Mainly because I want to share all of the beautiful things I’ve been seeing. Last week I began doing some research on manuscript books. “Manuscript books” are books made entirely by hand. They are generally unique, usually (but not always) dating from the time before movable type, and are sometimes called “illuminated manuscripts.” The research up to this point has been general at best, just a few simple, well-illustrated books about medieval European books and early Qu’rans, just to provide a broad story and sample of what exists. But already they are pointing to new directions.
Modern printed books attempt to convey some of the rhythms and emphasis of speech by a whole series of typographical conventions, including indented paragraphs, spaces between sentences, capital letters, italics, and a large repertoire of punctuation marks […]. Medieval punctuation was haphazard at best. Mostly, scribes made use of what we now call decoration. A big initial marks a major opening or division of the text. A slightly smaller initial may indicate a chapter or a paragraph of somewhat lesser significance. A small illuminated initial marks a break in the text less weighty than a larger initial but more important than a simple capital letter.

The hierarchy depended not on any standard size as such but on the scale of any initial in relation to another in the same manuscript. […] Once the relative hierarchy is put in context […] we have a whole new tool for interpreting medieval texts. In that sense, decoration is a device for reading a text as sophisticated as punctuation is today. […] [1]

[emphasis added]

I would add to that series of “typographical conventions” the spacing between individual words and standardized spelling. The conventional nature of written and printed language is important for two reasons: 1) These conventions developed over time in many different circumstances, conditioned by different languages, technologies, cultures, economies, etc. and that points to the fact that our “laws” of grammar, usage, definitions, and spellings are not natural truths that accurately represent a pure language. 2) These conventions that we have internalized play a major role in that way that we read, in the way that we experience written and printed language. Reading as a practice has changed over time, and it continues to change, especially now, as we stand in the chaos of another transformation of the technology of writing. And thus it is possible to imagine and construct new ways of reading, new legibilities of text, by interrogating the conventional nature of written and printed language.

This is certainly not a new idea, but it’s one that seems particularly critical now, again. The space of our new technologies of reading and writing has opened up new avenues of contestation. The only thing at stake is meaning. These old books were made during a period of massive flux and expansion, and looking at them closely might yield new ways for us to participate in our own astonishing flux.

So I am imagining these posts (theoretically confined to this week but probably continuing anyway) as looking closely at different examples from manuscript books and breaking them down visually/functionally, hopefully generating some ideas in the process. As always, we’ll see what happens, where we end up.

1. Christopher de Hamel, The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 21-4. The image at the start of this post was taken from that same book (p. 46) and is from a “tenth-century English manuscript of the works of St. Aldhelm.”

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