Using Jekyll for the DigitalSEL Blog

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Showing my work

Early on, I decided that I should blog about everything I did on the reboot of the DigitalSEL project. A blog will be a good place to document the project’s development and record its successes and challenges. I also hope that the blog will be useful to other independent scholars and academics who might be building similar applications. Goodness knows, I find other people’s blogs incredibly helpful when I am trying to solve programming problems and I would love to return the favor if I can.

So, which platform?

There are many good options for academics looking for a blogging platform and they all have advantages and disadvantages. is easy to use and inexpensive. (yeah, they are different) offers more customization and is also easy to use, but is sometimes not as cheap to set up. Squarespace is also a bit more expensive, but their sites are famously good looking are are also easy to use.

If you have the technical skills or are brave enough to learn a bit, I think that Jekyll is a particularly good option for blogging about medieval topics. Since a Jekyll blog is basically a lightweight static website, you can customize one however you like, which is really handy for writing about a topic with specialized style requirements like medieval studies.

Cool stuff that comes out of the box

There are tons of nice, free Jekyll themes and tutorials that make it easy to get up and running. I based my blog on Aron Bordin’s Neo-HPSTR theme, which has a clean, responsive design, Octopress page generation, kramdown for flexible and programmatic Markdown, and includes built-in Rouge syntax-highlighting which will be particularly nice when I get on to writing about technical aspects of the project:

# A little Ruby example
def hwaet
  if !current_user.old_english.nil?
    puts "Hwæt we gardena in geardagum"
    puts "You should learn some Old English!"

Customization is diacritically important

It is also easy to customize the look and feel of the site and add assets and styles to handle font requirements for medieval texts. Because I would like to use medieval diacritics, I added Junicode to my fonts folder, extended the theme’s HTML <blockquote> tag style with a new .medieval CSS class, et voila, I have a nice and easy way to include all of the special diacritics I could ever want:

[S]eint birin þe confessor þt godma̅ was y nou
þe tou̅ of rome was ibore & to eche godnesse drou
to clannesse he drou wel ȝong & to pena̅uce also
þ᷑ inne he wex so al wei as he miȝte hit do
þt eche dai hadde somdel nwe þt hi̅ ou᷑ spᷓng [206r]
& þe latt᷑ dai more & more nere he no so long
me þingþ such wexing was god he so miȝte also
wide spᷓng his gode los as hit moste nedes do1

Lastly, you can host your Jekyll blog at GitHub Pages for free, which makes it very inexpensive and publishing is as easy as git push origin master.

Wait. What about Mr. Hyde?

A Jekyll blog is probably not for everyone. If you are not used to writing in a text editor and are just looking to get up and blogging, a blog like Wordpress with a graphical CMS is probably what you should go for. (By all means, do blog about your projects! It is useful to everyone to check out what you are working on.) However, if you willing to use the command line, know a little bit of HTML/CSS, and have heard of Git, Jekyll is a highly customizable, free, and open-source blogging tool that seems particularly useful for people writing about specialized subjects like medieval studies.

  1. Check out this sweet footnote too! This is the first eight lines of the Life of Birinus from London, British Library, Cotton Julius D.IX, fols. 205v–207r. 

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William E. Bolton, PhD

William E. Bolton, PhD
William is a software developer and independent scholar living and working in Philadelphia. My academic work focuses on the lives of saints written in England between 850 and 1350.