We’re still medieval, and it’s a good thing

The web of texts in a 11th-century manuscript containing the poetic works of the Roman poet Horace (main, central text) surrounded by explanations, clarifications and comments, not without some decorative elements to guide the reading (Cologny, Fondation Martin Bodmer, Cod. Bodmer 88)

If Jacques Derrida’s famous dictum that ‘there is no outside text’ may hold true for postmodern readers, it was quite the opposite for the books of the middle ages. There is always an outside text. There is never a single text.

Against the simple-mindedness which is often assumed with respect to the medieval period, the texts written and published during the Middle Ages give a picture of such complexity that one is constantly tempted to multiply the comparisons between those distant texts and the ones we access today, in print or online.

‘We have never been modern’, concluded the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour in 1991. In 2022, following his argument, we may say with renewed confidence that we’re quite medieval. That we’ve always been medieval.

At least when it comes to texts and the way we read them.

Medieval readers rarely read a text in isolation. To them, reading was a networking activity – placing the text in a mesh of relationships with other texts, other authors and contexts, letting the mind take off in all directions, engaging itself in literal, figurative, metaphorical or allegorical keys and significances. Texts connected through active mental links, and on the manuscript page, they were often placed side by side.

The medieval manuscript page manifested the mind’s inclination for connection. The main text of a poetic, philosophic or historical text was quite often framed, both physically and figuratively, by other texts which enhanced the construction of meaning and completed the reading experience.

The practice of inscribing a manuscript page with texts and hypertexts alongside each other was a complex operation, which often went bad, as when subsequent scribes, tasked with copying the text of a given work, would copy the side texts as though they were part of the main text, rewriting the original text, thus leading to such confusion that a great part of the modern philological muscle has been devoted to disentangling the threads.

In the age of social media, text platforms and blogospheres, are things any different? As we focus our eyes on a text on our screens, are we really limiting our attention and awareness to one text alone? Aren’t we rather accessing, at the same time, a network of adjacent and affiliated texts, all referencing each other, locked in webs of meaning and linked relevance? Aren’t we doing the same textual networking, hopping from one piece of text to another, by means of scrolling or hyperlinking?

Like the internet, the medieval textosphere was messy, complex and decentralised. If you think commenting on a blog, an editorial or a post is a modern thing the founders of Web 2.0 came up with, you couldn’t be more wrong. The medieval commentarius, the compilers, the flower-pluckers (authors of digests, known as florilegia, or bouquets of flower(ing) texts) set a machine in motion that is still running to this day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: