‘Reading medieval manuscripts … begins with the noise of the cover opening, depending on how tight and in what (boards, leather, velvet) the volume is bound, and with the dry sound of leather leaves touching each other. Light diffuses in opaque, milky, soft vellum but glances off stiffer, buttery parhment. The pigments capture and imprison the light, but even a hairline of gold sharply ricochets it back. … There is also a soft irregularity, as with a dollop of cream – although the ground is usually tinted red with minium, giving the gold its characteristic warmth. In comparison, gold applied directly to the page as dust or leaf looks somehow modern, like a house with a flat roof. Plants, seeds, slugs, trellises are painted directly over the gold ground, wasting swaths of it, except for a brief period after the gilder applied it and before the painter got his hands on it, a period confined by the workshop. … Then, there are the cuts and holes. Small slits allow the sinews of the binding to slide through. Regularly spaced pockmarks set the grid for the ruling or,far less frequently, mark a pattern copied from the master. Ink, if incompetently prepared, eats into the page. …’
Manuscripts are, apparently (and like so many things), ‘queer’. Queer in the Queer Theory sense, that is: queer as in ‘other’ or ‘strange’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘transgressive’, opposed to – and perhaps even capable of annihilating – the norm.
When I heard this statement made (and contested) at NCS this year, I immediately thought of the passage above. This gorgeously sensory description comes from a much longer set of passages in Anna Kłosowska’s book, Queer Love in the Middle Ages, in which she introduces a fascinating, speculative discussion of the complicated, layered, mutable ways in which we perceive and understand sexuality, with this passage on the precise tactile and visual experience of reading a medieval manuscript book. Kłosowska’s prose is both a virtuoso display of how to evoke sensory experience and also a practical demonstration of the value of seemingly tiny, decorative or curious details, to tell us about the lived experience of medieval scribes, illuminators, booksellers, book readers, and even the dismembered medieval cows and sheep whose skins form that disturbingly human-feeling surface on which all of this is written. It’s a sharp piece of writing, capturing the defiant but defining desire to touch the skin that marks out all confirmed medieval bibliophiles who’ve ever risked the wrath of a hovering librarian, and suggestively segueing from this into a discussion of a different kind of defiant-but-defining desire to touch skin that is socially verboten.
At the NCS conference this year, papers by Zach Stone and James Sargan got me thinking more about the way different surfaces and materials – not just vellum or parchment, gold leaf or brown ink, but also print as opposed to manuscript, modern print as opposed to medieval print, and digital media as opposed to hard copy – invite different kinds of touching, and militate against others. Manuscript ink, for example, is typically oak gall ink (as James observed). Printers’ ink, by contrast, is a much thicker, stickier substance. A nice illustration of the odd, back-handed ways we learn things is that I learned this detail, in the first place, from Cynthia Harnett, who wrote children’s fiction in the 1950s. With her novelist’s sensitivity to the way touch and materiality inform our experiences of the past, she picked up on details literary scholars were – I think it’s fair to say – rather less interested in at the time.
Rather like Kłosowska, Harnett delves into the finished product (in her case, Caxton’s printed edition of Malory’s Morte Darthur) to think about the technologies behind that product and the lives and experiences of the people making it. She describes how a medieval printing press required at least two pairs of hands in the process: one, to cover the forms (letters) with sticky ink and the other – with clean hands – to lay the pristine sheet carefully over the top without smudging its surface. Print ink, therefore, militates against casual touching. It segments the production process in a way that manuscripts don’t absolutely have to, requiring a division of labour.
It’s tempting to interpret that resistance to touch, and that division of labour, as a form of ‘control,’ or even ‘policing’. We could say that the technology of print constrains makers, alienating them from the intimate, skin-to-skin contact experienced by the medieval scribes Kłosowska describes in such sensory detail. We could understand this process of the necessary division of the labour of in printing as a form of early mass production (which printing is, though the difference between print and manuscript really isn’t as big as you’d think, given manuscript makers were perfectly capable of farming out the illumination, rubrication and so on to someone else). We could – thinking back to Kłosowska’s seductive, suggestive parallel between the touching of pages and the touching of human skin – read this mode of production as an finger-wagging response to the lovely, messy, too-keen desires to touch, stroke, lift, pierce and limn manuscript pages.
It should not shock you to discover that (pre-empting the inevitable), no, I don’t think this makes manuscripts ‘queer’ and print culture a horrible, controlling, hegemonic impulse dedicated to straightening out their tactile quirks. But I know why that reading’s tempting – and it’s because it lets us map onto medieval technologies some of the drama of histories of sexuality, and (if we are manuscript scholars or people who love looking at, and hoping to touch, medieval manuscripts) it lets us place ourselves on the side of the angels, aligned with the tactile, queer, erotic technology and bravely opposed to the restricting regime of print. It lets us construct a sort of reverse-teleology of technologies, where the medieval represents sophisticated postmodern brilliance and every subsequent technological form becomes that bit more restrictive, one-dimensional, colourless and – we medievalists imply smugly – dull.
I have a bit of a problem with this, which I can best illustrate by thinking about how an academic, five hundred years from now, might look at today’s digital technologies.
We’re inclined to think of the digital as impermeable, untouched and untouchable, all surface. But information about it is laid down in the body. If a forensic archaeologist working five hundred years from now found my body, he or she would be able to identify the muscle attachments – the grooves in the bone – that show that I regularly type on a keyboard; moreover, that this keyboard has a bias towards certain letters. Even if no such keyboard survived, with those bones and a working knowledge of the letter distributions in the English language, you could have a fair crack at figuring out what it might have looked like. You could work backwards, as Kłosowska does, as Harnett does, to reconstitute the ways twenty-first century people touched and typed and sat and moved as they read, just as you can with a medieval manuscript.
In celebrating – maybe (and I think Kłosowska is getting at this, too) even fetishising the tactile and the sensory in medieval culture, we forget that we’re not untouchable in our own technologies. We’re not invisible readers and writers, leaving no traces. And we can’t easily conceal the sleights of hand that satisfy liberal desires to identify with the ‘queer’ – the other, the disadvantaged, the disruptive – while still allowing us to study the remarkably expensive products of a predictably narrow and privileged medieval elite.