The Electronic Labyrinth

Manuscript Circulation

Before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg and the development of publishing and book-selling as independent practices, literacy was largely the privilege of the upper class, landed-gentry who maintained, through the agency of the Church, a strict control on not only what was read, but who was allowed to read it.

Literary production was directed in one of two directions: church or court. In ecclesiastical circles, it was used largely to copy already extant works (particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts). For the gentry, it was one of the decorous practices by which a courtier, a person of high-social ranking vying for a power at the royal court, might establish or improve his or her standing with the monarch. In this latter domain, writing took up its place beside not only such courtly activities as singing and dancing, but statesmanship and military leadership. Few, if any people, earned their living by the pen alone, and those who did write were generally dependent, if not land-owners themselves, on the gifts of patrons or royal appointments to the civil service.

Amongst this small elite, writers would circulate their works in manuscript form: bundles of loose leaf paper tied with a ribbon would make their way from person to person. Readers would copy out their favourite works into large bound volumes called commonplace books. (Book-binding is much older than the printing press: parchment sheets had been folded and sewn together as far back as the second century CE.) Even as printed books became increasingly available, manuscript circulation remained popular amongst the aristocracy as print carried a taint of the common and the mass. Woman writers of the court seem to have particularly felt restricted from entering the world of the movable type.

Manuscript culture differed markedly from the one which was ushered in by the printed book. The distinctions we commonly make between author and reader, with their ideological investments in the ideals of individuality, originality and authenticity, would appear altogether foreign to the readers and writers of the fifteenth century. In Medieval Texts and Their Appearance in Print, E.P. Goldschimdt writes:

We are guilty of an anachronism if we imagine that the medieval student regarded the contents of the books he read as the expression of another man's personality and opinion. He looked upon them as part of that great and total body of knowledge, the scientia de omni sicibili, which had once been the property of the ancient sages. Whatever he read in a venerable old book he would take to be not somebody's assertion but a small piece of knowledge acquired by someone long ago from someone else still more ancient. (113)

It is precisely this blurring of the lines between author and reader to which hypertext returns us; in the age of the electronic sign the ideology of originality and individualism, the fetishistic cult of personality, is revealed as paradigmatic of what Marshall McLuhan calls The Gutenberg Galaxy. As each writer becomes his own publisher in the age of desk-top publishing, and his own book-seller, in the age of electronic dissemination, the particularities of manuscript culture recur in a newly intensified form.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
contact us