Doing readings that draw from history, particularly history connected to literacy, always makes me more reflective about my own practices and assumptions.
In Trithimius’ “In Praise of Scribes,” he comments that parchment lasts longer than paper (35), that copying is a form of manual labor (49), that one who cannot write should still read (85), that books should be protected (93), and that the copyist gets some level of longevity and fame beyond the author alone (97). Many of these are things that I don’t really think about as my current print/writing culture differs.
As a teacher and scholar, I often glibly talk about literacy, particularly drawing from the idea of multi-literacies from the New London Group: the role of circulating languages, shifting modalities, new genres and materials, etc. I often get stuck in a contemporary tunnel-vision and forget the socio-technical systems that underscore literacy.
Reading Trithimius brought me back to past work in my undergrad and master’s program. Because St. Bonaventure is considered the “flagship” Franciscan University, it houses the Franciscan Institute, a world-recognized (though gravely under-funded) institution, and in addition to the faculty, the program has a considerable collection of books, including rare books, like incunabula and some pages from a Gutenberg Bible.
As part of my bibliography research methods class, we studied books as objects and each collated a rare book from the collection. I had a collection of sermons from the early 1700s, mostly in Latin. I remember copying the water mark, pealing through the oddly textured pages, noticing how the folios didn’t quite line up, reading the occasional Latin or French scribble on the inside–a rough-hewn rubric in the traditional red ink.
It wasn’t quite the same fascination, as the two archive readings–Lisa Mastrangelo and Barbara L’Eplattenier and David Gold–describe, but it was a bit of a “shock” maybe, in the sense of a culture shock. A bit like Heidegger’s broken hammer, the book as an object–and a window into a larger material culture–suddenly threw itself at me as a present-at-hand thing and not a present-for-hand object.
In “Harbinger’s of Print” (2005), Ben McCorkle discusses the rise of New Rhetoric and mass printing in the 19th Century, arguing, “The collaboration of elocution, belletrisma, and the New Rhetoric, along with the advent of composition, rendered the print interface invisible to an increasingly literate society via the remediation of handwriting and oral speech, thereby causing print to appear as an unmediated window into the mind of the author” (27). This withdrawal, in a Heideggarian sense, of print as a mediating technology makes it seem natural, and its regularized typefaces and avenues of circulation feel inevitable, also withdrawing. Likewise, in our digital and mass-market print culture, for me at least, books feel more uniform, like a book is no bid deal. That it’s a sort of taken-for-granted-couldn’t-be-any-other-way thing.
But books are so much. They circulate, get bought and sold, referenced and forgotten, singed and transported to safety. They gather dust, fingerprints, and hair. Likewise, they come from a confluence of material and social structures. In one DH presentation I saw, for example, a team is tracing the chemical composition of medieval ink, revealing the turquoise mines in the Middle East that sourced the material that made the turquoise ink of a monk in England. Stretching outward, each book is a crossroads of material, practice, and meaning.
Likewise, the same withdrawal can take place with the social and semiotic, as with literacy. For example, reading the Trithimius, I remembered how reading and writing are not always naturally grouped. In Early America, for example, nearly everyone could read, but only men were expected to write (for business), though women often learned on their own and did cross-stitching. Likewise, in Trithimius’ time, many monks could likely read (for religion), I imagine, but not write. Or, they may know how to speak their vernacular but be Latin illiterate.
And the practice of copying, now given to machines, was an art, as Trithimius notes, a manual labor and a craft with beauty and–to some extent–fame. And just as factories make many of our own writing tools, Medieval scribes needed people to craft parchment, paper, and the stylus and ink, itself a duty that Trithimius praises.
At one level, thinking about these questions is fairly mundane, but I think the role of the archive gives a depth and context, or a particular attunement to the mundane that makes it history and story. I come back to Charles Olson’s poem “Kingfishers” where he describes the birds being born on the “rejectamenta” of fish bones and other detritus. Similarly, the rejectamenta gathering in the drawers, files, and backrooms of daily life may be the site for a story to get born. I think this somewhat haphazard gathering and gathering up of the quotidian helps explain the haphazard nature of archival work, as well as its serendipitous quality.
Gold puts such uncertain work well, saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind, but it is still chance. We never know where the archive might lead” (18). This paradox of preparation and chance also seems to fit the stories of Lisa Mastrangelo and Barbara L’Eplattenier, who describe, “We do not work with complete pictures, nor can we ever truly create them” (164). With this reality, they note, they cannot be too directed, but also can’t be too aimless. “Like every good story teller,” they write, “we have to be patient and listen, figuring out where our piece fits” (164).
One never knows, then, the stories stitched into the items of an archive or the people and places that once held them in circulation.