VIDI project "Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance" [2010-2015]

This project ran from 1 May 2010 until 1 May 2015 and is now closed. The research undertaken was concerned with the relationship between written culture and society, specifically how innovations in the technology of the medieval manuscript (the handwritten book, or codex, used before the invention of print) relate to cultural change.

Project Summary

What is the effect of technological change on reading, writing and knowledge? In the age of the Internet, the question is urgent and exciting. In fact the question is an old one, and we have much to learn from previous changes in the relationship between writing, knowledge and society. Almost a thousand years ago, in the age of renewal known as the “Twelfth-Century Renaissance,” when books were still written by hand, a new communications technology appeared: a new book format, custom-tailored for the age. This new format included new types of script, new page layouts and new reading aids, most notably pagination, running titles, paragraphs, quotation marks, footnotes, cross references and diagrams. The technological innovations improved what is called “book fluency,” or the ability to read a text quickly and accurately. While in the late eleventh century intellectual culture nearly completely lacked tools that could rise to these occasions, by the outset of the thirteenth century scholars had a rich palette of aids at their disposal that facilitated comprehension and speedy access. The inventions dramatically changed the reading experience of medieval individuals. It helped to create a new international community of scholars, bound by a shared desire for knowledge. And it proved remarkably durable: it is essentially the book we are holding today.

This project traces the roots of this new handwritten book (or manuscript) in the institutional homes of a new breed of European scholars, and explains the creation of new standards for book production. The Twelfth-Century Renaissance is seen as a movement that gave alacrity and optimism to educated society, whose members sensed they were living in a time different from their immediate past. Scholars all over western Europe — lacking cohesion other than a shared background (a “career,” perhaps) in higher education and a deep yearning for knowledge — started to exchange ideas through handwritten books, which were disseminated through the main intellectual centers, monasteries, cathedral schools and universities. The new book format emerged because it helped to organize knowledge, convert words into arguments, and open a dialogue between author and reader. We divide the project into three parts: the applicant will study the technical innovations in book production; a postdoctoral researcher will focus on the texts contained within the new book; and a Ph.D. student will study the cultural background of its readers.

This project will have significant implications for all medieval scholars who use primary sources, because of the emphasis on the connection between the material book as a medium of communication and the knowledge conveyed by the book. Scholars have tended to focus on the words on the page – the text – independent of the material medium in which the words appeared. This project will use a field-tested methodology to show that the physical formats into which text was fitted (reading aids, page layouts, diagrams, etc.) were integral to the knowledge being communicated. The physicality of the medium is in other words a necessary subject of historical inquiry. This project will argue that medieval scholars must turn over a new leaf: we must look beyond the text that our primary sources carry, and situate the text in the context of its technology of communication. In the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, as in our own electronic world, knowledge, meaning and value are all shaped by their material means of communication.

Last Modified: 08-04-2016