Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scribes and Scribbles

Well, time for Part 3 in my 4 part series of lecture notes on the history of writing, prepared for my Writing for Online Media online class that I'm teaching this semester at Fordham University, the purpose of this overview being to put online writing into a larger historical, and media ecological context.  The first installment was posted as Orality and Online Writing, and the second as Reading, Writing, and Rearranging.  

And now for the third, I take a quick look at the materiality of writing and evolution of scribal culture.  So here we go class, it's time to begin.

Comments on the History of Writing 
Part III: Of Pages and Books 

The materials we use for writing also make a difference. One media ecology theorist, Harold Innis, distinguishes between heavy media, which are durable but difficult to transport, and light media which are perishable but easy to move from one place to another. Writing in stone can last for millennia, but you can get a hernia trying to carry it around. The Sumerians used clay tablets, which also were heavy and durable. The Egyptians developed a writing surface made from reeds, called papyrus, that was lightweight and easy to transport. 

Writing on clay tablets required a stylus to make impressions, and it was difficult to make elaborate characters in that way, so cuneiform is made up of relatively simple, geometric shapes. Writing on papyrus, the Egyptians used paint and brush, allowing for the elaborate characters we know as hieroglyphics. The materials we use influence the kinds of writing that we get. No one wrote a novel by chiseling onto a stone monument, at least as far as I know. 

Elaborate, decorative writing styles, such as calligraphy, makes for beautiful art objects, but slow down reading speed, and are not conducive to widespread literacy. The medieval illuminated manuscript is beautiful to look at, but hard to decipher. In China, where ideograms had an intrinsic pictorial quality, traditionally no distinction was made between poetry and painting, they were one unified art form. 

Aside from papyrus, parchment was also used in the ancient world. It was a stronger material, heavier and more durable than papyrus, made out of animal skin. That's why diplomas were known as a sheepskin, they were originally made from parchment. And then there is paper, lightweight like papyrus, originally made from linen, invented in China and eventually introduced to Europe (through innovations in linen manufacture, European use of paper coincided with the introduction of underwear). It wasn't until the late 19th century, due to a shortage of linen, that a method of making paper from wood pulp was adopted. 

Back in the ancient world, papyrus sheets were glued together, and rolled up as scrolls, held horizontally (not vertically as they often are depicted in cartoons). These were the first books, originating in Egypt, and eventually spreading to Greece via the Semitic traders from Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon), from whom the Greeks adopted the alphabet, calling it Phoenician writing, from which we get the term phonetic. And from the Phoenician town of Byblos, the Greeks derived their word for book (and we get bible, bibliography, etc.), which originally referred to a single scroll. Using scrolls, you could only move forward or back in a very linear fashion, it was difficult to move around from one part of the document to another, kind of like how with videocassettes we have to fast forward or rewind, and have no random access to scenes the way we do with DVDs. 

So scrolls were naturally limited in length, for very practical reasons, and, for example, the books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, etc., were literally separate books at one time, separate scrolls (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). You also find that ancient Greek texts of some length were divided into Book I, Book II, etc., because they actually were written on more than one scroll. Later, when bound books were introduced, they became effectively chapters or sections of the volume, so that "book" came to mean both the physical volume and in this older sense, a part of the volume. And sometimes the old sense would be retrieved for stylistic reasons, so for example Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a single novel, but the publisher decided to publish it in 3 volumes, but it actually is subdivided into 6 "books" which are sections made up of several chapters each. So if you buy a copy of The Lord of the Rings in one volume, you have one book in the sense of a physical volume, made up of 3 books as they were originally published as separate volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King), but also divided into six sections that Tolkien called books, implying in his fictional history that they once existed as separate scrolls or volumes themselves, but those books really only exist as a stylistic subdivision. 

Scrolls could also be made of the more durable material of parchment, and it was during the Roman era that parchment pages were also bound together in the form of a codex, which was the first bound book, a new format that allowed for random access of individual pages. This new medium was adopted by the early Christian church, and became the basis of the medieval manuscript. As you may know, those manuscripts were quite large, heavy, bound in leather and sometimes metal as well. All documents had to be written by hand, and copied over and over again in various ways, sometimes via dictation. Mistakes were made, this was sometimes known as scribal corruption, but it is also true that scribes felt free to change the text as they saw fit, leave out parts they didn't like, add in whatever they wanted to, including incorporating comments others wrote in the margins. Even if just copying the text, no two copies would be exactly alike, and it was ok to create a new work that incorporated the work of older works. There was no sense of plagiarism or copyright, or of creating an entirely new, original work. Copies were generally made for personal use, or for the use of a small group. The making and selling of books was not a business. 

The invention of printing changed all that.

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