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|
“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 Suddenly, instead of being cool and ahead of technology, you were at the back and out of date.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|
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|
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!
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 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.