Posts Tagged ‘book history

15
Mar
09

Orlando’s Bookshop

Orlando by Virginia Woolf is a fictional biography of a young Elizabethan nobleman who one day wakes up a woman and in that guise lives through another four centuries. At one point, Orlando finds herself in a 20th century bookshop:

And so, leaving the post office, she turned to beguile herself into the next shop, which was a shop so common in our day that it needs no description, yet, to her eyes, strange in the extreme; a shop where they sold books. All her life long Orlando had known manuscripts; she had held in her hands the rough brown sheets on which Spenser had written in his little crabbed hand; she had seen Shakespeare’s script and Milton’s. She owned, indeed, a fair number of quartos and folios, often with a sonnet in her praise in them and sometimes a lock of hair. But these innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. One could hardly read them, indeed, the print was so small, but it was a marvel, none the less. ‘Works’ — the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. (216)

The passage is set in the year 1927, and I am led to wonder how much research went into it. For starters, I am not convinced that Orlando would have been that astonished by being surrounded by cheap books; after all, published manuscripts had more or less disappeared by the end of the 16th century, and since she experienced the days of Dryden, Pope, Addison and Johnson, she would have witnessed the rise of newspapers, Drury Lane and other cheap book venues.  And rather than complaining about the small unreadable script, she ought to be surprised at the quality of these new shiny cardboard books compared to Elizabethan chapbooks with their small print and messy typefaces. Nevertheless, the scene’s a delightful thought-experiment; throwing a 16th century reader into Barnes & Noble, or even sit the poor chap down in front of a computer screen — how fascinating!

15
Nov
08

Reading in the Early Middle Ages

Nama min is mære, / hæleþum gifre ond halig sylf.

“Say who I am–glorious, useful to men, / Holy and helpful from beginning to end.” — thus asks the book riddle of the Exeter Book, a splendid repository of Old English poetry. The codex contains, among else, “The Seafarer”, and if you are not familiar with the sound of Old English poetry, I recommend you take a look at Ezra Pound’s marvellous modern translation of the poem.

Books were venerated in the Middle Ages. By their very nature, they were symbols of lasting wisdom, an antidote to the fragile life and fleeting thought of medieval man. The scrolls and wax tablets of ancient Rome were mere tools; the codices of medieval monasteries were sacred treasures, often clad in jewelled cases, chained to their shelves to protect them from thieves.

The Book of Kells, a magnificent testimony to the veneration of the book in the early Middle Ages

Nonetheless, reading in the early Middle Ages owed a lot to Roman culture. The Roman conquest introduced reading to Europe — inspiring Celtic and Germanic tribes to create runes, for example — and the Latin tongue was to become the backbone of literate Christian culture in the first millennium.

Reading in the Middle Ages effectively began with Christianity’s appropriation of the codex. Invented in the third century BCE, the codex succumbed to the popularity of the scroll, but reemerged when Christians in the 2nd century AD used it to collect and promote scripture. From a practical point of view, the codex fitted the needs of the young religion much better than the scroll: they needed instant access to the gospel and had to move back and forth between the words of Jesus Christ and the words of the Old Testament. They were missionaries who wanted to spread the word, and gather in churches to study the gospel of Christ, not pore over a dozen scrolls like a rabbi in his study. Further, the unity of the codex may have been seen as a symbol and promise of the unity of the Christian church. It certainly assumed this role once Church leaders began to address the question of the canon.

Quite naturally, the Christians in early Roman society were pariah. Every now and then, their people were abused as convenient scapegoats, officially persecuted for their “ludicrous” belief that a Jewish carpenter who lets himself be whipped like a slave and killed on a cross like a criminal could match the might of Jupiter. The world changed when emperor Constantine the Great defeated Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge. On the eve of the battle, Constantine was told in a vision that he would emerge victorious only if he fought under the sign of the true God — in hoc signo vinces. It was the dawn of Western Christian civilisation, and arguably the dawn of early medieval reading.

In Constantine’s realm, the Byzantine Empire, reading and writing, science and the arts, flourished, and fathered a book culture that would survive the decline of Rome in the abbeys and monasteries of 5th century. However, after Rome’s fall, the culture of reading became muted — not literally, because silent reading was still the exception, but because it became the business of monks and religion, of veneration of the holy book and the thoughts of the church fathers. It moved from the mundane to the divine: Reading became sacred.

The “barbaric” cultures of Europe — who were not so barbaric, after all — made some noble efforts to preserve Rome and Byzantium’s legacy of reading. But in the end it was Latin, the tongue of the Church, that carried reading into the new millennium. Chief among those who devoted themselves to safeguard the wisdom of books was Charlemagne, King of the Franks from768 to 814, who ushered in the Carolingian renaissance, perhaps the single most important cultural renewal of medieval civilisation. As Steven Roger Fischer notes:

[…] in his Admonitio generalis of 789 Charlemagne directed improvements aimed specifically at education, reading and writing. For example, each church and monastery in the realm was now to house only correct copies of books and to ensure that scribes, when copying or reading aloud, avoided corrupting a text. […] Almost overnight, Frankland’s libraries swelled with more trustworthy volumes, inspiring succeeding generations to emulation. Not only the Church Fathers but also Rome’s illustrious and their shadows were hand-transcribed in minuscule editions now permitting hardly a letter to vary from copy to copy. […] Carolingian scribes were the unsung saviours of Western written culture. (A History of Reading, 147-148)

Thus began the history of reading in the Christian Middle Ages.