Whenever a new information medium appears, prognosticators love to predict the imminent demise of the old medium. Every time they’ve done this, they’ve been wrong.
Socrates famously predicted (wrongly) that the new invention “writing” would result in the demise of mankind’s ability to remember anything.
A whole chorus of opponents decried the arrival of the printing press in Europe in the fifteenth century, ranging from religious hostility that feared (rightly as it turned out) that printing would hasten the spread of Reformation theologies that undermined the authority of the Catholic Church to economic hostility from scribes, illuminators, and others who had built their livelihoods and, indeed, entire industries around the copying and circulation of manuscript codices.
In 1927, Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers) shrugged off the then-new fad for movies with accompanying audio tracks: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” he infamously, and incorrectly, quipped.
The advent of the computer and digital communication were supposed to send material documents to the recycling bin of history...but, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper famously revealed in their The Myth of the Paperless Office, precisely the opposite has happened: we use more paper than ever before; indeed, the use of email alone has caused a 40 percent increase in paper use in the average office setting over the last two decades.
And, of course, e-books -- such as the unfortunately named Amazon Kindle -- are widely forecasted (by forecasters eager to sell their books, magazines, and newspapers) to lay to rest the traditional printed codex. But, as the Guardian pointed out in 2007, such hysterics are often divorced from any version of current reality as we know it: books remain popular, tactile, emotional, visceral, historical, and communal in ways that digital books never can be. As the Guardian op-ed points out, video games have not yet put to death sports in the “real world”. Visions of a book-less world have been around since at least 1894.
Of course, the common thread running through these misjudgments -- the thread that unites, for example, all of the blog-posts and editorials that salivate at the hip “new” idea of the death of books -- is the dualist misconception that one media necessarily replaces another. This error is particularly easy to buy into in a commercial, capitalist society -- a setting in which we are trained to think that the market can only support one media, one product, one company, and that competition is a zero-sum game.
This insipid view may explain, say, car or shoe sales. But it has been proven insufficient for describing information media for over three thousand years.
New forms of information media transform the old ones and coexist with them, but they rarely fully displace them. People continued to remember things after the invention of writing; people continued to use handwritten manuscripts (and the Catholic Church survived) after the invention of print; people continued to use paper documents after the digital revolution. Even silent films -- though no longer a common form of film themselves -- shaped the principle (often taken for granted as a “given”) that movies are meant to be primarily visual storytelling devices.
The assumption that the new eliminates the old also relies upon the misconception of a teleological arch in the development of media; that is, that every new form is an improvement of the old and that it thus moves us further along some (artificial) linear pathway towards an idealized end-point. Thus commentators, pontificators, and other bloviators -- eager to position themselves as part of and even contributors to the demise of the old and hence the rise of the (profitable) new -- perpetuate the mythology.
This week’s book is a beautiful reminder of the pluralism of information media, and that forms of text, such as print and manuscript, do not merely coexist but that they also inform one another in a circular (rather than linear) relationship.
The book is Devoir des Vierges Chrestiennes (“The Duties of Christian Virgins”) and it is entirely handwritten. This particular manuscript is a “fair copy” of a printed book translated from English by the prolific French theologian Ambroise Paccori (1649-1730) and which appeared in its first French edition in octavo format published by Lottin of Paris in 1727 (a subsequent edition was published by an unknown stationer in 1736 and a third, in duodecimo format, followed from Butard of Paris in 1766).
Though born into a lower-class family, Paccori rose to prominence in the French church through his learning. For eighteen years, Paccori served a deacon and principal of the college of Ceauce, near Orleans in Normandy (surviving an attempted poisoning by a student in 1684) and he wrote some scholarly religious works in the late 1680s and into the 1690s. He retired from teaching in 1706, moved to a suburb of Paris, and embarked upon a full-time, late-life writing career, churning out dozens of influential theological and ascetic books, articles, chapters, and essays over the last three decades of his life.
The scribe, who is not identified in the book, has dated this copy Paris, 1738; his or her only addition to the text was a relieved “Fin 1738” on the final page.
It runs 559 pages, though there is one unpaginated title page leaf and four unpaginated leaves at the end (three for the table of contents and one blank). The binding is the original leather, now cracking slightly and with some looseness in the hinges, but otherwise intact; a gilded title (“Devoir des Vierge”) appears on the spine. The book includes a green silk ribbon page-marker attached to the spine. The page edges are red; the pages themselves are 10cm x 15.5cm and are of a conventional paper with 2cm vertical chain-lines.
The handwriting used in the book is an elegant and careful cursive (right-handed); plenty of space is left between lines for ascenders and descenders and the kerning is measured and consistent. Sometimes the lines drift a bit, but never severely. Throughout the book, the scribe has used brown ink, which varies little -- suggesting that it was mostly written in a short period of time. There are very few copying errors, and those that do appear are very quietly fixed with squiggled but clean overwriting. The tightness of the binding and the shallowness of the gutter suggests that the book was written on loose pages which were then bound into codex form (the apparent lack of gatherings seems to confirm this).
The scribe has in some ways scrupulously followed the printed version, including features relevant to the printing (footnotes and a transcription of De Villiers’s license, dated March 15, 1726) while skipping those parts not relevant to the purposes of copying out a manuscript version (no transcription of the full title-page of the printed version, no catchwords, no running titles). We’re used to thinking of a codex as a printed book, almost by default, but this book underscores the fact that very frequently codices are handwritten volumes (think of modern diaries and journals, for example).
The contents of the book use scriptural and patristic sources to delineate a highly elaborate code of conduct for Christians choosing “to live in chastity and acquire perfection”. Accompanying my copy is a typewritten translation of the table of contents (the table in the book is unpaginated and appears, as was typical in the time, at the end of the book), describing the topic of each of the twenty-seven chapters.
An owner’s inscription inside the front cover reveals both the provenance of the book and how it came into my collection: Stanley Dell. An earlier, ink note in the upper corner of the same page records a sequence or acquisition number (41)
This unique copy of Devoirs des Vierges Chrestiennes is a reminder that the boundary between print and manuscript, between the machine-made and the chirographic, is permeable and that textual media are fluid rather than distinct and absolute categories. The author of the original English version would have written the first version of the book as a manuscript; then it was printed; then Paccori would have written his translation as a manuscript; then it was printed; then an anonymous scribe copied out a manuscript transcription. And now, it (sort of) enters the new medium of digital information as this week's featured book on Tarquin Tar's Bookcase.