Aug 23, 2013

Not reading the St Cuthbert Gospel

In 2012, after a huge fundraising campaign, the British Library acquired the St Cuthbert Gospel, formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel, the oldest complete European book to survive intact in its original binding.
British Library MS Additional 89000, fol. 1r.
The St Cuthbert Gospel. Image: British Library.

Aug 19, 2013

The 1560 Geneva Bible

This image shows the beginning of “The Revelation of John the Diuine,” from the 1560 Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was the most widely read text in early modern England, being reproduced in pocket editions accessible for laypeople. The linking strategies in the Geneva Bible are fascinating. Asterisks were originally used in biblical translations to draw attention to a word that appears in one language, but not in another, for example, in the Septuagint but not Hebrew (Grafton and Williams 116). Interestingly, the asterisk’s usage is different in this case; the asterisks here indicate cross references, and correspond to the italicized verses in the margin. Occasionally a cross reference or alternate interpretation is provided with a double bar or pipe (||). The lettered footnotes are explanatory and exegetical, which is in keeping with other biblical footnotes (Sherman 77).   

Footnotes and marginal content were used extensively in the early stages of printing.  The development of different types of systems that organize and signify different types of content is important. When only one type of footnote is used, the note itself has no semantic value. Here, the asterisk already implies a cross reference, at which point the reader can decide whether or not to look at it.  

The Geneva Bible was criticized for its commentary, which interprets the text with a particularly Protestant lens that can be overt. This interpretive aspect of the Geneva Bible makes it a rich resource of Protestant ideology at the time of the Geneva Bible’s printing. The same conventions are continued in the 1611 Authorized Version, which also uses asterisks and lettered footnotes, but there the marginal commentary is much more restrained.

Ben Neudorf

The Geneva Bible: a Facsimile of the 1560 Edition. Ed. Loyd E. Berry and William Wittingham. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. Print.

Grafton, Anthony, and Megan Williams. Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Print.

Sherman, William H. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Print.

Aug 10, 2013

Scrolling through the Middle Ages

Armburgh Roll, Manchester, John Rylands Library Chetham's MS Mun.E.6.10(4) 
We like the concept of technological revolution: it replaces the cluttered complexities of history with illusions of dramatic simplicity. We’re supposed to be living in a digital revolution right now, and it’s been compared to previous significant developments in the history of information and communication technologies: the invention of printing or of writing, for example. It is possible to argue, however, that the closest historical precedent for a shift from books to screens is the adoption of the codex in the first few centuries of the Christian era (see Chartier, quoted in Frost 1998). The reasons for the shift from scroll to codex are still a matter of discussion, but it is a common claim that the codex replaced the scroll, implying that people in late antiquity stopped producing and reading scrolls, and started producing and reading codices. There you have a revolution, apparently: a new technology (for reasons of efficiency, politics, culture, usability, whatever) renders an old technology obsolete.

But it wasn’t that simple. To be sure, the Middle Ages represent centuries of experimenting with, developing, discovering the potential of the codex. But medieval people used scrolls and rolls, too. (By the way, although the two terms can be interchangeable, it is useful to distinguish between a scroll, which is opened horizontally, and a roll, which is opened vertically.) In England, in particular, rolls were used for legal, financial, and government records from the 12th to the 19th centuries. Other types of text, particularly genealogies, were also written on scrolls or rolls. Richard Rouse argued in 1982 that rolls may have been a common format for lyrics or similar texts intended for performance, although hardly any examples survive. The only surviving roll containing a medieval literary text in English is British Library MS Additional 23986, which has the short English play Interludium de clerico et puella on one side and an Anglo-French political poem on the other. I use the present tense hopefully; the manuscript seems to have disappeared from the British Museum in 1971.

Why did people use scrolls and especially rolls in medieval England? What kinds of texts were they associated with? How did the physical form of scrolls and rolls affect the ways in which they were read? Why did the use of scrolls and rolls persist so stubbornly for certain kinds of texts?

In digital reading environments, it is common not to flip pages (nostalgic turning-the-pages animations notwithstanding) but to ‘scroll’ up and down; you probably did that to get to what you're reading now. Why do designers of these interfaces choose scrolling (or rolling) rather than other ways of moving the reader through text? How does scrolling on a screen differ from the experience of unrolling a medieval manuscript?

One possibility raised by these questions is that scrolls and rolls present textual information in a linear, ‘flattened’, and (at most) two-dimensional format. This may be one reason why they seem to have been associated with public and/or spoken (or sung) texts. A scroll lays it all out if you choose to unroll it completely; the codex hides everything except the opening you are looking at. We’ll have to think a little harder about how scrolling up and down on a screen provides a reading experience that’s different from either of these.

Yin Liu

Lots of references:

Cavallo, Guglielmo. ‘Between Volumen and Codex: Reading in the Roman World.’ In A History of Reading in the West. Ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Trans Lydia G. Cochrane. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999. 64-89.

Clanchy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record. 3rd ed. Wiley, 2012.

Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007.

Frost, Gary. ‘Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode.’ Book and Paper Annual 17 (1998).

Mak, Bonnie. How the Page Matters. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2011.

Paden, William D. ‘Lyrics on Rolls.’ In ‘Li Premerains Vers.’ Ed. Catherine M. Jones and Logan E. Whalen. Rodopi, 2011. 325-340.

Roberts, Colin H., and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford UP, 1983.

Rouse, Richard H. ‘Roll and Codex: The Transmission of the Works of Reinmar von Zweter.’ Münchener Beiträge zur Mediävistik und Renaissance-Forschung 32 (1982): 107-123. Rpt. in Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1991. 13-29.

Steiner, Emily. Documentary Culture and the Making of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Taylor, Andrew. ‘The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript.’ Speculum 66.1 (1991): 43-73.

Aug 3, 2013

Medieval Linking Strategies

A term like “Medieval Hypertext” is both anachronistic and unhelpful in understanding medieval text. Looking at medieval text for techniques that act as precursors to modern hypertext risks reading modern practices into medieval practices. Still, it is worth observing that medieval thought and writing also included and necessitated linking mechanisms.  Abstract and nonlinear thought is not a modern evolution, so it is not surprising that medieval writing includes mechanisms that make it possible to think nonlinearly and navigate the page in nonlinear ways.  

University of Saskatchewan Special Collections, MS Ege 19

One of the most simple and common linking mechanisms that breaks up a linear reading of medieval text is the Signe-de-renvoi or Tie Mark. In the example here, from the Ege Scattered Leaves collection at the University of Saskatchewan, a line with a dot above it connects the main text to a marginal addition to the text. This type of linking recalls marginal or footnotes in print, except that the sign here is a symbol instead of a number.  What this type of linking does is facilitate a quick exit from and return to the main text that requires only visual navigation.  When there are many notes, sometimes an extra mark is placed in the margin, so that three identical marks create a visual pathway to the annotation, as in this example from Harley MS 1280, f. 313v at the British Library.

In From Memory to Written Record, Michael Clanchy describes the way medieval texts use iconography and visual indexing to organize texts and aid in memorization. Historiated initials, decorated margins, and other illumination have an important cognitive function for medieval reading.  A distinctive image on the page aids memorization.  A page can be found again by looking for a particular and unique historiated initial, or text can be marked with the same symbols used to mentally index material, for example (172-184).  

This page from James le Palmer’s encyclopedia, “All Good Things,” dated 1370, has a chain at the top of the page indicating the sections on that page.  The section titles are then repeated in the margins, as well as indicated by a capitulum mark in the text.  The historiated initials make the page memorable, and manicules point to important passages.

What these linking strategies have in common is a highly visual and spacial strategy for linking parts of text on the manuscript page, whereas hypertext is not navigated visually.  From the user's perspective, when a link is clicked, the navigation is behind the scenes and the linked location is displayed instantly.  For anchor links on a given page, unless a popup window is displayed, like some wikipedia references, the link must be followed and the text returned to with the "back" command in the browser.  There are visual elements to hypertext, but these are primarily to identify links (often as blue and underlined) or to identify whether a link will open in a new window or the current window. Visual feedback is also given as a manicule or finger when a link is hovered over with the cursor.

Medieval linking strategies are not hypertext. They can, however, inform our understanding of our own linking strategies. Navigation of digital environments does not use some of the useful memory devices manuscripts used, and digital navigation is much more mediated than the directly visual navigation of manuscript annotation.

Ben Neudorf

Clanchy, M. T. From Memory to Written Record, England 1066-1307. Oxford, U. K. , 1993. Print.