Tuesday, July 8, 2008

medieval books

Over on the wonderful blog Got Medieval is a discussion about what terms define the medieval period and about the slipperiness between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. What are the seven terms that define the Middle Ages? According to Got Medieval's students, "knights, things found on or around knights, and peasants" (my summary really doesn't do that classroom exercise justice; it's well worth reading). Got Medieval offers his own list, based on his tag cloud: "Beowulf, King Arthur, Marginalia, Manuscripts, the Bayeux Tapestry, Popes, and Latin."

A recurring feature on the blog is "Mmm... Marginalia", a highly entertaining look at medieval marginalia. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that marginalia or manuscripts should not be strongly associated with the medieval period. But what about books?

The first book printed with moveable type was Johannes Gutenberg's Bible, completed in 1455. Given the complexity of the task, it's likely that Gutenberg began experimenting with moveable type in the 1440s. Is that the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in Mainz?

I'm not quibbling with Got Medieval's list, or with the other lists that commentators devised (some of which do mention books on their list of defining traits of the period). But I do want to pause on that question of whether books are medieval. That split between medieval & manuscript versus renaissance & book reveals a great deal about how we conceptualize not only the two historical periods but also the traits of manuscripts and books.

More posts on that in the future. In the meantime, admire different copies of Gutenberg's Bible at the British Library, the Harry Ransom Center, Gottingen Library, and the Library of Congress.

UPDATE: Got Medieval fans: see my newest post updating this one!


Dr. Virago said...

Hello. Came here by way of Got Medieval.

Hm, are you defining book to mean only *printed* book?

I specified "codex" in my own list, but for the non-specialist reader, I added "book" -- to distinguish it from the scroll. But of course the English word "book" has conceptual uses, too, prior to the printing press, not unlike the common usage today that conflates "book" with "long-form work of fiction" (e.g., Chaucer's exhortation in Troilus and Criseyde: "Go, my litel boke"). Both the conceptual and material sense of the English word pre-date the printing press in England (which, as you know, came in at the tale end of the Middle Ages -- the 15th century definitely counts as medieval).

I think the codex -- whether handwritten or printed -- is likely what most people had in mind in that list, so people weren't really dancing on the edge or, or redefining, the Med/Ren divide. Movable type made it faster to make a book, and it's a mass-produced thing today, but we're still using the basic book/codex technology of the Middle Ages: two covers, double-sided leaves you turn, page numbers, headings, table of contents, and indexes all pre-date movable type printed books, in most cases by centuries. I know that that's what I meant in my list.

And we talk about manuscripts as books in medieval studies all the time (see, for example, the essay collection _The Whole Book_ on so-called "miscellaneous" manuscripts).

Sarah Werner said...

Hi Dr Virago--

I think your comment crossed in the tubes with my update for this post!

I definitely do not think that books are only printed. And I agree that medievalists are much more aware of the book form as including manuscripts. But in my field--early modern lit and book history--"book" too often means only print and "book history" too often omits both manuscripts and non-codex print forms. Isn't the very phrase "history of the book" problematic for this? Or "print culture"?

thanks for your comment,