Material Culture and the Evolution of Ideas

The seminar that Josh Skelton and I led explored the material element of medieval manuscript culture. Our two readings for the week were Orietta da Rold and Laura Velte: da Rold’s chapter focused on parchment, inks, and the introduction of paper to the British Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries, while Velte’s discussed sepulchral inscriptions.

My discussion group focused primarily on the da Rold chapter. This was not intentional, and in retrospect I would have loved to discuss funerary architecture as a textual source. The only time we really touched on Velte’s reading was in talking about material hierarchies: something carved in stone or engraved in metal has more permanence than something written on paper or parchment, which can lend the preserved text more prestige. After all, information that is encoded in a way that is harder to destroy (not to mention more costly and time-consuming) must be important to warrant the extra effort.

Velte also suggests that this material element of epitaphs being painstakingly carved into stone means that the information recorded on them may be more accurate than that recorded on paper or parchment, as scribes occasionally made errors during transcription. She cites the discrepancy between the recorded death date on Queen Matilda of England’s epitaph vs. the information given in Oderic’s Historia Ecclesiastica.

This idea of a medium impacting the fidelity of the information stored on it or the way in which it is transcribed was one element of our discussion. We discussed scribal abbreviations and the use of shorthand, which could vary greatly from scribe to scribe before the printing press led to greater standardization of the English language. The contemporary analogue of both emojis and textspeak (e.g. “lol”, “rofl”) came up as a modern-day equivalent born of the need to communicate emotions through a textual medium or to save time when texting on a mobile device. One can imagine how puzzled someone who wasn’t familiar with texting culture might be when reading texts 300 years from now after that cultural context is lost. This may be a challenge that some of our class will face when analyzing their folio documents, some of which undoubtedly make use of scribal shorthand.

The introduction of paper to the British Isles in the 14th and 15th centuries became a major part of our discussion. While paper may have initially been more expensive because it was imported through trade routes with China or the Middle East, it was prepared in batches (unlike parchment, which was an artisanal product). As the world became more globalized, it became more economically feasible to use paper than parchment. Even so, medieval literary culture was initially hesitant to embrace paper. It gradually gained acceptance as a substrate after first being adopted by guilds (i.e. being used for business rather than leisure).

Professor Saurette suggested that this too had its analogue in the present day with the shift to a paperless bureaucracy (e.g. filing taxes through the CRA’s website, using the cuScreen QR codes on campus for COVID screening). While many students in our class professed to preferring a physical book for leisure reading, all of us admitted to using digital technology for convenience when it came to work or school.  It may be that we too are in a liminal period as our society moves entirely to a digital landscape.

And yet, the material element of books lends them a certain mystique or appeal. One classmate mentioned owning multiple copies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in both physical and digital formats. She professed a preference for her hardcover and antique Victorian copies of the book even though they all contain the same text. The physical experience of reading the book however changes with the version read.

One also wonders how much digital reading impacts one’s ability to really focus on the content. While this is purely anecdotal, I definitely have struggled with class readings in a digital format during remote learning. I would suggest that we are culturally conditioned to use digital technology for quick consumption or ease of access (e.g. using search engines for quick access to questions), meaning that the reading experience is different from sitting down with a physical book in part because of a cultural concept.

One final aspect of our discussion was what impact material culture (specifically, the use of ink or a specific substrate) had for us in the present day as historians analyzing source documents. Changes in the ink used in a codex can tell us whether or not part of a document had been altered or added to by a later scribe.

Following our discussion, we moved to the book arts lab where we were given a brief presentation on the development of paper and the implications for preservation. Earlier rag paper made from cloth fibre holds up better than paper made from tree pulp, as it doesn’t contain ligmen (a naturally-occurring acid that gradually degrades the quality of the paper). This means that parchment and ragpaper are sturdier than earlier paper (which was produced before advancement in technology led to changes in the chemical process to produce a more refined paper with less ligmen).

Main takeaways? A cultural idea or practice (such as the use of paper as a standard substrate or the use of shorthand) is often inspired by a purely material cause, such as a desire to save money or time because of the effort of writing. Cultural ideas or developments are often rooted in a material cause rather than originating as ideas and then making their way to the page or screen. This can lead to interesting affectations or throwbacks to earlier times, such as formatting early printed folios in the style of manuscripts or incorporating imitation “weaves” into contemporary paper.