Manuscripts as artefacts

As you will have seen from Polly’s post below, lately we have been considering the relationship between the physical text (medieval manuscripts in our case) and the digital output which we are in the process of constructing here at the Estoria Digital.

The immediate response to the question “why keep the manuscript then?” (and I am sure we would all say the same) is that this is not even a question worth addressing. The question should simpy not arise and to engage with it may give the impression that we are entertaining the possibility of more than one answer. There are already enough examples of philistinism in the world. For us, as scholars who are not the owners of our cultural and intellectual wealth but merely the custodians of it so we can pass it on to future generations (amended perhaps, but fundamentally intact), some things are, and should be, sacred. And our manuscript culture, in which I include the physical objects, is one of those things.

To explain why manuscripts have the status of sacred objects (and not just artefacts) is not to engage with the question above. But before doing so, I would like to suggest why I think we are in a moment of rare privilege. For scholar of medieval texts, the possibilities which have emerged in the digital sphere in the last two decades or so are very exciting. I suspect that my imagination is too limited to have any idea where this will all lead, but as an editor of medieval texts, I welcome freedom from the limitations of print. However, in 50 years time perhaps we will have created a medieval experience in multiple dimensions which will replicate the act of medieval reading in a manner to which anyone could have access. And if we can replicate all of these things in whatever format takes over from digital, then why do we need the original object? I therefore find myself in the curious position of celebrating that which could lead to the destruction of what I believe to be the core of my discipline.

Could, but need not. As I said, I think those of us who were trained in pre-digital methods, and who celebrate the possibilities of the future, have a rare moment of opportunity to pass on our knowledge to digital natives so that all that is dear to manuscript culture is preserved and built upon in the new dimension. Which is why my fear that I have contributed to the destruction of something precious is mitigated by the possibilities of embedding in our future, digital, practice, all that was important about our pre-digital methodology and thought.

The answer to the question? Who knows what future technological advances will tell us about manuscripts? (Nothing, of course, if they are destroyed.) But far more important is the knowledge that the manuscript, the physical object, provides a direct and physical link to another human being who many centuries ago sat and left his mark on the very page one can still touch. That direct human connection cannot be replicated and we who are, after all, scholars of the humanities, celebrate that.


1 thought on “Manuscripts as artefacts

  1. Polly Duxfield

    “That direct human connection cannot be replicated and we who are, after all, scholars of the humanities, celebrate that.”

    Last night I was watching the new TV programme about pottery and there was a comment made about how seeing the thumb-print of a potter from the past is a direct link to that person and I thought how this is just the same as what we are doing. Instead of thumb-prints we see marks on the page. Then this morning I logged onto the blog to see this comment of yours, Aengus, and I thought yes, what we are doing is such a rush – directly linking our work to that of an unknown medieval scribe so many centuries ago. A few weeks ago I was reminded of this very clearly when I found I stumbled a few times over a phrase in the manuscript with a mistake in it where the scribe had copied the same couple of words twice instead of once – he had stumbled over the phrase and then I stumbled over the very same phrase some seven hundred years later. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the transcriptions and the tags and completely forget the human connection, but then suddenly I was reminded that the manuscript was made by someone, a real human who worked on it painstakingly, and our shared mistake directly linked me to him. This was only using the digital images, not even the real manuscript, but it was still a great feeling.


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