Saturday, September 27, 2008

Got Medieval gets medieval

There is an interesting and intermittent blog named Got Medieval that in recent weeks has been specializing in rude marginal illustrations of superhero monkeys and other peculiarities in medieval manuscripts. This by itself, no kidding, has been a contribution to understanding the past. But today the blog transcends mere illustration and amusing commentary. The blogger, whose name is Carl S. Pyrdum (III), uses his blogging podium to great effect, drawing attention to one of the most irritating generalizations about the Middle Ages made by non-specialists. This is what blogs are for, having a place to put thoughts of this sort is why I have mine, though I am not sure I've ever written one this good about the Middle Ages. I want all of my students who have any interest in the farther past to read the whole post, which is called The Myth of Pre-literacy. I don't know if I can manage to convince them, or the rest of you, to go there and read, but have a look at this sample:

Before the printing press, people had books--not as many books, surely, but they had books. And some of them loved books. They loved books the way BoingBoingers love Altoid tins and open source software projects. As hard as it is to believe, books were themselves once a cool, innovative technology, and that "once" happened well before Gutenberg came along.

Medieval book enthusiasts were DIYers. They made their own books. They copied texts they liked, freely editing and recomposing--or hacking, remixing, and cut-and-pasting, to use the right lingo. Take a certain fifteenth-century Englishman who went by the name "Rate," for example. We know him, because he signs his name to a manuscript collection he put together, a book today held by the Bodleian Library that goes by the name MS Ashmole 61. It's what specialists would call "a commonplace book," and as other medieval scholars have pointed out, commonplace books had a lot in common with blogs. Scribes collected together texts they liked and copied them down into books for their personal use. If there was a romance floating around they liked, they would "rip" a copy of it into their commonplace book, alongside other things that caught their interest-- including recipes, sermons, devotional stories, saint's lives, dirty jokes (including fabliaux), registers of their finances, lists of animals that start with the letter A, the birthdays and christening days of their children, songs, and so on, and so on.

... People were simply a lot savvier consumers of texts in the Middle Ages than they're often given credit for. If they saw a miniature they liked in one book, they might go to their local bookshop and ask for a version to be pasted into one of their books. Or they might take their business to one shop over another because, "That scribe they have there does a mean Piers Plowman, and his Chaucer's not bad, either."** At least one manuscript of Wace, the French translator of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, inserts all of Chretien de Troyes' Arthurian romances into the middle of the history's section on King Arthur--which would be kind of like pasting the script of the Untouchables into your 20th Century American History textbook right after the chapter on Al Capone or splicing up Shakespeare in Love to serve as a frame to your copy of Romeo and Juliet.

As I've argued here before, it's absurd to think of the printing press as a sudden world-shattering technology. People were jazzed about the printing press because it allowed them to do on a larger scale things that they already were doing with written texts.

Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.

Oh, BTW. This man seems to be looking for a job. Someone hire him quick and stick him in front of your best students, or maybe your average ones.

Image: Superhero monkey.

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