The paradox of the medieval page

The extraordinary Eadwine Psalter (12th century) containing three Latin translations of the psalms in parallel columns. The smaller bits of text between the lines and in the margin are glosses explaining the main text and they are in French and Old English. The illustration is a visual summary of the psalm, here Psalm 4, Cambridge, Trinity College, R. 17. 1

Preparing a medieval parchment page for writing was as difficult for a scribe as typesetting a page was (and sometimes still is) for a printer. The parchment was cut, folded, pricked, ruled, and the rules governing these essential operations evolved throughout the medieval period. It accounts for the changes in manuscript book layout, from the Latin antique codex to the Gothic book.

As everyone who’s seen a medieval manuscript will know, the page layout was never left to chance. A concern for uniformity, proportion and beauty seems to have always been there, built into the very DNA of bookmaking. Surviving ancient and medieval wax tablets show careless writing and almost no layout (unsurprisingly so), whereas manuscripts are carefully prepared and meticulously executed. The most careless layout appears quite laborious. To make a book was an expensive project: the parchment was costly while to produce a bound book required tens if not hundreds of hours of human toil.

Yet for all the careful preparation and arrangement of the medieval page, the writing was more fluid than print could ever be and the page served as a space on which several texts could co-exist. A written page could be far messier than the original layout expected it to be, with texts taking up all the available space. A read manuscript often looked more like a notebook than a book, at least the kind of book we’re used to. The manuscript page was a mode of textual engagement which could easily blur the lines between reader and writer, main and secondary, bringing into fruitful, noisy and tangled dialogue several voices, whom the modern scholar seeks to recover. The transition from a manuscript to a printed book culture in the West was also a movement away from fluidity towards rigidity, from classlessness to taxonomy, from open spaces to enclosures. In other words, the hallmark of modernity.

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