Stephen G Nichols: What is a Manuscript Culture

To the post-print world, then, manuscript transmission of medieval works conjured the image of an individual scribe, whose hand graphically imposed its presence as the tenuous link between author and reader. How could one be certain that a scribe’s mind and imagination had not exceeded “the strictly mechanical task” of copying the author’s text? The answer, of course, was clear: scribes not only could not avoid leaving their mark upon the work, there was no expectation that they should. After all, scribes frequently worked with versions of a work the poet himself (who was often long dead) had never seen. If a passage in the work suggested other examples or anecdotes, why not simply include them? For the the Middle Ages this did not pose a problem.

…Manuscript books were products of an urban micro-culture where every aspect of production was carried out by artisans living in the same or nearby streets. Preparation for copying a text included transforming the animal skin into parchment, grinding minerals and plant products for paint colors and ink, planning the layout of the codex in columns with spaces for miniatures, decorated and historiated initials, marginalia, and rubrics. The actual production of the work involved copying the text, decorating the margins, and painting the illuminations, determining the binding, and, finally, delivering the codex to its patron.This micro-culture also left its imprint on the contents of the codex.

…Manuscripts were used to shape cultural and political perceptions. It does so thanks to the interaction of text and image,rubrics and interpolated passages. In other words, by representational components that medieval manuscript culture invented and cultivated as its own unique form of multi-media literacy.

More interesting from our viewpoint than the mechanics of “updating”manuscripts is why such interventions should take place so readily. To alter an historical document suggests that manuscript technology and cultural perception must have had a degree of consonance with attitudes about written records. They must, in short, reflect shared viewpoints. To understand the manuscript folio as “a partner” in the representational process, we have to understand manuscript culture itself as a way o frepresenting the world in accord with contemporary—as opposed to historical—perception. In short, manuscript culture was presentist in orientation.

Since medieval “readers” had no conception of mechanical printing, it was natural for them to view the parchment page as consisting of different kinds of images, each positing meaning that engaged the other systems. It was up to the viewer to register and synthesize the several systems and interpret their collective meaning. Once we begin to think of the parchment page as a system of signs all of which contribute elements whose synthesis contributes meaning to the work as a whole, we can also understand how they interact to guide the viewer’s experience and understanding.

(PDF) What is a Manuscript Culture | Stephen G Nichols –



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