Sunday, July 27, 2008

more on medieval books

Since in his most recent post, Got Medieval has included my brief thoughts on why books should be one of words when defining "The Middle Ages in Seven Words (or less)", I thought I would flesh out my earlier post a bit.

For me, there are two equally important parts in the question of whether books are medieval: what are books and what is medieval?

For most people, I'd hazard, "book" means something in print, made from moveable type or from the computer software equivalent thereof. It's something that is printed and exists in multiple printed copies. (I'd actually go further, and say that for most people, "book" means something that is made and sold by a publishing company, rather than a vanity press. If someone says, "I wrote a book!", I think we assume that it will be bought and sold, not that it's languishing in our bottom shelves or that we paid for the cost of its printing and distribution. There's another post lurking in our future about the practices of publication and what buying and selling means for books.)

In that sense, books are something that came about after 1455--that is, after Gutenberg printed his bible. We might think that that is a bit late for something defining the Middle Ages. But books should also be thought of in terms of their form. A book is a codex, organized by stiching together loose leaves (usually of parchment or paper) in a fixed order. We are so used to this format that it often passes unnoticed. But the transition from scroll to codex (a transition lasting centuries that was nearly complete by 400 AD) was a major technological shift, one that was at least as transformative as the transition (still not complete) from manuscript to print.

In other words, while we might associate manuscripts most strongly with the Middle Ages, many of those manuscripts are also books. In that sense, I would say that books are indeed medieval.

The other half of the question--what is medieval--is not easily answered (as made evident in the many responses that Got Medieval records). For many people today, "medieval" simply means something primitive and out of date and possibly violent. If you want to lazily dismiss something as ridiculously backwards, you could label it medieval. In contrast to this vision of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance is the beginning of all things civilized: perspective painting, print, anatomy, subjectivity, colonialism . . . This simplistic binary falls in line with the equally simplistic binary of manuscript equalling error-riddled and ancient and print equalling fixed, standardized, and modern.

To this, I would respond that print is not as stable as we typically assume, and that it was partricularly variable in its early years of printing. Nor should we assume that manuscripts are automatically riddled with mistakes. To link medieval only with manuscripts and Renaissance only with books reinforces that false divide in both binaries.

At some point in the future I'll do a post about early printed books and contemporaneous manuscripts so we can think about how very much printed books owe to manuscript books. For now, though, I'll just leave with the observation that if you google "medieval books" what you get in response are sites about medieval manuscript books. Some of them are very good. But that response overlooks the much more complicated relationship between books and manuscript and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Not that I would ever suggest that Google misleads us--just check out Google Penance . . .

No comments: