Computation and the Humanities

Part of the series Springer Series on Cultural Computing pp 195-208

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.


It’s Probably the only Modestly Widely Used System with a Command Language in Latin: Manfred Thaller and Julianne Nyhan

  • Julianne NyhanAffiliated withDepartment of Information Studies, University College London (UCL)
  • , Andrew FlinnAffiliated withDepartment of Information Studies, University College London (UCL)


This interview took place on 9 July 2014 at dh2014, the Digital Humanities Conference that was held in Lausanne, Switzerland that year. In it Thaller recalls that his earliest memory of encountering computing in the Humanities dates to c. 1973 when he attended a presentation on the use of computational techniques to map the spatial distribution of medieval coins. The difficulties of handling large, paper-based datasets was impressed upon him as he compiled some 32,000 index cards of excerpts for use in his PhD thesis. When he later encountered statistical standard software at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Vienna he found that such software could not be beneficially applied to historical data without first transforming in some way the historical data under study (indeed, the formalisation of historical and cultural heritage data is an issue that reoccurs in this interview, much as it did in Thaller’s research). In light of his experience of the problems of using such software ‘out of the box’ to work with historical data he went on to teach himself the programming language SNOBOL. Within a few weeks he had joined a project on daily life in the middle ages and was building software to manage the descriptions of images that the project compiled and stored on punched cards. Having contributed to various other projects with computational elements, in 1978 he took up a post at the Max Planck Institut for History in Göttingen. As well as discussing the research he carried out there, for example, CLIO/kλειω a databased programming system for History with a command language in Latin, he discusses the immense freedom and access to resources that he benefitted from. He also goes on to discuss some of the later projects he worked on, including those in the wider context of digital libraries, infrastructure and cultural heritage.