Just like the fish in the water that take the water for granted, so are we immersed in our culture(s) so deeply that we find it hard to imagine that things were once very different from what they are now.
Imagine looking for a book that doesn’t have a title, how would you ask around for it? Or how would you find out about it in the first place? Or when you’ve found it, how would you tell others about it? We have books and we have expectations about books, how they should be, what they should look like, what they can do for us, how to read them, and even how to write others like them. In Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, a writer is asked by a guy with a funny hairdo: ‘Your book, what was the story?’. ‘I don’t know’, the writer answers. The editor, sitting next to the writer, tries to explain: ‘What he means is, it’s difficult to distill the essence of a book sometimes. It lives in the mind.’ The guy with the funny hairdo then asks, ‘Yeah, but you gotta know what it’s about, right? I mean, if you didn’t know what it was about, why were you writing it?’
Why, indeed, and also how?
Not all books used to have titles. The printing press brought us, among other things, the dictatorship of the book title, enshrined in carefully-cut book plates. Modernity gave us the ubiquity of book titles to the point that we now can’t think things could be otherwise. But during the premodern period, some books had titles, others did not. The majority of texts in extant medieval manuscripts don’t have a title, while for those that did, the title was often bestowed by the reader, not the writer. Our current notions of authorial control (over title, among other things) collapses for this period. This is evident even for the manuscripts which didn’t survive. When we look at library booklists and catalogues made during the Middle Ages, we see that most books don’t have a title, and what appears to be one is actually a description of what is contained in the book.
When a text in a medieval manuscript has a distinguishable title, that’s no guarantee that the author of that text (author, not copyist) gave the title as well. Often, we see texts circulating anonymously in some areas, but under a title (or several) in others. Manuscript cultures cannot control how manuscripts are copied and texts reproduced. A title may be lost in one manuscript which is the source of ten others, and in a couple of generations, the title is forgotten completely. Or several titles can exist at the same time. The situation on the ground was and remains, for those fearless scholars out there, quite messy.