Medieval manuscripts were the ‘online’ before print

The stage in the history of the written word which comes closest to online media is the 1,000 or so years of medieval book culture. That is because of the dominance of manuscripts in transmitting culture and providing exchange between educated individuals.

The medieval manuscript was a type of book, but it was a rich media object. Unlike modern printed books, manuscripts encouraged exchange along lines similar to our online media forms. They were open and open-ended.

  1. Medieval manuscripts were open objects. They were open in a way printed books are not. They were open in a way the internet is. Texts in manuscripts are unstable, in the sense that there is no single version infinitely reproducible through technology. Manuscripts were written by scribes, humans who made mistakes in the process of copying other texts. No two manuscripts are identical in the way two printed copies are. This kind of openness produced a large number of textual forms which defy our dominant paradigm of the ‘original’,  ‘genuine’, authorised and ‘standard’. This is the source of the philologists” challenge of finding the master text to base all other copies on. Many scholars believe that a medieval text which originated and circulated in manuscript would be better served by being edited and published online rather than in print so as to reflect its many forms, variants and incarnations – rather than reducing it, anachronistically, to one ‘best text’, which may not even have existed as such.

  2. Medieval manuscripts were open-ended and subject to organic growth and limited control. In many ways, manuscripts were closer to online forums and social media threads than to printed books. And that is because they often grew in time by the addition of new content. There was also no recognised authority to control publication. A manuscript of a medieval chronicle, for example, could be updated with new information across generations. New readers could add new material. Anyone could write a text and publish it in manuscript, sharing it freely with others. Bindings are growth stoppers, and many medieval manuscripts enjoyed freedom and expansion as loose quires (folded sheets of parchment) before getting sewn-locked into wooden or leather covers.


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