Getting Medieval On Your Text - Susan Price

           I think it must have been something like that.  People don't change much.
        Writing was a gob-smacking break-through.  Think of it - instead of memorising all the harvest records, you could write them down on clay-tablets and refer back to them to work out, say, which fields were the most productive.  (Writing seems to have been used for record-keeping before any artistic use.)
         And then - another break-through! - instead of struggling to hear the story-teller above the rowdy singing, you had the story pressed into clay, and read it while sitting quietly by yourself.  Bliss!  It was worth selling those slaves to afford it.
A clay tablet with cuniform writing
         Heavy clay tablets must have been a nuisance, though - difficult to hold and bulky to store - but there was no other method of writing, so you put up with it.  After all, if you could read and write with those complicated wedge-shaped symbols, you were at the forefront of technology.  I suppose you rather boasted about how awkward the tablets were.
          “Oh, yes, I know they've revolutionised accounting, but it’s such a bore finding storage for them.  Honestly, I wish they’d never been invented!”  Making sure, y'know, that everyone knew that you were technically so far ahead of them that it was all very old writing stylus to you.
          So it must have been a blow when papyrus came along.  "What?  You mean I've got to have all those clay-tablets transcribed onto papyrus?"  Suddenly, instead of being cool and ahead of technology, you were at the back and out of date.  You would have thought up all sorts of reasons why clay tablets were better than papyrus.
          But papyrus scrolls must have been all the rage.  People would have gone on and on about how easy and light they were to carry and hold - how little space they took up compared to those so-over clay tablets.  You would have walked down the street holding a scroll, casually, so everyone could see you were at the paper-cutting edge.
          And the accessories!  Beautiful metal, wood or ivory caps made for the ends of the scrolls, to protect them.  Hand-woven  ribbons or cords, to tie them closed.  Lovely cedar-wood boxes made to store all the scrolls that made up one book. 
          And a scroll could be beautifully illustrated, of course.  I don't think clay tablets were illustrated, so that must have been, er, something to write home about. A scroll really was a thing of art and beauty - hand-made paper, hand-copied text, hand-painted illustrations, each scroll unique.  Even with skilled slaves to do the work, these were expensive things, something only the rich could afford.
Replica Vindolanda tablet - for sale
          There were little notebooks, too, about the size of a postcard, made of thin sheets of wood hinged with leather.  People kept them in their pockets and wrote notes on them, or wrote letters to others.  Hundreds of these tablets have been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall.  I suppose they were the equivalent of our electronic tablet - light, fitted in a pocket, really useful to have handy to jot down the legionnaires on punishment duty this week, or the menu for next week's dinner party.
          Imagine when books started coming in.  Why replace your light, beautiful scrolls with an even more expensive, great thumping heavy boulder of a thing, made from a couple of cows?  “I don’t see the point of them,” people would have said.  “I shall stick with scrolls.”
The Book of Kells
And if you've been used to unrolling a scroll, and rolling it up as you read down its length, the problem of how to use a book might well seem a bit daunting.  How do you find the bit you want in that great block of a thing? Your lovely old scrolls used to have labels to tell you which chapter they were...
          But after a generation or two, everybody got with the programme, and scrolls were out.  Aristocrats commissioned Books of Hours and incredibly beautiful gospels, the cost of which would have kept families of peasants for years, decorated as they were with gold and lapis-lazuli.
Hastings Book of the Hours

  Books were a status symbol: you owned them to show that you could, and that you were a cut above.  Reading and literature was emphatically not for the masses.  They had to make do with story-telling.  (Poor things!)
          So when the printing-press was invented the screams of outrage were deafening.  Bibles could now be mass-produced in many languages.  A well-to-do tradesman could buy one, and read it!  He would learn who, when Adam delved and Eve span, was the gentleman.  Scandal!
Gutenberg Bible
          People bemoaned the loss of beautiful, hand lettered pages of vellum, bound in bejewelled leather and locked with great clasps.  How could these smudgy, inky books of coarse paper replace them?  How could you ever love a book that didn't smell of leather, whose pages didn't glitter with gold-leaf?  The experience of opening such a wonderful art object, on the lectern needed to support it, could never be duplicated by one of these cheap, tawdry, machine-produced objects.  (But was it the books they mourned, or the exclusivity of hand-made books?)
          But time passes, and the upstart printers turn themselves into publishers, and those publishers become, in their turn the new book establishment.  They impose the design of books, they decide what is published and what is not...
          And now it's their turn to outgrabe because now almost anyone can make an ebook.  Writers decide what’s published, and readers decide what’s read.
An iPad loaded with all of the above
          The end of civilisation as we know it!  Oh woe, electronic books are so ugly! They don’t smell like books, they don’t feel like books, they are all illiterate, unedited rubbish…
          The more things change, the more they stay the same.
          I love the fact that, in seconds, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story known to exist, and The Bhagavad Gita, arguably the oldest religious text in the world, can come invisibly, magically flying through the ether, and land in my  e-reader.  Alongside Harry Potter and my own ‘mix-book’ of poetry and recipes, that I've emailed direct to my kindle.
          A whole history of humanity and literature, in my pocket, carried with me wherever I go.
          E-readers are only beginning.  They offer the possibility of adding the spoken word, music, beautiful coloured images, even moving images, to texts.
       Story-telling is as old as the human race.  It's moved from the spoken word, to the written, and now it's about to become something new.
        It won’t be the same beauty as a Book of Hours, or a first edition of Rackham or Dulac illustrated book, but it will be a new and different beauty.  Welcome to it!

          The illustration above is by Edmund Dulac - and could be loaded on an iPad!
With apologies and due credit to Knut Nærum, who wrote the 'Desperate Monk' sketch, Rune Gokstad (desperate monk), and Øystein Backe (book technologist.)
Original taken from the show "Øystein og jeg" (Øystein and I) on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)in 2001.

          Susan Price is the award winning author of The Ghost Drum, and The Sterkarm Handshake.
          She blogs at Nennius
          Her website is here.


catdownunder said…
It always interests me that apparently it took a long time for people to actually read silently. Even if you were reading to yourself you read aloud until (I think) about the 12th C. It must have slowed the reading process down - probably a good thing when you consider how long it took to actually produce the books.
Susan Price said…
Yes - I think Alexander the Great's first biographers thought it worth while pointing out that he read silently.
I was about 9 when it occurred to me that I didn't have to read aloud - the first in my class! Which the teacher pointed out to the others, thereby making my life harder than it needed to be.
madwippitt said…
I loved that video clip! Good to have a Monday morning smile!
Susan Price said…
It's a brilliant sketch, isn't it?
Loved this post! Made me smile, too (it's the way you tell them...)

Yes, I think you're right and ebooks with their simple and cheap distribution to a worldwide market are one of the big "leaps" that will change the way our words reach readers... though perhaps that change was already happening with blogs, etc? From being a handful of people able to publish, we now have hundreds of thousands of people publishing and reaching readers all over the world at the click of a mouse. The actual content and editorial/design side of an ebook has not changed all that much, but the traditional printing, warehousing and distribution are no longer necessary. That's the real change, I think.
Wonderful overview you've provided there, Susan, thanks!
There is something strangely satisfying about reading Dickens, for example, on a ancient book would create even more of a unison with past and present/future...the fusion is exciting.
The breaking down of that unoffical lazy censorship barrier the publishers had, through epublishing, is even more exciting.
Came across the more poignant side of these technological upheavals the other day though, when looking up the biography of the Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa.
His brother, Heigo Kurosawa, had a very successful career in the silent film industry as a benshi, narrating foreign films for Tokyo audiences.
When talking films came in, he lost work, then committed suicide...leaving his brother Akira Kurosawa to go on and become the greatest talking film director Japan has ever had.
julia jones said…
Hmmm - like the idea of your mix book ...

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