We love memes and soundbites. The internet vibrates with them. However, 100 years ago, the practice of creating, collecting and sharing memes would have appalled the educated folk. 200, the same; 300, 400, 500 years ago, they would have still been appalled.
600 years ago, however, and 1,000 years before that, they would have loved them.
In fact, the medieval litterati couldn’t get enough memes and soundbites. They had a different name for them, though: that was florilegium (florilegia in the plural).
The medieval florilegium was a compilation of excerpts from other writings, and they tended to be structured generically, by topic or theme. They included brief quotes from authors perceived as authorities, Church fathers, recent theologians and ancient authors. Many medieval writers knew these sources through florilegium ‘soundbites’: snippets of text summarising what they thought represented the author’s view and ideas. Florilegia were the literary soundbites of the Middle Ages.
Units of cultural transmission, florilegium quotes were the building blocks of much medieval writing. They transmitted knowledge of ancient texts without worrying about preserving the original texts from which they were plucked (like flowers, hence the word florilegium). They were free-floating, gravitating from author to author, text to text, conveying in a nutshell (or flowerbud) a cultural truth worthy of replication.
Immensely popular in the medieval period, florilegia pushed literary culture forward in a way that would be unacceptable today. Some of these ‘flowers’ proved viral and they are to be found frequently in other medieval texts. Their capacity for self-replication was extraordinary.
Proverbs, catchy phrases, stylish quotes spread via florilegia through medieval culture like the memes theorized by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. And just like memes, medieval ‘flowers’ were less concerned with accuracy, consistency or context. They were mimetic, reinforcing cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that were popular at a given moment.
Robert Burton complained that young men were wont to take snippets from his great florilegium called “The Anatomy of Melancholy” and toss them off without attribution, as though they were their own.