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The medieval scribe as influencer

By Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt

In today’s Digital Age publishing texts is easier than ever and the dissemination of ideas is no longer the exclusive domain of the publishing industry. Influencers, social media algorithms, clickbait and fake news are redefining the relationship between authorship and authority. Of course, none of this is new. For a solid millennium, medieval manuscripts carried our written heritage from place to place, from reader to reader. Every copyist could manipulate his source without alerting future readers, every copy could sustain or diminish the authority of a text. As with writings thrown on the Internet today, the author was no longer in control of his creation. In this series, we look at the medieval attitude to authorship, and how the manuscript shaped and defined the power of texts.

In 2018 Jimmy Page, founder and guitarist of Led Zeppelin, lent two Edward Burne-Jones’ tapestries from his private collection to the Tate. The public’s interest in these masterpieces of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which the rock legend had bought at auction in the late 1970s, made it abundantly clear that the medieval aesthetics that inspired the late-Victorian Arts and Crafts movement still resonate today. John Ruskin, William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and their group were not just looking to the Middle Ages for artistic inspiration, however. They were also fascinated by the way in which medieval society functioned and saw in it a model for a much-needed social reorganization: a return to craftsmanship and community, to counter the soulless uniformity of industrialization.

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Today, the Digital Turn – arguably just as monumental a change as industrialism – also triggers movements towards simplification, individualization, and craftsmanship. But a connection to the medieval way of life can also be observed in a much more unexpected area: digital publishing.

The Arming and Departure of the Knights, one of the Holy Grail tapestries, 1890s, figures by Burne-Jones

From medieval scribes…

Back before the invention of the printing press, every manuscript was hand-written, which means that no two manuscripts were identical. Every copy was an opportunity for alterations, both in the combination of texts put together in the manuscript, and in the texts themselves. These alterations were predominantly invisible and untraceable: once a scribe had introduced a change, it generally became part of all subsequent copies. This made every reader a potential manipulator, or even co-author, while the original author stayed a helpless bystander, with very little control over the fate of his or her creation.

Authors back then were aware of this: Augustine of Hippo lamented that his works were passed along from hand to hand before they were finished and he feared they could be modified without his approval or, even worse, against his will. Over six centuries later, the same problem annoyed Anselm of Canterbury, and examples can be multiplied at random.

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…to re-tweeting readers

Something similar is happening today. Gone is the supreme monopoly of the printing press and publishing industry on the ‘orderly’ and ‘authenticated’ dissemination of information. Texts thrown on the Internet escape the exclusive control of their author. Their impact and dissemination are subjected to the whim of readers. Whether the product is still faithful to the author’s intention, no one knows. The Internet offers incredible possibilities to create, co-author, alter, manipulate, forge, and disseminate texts.

While the first impression may be that this simply makes the process of publishing easier, we must not overlook the fact that it also constitutes a real change from how things worked before. The Internet has re-established writing in a plasticity that was natural in the Middle Ages, but quite foreign to us for a long time. After 500 years of the printing press dominating what we read, we are once again living in an age where the power of the reader – through comments, tweets, clicks, likes, and shares – is eclipsing that of the author.

Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Fr 9198, f.19

From parchment makers…

Of course, we do not claim any direct or straightforward correlation between medieval book production and online publishing, but the similarities they do share are striking enough that we want to devote a series of articles to the way in which texts were handled in the Middle Ages. There is an abundance of topics to explore, ranging from the basic materials that make up a manuscript to lofty concepts of authority and authenticity. We will discover the chain of people who, in some way or other, contributed to the text as we find it on the parchment – authors and translators, editors and commentators, scribes and compilers, rubricators and parchment makers.

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From time to time, the parchment still holds traces of the modifications and appropriations that a written piece underwent. We will catch glimpses of medieval readers – readers who commissioned manuscripts, who tried painstakingly to correct the text they had before them, or who marked their favorite passages in the margins. We will look at how different versions, forgeries and compilations abound in this world of hand-copied manuscripts.

…to heretics hidden in plain sight

The medieval period is teeming with wonderful contradictions. We know of medieval authors who begged for their works to remain untouched, once passed along to future generations of copyists; and we know of writers who explicitly encouraged future readers to increase and add to their works. The works of condemned heretics could be copied alongside those of the most authoritative Church Fathers, while at the same time heated debates were determining the authenticity of works attached to the name of orthodox authors. Quaint little texts could become true ‘bestsellers’, sometimes through a targeted strategy, sometimes because of a fluke: a copy landing in the hands of the right person at the right time, an ardent bibliophile or an industrious abbot.

Often a text became famous, not because of its author, but because of the person who was passing it along (like Jimmy Page’s tapestries, which probably got more attention because of their owner). The figure of the author – especially the Catholic authorities – often looms larger than life in the medieval world, but in reality, it was the mediation through countless editors and scribes, and the approval or criticism of generations of readers that determined a text’s destiny, and thus our own literary and cultural heritage.

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The opening of the Book of Sentences in a 14th-century manuscript – Free Library of Philadelphia, Lewis E 170, fol. 1r

A series on medieval texts and manuscripts, with a little hint of today

Along the way, we might learn something about our own time as well. Not every subject we address will have a counterpart in our modern digital world, but every article will touch upon the strange dynamic between the author and the reader and how the medium, whether parchment or pixel, influences that dynamic. Most of us still instinctively trust the stability of information appearing ‘in print’, unconsciously equating a screen with paper and ink. Looking at medieval readers, scribes, commentators and compilers may open our eyes to the wild variety of possibilities and obstacles when it comes to the dissemination of information. We hope this series leaves you in awe of the vast and complicated machine of medieval text circulation…and perhaps a little suspicious about what pops up next on your social media feed. Welcome to ‘The power of texts’.

Shari Boodts, Iris Denis, Riccardo Macchioro and Gleb Schmidt together make up the team behind a European research project on the reception of patristic sermons in medieval manuscripts (PASSIM), housed at the Department of Medieval History at Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands. You can learn more about their work on the project website.

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