The Materiality of Text

How Substrates Impact the Reading and Writing Experience

The materials used in the production of manuscripts are a major component in the quality and preservation of medieval texts. By examining these texts as artifacts rather than the text itself, and looking into the materials used to create them, we can see context into the production methods, regional origin and cultural background of the text. Back in October we had a class discussion on substrates and the different materials used in manuscript production, along with materials used in the production of all texts throughout different points in history. By comparing these materials we were able to see how the writing material itself impacted the reading and writing experience of the text. Whether that affected the political or cultural significance, the economics, or the technology of the period and region that the text originated from. 

We brainstormed different materials we have seen text written on before, with examples like Papyrus, Stone, wood and paper. Stone was an example of how the material was telling of the background of the text, often writing in stone is a monumental thing, due to the durability and longevity of the material. We discussed Roman monuments as examples of this, and how their massive monuments often had small but significant messages meant to last. This was not exclusive to the Romans, even in the modern day we use headstone inscriptions for the deceased.

 In the context of manuscripts we see the use of Vellum or Parchment quite often. By examining the kind of animal used in the production of the manuscript we can discover many different things about the background of the text. The regional origin, the quality of production and possibly the economic status of the region it comes from. By comparing the usage of vellum and paper we can see trends in the economy of writing materials of certain periods and regions, but also the reasoning behind their usage. The quality of manuscript depended greatly on the material used to produce it, from the ink to the base it was to be written on. According to one of the readings from this week, the chapter “Materials” by Orietta Da Rold from Production of Books in England 1350-1550, the use of paper was not common in comparison to vellum pre printing press. The author states, “G.S. Ivy and R.J. Lyall in their remarkable contributions to the study of paper tend to emphasize that paper has a low status in the hierarchies of manuscript production.”1 Whether this means that the use of paper was looked down upon due to a social status factor, an economic factor or that it was less durable in comparison to parchment, there seems to be evidence that parchment was thought to be better than paper at one point in time. As a class we took this point and discussed whether there was a hierarchy of writing material in our own lives during the digital age. While almost any professional writing is done with a computer and a word processor, many still prefer to handwrite their personal notes. The interesting part about a digitized writing surface, is that it seems to be above handwritten material in most cases in the hierarchy yet it is a digitized attempt to imitate past methods of writing such as handwritten methods or the printing press. 

What can be taken away from these discussions? Well, the context of a material can be determined by what kind of writing it will be used for. A large stone will often be used to make a monument, while a piece of paper could be used to make a grocery list. We can also see how much valuable information can be found by simply looking deeper into the materiality of a piece of writing, whether it’s a medieval manuscript, book or tablet. By looking at what was used in the production we can find out information on its region origin, the time period it was created in, cultural practices of the region or time period, and even the economic status. By viewing objects like manuscripts as artifacts rather than scholarly works, it becomes easier to contextualize the information not directly conveyed through the text itself.  


1 Orietta Da Rold, “Materials”, in Production of Books in England 1350-1550, ed. Alexandra Gillespie and Andrew Wakelin (Toronto: University of Cambridge Press, 2011), 25.