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.

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