Alex Steer

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Kindles, iPads, and medieval readers

1474 words | ~7 min

Blogging's been a bit derailed by work, but I promised something on the history of the book in the cultural imagination, and in particular about a couple of points when existing ideas about what books mean were transformed.

As I mentioned before, there's been a lot of talk about the factors forcing a rethink of what written matter looks like and how it's used. Books, magazines and various other historically printed matter (dictionaries and encyclopedias, for instance) are shifting online. They have been for some years, but the pace of change has started accelerating as new structural and physical formats for written matter have been developed (both hardware like e-readers and encoding systems like the work of the TEI) together with new distribution and revenue models, from paywalling to The Domino Effect.

What books mean in culture

These are the physical and infrastructural changes. But since the physical form and infrastructural mechanisms of books and publishing have been reasonably stable for so long, the book as an object has built up a huge cultural back-story. The bound, printed volume has a whole network of associations bound up with it. Those associations form part of the reason academics, especially in the arts and social sciences, regard the book-length study as the most definitive kind of work; or why financiers feel the day starts incompletely without a newspaper under the arm; or why so many religions as they are now practised rely on the exchange and circulation of heavy bound paper objects (now a rather easy task in many parts of the world; still difficult and even fatal in others, as in the past). In a very broad sense we are people of the book, and much of our cultural life has been conditioned by printers' economies of scale or the limits of binding glue.

And then, in July 2010, Amazon announced that it had sold 143 ebooks for every 100 print books in the previous three months, and we realized that digital text might not just lead to the generation of new literary forms (the blog, for example) but eventually to the extinction or extreme alteration of old ones. I still remember the genuine shock that used to come from many people when I would suggest the possibility that there might be no more print dictionaries (at least for UK readerships) within a few years.

Eventually this disruptive shock will generate cultural transformation as new written forms become part of the toolkit with which we think. The blog would have been difficult in the age of print - only the diaries of the famous or notorious were ever published - and the tweet would have been impossible, except as graffiti or marginal notes. Put like that, the scale of the cultural disruption begins to make sense. No wonder dictators and CEOs alike struggle to internalize the speed and reach of the web. Forget streaming video or mobile telephony. Words were never committed to paper so fast.

Western Europe has been in this situation before: what you might call disruptive bibliographical shock. A confluence of factors over the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries rearranged our cultural furniture by putting pressure on the status quo of the book, even then one of the most powerful ways of transmitting information and ideas and making culture. I won't go into them in detail, but I'll give a sketch.

Book futures with medieval monks

If you'd been a reasonably learned clergyman thinking about the future of book production in western Europe at the start of the 12th century, you might have fallen victim to the same kind of bubble thinking that sometimes trips us up today. To you, literacy would have meant Latin literacy, the copying and annotation of theological, philosophical and occasionally scientific texts in Latin. The twelfth century was a boom time for that practice of book production. The reconquest of parts of southern Europe from Arabs had allowed Christian Europe sudden access to a large wealth of Arabic texts and a decently-sized bilingual and literate population to help find and translate them into Latin. As well as the vast reserves of Arabic knowledge were many texts originally translated into Arabic from Greek, a language lost to the Western Roman Empire and its successor states. So a huge bulk of ancient and late antique learning, from the Church Fathers to Ptolemy's astronomical work, was suddenly up for translation. You could forgive the Latinists for feeling a bit like the film studios when DVDs replaced VHS, or like publishers no doubt feel now as they rush to reformat their back catalogues for the Kindle.

Historians used to call it the twelfth-century Renaissance, and sometimes they still do.

But drivers of change are complicated things, and one largely unforeseen consequence of the sudden boom time in translation and transmission of Latin texts was a boost to the profile of book-making as a cultural activity. No longer was book production the preserve of monasteries. Literacy and learning were in vogue. We know this from the unseemly competition among royal courts in western Europe to attract as many scribes and literate men as possible. The clear winners was the Anglo-Norman King Henry II, and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who built up impressive networks of scribes, book-makers and authors around them, producing new works as well as copying and studying old ones. In the early years works on science were all the rage, including a surprising number of books on timekeeping.

The boom time of the 12th century wasn't just confined to books, though, and royal courts weren't just centres of learning. Like most seats of power in good times they were centres of fashion, passion and politics as well. They were also, for the first time, overstocked with powerful aristocratic women who had vastly more leisure time than their mothers or grandmothers had enjoyed, in part a consequence of greater political and economic stability in France. They were also far more likely to be able to read - but not in Latin.

Anyone who works in publishing knows a demand shift when it happens, and this was an unprecedented demand shift. The wealthy, leisured populations of the royal courts didn't want to read about timekeeping, intricate theology and maths. They wanted something a bit more Jilly Cooper and a bit less BBC Four.

The shift happened slowly at first. The first signs were the production of more Latin treatises - except these ones weren't on astronomy, but on how lovers should carry on at court. (Notable examples include Andreas Capellanus's On Love and Walter Map's On the Trifles of Courtiers.) Being in Latin and full of clerical humour, these first efforts were probably as much pieces of wry social commentary as they were an attempt to meet changing demand, but they would have managed a bit of both, at least for male Latin-reading audiences.

Romance is in the air

But the big, decisive, disruptive shift was the production of works of literature in Western Europe's vernacular languages, not in Latin, for the first time, sponsored by these powerful royal courts. Designed to meet the demands of a new audience, in terms of content as well as language, it's unsurprising that the catch-all term for all those not-quite-Latin languages (which we still use today) became a byword for racy exciting fiction.

They called them romance. The French still call book-length works of fiction romans (and we call them novels).

It was a kind of writing that didn't exist before, in languages like French and Occitan that had had very little tradition of book-making. Over the next century or so it would spread prolifically, driven by demand, surrounded by moral panics and even some rather clever PR attempts to lend religious instruction some of romance's excitement (probably the main driver behind the equally meteoric rise of vernacular saints' lives between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, going head-to-head against romance for the hearts and souls of aristocratic readers).

Unlike the present shock to the system, the big drivers of change weren't technological - the form of books didn't change dramatically - but social and economic and linguistic. Still, the change shifted permanently the idea of what books were for, and introduced the idea of fiction in the West. So your holiday reading probably owes something to Henry II, his wife, and their set of well-connected writers.

This has gone on more than long enough, but sometime soon I'll talk about the 16th century, and a series of more technological shocks to the system, mainly print.

# Alex Steer (08/03/2011)