Accidents, mutations and miracles

Here’s another rant about manuscripts. I never run dry.

It is hard to imagine a culture where all available books are handwritten. We certainly know that such cultures existed, but if we think really seriously about it, it becomes hard to imagine the day to day challenges and implications of being immersed in a literate culture made up exclusively of books written by hand. In other words, a manuscript culture.

It is even harder to imagine that much of the knowledge we inherited today has come down to us in forms which predate the printing revolution.

If the evolution and survival of the species are due to accidents and mutations, the evolution and survival of the European book culture are due to a miracle in the face of accidents and mutations. That despite political, military, economic and ideological upheavals, Virgil as well as Dante made their way through history, hand in hand and quill by quill.

If you print 1000 copies of a work and throw them into the world, it will be pretty hard to get rid of every single copy. On the other hand, if you copy the same work 10 times by hand and let the copies drift away, it is 1000 times more likely that none of the 10 copies will survive into the next generation. That is unless they get copied again. And then again, and then again.

It is hardly a scalable model, and yet it worked just fine.

And this is how we get to a manuscript culture, one which is able to sustain itself through long manual labour and limited technology, creating enough momentum to keep the wheel turning.

One thought on “Accidents, mutations and miracles

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  1. Christian,
    I think you have just scratched the surface. In the pre-printing era, most manuscripts either stayed where they were made or else lent out to be returned, dispersing copies with a very intentional trajectory. In either case they were both obviously Quite valued, and there was a culture that accepted and disseminated that value. With the dawn of printing we see manuscripts being replaced very quickly and their value greatly diminished. And the printed books never was raised to the value of the pre-printing era.
    It has happened with the advent of e-Books. A private school near me sold ALL THE BOOKS in their library and replaced them with laptop computers… alas now they are buying back books.

    As Marshal McLuhan was fond of saying ‘when a form of communication becomes obsolete, eventually it turns into Art’


    Liked by 2 people

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