How different would studying medieval manuscripts be if we could interact with these books like their earliest readers did? Anxieties about how the digital realm structures relations between people and things, both in medieval studies and beyond, give an urgency to this thought experiment. Books, of course, weren’t (and aren’t) just read: they are experienced through the senses, they are made to occupy certain spaces, they exchange hands, they invite interventions that promise to speak to future readers. Their ‘thing power’ is predicated on a tangibility and mobility that threaten to make way in the two dimensions of the digital image. Medievalists often emphasise the acoustic, tactile, and even olfactory qualities of handling parchment. These are sensations that can be approximated, though not fully replicated, in the reading room. There is, however, a set of more corporeal, even ‘dirty’, reading practices that can only be imagined in relation to these heritage objects. A twenty-first-century reader rubbing, scratching, stroking, or kissing a manuscript illumination doesn’t bear thinking about!
Or does it? Kathryn M. Rudy’s ground-breaking research on the traces of tactile interaction left on medieval books has shown, firstly, how pervasive such practices were, and secondly, how they point to a reader’s, or community of readers’, affectively-charged attachment to a text or image and what it represents or embodies. My postdoctoral project, funded by the British Academy and hosted by the MMLL Faculty in Cambridge, considers the stakes of these haptic practices for manuscripts written in medieval French. How do we read these signs of touch? How do we read with these signs of touch?
The Cambridge University Library’s Research and Collections Programme funds a number of incredible research projects: among them, the Thinking Paper project led by Dr. Orietta Da Rold (of the English Faculty) and Dr. Suzanne Paul (of the University Library). Thinking Paper refocuses attention on a medium that in Europe’s premodern era heralded a technological revolution: paper represents an important interdisciplinary conversation between literary scholars, historians of the book, economists, archivists, conservators, curators, artists, material scientists, surface chemists, bioarcheologists, and more. Understanding paper’s historical significance to these fields creates conversation that moves the materiality of the book not just to the forefront of scholarship, but to the center of research focused on the multivalence of a medium that continues to be essential to contemporary study—and life.
Generating cross-disciplinary conversations was the focus of 2022’s Lent Term Thinking Paper Workshop, entitled ‘Legacies of Paper: in the Archives and Beyond’. By ‘legacy’, we intended to think about paper as an influential medium across multiple contexts ranging from the scientific to the historical to the literary. To engage that conversation from multiple angles, we invited speakers from an array of expert backgrounds to articulate how paper figured in their research. The results were stunning: speakers generously gave papers on early modern economies and class-structures, the contemporary ethics of the archives, new readings of texts like Ben Jonson’s Sejanus His Fall, and much more.
Title page of the 1616 folio edition, with list of actors opposite.