Dec 5, 2013

Interactive medieval media

Interactive is a positive buzzword in the digital world today; the Oxford English Dictionary records it as being applied from the 1960s onward to computing devices that respond to user input. When used of digital media or devices, interactive carries positive connotations because it stands against passive: instead of presupposing a one-way flow of information from a smart device to a stupid user (a model that supports the familiar technology-makes-you-stupid topos), interactivity is engaging, stimulating, perhaps even enhances intellectual ability. Leaving aside, for now, the question of whether interactivity is desirable, we might recognise three ways in which medieval textual interfaces can be said to be interactive.

Brendan Missal, University of Saskatchewan Special Collections

1. Medieval interfaces, like modern digital interfaces, involved sensory interaction in many ways. Not only did the eye move across the written surface, and the hand guide the eye or turn the page, some level of vocalisation was probably common in most medieval reading experiences, so that the reader both saw and heard the text. This is interactivity in a physical sense.

2. Because medieval reading practices commonly took as a model the perusal of Holy Scripture, reading was commonly regarded as an internalisation of the text in which the understanding was involved, not only the senses. Medieval layout was designed to take advantage of a trained human memory. This is interactivity in a mental sense.

3. Medieval reading was a communal practice. Not only were many reading situations public and performative, but reading was a conversation between the reader and the voices of the past. Annotating a text engaged the reader both with the primary text and also with other annotators, other readers, whose comments, corrections, and other signs of use would still be visible on a manuscript page. This is interactivity in a social sense.

All three kinds of interactivity operated in medieval reading practices and continued to be involved in reading to the present day, in various media. To claim that a particular medium is interactive, or more interactive than another, is thus either to state a truism or to make a statement that needs further explication. What is more interesting is examining ways in which medieval (or other) texts are designed to be interactive, how the encoding of a text encourages certain ways of reading.

Yin Liu

Some References

The image of the Brendan Missal is from the University of Saskatchewan Special Collections website. The book is an incomplete early 15th century manuscript from northern Europe, in its original binding, with leather tabs sewn in as finding aids.

For reading as internalisation of the text of Scripture, see Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: the Medieval Experience of Reading (Collegeville, MN: Cistercian Publications, 2011).

For reading and memory, see (among many other sources), M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record, 3rd ed. (Malden, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

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