It’s been roughly half a millenium since Europe moved beyond a culture of handwritten books. It was painful (for the scribes), expensive (for book merchants and readers), and slow (slow to write and to read). But most of all, it proved uncompetitive once the printing press had moved beyond the early adoption stage.
And yet human life has more in common with a medieval manuscript than with a modern printed book. I’d like to push this metaphor as far as it can go.
Medieval manuscripts are messy. Despite the high degree of preparation that usually went into making one, the result was always 100% human, 100% organic. Though ruled, the pages reflected human craftmanship, unautomated and unmechanic. Letters may resemble each other, but they are never the same. Like a human person, a handwritten book had its own unique DNA. Like a human person, a manuscript grew and kept growing, until it fell out of use or was put out of action and circulation by the same factors which caused human suffering and death: violence, accidents, water, fire and mould, which is a book’s metastasizing cancer.
Once brought into the world, many medieval manuscripts quickly freed themselves from the tutelage of their maker and grew on to become something else.
Though premodern, manuscripts embodied the postmodern idea that the text collapses all divisions between writer, reader, transmitter. In the same book, the reader becomes the writer, adding her own text to what we call, for lack of a better framework, the original text, the Ur-text, to be pedantically modern. Layers of readership resolve themselves into as many layers of authorship, to the point that the book ends up belonging to all and none.
Original or derivative, nature or nurture? Handwritten books are as much a result of other books (source books) as they are the originators of other books down river (copies). As part of lignages, families and genealogies, medieval manuscripts created communities of texts and cultures of the word in ways that printed books, as mechanically duplicated items, couldn’t.