From Oral to Manuscript Culture: The History of the Book

Guest post by Rachel Fishman ’15

RachelFAs I discussed Monday, this week is Publishing Week. Wednesday’s post talked about how changes in technology have changed the way that we view the publishing process. Junior Rachel Fishman has written us a guest post giving us the background on manuscript history so that we can better understand current publishing practices and technologies.

In RPR’s ENG 311: Publishing class this Winter Term, we transported ourselves back over a thousand years to create a manuscript. During the first week of class, we had effectively spanned hundreds of years and experienced the various stages of the manuscript process. But before we were able to begin our creation, we had to learn what it would have been like to be involved in the manuscript process by understanding the evolution of writing…

The Book of Kells, one of the most revered examples of an illuminated manuscript, written around 800AD

The Book of Kells, one of the most revered examples of an illuminated manuscript, written around 800AD

As writing emerged (a process that took thousands of years), societies struggled with the transition out of a solely oral culture. Some feared the power of the written word, while others wanted to hoard the access to written texts in order to secure power and create a hierarchy. Eventually, writing evolved from a means of recording to a way of sharing ideas, both religious and secular.

During the 15th century, reading was still an introspective process, but during the Renaissance, people began to see the value of interpreting and discussing text. Materials and technologies began changing, codices were invented (close to the modern book form), mass printing became possible, and literacy spread across the globe. Eventually, we landed in this day and age, where books are both readable and publishable at our fingertips.

Someone's manuscript after time allowed for comments and destroyed the material.

Someone’s manuscript after time allowed for comments and destroyed the material.

We live in an age where we can not only type a story, but also cut and paste, backspace, add color and design, and redo it, draft after draft after draft… Until finally, we are satisfied. We can even self-publish online.

But now imagine back hundreds of years, back to when writing and reading were only accessible by an elite few, when Christians rose to power and the Roman Empire was expanding. No longer did people have to communicate orally- they could write and read. This “manuscript culture” created possibilities never before imagined for the spread of ideas. But the process was tedious, very tedious.

In class, we were scribes. Although most scribes were monks during this time, we had the ability to write a piece on a topic of interest. And yes, write- not draft. With a fine sharpie and a large piece of construction paper (mimicking ink and papyrus), I wrote an essay on travel. There was no such thing as punctuation or paragraph breaks, so I indicated new sentences by outlining the first word with a royal blue around my black cursive lettering. After I left class that day, a hundred years passed. I passed on.

Someone else saw my work and went about commenting in the margins and correcting grammatical mistakes that were now possible with the newly established rules of punctuation and the concept of paragraphs. But then this person put it down. Time passed. The commenter passed on. And someone else picked it up. They commented, and then passed on as well.

This time, when the next person picked it up, what could he do but compile the information into an illuminated manuscript? Inserting words and phrases where they belonged and notating what was original text to the best of his ability, this person first “compiled” the manuscript. A preface was written and the content was solidified in a format conducive to illumination.

The beautiful work done by the illuminator to my original piece.

The beautiful work done by the illuminator to my original piece.

At this point, the keeper of the manuscript is an artist, embellishing the work he just compiled with elaborate cursive fonts, letters interwoven so creatively with design that it is barely discernible what is image and what is word, images sprawling across gold-embedded pages. It looks regal and elegant. It truly is a work of art. For our purposes, we were able to use as many colors of Sharpies as we wanted, cardstock (thank you, invention of paper), and other non-pen or pencil materials as we saw fit.

Throughout this process, it was extremely difficult to completely relinquish control of a piece that I wrote, and then a piece that I edited, and then to spend countless hours painstakingly writing words on pages and illuminating a manuscript without the possibility for a redo. Mistakes were not possible, for after hours and hours of writing and designing, starting over was not an option. All the students seemed to have different experiences than I did, but we all shared in the sentiment that we are incredibly glad to have computers and the flexibility that comes along with them.

Writing and publishing have come a long way throughout recorded history, but I can now say that I respect those who were alive during the transition from oral to print culture (the time of the manuscript culture) very highly.

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