Alex Steer

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Monks and hypertext

943 words | ~5 min

The BBC News website's Tech Brief pointed me towards this post on Religion Dispatches, which revisits the argument for the similarity between hypertext and the literary practices of medieval monks:

The medieval books we admire so much today are distinguished by the remarkable visual images, in the body of a text and in the margins, that scholars have frequently compared to hypertexted images on internet “pages.” The function of these images in illuminated manuscripts has no small bearing on the hypertext analogy. These “miniatures”... did not generally function as illustrations of something in the written text, but in reference to something beyond it. The patron of the volume might be shown receiving the completed book or supervising its writing. Or, a scene related to a saint might accompany a biblical text read on that saint’s day in the liturgical calendar without otherwise having anything to do with the scripture passage.

My academic training was in medieval English bibliography, so it's always good to see medievalists clamouring for a bit of relevance. However, since medieval book-making and modern internet cultures are pretty much my specialist subjects, I have to disagree slightly with the claim.

It's true that glossing, whether pictoral or verbal, was a fundamental of monastic text production. In contrast with the modern tendency to privilege originality of composition, the mainstream of scholarly thought in the medieval west saw thoughtful reproduction (copying) as an important end in itself. In part this was due to the cost in time and materials to reproduce texts. Don't think of illuminated manuscripts here, necessarily. Most manuscripts are much simpler affairs, but even so required patience, skill and financial outlay. The best work (at least until about the late fourteenth century) was done almost exclusively in monasteries, a fact which had a major influence on both the texts which were copied and the discipline of copying itself. The best scribes were not just photocopiers with human faces, but thoughtful textual critics.

As you'd expect when most copyists were monks, textual criticism owed a lot of its theoretical foundations to theology. And, in fact, with its roots in the Late Antique period, the theology of the monasteries had been intensely aware of its dependence on textual criticism and the status of its faith as a religion of the book. Some branches of theology arose explicitly from the need to reconcile the interpretative difficulties of the Bible, and particularly the complicated relationship of the Old Testament (thought of as shared with the Jews) and the New. This need - to show that the New Testament represented a fulfilment of the Old, superceding but not obviating the Jewish scriptures - is at the root of typology, the discipline of Christian reading popularised by the work of Origen, which saw Old Testament figures and events as prefigurations of New Testament ones.

With so much of Christian textual theology dependent on analogy, it is no surprise that monastic copyists took pains to discern and point out the analogies, figurations and lessons in the texts they copied. Typological thinking was not reserved for the relationship between testaments, either. It pervaded monastic understanding of the past, present and future too. The theology of time saw it as a linear progression marked with cycles of return and repetition. This was true in the short term - the cycle of feasts and fasts which marked the progress of the liturgical year - and in the long term. So there was a religious imperative to teach people to draw out the parallels between past and present as a way of negotiating the perils of the religious life into the future.

Students of theology were taught to find the typological significance of all sorts of events. They were taught, in other words, to make links between texts.

But does this mean medieval monks were the original hypertext makers? My answer's still no. This may sound obvious, but the defining feature of hypertext is the ability to move between texts. What matters is the immediacy of access to another resource.

Unsurprisingly, this is lacking in analogical glossing. It's not just a technological barrier that means that a gloss is not a hypertext. The glosses acted as reminders, not just as references. Unlike hyperlinks, they did not necessarily point to 'something else' that should be chased up as soon as convenient. Instead, they referenced ideas and images that were already familiar. Whereas hyperlinks provide a series of optional next steps to new things, analogical glosses provided a whole frame of reference for thinking about something new.

That said, copyists were masters of intertext and metatext - respectively the referencing of other resources and the creation of information structures capable of organising resources by various kinds of relation. Intertextual and metatextual thinking are fundamental to hypertext, and more widely to search engines and the semantic web.

They're not a rediscovery, either. Intertextual and metatextual thinking underpins the arrangement of libraries, dictionaries, thesauruses, the indexes in books, footnotes, object-orientated programming, file dependencies, and most of the other innovations that make managing information bearable. This tradition is long, and more or less unbroken. Medieval monks weren't prefigurations of the internet. They wouldn't even have seen themselves as the originators of this kind of information organisation. But they were there, way upstream, pointing readers in interesting and useful directions.

# Alex Steer (28/07/2010)