Creative Commons licensed photograph, "Underwood," by Flickr user Canned Muffins

Lab #3

Simulating the Scriptorium

Let’s start with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, which we discussed last week:

The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to study media at all. For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and TV, creating involvement in depth.

In today’s lab we read and wrote by candlelight in part to think about medieval textual practices, and it is certainly true that scribes copied manuscripts by candlelight. But it’s also true that technologies of illumination didn’t change that significantly for a long while—people in the mid-nineteenth century still read and wrote by candlelight and they were still scrivening well into the age of print. We are so used to the ways electric light reshapes our daily lives that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine landscapes and lives not defined by it.

To frame this in another way, the candle is a non-textual medium that has profoundly affected the texts we have inherited from previous generations. An ecology of media, including candlelight, parchment, and calligraphic standards circumscribed and defined the labor of early book making, which in turn helped determine what books were made (or saved). And that labor is also important as labor: bookmaking was a laborious process, an embodied process. The books through which we understand early periods are not simply those that were written, but instead those that survived, and often because they were mediated and remediated through a series of scribes, formats, materials, and, later, typesetters and editors.

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From Brian Pickings, a list of complaints about copying found in the margins of medieval manuscripts.

Your task for this lab, then, is to reflect on our labor in class by researching and reporting a particular story of textual transmission and remediation. You should research the provenance of at least one text written prior to the invention of movable type, with a special eye to debates over its textual details. That is, how do scholars believe the text we read today was shaped by the people who wrote and rewrote, copied and recopied, earlier versions of that text over centuries? From what physical artifacts do we receive the text, and what do they tell us its reception history? What do scholars believe is authentic to the “original” text, and what do they believe was inserted in later moments of editing and recomposition?

You can choose any text you want and you don’t need to read the text itself, just research its history. To pick a text, you might consult the early materials gathered in a Norton Anthology or similar collection. The point of this lab, in some ways, is to help you think about how such anthologies come to be, and the complex, long textual histories that precede any piece appearing in such tables of contents. The big questions: how does “the canon” of texts we read today depend on a long chain of previous interactions between individual human beings; media forms; and larger political, religious, and social movements? How did our activity in class help you reflect in new ways about that long chain of human activity? And how did our readings about manuscript inform your experience in the lab and your research into your chosen text?