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Literate Git

Tool to render a hierarchical git history into HTML.

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Motivation: Literate Programming

This project is a partner to my git-dendrify project, which allows easy conversion between a linear form of git history, and a hierarchical (tree-like) form. The idea I am exploring in these projects is that the presentation of the history of a piece of software could benefit from the same hierarchical approach we use when writing an article, paper, or other document.

We don't typically write a paper as one long flat stream of paragraphs, but rather break it into sections and sub-sections. I am exploring the idea of presenting the development of a piece of software in the same way, using a git repo with merge commits to represent the hierarchical structure.

As noted in the git-dendrify write-up, unfortunately not all tools work well with a git history making heavy use of such 'sections'.

Presenting the hierarchical history

This project improves the situation by rendering a git history into an HTML document which explicitly shows the hierarchical structure of the code's development.

The document contains the commit messages (parsed as markdown to allow some formatting), together with the source-code diffs. Each 'top level' commit becomes a 'section' in the HTML, which can be interacted with so as to expand it into its constituent sub-commits.


The best way to demonstrate the idea is with an example of the results:

  • A Tamagotchi-style web app — This is based on a course I developed and gave, jointly with Brian Gillespie, at a local primary school as a 'next step beyond Scratch' after-school course. Note that 'Tamagotchi' is a trademark of Bandai.

Initial view

On paging through to an arbitrary section, using the > button, we initially see this page (showing only the top portion):

Initial view of section

Expanded view

On clicking the + button, the presentation changes to show the individual steps which make up this section:

Expanded view of section

There are eight subsections within Make Tamagotchi's appearance show its state, as can be seen by playing with the demo.

Interacting with the demo

In general, the 'RESULT' link opens a tab with the current state of the web-app as of that commit, and the 'SOURCE' link opens a tab with GitHub browsing the tree at that commit. The very first commit's tree is empty so RESULT gives an error but subsequent ones work.

You can navigate forward and backward in the history using the > and < buttons. You can also use vi-style h and l letter keys.

The + button to the left of the diff replaces it with its expansion in terms of the sub-commits, with more explanation; the - button then collapses back.

This sample only has one level of nesting but the idea would work for deeper structures too.


# via pip
pip install literategit

# via homebrew
brew install literate-git

Usage of these rendering tools

This is still at the stage of a proof-of-concept, so the workflow is not fully automated. The two tools provided by this project are

  • git literate-render
  • git dump-all-trees

Using them, the steps to produce a rendered document are:

Generate structured history

You can create the structured history yourself with careful merging, but for this particular example, I developed the history in a linear fashion and then 'dendrified' it using the git-dendrify project. The dendrification was done with the command

git dendrify dendrify rendered-20210314 start bugfix/commit-messages-markdown-2

(And here we see one angle which will need more thought when this system is used for a tutorial and the whole tutorial evolves — what is a good way to track the history of the entire repo? Including version numbers or datestamps in the branch names is unlikely to be the best solution.)

As a 'dog-food' example of the use of git dendrify, it was indeed much easier to work in the linear form to re-structure, re-order, fix typos, re-word, etc., while building up the structed history of this tutorial.

Generate HTML file: git literate-render

The single index.html file is generated by

git literate-render title exclusive-begin-commit inclusive-end-commit create-url > index.html

where inclusive-end-commit is typically the head of a branch which has been produced by git dendrify from a linear history, and exclusive-begin-commit is the starting point of the code just before the section you wish to present.

The use of the create-url argument is a bit clunky — it specifies where the 'results' and 'source' links should point to for the project being rendered. Details in the code.

For this case it was

cd ~/dev/tamagotchi
mkdir /tmp/project-export
git literate-render "Tamagotchi-style web app" \
    start rendered-20210314 hard_coded_create_url.HardCodedCreateUrl \
    > /tmp/project-export/index.html

where is a short special-case Python module with a class HardCodedCreateUrl having functions providing links to the 'results' trees (see next section) and the GitHub 'browse tree at commit' pages.

Generate 'results' trees: git dump-all-trees

As noted, the 'results' link takes you to the state of the web-app project at that commit. To generate the many different stages, this project also includes a 'dump all trees' tool. One could imagine instead generating some JSBin bins, or something equivalent for projects in other languages.

This creates an output directory containing all relevant blobs, written as loose files, and then also creates commit trees with hard-links to the blobs. This in similar to a subset of the functionality provided by gitfs, but with the result being a static set of snapshots. It requires an operating system and filesystem which supports the notion of a hard link.

For this case, the invocation was

git dump-all-trees /tmp/project-export start rendered-20210314

Add support files

The various extra support files then need to be added to the export directory.

cd ~/dev/literate-git/literategit
cp literate-git.css literate-git.js /tmp/project-export
( cd /tmp/project-export
  wget )

Source repo for this example

The hierarchical source branch for the example is:

and, for comparison, the linear history is:

Although see below under GitHub limitation regarding commit sorting.

Observations and remarks

Haskell LLVM tutorial

Luke Lau has turned the Kaleidoscope tutorial from the LLVM project into a literate git history:

Other work

Scott Abbey has developed these ideas in the direction of creating a 'presentation' version of an existing public repo. He took the Rust semver-parser crate, re-wrote its commit history, and added detailed comments to explain its development. The result was a 'literate git' presentation.

Scott took a different approach to declaring the structure of the commit history. Instead of the 'magic strings in commit messages' approach of git-dendrify, he applied tags to the commits. The work is described in more detail in Scott's write-up.

GitHub limitation regarding commit sorting

Regrettably, GitHub shows commits in author-date order, which destroys the carefully-built structure. Apparently this behaviour is on purpose, with GitHub discouraging people from rebasing even in private. This is disheartening.

Others also find GitHub's behaviour in this regard annoying — as 'toejough' comments in that issue, It's not clear to me how only showing things in the wrong order (where the 'right' order is the way the committer ordered them during rebase) fosters better discussion.

A better way to view these branches is to clone locally then use something which understands the structure of the history, such as magit (which is truly excellent), or gitk --all.

Performance of rendering tools

Performance is pretty good, although the demo repo is fairly small. There are 162 commits involved, and the different stages perform as follows:

  • dendrify takes 0.14"
  • literate-render takes 1.0"
  • dump-all-trees takes 0.19"

Graphic design

For this proof-of-concept, I based the styling heavily on GitHub's markdown stylesheet (as available in Sindre Sorhus's project).

Application to other languages

The 'results' link is an especially good fit for a web-app. For other projects, more thought might be required as to what this might mean. Or it could be optional.

Preserve viewing state

It would be useful if the rendered result supported URLs going directly to some particular section, in a chosen state (collapsed or expanded).

This README: Copyright 2016–2021 Ben North; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

See the file COPYING for full licensing details.


Render hierarchical git repositories into HTML







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