The Enigmatic Premodern Book

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The defining feature of the medieval manuscript—the premodern book at the heart of this lecture—is that its contents have been written rather than printed. A compelling feature of written text from the medieval period is that it produces two kinds of meaning. The first is the meaning of the words themselves: the most common reason for consulting a manuscript and the reason why it was produced in the first place. The other kind is hidden within the shape of the letters. As they copied a text, scribes included information about themselves in their handwriting. How the individual letters were formed depended on a range of variables, including the location and approximate moment of the scribe’s training, the institution in which the manuscript was produced, and even with how much care a text was copied. This is the enigma of the medieval manuscript: a wealth of information is enclosed in its material design, if we can decipher the code. What methods are available to untangle this enigma? What knowledge can be gleaned from how the medieval book was put together? Why is looking at this object as useful as reading it? 

Erik Kwakkel is Professor in the History of the Book at the School of Information, The University of British Columbia. He is a member of the Comité international de paléographie latine and among his recent monographs is Books Before Print (Arc Humanities Press 2018).