Social media expert Chris Brogan has a post up this week reflecting on the “next media company” and the transformations of traditional media being rendered by Web 2.0. In this new world, content is no longer delivered via a one-way relationship to a passive audience, but is produced, reproduced, added to and changed by many different reader-writers. In this process, publication is merely the first step rather than the last. Signification is ever evolving and morphing, and meaning is inherently unstable and slippery, as it is in all texts. (I use the term ‘text’ here in the sense that literary theorist Roland Barthes expresses it, wherein everything that is interpreted comprises a text, not just the written word.)
As I read Brogan’s post, I had a distinct feeling of déjà vu. It all started sounding like the process of copying, recopying, annotating, excising and interpolating that was integral to the production of medieval manuscripts. Anyone working with these texts must get to grips not only with their primary content, but with the acts of erasure, addition and change (both deliberate and inadvertent) carried out by each hand they passed through. The annotations that mark the margins of these works – both words and images – tell their own stories and serve their own ends. Each new encounter between text and reader generates new interpretations from a variety of perspectives (geographical, temporal, cultural, political and social), subtly shifting meanings or even rendering new meanings that directly conflict with the original writer’s purposes.
Take, for example, The Book of Margery Kempe. Probably written in the early 1430s, this is widely regarded as the first autobiography in vernacular English. It purports to be the story of a moderately well-off Englishwoman’s transformation from conventional wife and mother into edgy religious mystic, after a spiritual crisis sparked by the birth of her first child. Both its creation and its reception – by contemporary audiences (as reported by the author herself) and by later readers – have been the source of perennial controversy. Margery claims to be illiterate, so is the book actually the creative product of male scribes? Or are these priestly scribes a cover, which she uses to shield herself from charges of heresy or to claim a spiritual authority which was elusive for women in the Middle Ages? Is the Book a work of authentic religious mysticism? A subversive social and political commentary on Lancastrian England? Or the ravings of a woman suffering post-natal depression and ‘feminine hysteria’ because she can’t fit herself to the traditional stereotype of wife and mother? (It won’t surprise you to know that the latter interpretation has been depressingly common amongst male scholars.)
The treatment of the text itself has been integral to the many ways it has been interpreted. In 1501, the printer Wynkyn de Worde included extracts in a devotional work aimed at lay readers. Because only the least controversial passages were reproduced, religious scholars and historians who based their interpretations on this version dismissed the writer as a conventionally pious and not terribly interesting person who could certainly not be classed a mystic or spiritual leader (not least because she was a married woman and a mother, and was therefore unable to claim the state of virginity that conferred authority on other female mystics).
The Wynkyn de Worde text was the best-known account of Margery’s experience until the rediscovery of a full manuscript copy of the Book in 1934. This manuscript was originally in the possession of the Carthusian monks of Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, a particularly austere and spiritual house. Throughout, it is amended and annotated by several hands, of which at least two appear to be monks from the priory. Their interventions place Margery’s text into a broader framework of late medieval devotional piety and affective spiritual expression, and indicate that this deeply religious male readership regarded Margery as a genuine mystic.
In a number of cases, the second monkish commentator (early sixteenth century) interacts with and reinterprets not only the original text, but also the annotations of the first commentator (fifteenth century), effectively creating texts-within-texts. The commentators have also added their own illustrations, perhaps designed to guide interpretation by later readers. One of these is a small but detailed drawing of a tower, commonly used in medieval iconography to represent virginity. The image can be read to signify that for these monks, Margery’s own claim to be ‘a virgin in her soul’ – to have reclaimed spiritual virginity as a sign of God’s grace – was authentic and not the product of hysteria, wishful thinking or an unseemly (feminine) desire for attention.
But the added marginalia point to conflict, tension and ambiguity as well as endorsement. One commentator inserted marginal instructions for reading the text that put its chapters into a different sequence from that in the Book as originally written. He has also drawn common devotional symbols such as the (sacred) heart and the flame (of divine love) alongside passages that describe some of Margery’s more extreme and dramatic expressions of piety (which included uncontrolled crying, being struck dumb, and ‘roaring’). These drawings could be read either as signs of the commentator’s empathy with Margery’s unusual experience of the divine, or as his attempt to produce readings that filter her account through the lens of more conventional devotional practice, thus sanitising her mystical experience and shaping it to fit an accepted formula.
In the history of The Book of Margery Kempe and its many readings, we have a classic exemplar of the marginalia and annotations in medieval manuscripts – the emendations, excisions, redactions and interpolations – being as critical to producing meanings as is the central or primary text itself. The medieval reader/annotator/writer was acutely aware that manuscripts – rare and precious as they were – were communal products and their textual interpretation was an active and collaborative process rather than a matter of passive reception of fixed meanings. In this medieval ‘mash up’ of text, marginalia and images, significations were constantly being shifted, subverted, reinterpreted and recreated to fit the changing needs and expectations of diverse communities.
So all this has me wondering, is this ‘next media’ or ‘new media’ culture we're starting to engage in really so new? Or can it be seen as the evolution of very old practices that have simply been made more visible – and, it must be said, much more accessible – by a universe of new tools?