(Vo)Codex to Co(in)dex

The images above display the verso and recto leaves of a “Royal Bible” (British Library, Royal MS 1 E VI,), so called due to its residence in the Royal Library of the Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs. Its exact dates of composition and compilation are uncertain, though scholars date their latest estimates to the early eleventh century. These pages record Jesus’s death and, in the enlarged view of the recto page on the right, Mary Magdalene & “the other” Mary’s visit to the tomb late in Matthew’s Gospel–passages that, since the thirteenth century, have belonged to chapters 27-28 of that book. From a modern perspective, these pages seem spare: absent are the now-familiar paratextual features that allow readers to recognize immediately where the current page rests in the larger body of text. The “Royal Bible” contains no page numbers, headings (naming the book or chapter title), chapter or verse numbers. Certain aids to reading are apparent, such as the space opened between words (in the “Irish style,” we might say) and the separation of sentences and short paragraphs (in other words, versification) through the use of indentation and initials. These elements, though, wouldn’t be of much help to a reader searching for a particular passage or section unless the text (and, given the delightful irregularity of medieval manuscripts, likely the physical book too) were already well known.

The “Royal Bible” offers a window into a very different codexical condition than our own. In a moment, I’ll channel Ivan Illich to comment a bit more on this earlier way of booking. First, though, I want to offer a few observations about modern habits with and expectations of the codex by way of remarks made by the scholars Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy Vickers (hereafter MSV) in the introduction to their edited collection Language Machines (1997):

Perhaps one of the most persistent modern myths of reading is the myth of teleological narrative: the myth that “the book,” as a technological form, is organized so as to be read from page 1 to page 2, from page 2 to page 3, and so on to the end of the book. This is of course a possible way of reading a book, and one that was encouraged by the development of narrative fiction in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the highest compliment to be paid to a story within this paradigm is that it is a “page-turner”: a language machine in which the text itself seems to perform as a perpetual motion device, turning its own successive pages. But this view can be seen as a curious, if culturally productive, deformation of the book as a technology. For if the printed book is a development of the codex, the codex, in turn, is a radical subversion of the technology of the scroll. The scroll, so central to Judaism, is a technology that depends upon a literal unwinding in which the physical proximity of one moment in the narrative to another is both materially and symbolically significant. One cannot move easily back and forth between distant points on the scroll. But it is precisely such movement back and forth that the codex permits and encourages.

In the process of debunking one teleological account, “the myth” of sequential reading, MSV provide their own–the book as a back-and-forth machine (which, when resisted, “deforms” the technology). In noting this trade in teleologies, I don’t mean to challenge the final sentence’s claim: I also luxuriate in codices that admit nonsequential incursions. I take issue with MSV’s remarks because they neglect the culture of book-use that makes jumping around such a desirable affordance as well as the systematic change to the layout of the text that makes flipping effective. The page, for example, must be conceived in a certain way in order to make practicable the mode of leap-reading that MSV see as the fulfillment of the codex’s materiality. The reader’s desires must also be (re-)configured in such a way as to make “back-and-forthing” appropriate, appealing, necessary. Remember: shuttling about in a book means that readers often leave much (nearly all) of it unread.

Here enters the Illich of In the Vineyard of the Text (1993). While rightly subtitled a “commentary on Hugh’s Didascalicon,” In the Vineyard uses the genre of commentary (subject of an upcoming post, I hope) as a means to open up a broader exploration of the histories of reading, education, and book culture. Illich contends that centuries before a goldsmith in Mainz started toying with movable type the theory and practice of the book underwent a number of radical transformations–which Gutenberg’s invention in many respects extends. We should look to the thirteenth rather than the fifteenth century for the revolution, Illich argues.

In the later chapters, Illich marks a number of contrasts between the uses that Hugh and his monastic companions made of their books and those of the scholarly friars in the next century. For example, Illich observes a shift from narratio (Hugh’s practice of the book) to cogito (that of Bonaventure and Thomas). Hugh and his monastic companions used codices to share stories, indeed, often elements of an encompassing sacred historia. For them, the book was a device for sounding off:

As a young man, Hugh was introduced to monastic reading. He mainly listened to the book. He listened when he read it to himself,  when he chanted the responses in choir, when he attended a lecture in the chapter room. Hugh wrote a treatise on the art of reading for people who would listen to the sound of the lines.

The monastic reader — chanter or mumbler — picks the words from the lines and creates a social auditory ambience. All those who, with the reader, are immersed in this hearing milieu are equals before the sound. It makes no difference who reads, as it makes no difference who rings the bell. Lectio divina is always a liturgical act, coram, in the face of, someone– God, angels, or anyone within earshot.

Books, for the monastic reader, were common property used for communal ends. Their orientation to the codex was emphatically auditory. Their codex was (please forgive my nineties parenthetical wordplay) the “(vo)codex.”

Illich contrasts these practices with those of scholastic reading:

Fifty years after Hugh, typically, this was no longer true. The technical activity of deciphering no longer creates an auditory and, therefore, a social space. The reader then flips through the pages. His eyes mirror the two-dimensional page. Soon he will conceive of his own mind in analogy with a manuscript. Reading will become an individualistic activity, intercourse between a self and a page.

The technology is, in many outward respects, the same. Both readers deciphered verbal marks on hinged and stacked pages. But the scholastic book has been transformed at the level of the page, in addition to the organization of books’ contents. Here’s Illich on changes taking place while Hugh is at work on his handbook:

[D]uring the middle of the twelfth century, an avalanche of previously unthought-of devices appeared: indices, library inventories, and concordances. These are all devices engineered to search and find in books a passage or a subject that is already in mind. […] The new page layout, chapter division, distinctions, the consistent numbering of chapter and verse, the new table of contents for the book as a whole, the summaries at the beginning of the chapter referring to its subtitles, the introductions […] are so many expressions of a new will to order.

For Illich, the alphabetic index is at once a revolution in book design and Western thought. The book is no longer a device for story-sharing, it is now a tool of rigorously disciplined thinking. To continue our wordplay, the scholastic book became the “co(in)dex.”

Consider, for a moment, this page from a thirteenth-century copy of the Summa (IIa, Q2.1):

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While, of course, a modern edition of the Summa would include more information in the page heading, table of contents and index (etc.) to orient the reader (viz., a more elaborate paratext), these images nonetheless speak to Illich’s point. The text is, of course, dense, and its difficulty is increased (especially for nonspecialist modern readers) as a result of the numerous scribal abbreviations. The author/scribe assumes the reader’s advanced literacy. But there are also clear attempts to mitigate the difficulty, to manage visually the complex and sprawling arguments. The numerical guides and the copious use of paragraph markers to separate lines of inquiry and response aid the reader’s navigation of the text. Scholars have rightly observed the “oral” qualities of Thomas’s mode of argumentation (Ong calls the format of the Summa “quasi-oral”). My point, a la Illich, is that the design of the book invites discontinous reading; one has been given sign-posts (in headings, in margins, in lists at the start of new questions) that assist jumping around locally and globally.

Against this background, our “Royal Bible” now has the look of a book designed for easy sequential and vocalized reading. It is a tool for Hugh’s narratio rather than Thomas’s cogito. The Summa‘s design resists, meanwhile, the kind of narration–voiced, communal–that Hugh would promote among his monastic fellows. Hugh’s “(vo)codex” yields to Thomas’s “co(in)dex.”

To tie together my fugitive strands, let’s return now to MSV’s understanding of the codex. Here’s Illich on the effectiveness of flipping before and after Hugh:

In Hugh’s generation the book is like a corridor with the incipit as its main entrance. If anyone thumbs through it hoping to find a certain passage, there exists little more chance of happening upon it than if the book had been opened randomly. But after Hugh the book can be entered randomly, with a good chance of finding what one looks for. It is still a manuscript, not a printed book, but technically it is already a substantially different object. The flow of narration has been sliced into paragraphs whose sum total now makes up the new book.

[T]he book for the monastic reader was a discourse which you could follow, but into which you could not easily dip at a point of your choosing. Only after Hugh does easy access to a specific place become a standard procedure.

MSV’s remarks would suggest that the readers of “Hugh’s generation” didn’t really understand what a codex was for, what it was really capable of. They may as well have had scrolls, one of the MSV persuasion might complain. In Illich’s account, the monastic readers and their (likely, shared) books belong to a different book-world than their scholastic counterparts, one in which the book was not “scrutable” (Illich’s word for the scholastic “bookish text”), not easily mastered or controlled. Their codices resisted, we might say, the would-be autonomous reader. To embrace the codex’s capacity to be sampled in a back-and-forth manner is, Illich would have us recognize, to trade the “vineyard,” the “garden, the landscape for an adventuresome pilgrimage” for “the treasury, the mine, the storage room.” In other words, a store for raiding replaces a place of leisure and retreat. Such is our fate, Illich concludes, as the children of the Scholastics (our ancestor university-types):

Modern reading, especially of the academic and professional type, is an activity performed by commuters and tourists; it is no longer that of pedestrians and pilgrims.

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with the digital age.


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3 Thoughts to “(Vo)Codex to Co(in)dex”

  1. Jeremiah Coogan

    I question whether the transition between reading epistemes, described so insightfully by Illich, can be located in the mid-twelfth century with such singularity. A similar shift occurred in the second and third centuries CE, perhaps best exemplified by the sophisticated system of gospel cross-references encoded in Eusebius of Caesarea’s gospel apparatus (the mise-en-page of the marginal Eusebian apparatus is not dissimilar from the Summa in the post above). The creation of concordances, indices, and alphabetized reference works were also prominent features in the intellectual cultures of second century BCE Alexandria and tenth (or so) century Byzantium. I likewise question the claim that chapter headings and tables of contents were a creation of the mid-twelfth century, when these were part of the Christian biblical manuscript tradition from Late Antiquity onward—although perhaps more so in the Greek East than the Latin West.
    Perhaps it is more helpful to identify two parallel modes of reading and of book production throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages—two modes which Christian Vandendorpe has characterized as the linear and the tabular.

    1. Rhg

      Thanks so much for these rich remarks, Jeremiah. Illich is a better media theorist (or, better said, suggestive speculator) than book historian–a thought, in fact, very much on my mind these last few months as I’ve been working through his writings. He makes no mention, for example, of “per cola et commata” techniques in late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. If he had mentioned this alongside a number of other “early” manuscript conventions, some of his claims about the nature of monastic reading and the transition to scholastic reading might have had a humbler tone. Folks like Vandendorpe (champion of ergative reading, a potential subject for a post on this blog) and Grafton/Williams (on Eusebius) are great, as you suggest, for disciplining the churning idea-mill that is Illich. I like both the bigger historical frame that you suggest and your tentative (“perhaps”) proposal for viewing the book-culture of late A. and early M. A. as long having parallel modes. One or the other might diminish in one time or place, of course (we need to factor in the decline of lines of communication during this period). I hadn’t really thought about it before, but perhaps there’s a tale to tell about the cultures of paratext that evolve after the division of the former Western and Eastern halves of the Roman Empire (in spatial and linguistic terms).

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