Let me dwell on the edge

An 11th-century manuscript of the works of the Roman historian Sallust, featuring ample notes in the margin, Basel, Universitätsbibliothek, AN IV 11

The edge – where the limit is a promise, the compromise a deep breath, the line a window onto what lies beyond.

Judging by the appearance of handwritten books, the edge was by far the preferred space to dwell. It was the place to be, to become, to grow.

I’ve always been fascinated by the capacity of Western medieval manuscripts to change with every new transcription. Scribes were too clever to copy texts slavishly. They were all scribes, not slaves, after all. Instead, they created new ones with the matter they had at their disposal. Forget post-Enlightenment authorial originality, self-expression and creativity. The medieval author and scribe was a casual farmer – both on and off page.

An agricultural society of subsistance could never settle for “enough”. Enough doesn’t get you anywhere, merely restoring the previous levels would be bad strategy in a world so dependent on the forces of nature, history and collective action.

On the page, the edge was where texts were planting new seeds. Scribes, readers, owners left their mark which often produced new growth. The notes in the margin in one manuscript copy would find centre stage in another copy. Texts grew like trees, grafted, planted and replanted.

The scribe was a husbandman of traceable signs, the sower of promising seed. Like in the world off-page, not everything could grow, not everything stuck, but that was no reason for scribes to give up.

Imagine going back in time and telling the frozen hands of the Middle Ages that most of their work would not be around in 500 years. If we know anything at all about the tenacity of the medieval mind, this thought would have made no difference.

What was the point anyway, among so much killing, theft and oppression? Who needed words when the air was filled with lawlessness and when any attempt to curb it was just a sandbank on the ocean? The scribal work of the 1000 years before the printing press was an exercise in futility, no doubt. And at the same time, it is the reason we’re here at all, the reason we’re able to type away on our machines with equal tenacity. It was the only way to grow and to escape the narrow cycles of time and dissolution.

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