Textual Transmission

Textual Transmission: the Representation of Medieval Manuscripts Online

People have an inherent desire to communicate with each other, whether through oral, literary or digital media.  Symbolism preceded speech as a representative of concepts, and cave paintings are the earliest form of story-telling.  Writing was developed by the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, and oral communication developed long before this from the grunts and hand gestures used by our primate ancestors.  In the present day, text is used as a far-reaching method of communication, whether for informative or entertainment purposes.  Text can be presented in a physical medium such as a book or a document, or digitally in the virtual world.  While computers have not yet taken the place of writing, they have certainly surpassed it as a means of communication.  With the invention of movable type came the mass production of books and with the dawn of the computer age came blogs, email and e-books.  Digital textual transmission offers a broader and more adaptable means of representation of text than traditional methods.  The writer can add video, animations, colour and vivid photography in ways that cannot be captured by paper. In the past number of years, consortiums such as the TEI have drawn up standards for the representation of texts digitally, thus enabling more scholarly texts to be published in this way.  Companies are increasingly choosing digital editions over print editions.  Amazon e-books outsold paperbacks in the last three months of 2010 (independent.ie).

This shift from one medium to another is not new.  Textual transmission is something that has been occurring in various forms for centuries, and as with the digital media experience, it has not always been embraced:  Plato feared that writing would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it” (Phaedrus 275 a-b).  While the digital age is responsible for the shift in the way in which emerging texts are represented, it also has a part to play in the representation of texts that have been a part of our culture for centuries.  Many ancient documents have been made freely available online.  The British Library’s Turning the Pages is a prime example of this.  It hosts a series of “virtual books” such as Jane Austen’s early work, the first atlas of Europe, the Sherborne Missal, Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Lindisfarne Gospels, audio excerpts from Mozart’s musical diary and sketches from da Vinci’s notebook.  While this is an indispensable method of preservation and transmission of a text, it also has a significant impact on the way these texts are now viewed and understood, and this is often very different to the way they would have been understood in the era in which they were produced.  As an example, I shall examine the impact of textual transmission on the Lindisfarne Gospels.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated Anglo-Saxon manuscript created by Bishop Eadfrith of Lindisfarne some time between 698 and 721.  Lindisfarne was an island monastery in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, in North-East England.  The Lindisfarne Gospels contains the Latin script of the gospels of the four evangelists, as well as intricately illuminated carpet pages, incipits and illustrations, such as the following of the evangelist Matthew.

What is most remarkable about the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels is that  the work was undertaken by one man.  Normally manuscripts of the time would have been created by a team of around eight monks.  As Eadfrith was a bishop, he would have had several other duties to attend to and hence the Lindisfarne Gospels would have taken him about ten years to  create.  The manuscript is made up of 127 calf-skins.  The artist-scribe would have had to have been a skilled chemist in order to create the palette of colour needed for this masterpiece.  Purples, blues and crimsons were made by changing the pH of plant extracts such as woad and lichens; green was made from suspending copper over vinegar; crushed shells or eggshells were used for white pigment; a trisulfide of arsenic created yellow (Brown, Labyrinth 35).  The pigments were mixed with a beaten egg white to form an adhesive.  Ink was made from oak galls and iron salts, which contributes greatly to the preservation of the Lindisfarne Gospels as this type of ink does not fade.  Raman spectroscopy reveals that gold leaf and powdered gold ink were used for fine details and rubrics.  Theses inks and pigments were then applied to sheets of parchment or vellum which had been de-fleshed in a bath of alum or lime and then “stretched, scraped, possibly withered, trimmed, pricked and ruled, adorned with script…and bound into codex form” (Brown, Manuscripts 46).  Exotic pigments were also used such as ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, a rare semi-precious stone that would have been sourced from Persia.  The presence of lazurite is evidence of the trade routes between England and Afghanistan.

The amount of work put into the creation of the Lindisfarne Gospels would suggest that it served an important purpose in Anglo-Saxon society.  The manuscript was seen as a vehicle for religion and its elaborate expression was a dedication to God and St. Cuthbert.

The Anglo-Saxons had an oral tradition and most people could not read or write so the Lindisfarne Gospels are very much about the visual aspect.  Such elaborate and well placed illustrations hint that the book was designed to be viewed.  Pope Gregory the Great said that “in images the illiterate read” (Brown, Labyrinth 29).  It is also the visual element of the text which brings culture to the manuscript.  The Lindisfarne Gospels is a fusion of the many different cultures of the Lindisfarne community, including Irish: “The Lindisfarne Gospels are, in one sense, the visual equivalent of Bede’s History, celebrating the cultural and ethnic diversity of these islands and their contacts, and signalling that there was a place for everyone within the new order” (Brown, Labyrinth 8).  They were created during the period of transition from Graeco-Roman Antiquity to the Middle-Ages.

Studying the materials of ancient manuscripts gives us insight into artistic styles, materials, social changes, wealth and status, trade and commerce (Brown, Society 430).  Visually, a lot can also be learned.  A religious text such as the Lindisfarne Gospels can be studied using exegesis and the four levels of interpretation: direct interpretation; hints and allusions; moral application, and hidden meanings.  The elaborate artwork contains many symbols such as birds and beasts, fire, air and water.  There are Roman capitals, Greek characters and angular characters with roots in Germanic runes blended together in the incipit pages and initials.  In the 950s, Aldred began to translate the Lindisfarne Gospels from Latin to Old English, making it the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English.  He wrote his translations in between the Latin lines of the text.  He also added a note on the final page about the book’s production.  As well as translating the text, he also left his own comments on it.

However, the problem lies in making such a delicate artefact available for everyone to examine and appreciate, not just those with expertise in the area.  One solution is the representation of manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels online.  The British Library’s Turning the Pages, mentioned above, is an excellent resource.  It allows the reader to view a digital version of the Lindisfarne Gospels.  The mouse can be used to flick through the pages and there is a magnifying tool which can be used to examine the text in detail.  While this method of transmission allows the Gospels to be viewed by millions of people while also preserving the manuscript, it also has an element of the uncanny to it.  The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis which originated in the field of robotics.  It refers to the feeling of revulsion that arises when a robot is so close to being human that it seems almost real.  People feel empathy towards the robot up until a certain point.  They then feel revulsion and then empathy again.  The area of revulsion can be represented as a dip on a graph and is known as the Uncanny Valley.  This feeling occurs when something seems so real it is almost pretending to be something it is not.  Lack of honesty generates lack of sympathy.

Despite this feeling, the online representation of medieval manuscripts allows us to get closer to Anglo-Saxon culture than was previously possible.  Taking photographs under different conditions, such as under IR or UV light, and bring up otherwise invisible text.  Dot Porter gives the example of the Old English Hexateuch which was damaged in a fire in 1731.  This type of imaging can be used to create a digitally restored version of the Hexateuch and other manuscripts.  The Lindisfarne Gospels can be used today to chronicle the beginning of Christianity.  It serves as a link to the past and as an indication of the morals and ideologies of the time.

Brown states that the “human perception of the need to transmit a body of knowledge across time and space has been the secret of writing’s success” (Brown, British Library 7).  She goes on to question whether writing is the only method of preservation and transmission of knowledge.  The answer to this question is no, it is not the only method.  Oral and written tradition existed simultaneously in the Anglo-Saxon era, and written and digital transmission exist simultaneously today.  Where the Lindisfarne Gospels were once a vehicle for religious devotion, they now serve as a vehicle for history and give us a glimpse into the past, even if the transmission is slightly uncanny.

Works Cited

Brown, Michelle P. Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts. London: British Library Board, 1991. Print.

—. Painted Labyrinth: the World of the Lindisfarne Gospels. London: British Library, 2003. Print.

—. The British Library Guide to Writing and Scripts. London: British Library, 1998. Print.

—. The Lindisfarne Gospels Society, Spirituality and the Scribe. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003. Print.

Porter, Dot. “Reading, Writing, Building: the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch.” Culture and Technology European Seminar Series. University of Glasgow, Glasgow. 26 Jan. 2009. Lecture.

Image Sources http://mail.mccannclipping.co.rs:8009/index.php?bid=7&cid=44&nid=55983; http://smarthistory.org/medieval.html; http://www.mineralminers.com/html/lapminfo.htm; http://films.nfb.ca/the-spine/blog/?p=120

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