Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Amazingly, We Have Not Just Now Invented Literary Cleverness

I like these two posts on Got Medieval about the clever ways people used to comment on, illustrate and reuse text while inscribing manuscripts. 

I have often thought that if I had to be a medieval something, scribing would be kind of cool. This is partly because I'm lazy, and being a peasant seems like hard work, and partly because I like painstaking detail work. 

I'd say it's also because I like books and words, but I imagine that's like saying I became a librarian because I like books and words. It's all very well, but it's not as if I sit around caressing book covers, swaying to the music of flipping pages, and mouthing glorious poetic phrases all day long. It's a job, after all.

Of course, as a woman, I would be pretty much left out of the scribing career path (having a weird name might or might not further hinder me), but let's not let historical accuracy get in the way of my fond mental picture of myself hunched over some desk or table, growing steadily more nearsighted, smudged with ink, snickering to myself as I decorate a page with bizarre marginalia (see the aforelinked blog for multiple fine examples).

I don't know that I would have been creative enough to have come up with the many-layered... joke?--casual aside?--thoughtful commentary? in the second post there, but after a few years of inhaling ink fumes and having the blood supply to my brain cut off by the kinks in my neck, anything is possible.

I'm also interested in the first post's description of how reading books, hearing them read, and copying texts was an active and participatory experience. The author explains how people would make their own books, putting into them anything that was going around through the culture that they liked: songs, recipes, stories by other people, biographical notes on themselves, and so on. 

Not unlike a blog, as others have noted. 

This tendency to collect information seems like a very basic impulse, and I remember doing something similar as a kid. I had a notebook where I'd write down quotes I liked (from my readings, or from personal conversations), copy songs or short stories word for word (at least that was the intention), write horrible verse, compile lists of classical composers, even draw little pictures in the margins. 

Maybe I could have been a medieval scribe after all.

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