When texts want to break free

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A page from a 12th-century manuscript of the Gospel of St John with several explanatory texts (glossed) linked to each other in ‘medieval hyperlink’, British Library Add MS 8091

One of the achievements of electronic media has been the recovery of what may be called the live text. If Gutenberg’s printing press was the museum in which letters came to repose in fossilizing slumber, then the computer woke them all up and brought them back to a special kind of life.

The printing press, which is to say the fixed layout, the mechanical reproduction, the hegemony of the main printed text over marginal inscriptions, glosses, annotations, and corrections, took the beating heart of the manuscript text and locked it in a box.

To produce a printed copy, it was no longer enough to sit down and copy the text, but it was now necessary to amass enough capital to purchase a workshop and enough manpower to operate a press. To create a new edition of a text, it was no longer enough to recopy the text making the required changes to it – but it was now necessary to get editorial approvals from organised institutions. The press led to a stabilization of the text which in previous ages had been more volatile, certainly more precarious, but also more likely to grow unencumbered. A suitable metaphor here is, I think, that of gardening – the manuscript culture was like a woodland made up of various trees and plants, all growing together and also rather chaotically. The age of print was the clearing of the woodland and its replacement with a jardin à la française.

The electronic age of word processors, the internet and social media has brought the woodland back. One of the most significant effects of this development has been the growth of texts clustered around texts in hyperlinked kinship. The organisation of information online is more reminiscent of texts taking up a page of medieval manuscripts, where several texts, commentaries, glosses, translations could co-exist without impoverishing the user experience, than the printed page.

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