, one may conclude, that perhaps the offender did not, in fact, violate the demand for a reasonable degree of good will contrary to the initial perception of the action or event which took place. In this case there is no change in our attitudes towards the person but rather towards what they did, our reaction becomes action-directed. A person’s actions may be excused if something was deemed to be accidental or the so-called offender’s behaviour could be viewed as justified if that person was pursuing a greater good, for example in the case of an emergency. Thus, Strawson would say that we cannot hold these persons morally responsible due to the fact that they have not reflected a poor “quality of will” (Strawson, 1962).

Secondly, in certain circumstances one may abandon the participant perspective in relation to the person in question and instead adopt an objective viewpoint. In such cases as these the individual is regarded as incapable of participating in interpersonal relationships whether for a short period of time or permanently.  For one to possess the ability to be regarded as morally responsible, Strawson’s theory suggests, one must have the capacity to fit into the social practises, in this case the interpersonal relationships, which govern the deployment of the reactive attitudes, and if one is incapable of doing so then one cannot be regarded as morally responsible. The individual, thus, is regarded as morally or psychologically abnormal or underdeveloped. The application of an objective perspective is associated with very young children and also those who are suffering from a severe mental illness (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson, throughout “Freedom and Resentment”, also questions what kind of influence the truth of the thesis of determinism would have on our personal “reactive attitudes”, if any at all. Although he does not define exactly what he means by the thesis of determinism, it is apparent that determinism is part of a thoroughly objective account of the world and therefore requires one to adopt an entirely objective attitude to all events or actions that take place. Strawson questions whether an acceptance of the thesis of determinism could lead to the repudiation of our reactive attitudes (Strawson, 1962)

Strawson suggests, as stated previously, that reactive attitudes are central to our interpersonal relationships and are the basis for holding persons morally responsible. He argues that the truth of determinism would not affect our reactive attitudes as it is almost impossible for us to believe that a general theoretical conviction would change our world so entirely that such things as interpersonal relationships and reactive attitudes, as we know them, would no longer exist. He states that this is due to the fact that our commitment to these ordinary interpersonal relationships is too strong. He states that it is practically inconceivable that we take an objective attitude towards everyone as we have a “natural commitment” to our reactive attitudes. We would not be human if we suspended these emotions as they are what make us human. Even if you rationally believe that everyone is determined to do what they do you cannot suspend your feelings as they are an inherent part of human nature. In this instance, according to Strawson, it is possible for moral responsibility and determinism to be compatible (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility however has been subject to certain challenges. Watson argues, for example, in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil”, that Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility seems to lead to a paradox. Strawon’s theory, according to Watson, suggests that great evil should count as its own excuse. If this is the case then the person who carried out the evil act could not be held morally responsible for their actions (Watson, 2004).

Watson argues that, according to Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility, in order to be perceived as a member of the interpersonal moral community one must have the ability to be seen as a prospective interlocutor in our interpersonal exchanges. He explains that we only have the ability to address persons inside the moral community if they understand both our demands and reactions. This understanding, Watson argues, appears to require a common moral framework of values for our interactions (Watson, 2004).

Watson uses the 1982 case of Robert Harris who brutally murdered two teenagers in order to use their car for a bank robbery as an example to back up his point. Watson states that by way of his behaviour Harris should be a clear contender for blame. However, if a condition of moral agency is participation within the moral community then evil individuals whose behaviour disregards the values of moral community altogether should fail to be considered moral agents and because of this lie outside the scope of our ascriptions to responsibility (Watson, 2004).

By their own evil manner, Watson argues, they do not share the moral framework of values, and therefore cannot be seen as prospective interlocutors within the moral community. If Strawson’s theory suggests that moral responsibility is constituted by the relations within the framework of the moral community then it seems, Watson argues, that extreme evil should, in fact, be its own excusing condition, in the sense that the person is incapable of taking part in ordinary interpersonal relationships (Watson, 2004).

However, if the perpetrators of extreme evil acts are to be deemed morally responsible then it seems as though responsibility does not require one to be a member of the moral community. Watson’s argument seems to undermine Strawon’s theory slightly as Strawson believes that attitudes and feelings are only significant within the moral community, however, if individuals who commit extreme evil are both non-members of the moral community but also responsible then it seems that moral responsibility is  not solely constituted by the moral community (Watson, 2004).

The Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility cannot easily defend itself against the challenge posed by Watson and that is why McKenna, in response to this challenge, has proposed a slight modification to the theory. McKenna states that by explaining responsible moral agency in terms of capacity for membership of the moral community, rather than just actual membership, then Strawson’s naturalist insight can be preserved. In other words, one has the ability to be held morally responsible for one’s actions even if one is not a member of the moral community so long as one has the capacity to be a member. McKenna maintains that Strawson’s intention was to capture the entire range of concepts pertaining to moral responsibility from within the “web” of feelings and attitudes in the interpersonal community; however, his alteration now allows some non-members to become morally responsible agents. That status is now, however, dependent on one’s ability to take part in the moral community if one is not already a member (McKenna, 1998).

McKenna’s alteration to the Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility now allows Strawson’s theory to respond to the challenge posed by Watson. It may be argued that Harris, although not a member of the moral community according to Watson, has or had the ability to become a member of the moral community but chose not to become one. It could be said that Harris knew what he was doing, knew it was morally wrong and knew that it did not meet with the demands for good will or regard reflected in the ordinary reactive attitudes which are an essential part of the moral community, therefore consciously rejecting membership of the moral community. Hence, even though Harris or another person who commits an extreme evil action may reject membership of the moral community the sheer fact that they had the ability to be members, McKenna would argue, allows us to still hold them morally responsible for their actions (McKenna, 1998).

Strawson’s theory on the surface appears to be an entirely coherent account of moral responsibility; however, when presented with challenges such as Watson’s we see that in fact the theory is underdeveloped. Strawson’s theory, I believe, builds a solid foundation for an alternative approach to understanding moral responsibility. However, it is clear that in order to make it a stronger and more coherent theory it needs to be slightly modified. McKenna’s minor alteration to the theory was essential to combating the problem of the paradox which arose when discussing extreme evil cases. Strawson’s theory fell short in being able to explain how person’s in these cases could be deemed morally responsible when they existed outside the lines of the moral community. With McKenna’s slight modification to Strawson’s theory, allowing those who have the capacity to be members of the moral community to be deemed morally responsible and not just those within the moral community, persons who commit acts of extreme evil are no longer exempt from being deemed morally responsible.

I also believe that morality is a culturally conditioned response and that our reactive attitudes are not unavoidable and permanent features of human nature as Strawson would suggest, but rather involve a set of expectations and dispositions which are socially acquired. However, Strawson’s theory does not seem to allow for this kind of assumption. Strawson appears to assume that all of us have the same moral framework i.e. the same notions of what is right and what is wrong and his theory does not seem allow for cultural variations. Strawson believes that most of us are part of a moral community within which we engage in interpersonal relationships and have similar reactive attitudes. He states that in order to belong to the moral community we each have to understand the basic demands for good will and the reactions which follow certain actions. However, I argue that if our beliefs of what is morally right and wrong vary significantly from culture to culture then how can Strawson argue that we are part of a moral community at all?

Strawson’s argument relating to the “appropriateness of emotional response” falls short in being able to defend his theory in relation to the fact that morality is, I believe, a culturally conditioned response. Strawson argues that our reactive attitudes should be in concert with each other and that emotions should be consistent between people. He states that in order to avoid idiosyncrasies we have the ability to communicate. He believes that if our emotional responses or feelings are deemed completely absurd after we communicate with other people then it is possible to evaluate these reactions upon reflection. He then states that we have the ability to alter or modify them so that our emotional responses, i.e. our reactive attitudes, are in concert with everyone else’s. This, however, appears to me to be a near impossible task as it makes the assumption that each one of us is part of the same moral community, with the same moral notions.

There are many different perceptions in the world of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. If something in another culture is deemed morally acceptable however is viewed as morally unacceptable behaviour in another culture then how are both cultures meant to communicate and modify their reactions accordingly?

For example in Singapore it is deemed morally acceptable for a figure of authority to cane a male student, however in Ireland it is viewed as morally unacceptable. Therefore, the reactive attitudes would vary significantly between an Irish person and a Singaporean person to the caning of a male student because of their culture. It is near impossible for both cultures to communicate and modify their responses to be in concert with eachother. How does one culture explain to another that their actions and beliefs are morally unacceptable when they are and always have been of the belief that what they are doing is morally right?

The inability of Strawson’s theory to respond to both Watson’s argument and my own argument further suggests that while Strawson’s theory lays the groundwork for a new approach to understanding moral responsibility it is not entirely coherent. His theory, as it stands, appears overly simplistic and does not make clear who belongs to the moral community and who is exempt. It is clear that McKenna’s modification was necessary in order for Strawson’s theory to even begin to be able to tackle the challenge posed by Watson. In conclusion Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility is underdeveloped and while it remains a solid foundation for an alternative philosophical approach to addressing moral responsibility it cannot defend itself against certain challenges and I believe that modification and alteration of the theory are necessary in order for it to become fully coherent.