Tag Archives: medieval

Speed and writing

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The history of writing is many things, but it is also a history of raising the speed bar. From stone and wood to paper and digital, writing went faster and faster. New writing technologies superseded old ones not only because they made records more permanent and reliable, but because they saved time.

Parchment replaced papyrus for many reasons, but also because it made writing faster. Paper made it even faster. Scripts evolved against speed constraints. By the 13th century, the highly calligraphical Gothic scripts were restricted to high-profile books, whereas the greater proportion of functional books (government, legal, academic) began to be written against the clock in cursive hands – economy trumped aesthetics, time upstaged beauty.

When you write faster, you spend the rest of the time reading more and looking up more stuff. When you write faster, you write more. When everyone writes faster, a lot more gets written and a lot more writing becomes available. When scarcity plunges, more people have access to this resource, and it gets cheaper and easier to make the resource available. That creates more time, which in time creates more resources.

There is a growing body of evidence from the 12th century onwards which suggests that Western Europe went through a writing accelerator around that time. Writing speed records were being broken, books expanded, libraries grew. When the printing press came to the game, the race was already on. The speed record was broken once again.


Pre-print UX

Everything today is about user experience.

The standard ISO definition of user experience has it as ‘a person’s perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service’.

The earliest case of user experience has to do with books before the age of print. Readers’ engagement with manuscripts is the earliest evidence of what UX means.

Books are at the same time products, systems and services whose use has always been a question of user experience. Of reader experience.

Books have aroused strong emotions in users since the beginning of writing. Magic, affection, disgust, the books have been on the receiving end of most human reactions.

Script developed in part as a result of UX. Page layout evolved as a function of user response to the organisation of information and cultural requirements (education, religion, etc). Most typographical characters and practices from the pilcrow  to the rubric, column, heading, etc, is a result of UX before the printing press. The hyperlink is one of the most advanced editorial devices ever conceived and it was first systematically used in medieval glossed manuscripts to link up the main text on the page to that of other works.

The UX of books is constantly evolving. The way we engage with books is always being redefined. The UX of a papyrus roll is different from that of a vellum codex, and different from a paperback. Yet we cannot imagine the history of writing removed from that of user experience.

It is our experience and the projection of all future experiences that define the way we engage with the objects around us.

Circles and lines

The ancient and medieval idea of ‘old’ is very different from our own. Modern culture was the first to introduce the notion of historical distance in a way that was significant enough to bring a shift in our consciousness. For the premodern mind, old meant old in the way our grandparents are old. To get from old to ancient, a lot has to happen. To get from us to me and from me to myself, a lot has to happen.

A 3D camera captures the space between objects. A historical consciousness captures the time between events, the space between ages. The depth of field in history comes from an understanding of where we are relative to other points in time. It requires a visual image of time. One which moves away from a circle and towards a line.

The circle is the eternal return of history. History repeats itself, we’ve heard that many times. Resurrection is the keyword here. Things are different, but in fact they’re the same. And they are inevitable. And they keep coming back. The focus is on essence, which drives things on, or better yet turns the wheel. Accidents don’t matter.

The line extends from 1 to 2 and then to 3 rather than back. Moving on means leaving things behind. Leaving things behind means that the options for the line to keep extending are either transformation or creation. Transforming what’s been left behind or creating something new, which is never completely new.

The circle is closed, the line is open. The circle creates a ubiquity effect whereby all points on its circumference feel equally close. The line forces vision to adjust to distance, using different focal lengths every time. Historical consciousness is the cause and result of this constant refocusing.

We feel the ancient Greeks and Romans are farther away than the medieval French or the Renaissance Italians not because we know when these cultures developed, but because we have made the line ours. Unlike our pre-modern ancestors, we feel stylistically offended to see a Roman battle in medieval style, like so many depictions in medieval manuscripts. We feel offended because of the line, which produces an acute sense of historical distance and perspective. Timelines are a visualization of the basic structure of our time consciousness. And this is something we have acquired at the expense of the circle.

Classical anti-classicism

For the ancient Romans, the past was dominated by Greece and Greek classicism, just like the Renaissance and most of our modern period were dominated by classical antiquity. In fact, our modern love affair with the classical past and classical authors starts with the Paduan scholar and poet Lovato Lovati (1241–1309). He wrote:

‘Do you despise him [the courageous, classically-minded poet] because he believes that one must follow in the footsteps of the ancient poets or because he subordinates a discourse well-formed with metric rules suited to its subject, lest the word becomes the predominant concern and the subject perish? Or because he mocks the verses of rhythmic compositions [modern poetry for Lovato, medieval for us] where rhyme distorts the meaning?’

Quod sectanda putat veterum vestigia vatum,
Despicis aut metrica quod cogit lege decentem
Sermonem servire rei, ne principe verbo
Res mutata cadat? Quod textus metra canori
Ridet, ubi intentum concinna vocabula torquent? 

(William P. Sisler, 􏰒An Edition and Translation of Lovato Lovati􏰑s 􏰐Metrical Epistles􏰑 with Parallel Passages from Ancient Authors,􏰓 Ph.D. Diss., The Johns Hopkins University, (1977), p. 42)

Lovato’s beautiful expression ‘veterum vestigia vatum’ (in the footsteps of the ancient poets) is remarkable. Lovato is a true lover of the classics, and the obsession with classical authors of the humanist period starts with him. Humanists after him, led by Petrarch, continued to sacrifice modern-ness on ancient classical altars. Modern Dante, despite his innovative radicalism, was not spared either. For these modern pontiffs of the ancient world, the present was valuable inasmuch as it revealed the classical past. Modern-ness was inferior to classicism. The old was better than the new. What can the new teach that the old hasn’t already?

Yet, modern-ness found defenders in the midst of the very thing that sought to ruin it: the classical past. There were many such ‘Trojan horses’, but my favourite is Horace’s. One of the things I like most about him is his even-handed treatment of the classical past. In his letter to Emperor Augustus, he makes it clear that the present is not to be despised for its ‘recentness’, emphasizing the contradiction embedded in all conservative sentiments: The old has been new at some point. As Luxembourg’s Museum of Modern Art captured it: All art has been contemporary. But to come back to Horace.

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Maurizio Nannucci
All Art Has Been Contemporary, 1999
© Roman Mensing / artdoc.de

It is foolish to despise modern art for being modern, Horace says. He explains:


‘I am impatient that any work is censured, not because it is thought to be coarse or inelegant in style, but because it is modern, and that what is claimed for the ancients should be, not indulgence, but honour and rewards. If I were to question whether a play of Atta’s keeps its legs or not amidst the saffron and flowers, nearly all our elders would cry out that modesty is dead, when I attempt to blame what stately Aesopus and learned Roscius once acted; either because they think nothing can be right save what has pleased themselves, or because they hold it a shame to yield to their juniors, and to confess in their old age that what they learned in beardless youth should be destroyed. Indeed, whoever cries up Numa’s Salian hymn, and would alone seem to understand what he knows as little of as I do, that man does not favour and applaud the genius of the dead, but assails ours today, spitefully hating us and everything of ours. But if novelty had been as offensive to the Greeks as it is to us, what in these days would be ancient? What would the public have to read and thumb, each according to his taste?’

Indignor quicquam reprehendi, non quia crasse
compositum inlepideue putetur, sed quia nuper,
nec ueniam antiquis, sed honorem et praemia posci.
Recte necne crocum floresque perambulet Attae
fabula si dubitem, clament periisse pudorem
cuncti paene patres, ea cum reprehendere coner
quae grauis Aesopus, quae doctus Roscius egit,
uel quia nil rectum, nisi quod placuit sibi, ducunt,
uel quia turpe putant parere minoribus et, quae
inberbes didicere, senes perdenda fateri.
Iam Saliare Numae carmen qui laudat, et illud
quod mecum ignorat solus uolt scire uideri,
ingeniis non ille fauet plauditque sepultis,
nostra sed inpugnat, nos nostraque liuidus odit.
Quodsi tam Graecis nouitas inuisa fuisset
quam nobis, quid nunc esset uetus? Aut quid haberet
quod legeret tereretque uiritim publicus usus? (Epistles 2.1, 76-92)

Ten medieval ways to hold a book

The good thing with illuminated manuscripts of books of the Old Testament is that there is great scope for depicting scribes, books, scrolls, pens, desks, and other elements of the medieval culture of writing and book-making. Manuscript Engelberg 76, produced in the mid 12th century at the Benedictine Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland , one of the highest-altitude monasteries of Western Europe (1,020 m ASL), offers a visual catalogue of authors holding their books. These are ten out of the 12 minor prophets of the Old Testament (Micah and Haggai are missing, while Jonah is surely hiding his book behind parts of the initial). The images are below.

The fashion of holding a book never quite went out of fashion. The book may be held with the right (Hosea) as well as with the left hand (Amos), or with both (Malachi) – some medieval volumes were too heavy for a human, and some, such as giant Bibles, were even bigger than toddlers; some may be held closer to the body (Nahum), or away from it (Amos); some may be held while protecting the covers with one’s tunic (Obadiah) or in a contorted fashion in one hand, while the other admonishes the crowd (Zephaniah). One may also brandish a club while holding a book (Amos), though oratorical and pacific stances are more common.

Contrary to popular opinion (and common sense), books may sometimes be held ostentatiously in order to highlight how their covers match one’s outfit (Obadiah), or occasionally even for contrast (Hosea).

There can be no doubt that the most fashionable way to hold a medieval book is in such a way that one’s beard strokes the book’s leaves, as Malachi aptly demonstrates.


Joel, f. 23r


Amos, f. 32r


Obadiah, f. 48r


Jonah, f. 51r


Nahum, f. 89r


Habakkuk, f. 75r


Zephaniah, f. 82r


Zechariah, f. 94r


Malachi, f. 118r.

Authors policing the page

The hyper-literacy of medieval glossed books can sometimes achieve postmodernist levels. In a 12th century Psalter (Cambridge Trinity College B.5.4) that once belonged to the Anglo-Norman scholar Herbert of Bosham (active 1162-1189), the main text of the Psalms is glossed with commentaries from different patristic and early medieval sources (Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus, etc). The main text is literally wrapped in layers of textuality, which explicate and interpret it. If our modern footnotes could become side- and header-notes, then they would come close to the medieval glossed format.
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The general layout is impressive, but what I find most fascinating are the marginal pictures of various authors (mainly Augustine, Cassiodorus and Jerome) added to signify that a given gloss, parading in their name, has been mis-attributed. Thus, a figure of Augustine points a spear to one of the marginal annotations added in his name, bearing a banner which says ‘Not me!’ (Non ego). Disapproval over attribution expressed itself in ‘banner/scroll’ notes such as ‘I otherwise’ (ego aliter), ‘hic michi caveas’ (I avoid this) or ‘ego non approbo’ (I do not approve).
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It may be true, as many scholars have pointed out, that in the logic of medieval literacy, what made authority were texts, not people. Texts became authoritative through circulation, glossing and internalisation in the minds and memories of readers. Yet, as the Bosham Psalter clearly shows, authorities were also thought of as authors, people, who did not shy away from making intrusion on the page, albeit in the margin, to caution against sloppy quotation or interpretation. The layer of ‘authorial review’ in the Bosham Psalter gives us the measure of the almost postmodernist character of the medieval page – an unstable ground of debate and criticism, where authorial intent and control are struggling against  a background of literal insurrection.

How to write and publish in the Middle Ages: Eadmer and St Anselm


Unknown, Eadmer of Canterbury (English, about 1055 – 1124) De Vita et Conversatione Anselmi Cantuariensis, 1140 to 1150, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

We moderns easily forget that the medieval texts we read in manuscript or in print are the result of a complex process of composition; that writers didn’t just ‘pen’ words and sentences as they came to them; that we are not the only ones to struggle on the agonising road from ‘idea’ to ‘final draft’. As Mary Carruthers pointed out long ago, textual composition in the Middle Ages was a function of memory (not to be reduced to memorisation), cogitation and collation. Composition was independent from writing. The latter merely fixed and ‘authorised’ the author’s ‘text’, by making in known publicly.

One of the most fascinating descriptions of a medieval author at work is Eadmer of Canterbury’s account of St Anselm’s (1033-1109) difficult composition and publication of his short tract Proslogion in the late 1070s, sometimes translated into English as Discourse on the Existence of God. Eadmer was Anselm’s biographer, and he’s given us one of the best glimpses into the life of a 11th-century writer. Eadmer describes how Anselm struggled with the work’s ‘subject matter’ – something we may liken to the modern ‘writer’s block’; how devising the text kept one so focused that it caused disruptions to one’s lifestyle; that backing up one’s drafts was as important in the 11th century as it is today; that one has a responsibility to respond to reviews, especially when they are negative.

Most importantly, Eadmer’s story shows the importance of memory as an organic library of information and the fragility of a text’s existence before it is committed to parchment.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

For the Latin text, go to the end of this post.[1]

He [Anselm] also composed another small book, which he called the Monologion because in this he alone spoke and argued with himself. Here, putting aside all authority of Holy Scripture, he enquired into and discovered by reason alone what God is, and proved by invincible reason that God’s nature is what the true faith holds it to be, and that it could not be other than it is. Afterwards it came into his mind to try to prove by one single and short argument the things which are believed and preached about God, that he is eternal, unchangeable, omnipotent, omnipresent, incomprehensible, just, righteous, merciful, true, as well as truth, goodness, justice and so on; and to show how all these qualities are united in him. And this, as he himself would say, gave him great trouble, partly because thinking about it took away his desire for food, drink and sleep, and partly—and this was more grievous to him—because it disturbed the attention which he ought to have paid to matins and to Divine service at other times. When he was aware of this, and still could not entirely lay hold on what he sought, he supposed that this line of thought was a temptation of the devil and he tried to banish it from his mind. But the more vehemently he tried to do this, the more this thought pursued him. Then suddenly one night during matins the grace of God illuminated his heart, the whole matter became clear to his mind, and a great joy and exultation filled his inmost being. Thinking therefore that others also would be glad to know what he had found, he immediately and ungrudgingly wrote it on writing tablets and gave them to one of the brethren of the monastery for safe-keeping. After a few days he asked the monk who had charge of them for the tablets. The place where they had been laid was searched, but they were not found. The brethren were asked in case anyone had taken them, but in vain. And to this day no-one has been found who has confessed that he knew anything about them. Anselm wrote another draft on the same subject on other tablets, and handed them over to the same monk for more careful keeping. He placed them once more by his bed, in a more secret place, and the next day—having no suspicion of any mischance he found them scattered on the floor beside his bed and the wax which was on them strewn about in small pieces. After the tablets had been picked up and the wax collected together, they were taken to Anselm. He pieced together the wax and recovered the writing, though with difficulty. Fearing now that by some carelessness it might be altogether lost, he ordered it, in the name of the Lord, to be copied onto parchment. From this, therefore, he composed a volume, small in size but full of weighty discourse and most subtle speculation, which he called the Proslogion, because in this work he speaks either to himself or to God. This work came into the hands of someone who found fault with one of the arguments in it, judging it to be unsound. In an attempt to refute it he wrote a treatise against it and attached this to the end of Anselm’s work. A friend sent this to Anselm who read it with pleasure, expressed his thanks to his critic and wrote his reply to the criticism. He had this reply attached to the treatise which had been sent to him, and returned it to the friend from whom it had come, desiring him and others who might deign to have his little book to write out at the end of it the criticism of his argument and his own reply to the criticism.

Eadmeri Vita Sancti Anselmi. The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer, ed. by Richard W. Southern (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), pp. 29-31:

Fecit quoque libellum unum quem Monologion appellavit. Solus enim in eo et secum loquitur, ac tacita omni auctoritate divinae scripturae quid Deus sit sola ratione quaerit et invenit, et quod vera fides de Deo sentit, invincibili ratione sic nec aliter esse posse probat et astruit. Post haec incidit sibi in mentem investigare utrum uno solo et brevi argumento probari posset id quod de Deo creditur et praedicatur, videlicet quod sit aeternus, incommutabilis, omnipotens, ubique totus, incompraehensibilis, justus, pius, misericors, verax, veritas, bonitas, justitia, et nonnulla alia, et quomodo haec omnia in ipso unum sint.3 Quae res. sicut ipse referebat magnam sibi peperit difficultatem. Nam haec cogitatio partim illi cibum, potum et somnum tollebat, partim et quod magis eum gravabat intentionem ejus qua matutinis et alii servitio Dei intendere debebat perturbabat. Quod ipse animadvertens, nec adhuc quod quaerebat ad plenum capere valens. ratus est hujusmodi cogitationem diaboli esse temptationem, nisusque est eam procul repellere a sua intentione. Verum quanto plus in hoc desudabat. tanto illum ipsa cogitatio magis ac magis infestabat. Et ecce quadam nocte inter nocturnas vigilias Dei gratia illuxit in corde ejus, et res patuit intellectui ejus, immensoque gaudio et jubilatione replevit omnia intima ejus. Reputans ergo apud se hoc ipsum et aliis si sciretur posse placere. livore carens rem ilico scripsit in tabulis, easque sollicitius custodiendas uni ex monasterii fratribus tradidit. Post dies aliquot tabulas repetit a custode. Quaeruntur in loco ubi repositae fuerant, nec inveniuntur. Requiruntur a fratribus ne forte aliquis eas acceperit, sed nequiquam. Nec enim hucusque inventus est, qui recognoverit se quicquam inde scivisse. Reparat Anselmus aliud de eadem materia dictamen in aliis tabulis, et illas eidem sub cautiori custodia tradit custodi. Ille in secretiori parte lectuli sui tabulas reponit, et sequenti die nil sinistri suspicatus. easdem in pavimento sparsas ante lectum repperit, cera quas in ipsis erat hac illae frustatim dispersa. Levantur tabulas, cera colligitur, et pariter Anselmo reportantur. Adunat ipse ceram, et licet vix. scripturam recuperat. Verens autem ne qua incuria penitus perditum eat; eam in nomine Domini pergamenas jubet tradi. Composuit ergo inde volumen parvulum, sed sententiarum ac subtilissimas contemplationis pondere magnum, quod Proslogion nominavit. Alloquitur etenim in eo opere aut seipsum aut Deum. Quod opus cum in manus cujusdam venisset, et is in quadam ipsius operis argumentatione non parum offendisset. Ratus est eandem argumentationem ratam non esse. Quam refellere gestiens; quoddam contra illam scriptum composuit, et illud fini ejusdem operis scriptum apposuit. Quod cum sibi ab uno amicorum suorum transmissum Anselmus considerasset; gavisus est, et repraehensori suo gratias agens, suam ad hoc responsionem edidit, eamque libello sibi directo subscriptam, sub uno ei qui miserat amico remisit, hoc ab eo et ab aliis qui libellum illum habere dignantur petitum iri desiderans, quatinus in fine ipsius suae argumentationis repraehensio, et repraehensioni sua responsio subscribatur.