26th April 2017

Manuscript to Meme: Medieval Books and Modern Reading

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Thomas Kittel, a second year DPhil in English

Political events in 2016 gave new currency to the terms ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’. They were selected by the Oxford English Dictionary and the Macquarie Dictionary, respectively, as Words of the Year, defining a climate characterised by unexpected shifts and divisions in public opinion. These terms describe how political rhetoric, journalism, and media are shaped, shared, and talked about. The production of articles, videos, blogposts, tweets, and comments is driven by a wider body of people than ever before. Digital tools allow content to be repurposed, rewritten, and redistributed. Our textual world is increasingly unstable, as the structures which create standard, authorised writing, such as print media, are liquified in digital space. Memes are a familiar example. The same image appears with different captions in different places, adapted to new situations or events. Other forms of digital media are equally susceptible to such remoulding. Tweets can be retweeted, given a new frame of reference which changes how the original is read and interpreted. Anything that can be embedded, like a video, can be displayed on other webpages, circulating in different contexts for new audiences.

All this means that the digital future is beginning to look more like the medieval past. Before the development of print in Europe in the fifteenth century, most texts did not exist in a ‘standard’ form. All writing was done by hand, and to produce more of the same writing required manual copying. Scribes introduced changes, both deliberately and accidentally. Even the most careful copyist made mistakes, meaning that no two versions of a medieval text are exactly identical. Because of this, authors were unable to control the dissemination of their writing beyond their immediate circle, and texts that were widely read, existing in multiple copies (sometimes into the hundreds), ended up looking very different to the original.

Our picture of the copying and circulation of medieval texts is complicated by substantial losses. Half a millennium has destroyed probably the majority of what once existed. Many books were lost in less turbulent circumstances, thrown away or read until they fell apart. For the study of medieval texts, our evidence is incomplete. It is extremely rare for holographs to survive, versions written by authors themselves, and instead scholars must often rely on derivatives, none representing wholly the original. Since the nineteenth century, techniques have been developed to cope with this situation, forming a body of methodologies called textual criticism. These approaches have normally been used to reconstruct the authorial form of a work which survives only in later copies. In recent decades, attention has been focused more broadly on connections between manuscripts of the same text, or the working practices of scribes. My own research looks at these latter issues, examining the readership of two important poems from medieval England.

Textual criticism uses biological metaphors. The first copy of a text is the archetype, or ‘common ancestor’. In a hypothetical example, two copies were made of this manuscript, A and B. More copies were made of both, creating two ‘families’ of manuscripts. The copies descended from A are ‘genetically related’; they share the changes made by the scribe of A, which are not present in B or its descendants. Copies were made of one of the A descendants, creating a ‘sub-family’ containing more changes exclusive to this group. These relationships can be expressed visually, in a stemmatic diagram:


Imagine that these manuscripts were copies of a text written in England in 1400. Just over a century later, the archetype ‘O’ no longer exists, thrown away when the author died. A was destroyed in a fire, and its descendant C was cut up to stuff the binding of another book. D and E are in the ownership of merchants in London, and F is in a parish church in the city. B and its relatives are in monastic libraries. When Henry VIII announces the dissolution of the monasteries, the collections of religious houses across the country are broken up, and G, H, and I are dispersed into aristocratic hands. I does not survive, but G and H are eventually donated to institutions like the Bodleian and the British Library. D is destroyed in the fire of London, but E and F escape the flames and eventually make it to nineteenth-century auction rooms where they and other copies are bought by private owners, universities, or national libraries.

In our hypothetical scenario, the text is now recorded only in four manuscripts. These copies are ‘witnesses’ to different stages of the text. E and F together offer evidence for A. Their texts are collated, compared line-by-line, and analysed for evidence of variation. Many changes made by scribes, particularly mistakes, are predictable and can be seen in comparison with another copy. An example is ‘eye-skip error’, which occurs when a copyist looks away from the page and returns to the same word or phrase at a later point in the text, accidentally omitting a portion. Deliberate changes, such as the suppression of material considered inappropriate, or dangerous, or otherwise objectionable, can be more difficult to detect, but through comparison can be identified as unoriginal. The same process locates scribal additions, where new words were inserted or lines composed. This process reconstructs the state of A, and in parallel G and H are used to reproduce B. Comparing the text of A and B produces a reconstructed version of the archetype.

Determining whether a text reproduces the archetype accurately or not involves judgment, and so is not scientific or totally objective. Like all work in the humanities, it requires the interpretation of evidence which, in the medieval context, is more than usually fragmentary. The results are imperfect, but allow scholars to strip away layers of change and variation to look at how a text was originally conceived, or conversely to identify and analyse those layers for evidence of readership and reception. The emphasis of this methodology on comparison, identification of change, and understanding of motivation gives it, I think, an overlooked relevance in our present textual culture. Like medieval people, we live in an age of reader response, where every consumer of content can change, recontextualise, or add more. Technologies are different, and the similarities between now and the past should not be over stressed, but in the post-truth landscape the tools to understand what is original and what is not are more important than ever.

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