Sep 17, 2021

Remote Reading

Yin Liu

A student examines the 15th-century Brendan Missal, University of Saskatchewan Special Collections, 2017.

The University of Saskatchewan dairy herd. Lots of cows, not much parchment. 
When COVID-19 restrictions made most of us in Canada stay at least 2 m away from each other, shut down international travel, and compelled many academics to work from domestic spaces frequently traversed by cats and children, manuscript scholars faced, in a heightened form, a paradox that we have been grappling with ever since digital technologies gave us access to manuscript images online. On the one hand, someone like me, who lives in the middle of Canada surrounded by a vast expanse of farmland and a vast absence of medieval manuscripts, has had my teaching and research practice revolutionised by the wonderful array of manuscript images freely available on the Web, thanks to the generosity of many holding institutions and their funding sources. On the other hand, any manuscript scholar knows that staring at an image on a screen is not the same as holding a manuscript in one’s hands. Digital technology opens up some ways of approaching medieval documents, at the cost of shutting down others.

By now, many people who are not manuscript scholars may be better able to understand the paradox. We’ve been thankful to be able to connect with family and friends through networked digital devices; during the COVID-19 pandemic, how many of us have celebrated festivals, birthdays, and other life milestones on live video platforms? At the same time, how many of us have felt that interacting with other people on a screen is painfully insufficient? Our technologies both transcend physical presence and make us acutely aware that they are no substitute for physical presence. They connect us in some ways but not in others. Many would say that the ways in which they do not connect us are the most important ones.

Similarly, the availability of digital manuscript facsimiles and images on the Web has given my students  a view of medieval books that I never had when I was a student. I read about medieval manuscript books as a student, but now I can show images of medieval manuscript books to my students. Even when I was a graduate student, most of my work with medieval manuscripts depended on grainy greyscale print facsimiles; now my undergraduate students can zoom into high-resolution images of parchment pages in full colour. Reading medieval literature in print editions, I was often unaware of the richness of additional context, contradictory messages, and subtle ambiguity, conveyed by the illustrations, decorations, script, colour, and layout, on the manuscript page.

But we must be careful not to assume that looking at a digital facsimile of a manuscript is equivalent to examining the manuscript itself. At the most obvious level, the tactile experience of holding the manuscript, flipping the pages of a codex, smelling the parchment, conveys information that a merely visual image cannot. For example, my MA student Danielle Grant once pointed out to me, and many other scholars have also remarked, that a digital facsimile viewed on a screen gives no intuitive cues about the size of a document – not only its dimensions but also its weight. Every medieval manuscript viewed on a screen takes on the dimensions of the screen and becomes two-dimensional, flat, without thickness or texture. But size and weight tell us a great deal about a manuscript’s purposes and uses. Was it meant to be read by a choir at a distance, or by an individual at close range? Was it designed to be opened on a lectern, or held in one or two hands? Would it fit in a small carrying pouch or was it too large and heavy to leave the church? Other details are often lost even in the most exacting of photographic facsimiles. One can sometimes guess from a facsimile, but it’s much easier and more accurate to tell, from in-person tactile and visual examination of a medieval book, which sections are the most grimy and worn, and therefore most exposed to the elements or most often read.

One of my favourite anecdotes is quoted, from Paul Duguid’s Trip Report from Portugal, in John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s classic The Social Life of Information (2000). Chapter 7, ‘Reading the Background’, begins with Duguid’s account of a medical historian he met in an archive; while Duguid was choking in the dust from the box of letters he was reading, the other researcher was avidly inhaling the dust that covered the papers from another box. 

He was documenting outbreaks of cholera. When that disease occurred in a town in the eighteenth century, all letters from that town were disinfected with vinegar to prevent the disease from spreading. By sniffing for the faint traces of vinegar that survived 250 years and noting the date and source of the letters, he was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.

All of the senses are involved when a researcher examines manuscripts in person; on a screen, only visual information is available.

But reading a medieval document in person is different from reading a digital facsimile on a screen not only because some information is lost in the remediation of that document, but also because every technology comes with a set of assumptions embedded in its design. This project, Medieval Codes, examines the assumptions inherent in the design of medieval information technologies: for example, books before and after the ‘medieval reading shift’ of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were designed to facilitate different ways of reading. Digital technologies also embody assumptions about information and interaction. For example, turning telephones into hand-held screens turned communication into primarily a visual, rather than an auditory, experience. What does that mean for people with visual impairments or reading disorders? Or for my students who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, were fed up with staring at screens all day and preferred to listen to audiobooks and podcasts while knitting or going for walks? One component I built into some of my courses, and which was unavailable when my university campus was closed down, was an opportunity for students to view and handle material from the small but varied collection of medieval manuscripts and fragments at the University of Saskatchewan. To touch a page from a book made nine hundred years ago is an experience for which no amount of screen time can be a substitute.

[Left: The grimy, ragged opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the Hengwrt Manuscript, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.]

Nevertheless, all our reading of medieval texts is remote reading, even when we hold an original manuscript in our hands. The author who thought of the words, the scribe who put them on the parchment, did not have us in mind. The audience for which medieval texts were intended lived in a different world than ours, with different cultural assumptions, a different type of education, different beliefs, and different expectations of the reading experience. The languages they used – even when the language was English – are unfamiliar to most of us. The very shapes of the letters in their alphabets may strike us as foreign. No matter how much we know about medieval people, we’re not medieval people and never can be.

[Right: The tidy, clean opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in my copy of the Riverside Chaucer. Whichever interface I use, I’m still a long way from Wales.]

This sense that a medieval text comes to us from an alien world is much more pronounced when we read a medieval text from a manuscript, or even from a manuscript facsimile, than when we read it in a modern print edition. A modern edition of a medieval text is like a telescope; by familiarising the text – for example, by printing it in a common font, by adopting conventional modern layout for poetry, by adding punctuation – an editor makes a medieval text seem closer to us, more like a modern text, and therefore invites us to read it as if it were a modern text. But it’s not a modern text. If I try to read it like one, the chances are high that I will misunderstand it profoundly.

there is no safe way to read a medieval text

So there is no safe way to read a medieval text. I can’t read it as a medieval reader would, because I’m not a medieval reader and I can’t completely imagine myself into the mind and body of a medieval reader. But if I read it as a modern reader – even as a modern scholar of medieval literature – I’m not reading the text as it was intended to be read. Every way in which we try to reduce the distance between ourselves and medieval texts – technologies, scholarly conventions, training – doesn’t actually bring the text any closer; it only creates an illusion of contact. But, as we have learned from using communications technologies to stay in touch with one another (even if ‘in touch’ is obviously a metaphor), we can learn a lot from illusions as long as we don’t confuse them with reality.


For the first image, I am indebted to David Bindle; for the second (of the University of Saskatchewan’s dairy herd in days of yore), to the University of Saskatchewan archives and image bank.

Duguid is quoted from John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000) 173. The book is now available in an updated edition (2017).

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