At the recent MEMESAK conference, Horace Jeffery Hodges of Gypsy Scholar asked a question of me about the role of hypertext in the future of medieval studies. Since we were so close to lunch (never stand between academics and a meal), I commented that hypertext is an enormously complex issue, and suggested that we talk about it over lunch. Unfortunately, we never did. So, here is my belated response.
Allow me to begin with the model of textual culture I am using, a model that is spelled out in greater detail in my forthcoming article “Global Literature, Medieval Literature, and the Popol Vuh,” and is used implicitly in “Medievalists without Borders.”
Textual cultural history to date can be divided into four different periods: oral culture, manuscript culture, print culture, and electronic culture. We should note that as we move from one sort of culture into the other, each subsequent textual culture does not replace the others; it redefines them. So, for example, although I participate fully in electronic textual culture (this blog post you are reading, for example), I still read books (print culture), write notes and various other things by hand (manuscript culture), and bore those around me with my endless chatter (oral culture). My participation in print culture, though, is quite different from that of someone who lived a century ago, even though we might read the very same book.
Oral culture is pretty simple – it is a culture in which orality is the only textual form, and thus is the beginning and end of language. Oral cultures are ones in which the society structures itself around orality; just because one person living in a culture can read and write doesn’t make it a non-oral culture. A high enough degree of literacy among the social elites, however, does. When laws, or religious texts, or treaties are written down, the society begins to move into manuscript culture.
Obviously, most of human history has been governed by oral culture; unfortunately, we understand this culture perhaps the least. That the work of Lord and Parry was not until the 20th century shows how enormously difficult it is for the literate to understand illiterate orality. As a literate person, I have a very different relationship with the spoken word than does someone from oral culture. Probably a half dozen times per day, I tell someone to “write it down” or “send me a note” – something impossible in oral culture. Note the way that grades are given: I’m only allowed to give a certain amount of my grades based on participation, “participation” being the oral culture of the classroom. Most of my grading is required to be of written material. If I assigned 100% of my grade based upon a student’s oral performance in the classroom, I would probably be accused of being arbitrary and unfair. In an oral culture, though, being able to speak well is not only a valuable skill – it is the only real measure of education. Socrates stood around talking all day, and never wrote anything – try getting tenure as a professor today doing the same. Let’s face it, Socrates was not only untenurable, he’d not have even graduated from college himself.
Manuscript culture, the culture studied by medievalists, results from literacy. The invention of manuscript culture means that anything valued for its permanence in a society has to be written down. Not surprisingly, the engine of manuscript culture in medieval Europe was the Church, since the Church had a view that it was dealing with issues not just permanent, but eternal. Of course, manuscript culture did not replace oral culture – after all, people did not stop talking – but such texts as Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon demonstrate that a change had taken place. That Caedmon could compose such poetry without the tools of literacy is considered miraculous, and of course, his miraculous poems are not memorized, but are set into writing by others.
Print culture is both the best-and-least-studied of these cultures. It is the best studied because most scholars in English departments study the works of print culture; it is the least studied because most scholars take the print paradigm for granted, and don’t consider its implications. For most scholars working in the print culture medium, print culture is indistinguishable from literacy. Nevertheless, the advent of print culture transformed manuscript culture. Absolute uniformity of copies of books in print is not only assumed, but is assumed to be a virtue. Manuscript culture was pushed aside to the realm of the first draft, of the intensely personal, and of the authentic. Many formal documents now needed to be printed, to the end that with the invention of the typewriter, even things for which there would be only one copy (such as a school paper) were expected to be typed. Drafts could be hand written, and certain genres (such as the love letter or personal letter) could not be produced in print according to social conventions. Still, even such print documents as the business letter needed to be authenticated by the signature at the bottom – a little bit of manuscript culture at the bottom of a print culture document.
Now print culture is passing away, a process that will take decades (or even perhaps centuries), and is being replaced by electronic culture (sometimes called digital culture). Print culture is, at the moment, still alive and kicking, with such devices as the computer printer and scanner existing at the nexus point of electronic and print cultures. Still, electronic culture is redefining how we think about print, manuscript, and oral cultures, and the full implications will not be clear for generations. I’ll save that bit for my forthcoming post on hypertext.